“Deathly Ill” or “Called by Christ.”
Are we “deathly ill” or “called by Christ”? It is astonishing to me that a group of our pastors would begin an open letter by using the phrase “deathly ill.” I do not know any of the writers of this letter personally, and none are serving in the Presbytery where I am on staff. But I can imagine that these are all talented, gifted, and wonderfully positive and encouraging pastors. No one is ever called to be the pastor of one of our congregations by focusing on how sick and dysfunctional the congregation may be. I imagine that in their own ministry, and in their own contexts, these pastors are gifted communicators of the “Good News.” Why is it their thoughtful, and in some ways prophetic, open letter requires such a dire and deathly tone? I would much rather ponder the exciting new ways that we are being called by Christ; ways which will, of course, transfigure all our institutions and habits.
The Presbytery of Carlisle recognized the 25th anniversary of my ordination last year. All but five of these years I served as a pastor. I learned a valuable lesson early in my pastoral career. When I am leading a funeral service, I presume that the dead person has some good, beautiful and redeemable qualities which God knows and will bring to glorious resurrection. At funeral services I always try to preach hope, healing and resurrection in Christ. During my years of pastoral ministry, funeral services were some of the most fruitful times for faithful proclamation. If these good pastors would like to preach at the funeral service of our Presbyterian Church, I wish they could do so with a bit more graciousness and hope.
But, despite the yearning of these pastors to do so, I am not convinced that we should be writing the funeral sermon for our Presbyterian Church just yet. The statistics and historical allusions which the pastors use in their open letter are boring. Everyone knows this: the membership decline, the incessant conflict, and the institutional downsizing. So what else is new! These things have been our reality for my entire ministry. What is important and new (as recognized and appreciated by the pastors) is that the culture of the Presbyterian Church has been shifting so that our congregations are now the true center of our vitality and ministry. This is a crucial culture shift which I believe prepares us well for moving into the future.
I only know the 52 congregations of the Presbytery of Carlisle, where I have been serving since 2005. I know our pastors and I know our congregations very well. In my speculative, back-of-the-envelope ponderings I have concluded that the Presbytery of Carlisle, as one piece of our Presbyterian common life, is alive, healthy and sustainable for many years to come. If I continue, as I hope and pray, to do this work for fifteen more years we may, as a Presbytery, close some congregations. But at least 35 of our congregations are what I may call indefinitely sustainable. This is not a glorious theological category, but it is very important. These congregations have vital ministries which are generally sustaining membership despite the passing of the builder generation, they have sustainable financial management, and, most important, they have a vital and positive spiritual life which is not afraid of the future. Because of the support and leadership of this group of congregations, the Presbytery of Carlisle is also indefinitely sustainable. Because we have reoriented all our mission and ministry to support, encourage and connect these congregations our Presbytery has purpose and direction into the future, a positive, sustainable cash flow, and, most important, a very high level of collegial trust. By any measure, the Presbytery of Carlisle is NOT deathly ill! Certainly in ten, fifteen, twenty-five or fifty years from now the Presbytery of Carlisle and our congregations will look different. We will have patterns of leadership, expressions of mission and ministry, and networks of innovative relationships and connections that will be leaner and very different than today. But we will not be dead and gone! Are the authors of the open letter interested in helping us live into that new day called by Christ, or simply focused on writing a funeral sermon for a denomination?