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The future of the PC(USA) is being reformed by God.

And it is as limitless as the holy imagination that we vow to practice when we are ordained. 

That’s it. That’s the article that sparked this response. But I’m going to go on, because The Outlook started a conversation that is worth having by using a very click-baity headline: “The future of the PC(USA) is pastor-less.” And I’ve decided to be here for it.

What I read in that piece was a creative, hopeful way that one Presbytery is seeking to support churches that still maintain vital ministries in their community without having a full-time installed pastor. And that’s an article worth reading. Every Presbytery should be finding creative, hopeful ways to support their churches.

The headline, however, left a lot to be desired, because it answers a question I didn’t think any of us needed answered. Do we as a denomination believe in the priesthood of all believers? Yes. We do. It’s why Ministers of Word and Sacrament take the same ordination vows as Ruling Elders. It’s why we train and commission lay pastors. It’s why both Ministers and Ruling Elders serve and vote on the Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly levels. It’s why we pass communion plates through our pews, each member ministering to the other, whispering to their neighbor, “This is the bread of life. This is the cup of salvation.” Can the future of the PC(USA) include more lay leadership and still be faithful? Of course it can.

But that doesn’t mean the PC(USA) shouldn’t be asking better questions. Starting with this one: do we as a denomination continue to value theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership? That is a yes or no question, and most calls I hear for nuance are really calls to justify avoiding the next question. Do we as a denomination believe that, because a person or community cannot afford something means they do not deserve it and should, therefore, go without it?

These questions go hand-in-hand. Because if we do value theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership, and we do not believe that a person or community’s inability to afford something means they should go without it, then the only faithful response is to help churches who are struggling to call theologically educated and ethically trained pastors. (It sounds like this is the exact effort being made in the Presbytery in Kansas, highlighted in the original article, which is funding a Presbytery level position for a Minister of Word and Sacrament to resource churches in this exact position.)

A decorative image of Pastor Allison Unroe, a white woman with dark hair, wearing a face mask, a stole, and a black dress, leading worship.

Pastor Allison leading worship.

If we do not value theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership, then we need to change our ordination process. It is unfaithful to affirm that God calls certain people to specific leadership that demands a full-time three year degree, a psychological evaluation, Clinical Pastoral Education, ministry internship(s), applications and interviews for approval to be under care of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, then more applications and interviews for approval to be certified ready to receive a call, and passing five ordination exams if the Church has no intention of honoring that call. It’s unfaithful, and it’s also poor stewardship. What are we doing pouring all of these limited resources into Ministers of Word and Sacrament if we don’t need, want, or value them or their call? As the internet says, make it make sense.

Furthermore, if we do not believe that a person or community’s inability to afford something means they should go without it, then rural churches struggling to support installed ministers offer an opportunity for the PC(USA) to practice our faith and provide care for people who may not be able to afford it. I say this as a pastor in a rural-ish context and as a person who has deep familial and cultural roots in a small, rural, Appalachian town. When the rest of America is fine with poor, rural communities losing trained, professional medical workers, attorneys, and teachers, the only way for the Church to be in but not of this world is to say, “This stops with us. Our rural siblings deserve the same care that their suburban and urban siblings have access to.” These communities have become accustomed to abandonment. It will be a shame if the church contributes to such disparity by just accepting that, since every other trained profession is leaving rural America, clergy will, too.

The final question for us to ask calls us to say the quiet part out loud. PC(USA) clergy are increasingly women (of the 218 people ordained in 2017… 122 were women and 96 men), yet employed clergy are primarily men (nearly three-quarters of those serving as PC(USA) pastors or co-pastors are men). We know this because we track it closely. We issue regular reports outlining in detail the pay disparity between women clergy and their male counterparts (almost $10,000 in 2022). We see that “Women outnumbered men as associate pastors – with 405 women and 316 men – but the men still out-earned the women in that position, with males making an average of $64,463 and women $62,910.”*

So before we accept the blanket assertion that churches (rural or otherwise) simply cannot support a called and installed pastor, we would do well to ask a third crucial question: what do we as a denomination value more— theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership, or white, straight, cis male leadership? Our professions of faith say one thing, and our statistics say another.

Faithful growth is not just an increased budget or higher Sunday worship attendance. It’s also expanded understanding of the Holy and greater appreciation for the Divine. It’s spiritual disciplines practiced more intentionally and hearts opened more spiritually. It’s a closer relationship to God and better understanding of scripture. Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Does that not mean that part of the work of the Church is to dig deep into the faith we practice by facing these clergy employment and pay trends head on? A Brief Statement of Faith says that, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to unmask idolatries in Church and culture.”

That means that the future of the PC(USA) may be pastor-less. Or building-less to free up funds for use in ministry and service. Or Sunday-morning-less to navigate cultural shifts in timing and schedule. Maybe it means the future of the PC(USA) is particular-congregation-less to accommodate more parish/neighborhood based ministry as opposed to multiple tiny churches saturating a community. Or denomination-less to encourage a unified Christian witness in the connectional, universal Church we profess in our Apostle’s Creed. I vote for a future of the PC(USA) that is idol-less, and that will only be possible if…

The future of the PC(USA) is being reformed by God.

And it is as limitless as the holy imagination that we vow to practice when we are ordained.


*See the Board of Pensions report for more on these statistics at https://pres-outlook.org/2018/10/board-of-pensions-releases-data-showing-benefits-trends-gender-disparities/