Can common sense prevail in the PC(USA)?

March 13, 2014 — 6 Comments

The internet is buzzing with the departure of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church from the PC(USA) at a cost of some $9 million. I’m not going to opine on this or any other pending dismissal from the PC(USA). Congregations have to follow their collective consciences through the established discernment process of presbytery.


In the midst of the current realignment of American presbyterianism I think it’s important to recognize some common sense realities of our situation:

  1. Departures are going to happen–nothing will stop them. If anything, they’re likely to increase. Our polity (winner take all) forces churches to leave or compromise essential beliefs.
  2. Departures need not be cataclysmic either to a congregation or to a presbytery. The Trust Clause–which has something of a sketchy history–should be used sparingly. Every time someone claims that it is at the core of our “life together,” we should roll our eyes. Truth is, it isn’t. And anytime someone claims that the trust clause guards the resources given to the PC(USA) by generations past, we should remind them that there are other resources (the deposit of the faith) that have been stewarded by prior generations, that we are less to guard.
  3. As churches depart it is important to recognize that the congregation is the principle unit of ministry–presbyteries exist to provide oversight for churches and ministers. Churches don’t exist to bring presbyteries into being.

At the end of the day, allowing churches to depart the PC(USA) without punitive settlements (but with fair, reasonable, and just ones) has to be the best way forward. Generous provision ought also to be made for evangelical PC(USA) churches to affiliate with the Fellowship of Presbyterians without negative consequences. The Fellowship of Presbyterians is probably the single thing most likely to cause evangelical churches to remain in the PC(USA) rather than seeking dismissal.

6 responses to Can common sense prevail in the PC(USA)?


    I believe we can save the Theological Diversity that our denomination historically has cherished. I believe this can be done without separation or by compromising Essential Tenants of those on either side the schism. It will require some restructuring of the COM/CPM and Judicial functions of Presbytery and the PCUSA. It’s viable, legal under our church polity, and necessary.

    TFP is probably the right/only forum for these initiatives. Like Crimea, everybody talks as if separation and schism are a done deal. I don’t think so. Ideas came up under the ECO concepts long ago. It’s time to make Reasonable Accommodation to preserve our Theological Diversity.



      A little flexibility and less either/or thinking could find a more workable solution that preserves diversity, honors conscience, and enables the PC(USA) to remain a single church.



    I appreciate the history of the trust clause, and I’ve never claimed or heard anyone claim that it’s at the center of our life together. Still, it is a part of our life together, and one that puts flesh onto our sentiments about being one in ministry. Faith and church are not just principles and convictions, but also concrete commitments to particular people and places. That presbyteries have an obligation to function as trustees of those commitments isn’t, to my mind, just about money. Neither can “gracious dismissal” simply mean that which creates the smoothest path for schism. This realignment is about postures as much as theology, and evangelicals moving to ECO are trading a binding institutional posture for a flexible, Congregationalist one. I think it’s a larger cultural shift. Thanks for your work on this.



      Speaking to the Topeka Capitol-Journal Synod Exec Landon Whitsitt said the bill would drastically change the communal aspect of Presbyterian churches in Kansas: “It’s [the Trust Clause] foundational to our understanding of how we’re in a relationship with each other.” Available at:



        The idea of a small church yoked with a lagerr one is one I have been bouncing around other presbyters for several years or so now. It has its challenges, though. For one, rural churches might be an hour more drive from the lagerr ones, which are often in cities often much more than an hour if the nearest city is a metropolis with heavy traffic. Will the lagerr churches see themselves as missional in such a way? Small churches don’t necessarily desire to become large churches, and they especially wish to retain their own identity. Yoking large and small together can be beneficial in many ways, yet such an idea is beyond the vision of most sessions and PNC’s. Outside of yoking, there are other methods for churches to be united and still have some measure of independence. Presbyterians, though, have not the polity to provide for such as satellite churches or chapel status alignments. Instead, the accepted practice is to have part time positions or yoked arrangements across two or more very small congregations, and often they still struggle.There are at least two other solutions. One can be described by only one word: tithing. Another approach would be very novel. Within a presbytery, a group of churches could band together and a also a group of pastors band together, with more congregations than ministers [“teaching elders”] in a matchup. The pastors would function as a team, rotating between pulpits and rotating between pastoral care visitations. Again, we have no polity provision for such an arrangement, and its implementation would be complex. It would solve the situation happens in small and mid-sized churches, that the one pastor is expected to be a super-human with all gifts and talents, yet the reality is that gifts of the Spirit are spread around with no one having all. An ideal team would have a variety of individuals with the totality offering the greatest collection of gifts and talents. Even mid-size churches could thrive is such a program. Jesus went about with a team of a dozen from various backgrounds, and even when He sent them out they went not alone but in pairs. Years ago I heard the adage, Dynamite comes in small packages. There is great potential for effective ministry in small churches. The median size of a PC(USA) congregation is now only a two digit figure. Now is the time to nurture the small churches that each may become effective in bearing fruit.



        Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.


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