Legislative gatherings in which thousands of Presbyterians fill a convention hall in a host city may cease to occur, according to a top official with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Kudos to Michael Gryboski of the Christian Post who found comments from The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the PCUSA General Assembly. Nelson doesn’t predict the end of the PC(USA)’s highest legislative body itself, rather he says the denomination “cannot continue” to hold “the big tent General Assembly” – the ones in which “we have people from all over coming in and spending six, seven, eight days at a general assembly and utilizing that in a big arena.”
This is a concrete example of how mainline decline in the pews has worked its way up to the national church with a significant consequence for denominational governance. I predict that it will be only the first of the oldline gatherings to be curtailed: the Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church, which hold triennial and quadrilateral gatherings, respectively, will likely see significant reductions and limitations in their own “big tent” convocations, as will the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA).
The denomination’s 2020 gathering, scheduled to take place earlier this summer in Baltimore, met online due to COVID restrictions and had a severely pared-back legislative schedule. Rather than being an exception, the more limited gathering may signal things to come, even long after COVID restrictions are lifted.
Oldline Protestant churches each have a major assembly drawing voting delegates (known as commissioners in PCUSA parlance) as well as exhibitors and a significant number of other stakeholders. The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly occurs every two years.
The PC(USA) has rapidly shed membership for decades, severely limiting the amount of revenue that reaches the Presbyterian Center headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. That headquarters has already seen large staff reductions going back to the 2011 decision to delete the denomination’s “fidelity and chastity” standard which stated that Presbyterian clergy should be faithful in marriage or celibate in the single life. The denomination later in 2014 permitted local presbyteries to allow their clergy to preside at same-sex marriage ceremonies. Both of those decisions contributed to an ongoing denominational exodus of churches and individuals that has been documented each year in the reported statistics. The denomination has also adopted positions uniquely critical of Israel and has dramatically shifted to an embrace of leftist political causes.
Revisionist caucus groups which backed such changes, including More Light Presbyterians, argued that removing expectations for clergy sexual conduct were essential to remaining relevant amidst changing American culture and for the inclusion of potential new members. That predicted influx of progressives has not arrived, while more conservative Presbyterian bodies including the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians have grown as they attracted former PC(USA) congregations.
The biannual General Assembly is funded through an assessment paid from congregations based upon the size of their reported membership. Even as the PC(USA) has increased that per-capita rate, the sinking numbers have drawn down total revenue.
Denominational officials have shrugged off this consistent decline for years. In one of his more eye-catching pronouncements, Nelson declared in 2017 “We are not dying. We are Reforming. We are moving towards a new future as a denomination.”
Potentially ceasing in-person General Assemblies is surely a signpost that new future has arrived, albeit not the one Nelson and other denominational officials had hoped for. In June, I reported how the denomination shed another 50,000 members in 2019, while Nelson cheered “For the first time in more than thirty years, the PC(USA) is not reporting membership losses” in comments accompanying the annual release of PC(USA) denominational statistics that showed the losses were very much still occurring.
At least one other body which counts mainline Protestants among its membership has already cut back on gatherings: the National Council of Churches held its last major assembly in 2010, citing budget limitations and reduced support from member communions.
Partly in an effort to reduce costs, the United Methodist Church’s powerful Commission on General Conference earlier this decade reduced the size of General Conference to 864 delegates, down from nearly 1,000.
Nelson’s comments can be viewed here: