I am writing you this week feeling like we are sitting at the intersection of two worlds, one full of possibility to truly live into the calling God gave us for a more inclusive world, the other our still present reality full of mourning and hurt and pain of dreams deferred. Perhaps I’m feeling this most acutely because I’m writing to you from an airport, a literal intersection of multiple worlds, having spent a lot of time on the road these past few weeks. Today I am preparing to fly to Austin, TX for the ordination of John Russell Stanger, our MLP conference preacher and minister for advocacy and education at Presbyterian Welcome. John will be the first openly gay person ordained as a minister in Mission Presbytery. This weekend will be a fabulous celebration of a gifted minister whom God has called to service and for the community that affirms his calling.
Just seven years ago, the now Rev. Karen Thompson became the first openly gay Candidate for Ministry in Mission Presbytery, but her approval for candidacy was overturned by the highest court in the PC(USA) and she sadly left the denomination. She is now a minister at the Metropolitan Community Church of Austin and will be present at John’s ordination service to offer the prayer of confession and affirmation, to “close the circle” of the path that she began and John fulfills within that Presbytery. This weekend, two worlds intersect to create a new beginning where pain and hurt can give way to hope and promise.
As I travel to participate in that service, I’m holding in my heart two reports that came out this week on how churches that left the PC(USA) are faring and trends on churches operating within a wider scope of Christianity.
The first was a study published in the Presbyterian Outlook of the membership trends of 85 congregations that have left the PC(USA) to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church since 2008. Often congregations that are leaving the denomination claim that they will be “better off in another denomination” as one reason for their exit. Mike Cole, general presbyter of New Covenant Presbytery based in Houston, TX, wondered what ‘better off’ meant and decided to investigate. After surveying the membership data of 20% of the congregations in the EPC, he has concluded that, before leaving the PC(USA) the average membership losses of these 85 congregations was around 2%, however “during and following their departures to the EPC, their membership losses skyrocketed to 16%.” Only 4 congregations out of 85 showed an increase in membership in 2011-2012. This means: “switching denominations does not reverse or even slow membership losses. In fact, the process of departure appears to accelerate membership losses.” I’m still reeling from the findings of this data. I’m sure many of you have borne witness to the deep fear and strain the threat of churches leaving the denomination has put into many leaders within the PC(USA). Often this threat is the reason more Presbyteries don’t follow their hearts to open LGBTQ welcome wider when they first sense their calling to do so. The findings of this data indicate that while churches who leave the denomination do represent a significant loss to the overall unity of the PC(USA), leaving isn’t a magic bullet for those congregations to suddenly spring to new life once they do.
Lastly, David Briggs from the Huffington Post reported on new data from the National Congregations Study conducted by a sociologist at Duke University. The findings confirm what we have witnessed, across the board acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ persons in ministry and in the life of congregations has increased by leaps and bounds. Since the last survey in 2006, in the areas of leadership, membership, and visibility congregations reported a 10% increase across all three. Additionally as LGBTQ people have increased in presence in our congregations, so have our congregations gotten steadily more racially diverse as well. This shatters the myth that all faith groups oppose LGBTQ rights or welcome, and the more pernicious falsehood that non-white Christians do not support LGBTQ people. Hopefully most of us already knew this but having data to support it is always helpful.
Friends, this is what a crossroads looks like. This is a peculiar moment in the history of the already and the not yet. My hope, as I am about to board my flight, is that we continue to fly steadily onward, neither denying the world-changing, gut-wrenching, life-altering courage it took us to get here, nor underestimating the promise of the world we are beginning to glimpse and claim. I’m so grateful to be on this journey with you. All aboard?
Yours on the journey,