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Part 1 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
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This series is an extension of my recent series, The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited. That series took a brief detour into a related topic, Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed. Now I want to finish up my thoughts about the crisis in the PC(USA), and to do so in a personal way.
Throughout my discussion of the PC(USA) crisis, I have tried to be as honest as I can be about the problems we face in this denomination, as I see them. For a long time, my evangelical colleagues and I have had a tendency to look on the bright side, to focus on mission, and to believe that things in the PC(USA) will, by God’s grace, improve. But in light of events at the 2006 General Assembly, and even moreso at the 2008 General Assembly, such a positive approach seems unduly pollyanaish. We can’t live in denial anymore about the deep theological fissures in our denomination and the negative trends we are facing. We can’t simply focus on the mission of our churches and ignore denominational issues because our mission is becoming increasingly impacted, one might even say hampered, by our denominational connections.
That’s a good question, one I intend to chew on for the next few days. I’m going to answer this question, not as some sort of representative of the evangelical members of the PC(USA), but personally, as an individual who has wrestled with this question for several years. I’m going to try and explain why, as of this moment, I have not left the PC(USA), and why, in fact, I don’t have plans to do so, though my plans could change in the future.
Ironically, I’m in a position now where I’m much freer to leave the PC(USA) than I have been for many years. From June 1991 through September 2007, I was the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. If I had chosen to leave the PC(USA) during that stretch of time, I would have had to resign my pastorate. Or I would have found myself in the messy position of leading a church out of the denomination. In either case, my personal decision would have impacted more than 1,000 people, not to mention my own family. Today, however, I could leave the PC(USA) with minimal impact on others. My ministry at Laity Lodge requires me to be an ordained pastor, but I expect that, without too much trouble, I could find another denomination or church that would endorse my ordination. I could even continue to be part of the fellowship at my PC(USA) church, though I’d no longer be an official parish associate. So, my current situation gives me a freedom to leave the PC(USA) that most of my pastoral colleagues do not share. This fact is perplexing to some, who still want to know: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)?
Here begins my answer to that question.
1. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).
I realize that it may seem odd to some of my readers that my first reason for staying in a denomination has to do with my personal relationship with a particular church. Why not just stay with this church but cut ties with the PC(USA) as a whole? The reason is that my relationship with the PC(USA) as a whole has never been primarily a matter of denominational affiliation so much as a personal relationship with a particular church and its people. I became a pastor in the PC(USA), not mainly because I affirmed denominational beliefs and practices, but because I was actively involved in a PC(USA) congregation, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I am a Presbyterian today mostly because of relationships I have had and continue to have with other Presbyterians. Because these relationships matter greatly to me, I am not inclined to break or injure or threaten them. If I’m ever in a place where I must leave the PC(USA), I hope I’ll be doing so with many others of like conviction, and not as a solo venture. This isn’t just about feeling connected. It’s a matter of theological conviction about the importance of corporate discernment and fellowship.
I’ll have more to say about why I’m not leaving the PC(USA) next time.