'Disheartening' PCUSA State Indicates Need for Leadership Change, Reformers Say

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) head the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick may consider a fourth term as stated clerk. Some, however, are asking him to decline nomination as the denomination remains on a downward slump in membership.

"The disheartening state of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) indicates the need for leadership change in the position of Stated Clerk of the General Assembly," stated the Presbyterian Action Steering Committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Membership in the PC(USA) is currently at nearly 3.1 million. It is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States and ranks ninth among all American and Canadian church groups, according to the latest edition of the National Council of Churches' Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

The denomination, however, has suffered continual membership losses, including its largest drop of 2.05 percent in 2005. Reported losses accelerated in the early 1970s, according to Jack Marcum, associate for PC(USA)'s Research Services office, and since 1975 has been between 1 and 2 percent.

Part of the losses has occurred in persons and congregations leaving the denomination.

The latest exodus came last week when Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Okla., was declared to be in schism with the PC(USA). Kirk of the Hills was the second largest congregation in the Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery.

Months of efforts to reconcile between the presbytery and the congregation failed as congregants at the 2,600-member Tulsa church voted to "disaffiliate" with the PC(USA) on Aug. 30 and join the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

"We at the Kirk are holding to what Scripture clearly teaches," Thomas W. Gray, lead pastor of Kirk of the Hills, explained on his blog. "The PC(USA) has left this critical foundation. We, therefore, no longer recognize the authority of the PC(USA) over any congregation that chooses to hold to the traditional authority of Scripture, as once held by the PC(USA)."

Other dissident Presbyterians are considering "realigning" with a non-geographic presbytery that may be created under the EPC. The new presbytery would be named after an association of churches discontent with the PC(USA) - New Wineskins. Votes for possible realignment are expected beginning October.

The increasing exodus comes after the 2001 General Assembly would not affirm that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, according to the Rev. Dr. D. Dean Weaver, senior pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and last summer's 217th General Assembly, which had granted greater leeway for the ordination of homosexuals.

Amid the continual small but significant exodus, as Kirkpatrick describes it, the call for change in the denomination was voiced in 2004 when three candidates for stated clerk of the PC(USA) said the denomination is not looking healthy. Still, Kirkpatrick, described as an experienced and popular figure within the church, was elected on the first ballot to a third four-year term in 2004.

The current stated clerk remains optimistic of the future of the PC(USA). In recent weeks, he said the denomination "is in a potential tipping point of renewed growth and vitality," adding that he sees willingness in the body to "build together the PC(USA) of the future that God intends."

As the denomination looks to new candidates for 2008, however, IRD's Presbyterian Action Steering Committee has called for new leadership.

"We look forward to new leadership stepping in to help direct our denomination toward theological clarity, spiritual vitality, Spirit-led growth, and effective ministry."