Interview: Clifton Kirkpatrick of the PC(USA) and WARC

The Presbyterian Church USA is one of America’s historic mainline denominations that has long shaped the Christian landscape of the nation.

However, in recent years, membership has gone on a downward trend and debates over theological and social issues pit conservatives against liberals within the 3.2 million-member denomination.

Last year, the church re-elected – for the third consecutive four-year-term – the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick as its Stated Clerk and ecclesiastical head. Several months later, Rev. Kirkpatrick was elected president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches – one of the largest global fellowships of churches with over 75 million members in over 100 countries.

Kirkpatrick now faces the challenge of becoming a goodwill ambassador and spokesperson for the world’s reformists and maintaining unity within a church filled with theologically polemic forces.

On April 4, 2005, Rev. Kirkpatrick took some time to explain the challenges, goals, visions and future prospects for the PC(USA) and the reformed tradition as a whole.

The following is the full text of the interview with the Christian Post:

Can you start us off by giving a brief statement regarding the passing of Pope John Paul II?

It’s a huge loss for the Christian and faith community. I give thanks to God for [the pope]’s faithful service and his call for justice and peace in the world.

What is your vision for the PC(USA) in coming years?

There are many things, but I think the vision I often speak about is to “be a faithful expression of the body of Christ.” We need to become a community centered on Christ and built on the gospel. That’s our vision.

What is your role, exactly, as the stated clerk of the PCUSA?

The Stated Clerk is the chief ecclesiastical officer of the church and has five main responsibilities: interpreting the Constitution, promoting the unity of the Church, conducting the annual session of the General Assembly, preserving the historical record of the denomination, and communicating the actions of the Assembly.

What do you mean by “Ecclesiastical officer”?

We have our own directors, and they act as something of a mix between the chief executive officer and the chief spiritual leader of the church. The stated clerk and the moderator are the two officers of the general assembly.

And your role as the WARC president?

This is where I shift from being the stated clerk to becoming the moderator. As a worldwide family we make up the world alliance and we gather in assemblies every seven years. In between those times we have an organization that consists of a board of common officers. I serve as the moderator of the chair and the board, and in some ways as the spokesperson and common witness for reformed churches.

At one point in the WARC meeting last year, you emphasized that the Alliance should be simultaneously “reformed” and “ecumenical”. Explain this balance and the core of what that statement means.

At its core, the reformed tradition has always believed that the Presbyterian Church is one part of the body of Christ. We seek the unity of the entire Christian church, which is why we’ve been leaders in the ecumenical movement. As we plumb the depths of our values – in regards to the priesthood of all believers, the centrality of the scripture, the dedication to the sovereignty of God – we realize that these things are developed for the whole church.

You dedicated yourself to social justice throughout your long tenure. In the past year since you were re-elected as the PC(USA) stated clerk, what issues were brought up to the table and how has the church responded to them?

There have been many issues. One very publicized issue has been the church’s commitment to peace and justice in the Middle East. In a larger scale, we’ve been seeking policies for peace in the vital states of Israel and Palestine, and we’ve been working in the context of stopping the building of the wall as well as the occupation. There have been some good changes in the region recently and we’ve been hopeful.

We’ve also made commitments for global economic justice out of the belief that all people are made in the image of God. We’ve taken a number of actions on that issue as well.

In regards to the Palestine-Israel conflict, what role do you take in the policy implementations?

The decisions and policies of our church are made by our general assembly, and my task is to communicate those visions and to dialogue with others about those visions. We have been in dialogue with the Muslim and Christian community around the world and have communicated with partners in the Middle East.

Some other para-church groups, including the World Council of Churches, have joined the PC(USA) in its view of the Middle East conflict. Have you any comments on this?

I think a large part of the Christian community has been of one mind and heart on this issue. We have committed ourselves to the security and peace for the states of Israel and Palestine. In that sense, we want the suicide bomb attempts to stop and we also want military occupation to stop. One of the new actions we are undertaking is how we use our mission fund and how we make our investments.

And obviously, I’m pleased that other church groups have decided this is an important issue for them as well.

What are some of the greatest challenges in leading such an historical denomination with such a vast spectrum of theological and social beliefs?

The greatest challenge is to center ourselves in Jesus Christ and to have a growing recognition that Jesus is the one who calls us to work for justice, to be a community, and to serve each other as the body of Christ. This is the core of Christian faithfulness, and maintaining this is the core challenge we face.

Is this also what maintains the unity of the church?

No question. We had our theological task force meet here recently and we made it very clear that Jesus is our peace, purity and unity. We are not all alike, but what is more precious than those differences is the united belief that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior.

The PC(USA) has been losing members at a four percent annual rate – at least according to the new Yearbook of Christian Churches. Why do you think this is the case?

I don’t think that’s an accurate figure, but we are obviously facing what most mainline churches are facing in terms of membership decline. On a demographic level, our families have fewer children per household on average. But at a deeper level – on a core spiritual level – we have not been as effective in evangelism as God would have hoped us to be.

You mentioned demographics. The PC(USA) as a whole is aging more rapidly as well. What are you doing to bring the youth into the church?

People are more drawn to local congregations than to big national programs, but we’ve been doing a number of things. For one, I’ve been very excited about our youth trienniums and gathering. Our Moderator – who himself is younger than average – has been to twenty of our colleges to challenge young people to spend a year doing mission work around the world. This has renewed and revitalized the church on how it can be used in spreading the gospel.

How can the PC(USA) members take advantage of the benefits of being in communion with such a large international fellowship?

I think our churches are hugely advantaged already, and one reason for this is our growing contact with reformed Christians around the world. We are renewing and building ties with Christians who are located in very difficult places, and I believe this gave us a revival in many of our churches. I also think that as these partnerships grow, we will find growth in our won churches as well.

Also, we are living in a country where the world is coming to our shores, and so we have a need to do world mission at home and not just around the world.

So multi-cultural ministry is one of the key focuses for the future?

Absolutely. Multicultural ministry is the key for this church and other churches as well. One of the great things about multicultural ministry is that 75 percent of Christians today live in Africa, Asia and Latin America and we have natural common ties with them. We are able to become a multi-cultural church because we have those roots already in place.

What are the challenges of leading that sort of international ministry?

Part of the challenge is regarding hospitality. We always have to be culturally sensitive and check to see if we are really open. We need to look at things differently and build on our values together, even if there are many differences. This is a huge challenge because we need to exercise our hospitality in a way that is sincerely open to all.

During the WARC meeting, another topic that was raised was stabilizing the financial base for the group. What is happening in terms of finances for the WARC?

Well, part of the great strength of our movement is that the center of our church is in the South – it is in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

But at the same time, more than half of the WARC budget comes from Europe, and Europe is not a place where the church has been experiencing growth. Also, a heavy tax system has been placed in churches there and that is a core reason for financial decline.

Another financial challenge is that for the rest of the worlds, most of our contributions come in the form of dollars and the value of the dollar dropped – literally 30 to 40 percent – compared to the Swiss currency. This is a major challenge and something that is literally affecting the world.

If you were to give a pitch for American Presbyterians to support the WARC, what would it be?

We’re all part of one body of Christ, and we must remember that there is no security for everyone if anyone is insecure. All of the world crises we read about are not just happening to people we haven’t heard of. It’s an invitation to make a difference in this world which we live.

Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick’s ministry in the Presbyterian Church began in 1981 as a director for the division of International Mission in the General Assembly Mission board. In 1987, he served as the Director for the Global Mission Ministry Unit and by 1993 became the director of the Worldwide Ministries division of the denomination.

Kirkpatrick was elected the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly in 1996, and was re-elected twice since – in 2000 and in 2004.
Prior to his direct service to the PC(USA) – which formed in 1983 with the union of several Presbyterian denominations – Kirkpatrick served as the Executive Director of the Houston Metropolitan Ministries, the Executive Director of the Fort Worth Area Council of Churches, and the Assistant Director of the Greater Dallas Council of Churches.

In 1966, Rev. Kirkpatrick received a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Davidson College, and in 1968 garnered a Master of Divinity Decree from Yale Univeristy. He also received the Merrill Fellow post-graduate fellowship award from Harvard University in 1975, and a Doctor of Ministry Degree from McCormick Theological Seminary six years later.

Rev. Kirkpatrick holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree from the Westminster College in Pennsylvania, an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree from Hannam University in Korea, and an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Silliman University in the Philippines.

He is married to Diane Worthington Kirkpatrick, Director for Habitat for Humanity of Louisville, with whom he has fathered two children: Elizabeth, who is the pastor of the Graniteville Presbyterian Church of Graniteville, Vermont and David, who is working in wind energy development in Tehachapi, California.