The head of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has announced his intention not to seek another term – a move that at least one conservative group sees as a first step to changing the "disheartening state" of the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination.
The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), steps down at the end of his third term next year as membership continues to dwindle amid other challenges the 2.3 million-member church body is facing.
"This has been the best job I have ever had and a wonderful way to live out my call to ministry," he said in a written statement. But "the time has now come for me to conclude my service as Stated Clerk at the end of my third term."
Kirkpatrick has served as the top official of the PC(USA) since 1996. While shrinking membership began decades before his leadership, he has been a frequent target of conservative critics in the church over the continual decline. The largest drop was reported in 2005 with a loss of 2.05 percent.
Conservatives have also criticized the increasingly liberal direction of the denomination, including the issue of homosexual ordination and scriptural authority. Several large and historic congregations have cut ties with the PC(USA) in recent years and joined the smaller and more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
"The last decade under his leadership has been a difficult and disappointing time for Kirkpatrick, and indeed for Presbyterians as a whole," commented James D. Berkley, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD)'s Presbyterian Action committee, in a released statement. "We have witnessed large decreases in membership, painful divides over beliefs and practices, and agonizing staff and program cuts, including curtailing the number of missionaries sent into the world."
Berkley says by stepping down, Kirkpatrick is "allowing other able leaders to step up to guide this denomination once again into greater biblical fidelity and increased effectiveness as a Christian body."
"It also gives Kirkpatrick, as the present Stated Clerk, the ability to ensure a level playing field for the June 2008 election," he added, "since all nominees will be able to engage the issues without battling the rather intimidating influence of an incumbent as a fellow candidate."
The conservative leader commended Kirkpatrick for "his characteristic graciousness in displaying the courage to step aside to allow new leadership to emerge" and also thanked him for his "untiring service."
"I appreciate Clifton Kirkpatrick's Christian faith, enthusiastic ministry, and kindhearted humility, and I look forward to a more fulfilling future, both for him and for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)," he concluded.
As stated clerk for over a decade, Kirkpatrick has been responsible for ecumenical and constitutional functions at the General Assembly, the highest governing body of the PC(USA).
Kirkpatrick described his work as stated clerk a great blessing, but noted the "fair share of stresses and strains" that accompanied the work.
"It has been a tremendous privilege to give voice to the witness of our church to the gospel and to justice and peace in the world, to be a leader in the ecumenical movement, to guide the church (even in our contentions) toward unity in diversity, to uphold our Constitution, and to pioneer in new ways to express old truth as we seek to discern the mind of Christ and develop a polity and a church for the 21st century," he said in his statement.
On future matters, Kirkpatrick mentioned that he is eager to have more quality time with his family and to devote himself more fully to his presidency at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches – the global fellowship of 75 million Reformed Christians in 214 churches in 107 countries.
The Stated Clerk Nominating Committee, which was elected at the General Assembly last summer, has already begun searching for a nominee to succeed Kirkpatrick, who is only the second elected stated clerk since 1984. The next stated clerk will be elected at the 2008 General Assembly in San Jose.
Christian Post reporter Eric Young in Washington contributed to this article.