Presbyterian Mission Initiative Faces Early Shutdown

A crucial $40 million mission initiative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) faces an early shutdown in the wake of unprecedented membership declines and reduced funds.

The Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts & Hands is a five-year campaign that was launched in 2002 to renew the church for mission. Mission for the PC(USA) is a Scriptural commandment, but the mission campaign may only operate until February 2007. The campaign, originally planned to end at the end of next year, has raised almost $26 million of the $40 million set by the 2002 General Assembly.

"Pledges are being kept, but donors are choosing to designate their money rather than give it unrestricted, which is where our operating funds come from," said campaign director Jan Opdyke, according to the Presbyterian News Service.

"They're telling us, ‘We love the church, but we won’t give unrestricted,'" she said.

Opdyke explained that trust is an issue as the denomination is in conflict over homosexuality and undergoing a major restructuring of its mission program.

A recent vote from a Presbyterian megachurch in Tulsa, Okla., led to its withdrawal from the denomination and requested affiliation with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The move came after the General Assembly of the PC(USA) adopted a policy that some pastors say will allow gay pastors in the church.

At the same time, the denomination is implementing a new Mission Work Plan with a large number of staff laid off and new positions designated. The mission budget has also been reduced for the next few years and some have called this a "missionary sending crisis." The General Assembly mission budget fully funded the first two and a half years of the campaign’s expenses. The financial support was halved in 2005, and for 2006 and 2007 the campaign was designed to be self-supporting.

An overwhelming 97 percent of Presbyterians at the 214th General Assembly had voted in favor of a Joining Hearts & Hands campaign in 2002, mandating the church to take additional measures domestically and overseas to help reverse the declining trends and renew the PC(USA).

Membership losses hit a record low in 2005 with a 2.05 percent decrease. More than 28,000 members were lost by transferring to other churches and more than 108,000 people dropped out of the church altogether or moved to churches not in correspondence with the PC(USA). Baptisms also declined by more than 4,000. Membership decline has been steady since 1967.

The denomination recognized both a loss in membership and a failure to start and maintain new church developments.

The mission campaign was launched to support new church development and increase international mission presence.

Executive committee member Thomas Gillespie told Opdyke that “given the atmosphere in the church these days, I’m amazed you’ve been able to do what you’ve done.” Gillespie urged the committee to “do whatever we have to keep this campaign going” and that “losing it now would be devastating."

Although contributions have been unexpectedly come in designated, Opdyke expressed having no fear that they won't raise the money for the campaign.

“We could do more campaigns in partnership with presbyteries if we had the staff. We know that when we partner with presbyteries money flows and it’s shared throughout the church. There’s no lack of money and people who want to give it. What we lack is the means to reach them.

“This campaign should be bigger - people in the pews believe and want to give,” Opdyke said. “We should be asking for more, not less.”