Presbyterians Called to Face the Facts, Change

A week of emotional discussions, debates and controversial decisions at the General Assembly of the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination ended with a call for humility and transformation.

As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) concluded its week-long meeting in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday, the Rev. Dan Chun suggested to hundreds of commissioners and delegates that the prescription for Presbyterians is "a radical self-inventory of what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong," according to the denomination's news service from the Assembly.

"We should admit before God we have made some bad decisions," said Chun, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Honolulu. "We should be saying to God, 'Give us the strength to transform and reform before it's too late.' Things will never radically change for the better if we continue doing the same thing. People's lives and souls are at stake."

The poignant remarks were made after reports showed the PC(USA) suffered its worst annual membership decline in decades last year. According to Louisville's Courier-Journal, the denomination lost 57,572 members in 2007 and has 2,209,546 active and confirmed members, a drop of 2.5 percent compared to 2006.

Membership has been shrinking for 42 consecutive years, as reported by the denomination's news service. Only five churches of the nearly 11,000 in the denomination have grown every year for the past 10 years. Three in every four churches have either reached an attendance plateau or have experienced declining attendance.

"Jesus gave us the responsibility to grow our churches, but we aren't doing a good job, are we?" Chun posed.

Newly elected General Assembly stated clerk the Rev. Gradye Parsons acknowledged that the fear is "the overriding issue of the church."

"Everybody's afraid that for some reason or another the church is going to close in two weeks," he said Friday, when he was installed as the next PC(USA) head, succeeding the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick.

"We need to find ways to help people not to live into fears as we continue to discern together how to be the church," Parsons said following his election. "The important thing is we need to stay connected to each other, rather than distance ourselves from each other."

The Honolulu pastor also called Presbyterians to face the facts and move forward together.

"Do we despair? Do we ignore the facts and put our heads in the sand? We can say, 'Who cares?' or we can humbly face the facts head-on," Chun said as he urged change through "radical confession."

Several churches have left the denomination over what conservatives say is a liberal direction on Scripture and theology. This week, the General Assembly approved proposals that would allow for non-celibate gays and lesbians to be ordained by local presbyteries.

A proposal to delete the requirement that clergy live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness" from the denomination's constitution still requires a majority approval from the nation's 173 presbyteries. But the Assembly's decision to adopt an authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) constitution that allows gay and lesbian candidates for ordination to conscientiously object the current "fidelity and chastity" standard has some arguing that local presbyteries can now ordain non-celibate homosexuals as clergy.

"LGBT candidates are ordainable NOW. Own it. Live into it," Pastor John Shuck of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., stressed in his blog Saturday.

As heated debates are expected to continue across the denomination following the 2008 Assembly, Chun pointed Presbyterians to humility.

"It is in humility that we can get along with viewpoints strongly different from ours," he said. "It is in humility alone we will find answers for our future and true faithfulness for our ministries."

"For our denomination, for the decisions we have made and not made this week, today is a call for humility," Chun said. "Let's be thankful for our past accomplishments, and let's keep on doing justice and loving kindness, but let's also keep walking humbly with God."