PCUSA Head Optimistic of Growth Despite Exodus

As the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States sees a small yet continuous exodus of congregations, the head of the church body remains optimistic of growth.

The Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said this week that the denomination "is in a potential tipping point of renewed growth and vitality," according to the Presbyterian News Service. His comments come after he had written a letter to discontent congregations asking them to stay.

Still, he expects "a relatively small movement out of the PC(USA), though it all hurts," he said. Kirkpatrick had indicated earlier that any exodus "is too many."

Last summer's 217th General Assembly, which had granted greater leeway for the ordination of homosexuals, resulted in the departure of some dissident Presbyterians and more are seeking a new home. The exodus, however, began in 2001 when the 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.

Weaver is part of the New Wineskins Association of Churches, a network of dissident Presbyterians that voted this year for a new non-geographic presbytery to be created by the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Much of the congregations are expected to vote by October to either stay in the PC(USA) or to realign with the possible New Wineskins Presbytery.

Recent events remind Kirkpatrick of the conflicts that he witnessed in the church he grew up in. Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn., was torn apart by theological conflict, he told the news service, and some members left for the Presbyterian Church in America or the EPC.

"It was very painful, but has made me utterly committed to the belief that there's room under the Lordship of Christ for more diversity in our church," said the denominational head.

Despite the conflicts and splits, Kirkpatrick finds optimism in a number of factors, including the growing partner church in Mexico which he had recently visited. A recent church-wide meeting on the denomination's middle governing bodies had also encouraged Kirkpatrick. Representatives of presbyteries and synods had come out with no quick solutions for the financial trouble the bodies are facing with the fallout of organizational support. While some expressed the urgency to deal with pressing technical problems, Kirkpatrick noted the overall willingness of the presbyteries to "be adaptive rather than technical" in their leadership as they seek change.

"It's clear to me we're at a point of willingness to build together the PC(USA) of the future that God intends," said Kirkpatrick, who said he is considering seeking a fourth four-year term as stated clerk.

While the large denomination makes efforts to grow amid theological differences, the EPC is preparing for the possibility of welcoming many more churches in the next couple of years, as Paul Heidebrecht, EPC moderator, had indicated.

At the same time, Kirkpatrick is hopeful for the future of his grandchildren in the church. "God has blessed my family through the Presbyterian Church for 300 years – I can’t believe that God doesn’t intend that same blessing for my grandchildren."

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