Presbyterian Church (USA) – The Future of Calls

dr Diana Butler Bass, MDC Meetings, September 2022. Photo by Manuel Silva-Esterrich.

How can the Presbyterian Church (USA) help pastors and other church leaders to be successful in their churches and local communities? This eternal question has a new urgency in this time of declining membership, pandemic-accelerated societal change, and other evolving realities impacting religious life in America.

To better understand these trends, two heads of departments of the Intermediate Council of the General Assembly attended last month’s annual meeting Development Council of the Ministry (MDC), a network of consultancies supporting the work of the PC(USA) and other denominations. MDC describes itself as “a coordinated approach to church vocations and ministry development counseling” that contributes to the “effective development and support of church professionals.”

Tim Cargal, Associate Director of Development of leaders in the ministry, and Manuel Silva-Esterrich, Manager for Call Process Support, traveled to Minneapolis to hear from guest speaker Dr. Diana Butler Bass on the growing challenges of Christian ministry. Both used the time to reflect on new ways to help people in ministry navigate the changing landscape of church ministry.

Silva-Esterrich and Cargal joined about 100 other religious leaders, MDC board members and staff LeaderWise (a Minnesota counseling center in the MDC network) for a day and a half meeting.

Cargal has worked with MDC for 13 years and currently serves as secretary to the MDC Board of Directors. He said the council grew up with the need for denominations to know about services being offered at centers around the country that do counseling or assessment work with ministers and candidates for ministry. MDC centers also help individuals transitioning from service roles.

Butler Bass, recently named by Drew Benson in a LeaderWise e-newsletter articles “one of the most respected commentators on American religion and contemporary spirituality” spoke about the changes facing those in ministry in 2022, including those identified in a recent study by the Pew Research Center. This study also predicted the conditions in American religious life over the next half century.

Two developing realities from the study struck Cargal. The first is the growing number of “Nones” – younger people who do not belong to any church or other religious group. “It doesn’t mean they’re atheists,” Cargal said. “Many still identify as Christians. But they often associate conservative leanings with Christianity.” This challenge also harbors opportunities: when socially engaged denominations like the PC (USA) “deliberately reach out with a message of faith unencumbered with what the Nones are reacting to.” there’s a much better chance of engaging them in the ministry.

A second major change is the growing number of immigrants whose families brought their Christian faith to the United States. “The second generation often turns away from the church for reasons similar to those of the Nones — including Christianity’s association with the past,” Cargal said. “If we network with the migrant families who bring a Christian faith tradition with them and show them ways to live this faith today, we can increase their church commitment.”

The skills of pastors and others in ministry need to be expanded to meet changing demographics. “The MDC has already noted that interpersonal skills are becoming increasingly important for clergy, including the ability to present an authentic self and believe in church values, as well as strong emotional intelligence,” Cargal said.

“How can MDC identify and develop candidates with these skills? How can churches and denominations support the pastoral work that is taking place outside of the congregation – and how can they respond to the financial impact of this new work?”

Cargal added that the MDC’s focus on developing approaches to service is similar to the General Assembly office’s support for the heads of the middle council. “In our orientation from the middle council leaders we have intercultural competence blocks as well as blocks on emotional intelligence in leadership and holistic wellbeing of ministers.” This summer 225th General assembly created a Task Force to Research the Theology and Practice of Ordination to Appointed Service for Reigning Elders, aimed at re-examining approaches to ordination and church membership. “It’s not enough to build a new church, ‘and they will come,'” Cargal said. The church needs to find new people who can excel in the spiritual leadership roles of today and tomorrow.

Manuel Silva-Esterrich, whose work focuses are call process (Liaison of candidates for ministry with parishes and middle councils), said the MDC discussions showed that the PC (USA) is hardly alone in facing these challenges. “There are essential things a pastor needs to be successful in 2022 and beyond,” he said, “regardless of denomination.”

Manuel Silva-Esterrich (right) during the MDC meeting, September 2022. Photo by Tim Cargal.

Manuel Silva-Esterrich (right) at the MDC meeting, September 2022. Photo by Tim Cargal.

Silva-Esterrich enjoyed how Butler Bass spoke in a personal way about the changing landscape of the Church and conveyed the message that reconnecting with one’s roots – in the family or in the wider community – is essential to ministry today. “Where your family is from and your family history is important – embrace the good and heal from the bad.”

Taking stock of personal and community history is an important part of building authentic, community-connected ministry. “I love combining intergenerational ministry with a renewed church purpose,” said Silva-Esterrich. “It’s all part of improving things that may be new or have already been tried.”

Church property is another community resource that can sometimes be reused. “Around 15 percent of real estate in the USA is church property,” said Silva-Esterrich, referring to statistics from the MDC meetings. “When a church declines, selling land can be a way to continue the call to the surrounding community to maintain its presence.” Repurposed properties may be used by local small businesses or low-income housing providers, for example.

Silva-Esterrich combines these thoughts with his appointment work for pastors. A decline in membership has led to a proliferation of smaller churches — many of which “have small budgets, which often means they’re extending part-time jobs,” he said.

“Having an MDiv will not be enough for tomorrow’s leadership. We need pastors who can also specialize in outreach, finance, and mission. People who can take on specializations that go beyond the traditional roles of pastors in congregations and minister in a range of churches and throughout the congregation.” The need exists across the spectrum of Presbyterian worship communities, including Korean- and Spanish-speaking congregations.

Silva-Esterrich grew up in Puerto Rico, “where we talk about ministries being able to put out ‘apagar fuegos’ – fires”. He said the new church and its pastoral leadership must respond in a similar way, not only to its members but also to those who need help in the wider community.

This does not mean that the church has to change for the sake of change. “Right now the church has nowhere to go. It has to stay. It must help people who have been left behind” – by a pandemic, by climate catastrophe, by injustice and the other traumas that have damaged so many lives.

“The concerns of different denominations are the same,” said Silva-Esterrich. “The ministers are burning out. Young ministers are leaving the ministry early because of the stressful realities of the job.

“As we prepare new seminary graduates with specializations, not only will they play a key role in their community, but they will also have other opportunities to help their middle council, their community, and even other communities.”

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