Question 3: What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century?

Inspired by the work of the Nature of the Church in the 21stc.Committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA) [that’s a mouthful of a name and a charge] and provoked (in all kinds of good ways) by Carol Howard Merritt’s blogging at This is the part of a series of blogs intended to engage the five questions that committee has been wrestling with on our behalf.

This laundry list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it in any way final. In fact, the toughest challenge, the highest priority for our church is to recognize that everything we do from here on out is provisional and most important, contextual to the extreme. In terms of traditional churchianity, this list might also seem extremely limited in scope, though if we could live into this in even the smallest ways, I believe we would see our ministry reach expand and flourish.


These priorities come from the following assumptions: that small congregations will be more and more the norm; that a posture of flexibility and nimbleness is required; and that relationships are the source of Presbyterian connectionalism we say we value so highly.

  1. Move away from one congregation-one pastor model for small and mid-sized churches.  Truly embrace the priesthood of all believers by providing diversely gifted regional teams of trained Teaching Elders to resource multiple congregations/groups with preaching, teaching, training, administering the sacraments, moderating Sessions and leading vision processes. Ruling Elders would assume primary administrative and mission responsibility within their particular group/congregation.
  2. Allow and fund with greater flexibility a greater variety of ministry approaches for new and existing congregational development.
  3. Provide funding for small town and small congregation ministries at the national level.  Create giving opportunities for well-resourced congregations to provide sustaining gifts distributed to congregations in need.
  4. Shift seminary education priorities to include training and support for visioning, ministry initiatives and administrative creativity.
  5. Provide seminary debt forgiveness for any pastor willing to receive a call to an underserved community and/or a small congregation, even for those graduating from non-Presbyterian seminaries.


From the national level to the most isolated local setting, the biggest challenge we face has been and continues to be letting go of our expectation that Presbyterian churches should fit a particular mold.  Instead of striving for uniformity in our worldview and in our understanding and practice of mission, evangelism, justice and liturgy, in this open-source, globally connected world we need to embrace and give as much value to the powerful potential in the creative, the unique, the ground-breaking as we do the quiet strength of the tradition.

This kind of openness to the movement of the Spirit will require us to face another of our big challenges – the ability to trust one another.  Even given the rigors of seminary education and our candidacy process, there is still at a minimum a perception that there is significant lack of trust from denominational hierarchies that fully vetted leaders and their congregations can discern what works best in their ministry context.  Our newly adopted Book of Order has laid down again the foundations of what it is to be Presbyterian in this context.  Can we embrace the beauty of a more open and flexible ministry environment that this new document provides?

Perhaps the most challenging question of for each one of us to ask is this:

Can I embrace the ministry direction your congregation feels called to follow and can you embrace the one mine has discerned and still remain in relationship in true Presbyterian fashion?

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