Mainline religion longs for leaders |

Mainline religion longs for leaders

Jack Van EnsOpinionPrinceton Theological Seminary, my alma mater, asked graduates what subject they desired to explore at this fall's reunion weeken

Why are ministers eager to groom leadership skills? Because they recognize the death spiral gripping mainline denominations. Since 1965 ,church membership has declined 33 percent. Denomination officials don’t seem to know how to stop the downward slide. Since the mid ’60s, discouraging numerical trends of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) show annual losses averaging about 40,000 members. Clergy are graying, along with fewer worshippers. Less than 10 percent of Presbyterian clergy are under 40 years. Members’ average age hovers at 60 or older. The last three generations of youth raised in the Presbyterian household of faith have left their home churches.Though not clairvoyant, I became alarmed at this membership nose-dive while studying at Princeton Seminary intermittently from 1969-84. Clergy who filled pulpits in prominent churches often lectured on campus. They oozed with conviction that the membership slide starting in 1965 was merely a glitch. Soon church rolls would swell again, as they did in the Eisenhower years when our Presbyterian president led the nation in Sunday worship. In 1969 this tactic clergy used to avoid admitting serious denominational decline didn’t convince me. Church life appeared moribund. Denomination heads remarked how God had blessed the Presbyterian heritage since the colonial era. Their Lord, whose hand shaped national history, would continue to run with Presbyterians faithful to the Gospel. A Peanuts cartoon came to mind amid such peppy talk. One of the Peanuts gang blurted, “No problem is too big not to run away from.” We run from adversity only so long, though. It will catch up with us, no matter how strong the denials.What’s a major cause of this denominational membership loss?Leaders don’t prosper when the nerve of creativity is cut. When the Church reels from membership reverses, pastors are hesitant to take chances or try what’s untested. It’s natural to bunker down, protect vocational turf and play one’s ministry close to the vest.What’s important?When church officials and preachers get agitated over slumping worship attendance and diminished giving, they tend to fight more and more about less and less. They jam official handbooks of how to run a church or denomination with protocols, mandates and rules. These official guides, usually called books of order in churchspeak, get thicker as church rolls become thinner. Consequently, curiosity that arouses creative improvement dries up. Loren Mead, dean of leadership dynamics for Alban Institute, describes in his book, “The Once and Future Church” how suffocating procedural edicts in churches squelch creativity. “The primary value (of institutional frameworks),” wrote Mead, “was the ability to hold settled communities steady on a distant unchanging goal. Flexibility was discouraged and uniformity encouraged. Books of order of different denominations reflect this bias.””Such systems,” Mead wrote, “work where the environment is stable and the need for inventing new responses is low. Such systems affirm fixed patterns of congregational life and discourage efforts to do things that are off the norm. In many areas of church life, these patterns continue to have high value. But in places where new life emerges and new challenges to ministry are developing, the books of order make it difficult to be adaptive.”Those refusing to adapt die. They lack an infusion of creativity. Their books of order substitute pat procedures for curiosity and stultifying ground rules, which curtail creative endeavor. As a seminarian wrestling with how to break the Church’s prolonged slump, I’d muse about what it takes for leaders to emerge. The Church listed like the Queen Mary wedged in a narrow harbor. Where were leaders who acted like tug boots, ready to turn the ship of faith on a dime and steer her to open waters of renewal? Along Mercer Street, which cuts through Princeton Seminary’s campus, sits an unpretentious house where Albert Einstein resided. His shock of unruly hair and shaggy clothing broadcast to the world how Einstein’s unconformist spirit unleashed his creativity. Einstein never met a “book of order” in physics that he liked. He readily identified the source of his scientific discoveries. Near the near the end of his life, Einstein exclaimed, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” His curiosity didn’t lack for purpose. It invigorated a questioning mind, cultivated risk taking and impelled him to cut new furrows replacing deep ruts. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” Einstein religiously explained. “One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysterious eternity of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”In the early 1950s, Lord and Taylor department stores presented an award for independent thinking. Einstein won it in 1953 for his “nonconformity” in scientific matters. Aren’t church leaders qualified for a similar award in short supply? Doc:lacklead Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt CREATIVE GROWTH Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

Support Local Journalism