Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church by William J. Weston
Part II: Where are we now?
Chapter 5 – What is Normal in the Presbyterian Church?
Weston is using the word “normal” here to mean what is typical for the PCUSA. I think the best place to begin with this chapter is the conclusion. After reviewing some fascinating statistical data Weston concludes:
What is normal in the Presbyterian Church? To believe that God is and loves us, that Jesus Christ is our savior, that nothing is more important in life than religion. To believe that the Bible shows God’s active involvement in all creation, but is not meant to be read as inerrant in each detail. To believe that the gospel is a gift we should bring to the world, not an imposition, because all faiths are not equal, but Christ alone is absolute truth, and God will judge all in the end. To go to church to worship and work, to pray and pay, to be friendly and faithful. And not least, to loyally serve the Presbyterian Church as it is.
If you want to compete and win in the Presbyterian Church, you have to play to what is normal. Play to the pillars, the loyalists. Show them the connection between what you propose and what they already believe and do. (77-78)
Most of this chapter is an analysis of data from the Presbyterian Survey 1994-1996 combined with independent research Weston did himself. He segments the denomination into four groups used by the Presbyterian Survey: Members, Elders, Pastors, and Specialized Clergy. The last group is ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament who are serving in some capacity other than pastoral ministry. Each of these groups exhibits some different characteristics with regard to demographics and values.
Using the self-identification of survey respondents, Weston uses classifications of conservative, moderate and liberal as a proxy for identifying the three parties we he has been discussing in the book. Weston used the 1994-1996 Survey for his data. Out of curiosity I entered his data into a spreadsheet and added the same data from the 2003-2005 Survey. Here are the four modified charts:
As you can see from the charts there is a right leaning majority among members and elders, a less pronounced lean to the right by pastors, and a left leaning majority among specialized clergy. What I found fascinating about the change to the more recent data is a decrease in the number of moderates in all four groups. The first three groups show a greater number of both conservatives and liberals, although the increase in conservatives is greater. For the specialized clergy, there was growth only among liberals.
It is important to keep in mind that pastors and specialized clergy make up less than 1% of the denomination but 50% of the voting bodies that govern the church at the presbytery, synod and general assembly levels. Consequently, if the general assembly elders and minister of word and sacrament contingents are representative of their broader groups, then half should have a distribution like the elders and half like ministers of word and sacrament.
There are a number of interesting findings in this chapter and I will highlight just a few.
First, Weston makes this rather startling observation:
Among theological conservatives, there are 89 married ministers for every divorced one; for those in the center the ratio is 16 to one; for liberals, there are 7.7 married people for each divorced person. An extraordinary extension of this pattern is that for ministers in church agencies or governing bodies (that is, presbyteries, synods, or General-Assembly-level bodies), the married-to-divorced ratio is 2.2 to one. (73)
It is interesting to contemplate what impact these numbers might have in terms of leadership for addressing family issues and sexuality, two issue that are at the top of the cultural agenda right now.
Second, Weston writes that the very conservative in the church are very much like most others in the church except for a few specific positions. However, the very liberal is the group least likely to reflect the character of the broader church. Yet what both have in common is that they are far more likely to have been life long Presbyterians. Most Presbyterians (I think it is about 60%) are not life long Presbyterians. Weston suggests that this reluctance to leave at the extremes may be in part because it is all these folks have known. They have never had to choose denominational home based on their congruence with its vision. This confirms a suspicion I have been developing, especially since being on the GAC.
Third, Weston presents and interesting analysis of perceptions of denominational leadership. He did a survey of the General Assembly Council (I am assuming about five years ago.) He found that 13% were conservative, 60% were moderate, and 27% were liberal. He found that liberal and moderate members of the Council perceived that they were twice as many liberals as conservatives with the majority in the middle. Conservative leaders believed their were three times as many liberals as conservatives and a plurality made up the middle.
Also, Weston wrote:
This leads us to findings related to church staff. The Presbyterian Panel includes a group of clergy serving on presbytery, synod, and national church staffs. This group is the most skewed to the left, with a six-to-one Democrat-to-Republican ration, almost not theological conservatives, and no political conservatives at all. This puts them considerably out of step with the conservative-leaning and predominately Republican Presbyterian Church. Yet this group also reports the highest rate of valuing their Presbyterian affiliation as part of their Christian identity.
What could account for this? The staff clergy also have a far higher rate of birthright Presbyterians than any other group. This could explain why clergy who are much more liberal than most pastors seem to wind up in the church bureaucracy, rather than moving on to a more liberal denomination. (76)
Okay. Enough with numbers. You get the picture.