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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

State of the Union
January 29, 2015

Last week we heard the sixth State of the Union address by President Barack Obama. Before we heard a word from his mouth, most of us knew whether we would like what he had to say, because the way we hear is shaped by our predispositions toward him. As I offer a few thoughts on the state of our union as a church, I am sure that similarly most of us have already determined how we feel about the church. So my aim here is less to convince than to inform.

2014 was for Presbyterians, like Dickens’ world in A Tale of Two Cities, the best of times and the worst of times. First, some struggles. The PCUSA’s rolls continued to shrink. We learned that in the previous year we had a net loss of 89,296 members and 224 congregations, 148 of which were dismissed to other denominations. In Pittsburgh, we lost 3 congregations, all by dismissal, and gained one when we chartered a congregation formerly under our NCD program.

Yet it was the best of times! Nationally, more than 200 new worshiping communities began, none of which are counted in the total of congregations or members. Two of those were in Pittsburgh. Total mission giving rose by $7.5 million, and the number of world mission co-workers and volunteers continued to grow.

The 2014 General Assembly was remarkable for the degree of concord it demonstrated. Only one plenary vote was close, a razor thin majority directing the PCUSA to divest from three corporations supplying Israel with equipment and technologies used to restrict the freedoms and occupy landholdings of Palestinians. (PCUSA representatives have sought for years to raise these concerns as shareholders, but have been consistently rebuffed. The $20 million that was divested from these corporations pales beside the $215 million the PCUSA continues to invest in Israeli and non-Israeli companies doing business in Israel.) General Assembly worship was second to none. Before debating the two most controversial issues, commissioners spent a morning praying together and listening to each other.

In 2014 Presbyterian Disaster Assistance not only brought swift aid as emergencies arose both stateside and worldwide, but stayed the course with disaster victims many have forgotten, by continuing the rebuilding work in the northeast and gulf coast shores that were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

I was personally privileged to make 42 Sunday visits to our congregations. At some I preached, at some I taught classes, but most often I simply attended worship led by the pastor. As has been consistently the case throughout my years in Pittsburgh, I found every church proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, reading and interpreting Scripture with honesty and diligence, and pursuing Jesus’ mission beyond their walls. I was warmly received everywhere, as though I were Jesus himself. I was as humbled as I was honored.

Several of our churches asked me to discuss with them General Assembly’s action to permit ministers and congregations to celebrate same-sex weddings, and its proposal to change Book of Order language on marriage. I discovered broad ranges of opinions within each congregation; sadly, some members have left their church because they cannot abide the PCUSA position, while others have left their church because it has resisted the PCUSA position. None of our congregations is a monolith on these matters.

Our presbytery invested nearly $500,000 in new mission projects through the Great Ends of the Church Fund. We solidified our commitment to our new mission design by moving our Associate Ministers Beverly James and Ayana Teter from temporary to installed positions. In terms of operations costs and cash flow, we stayed in the black all year, in no small measure due to the early payment per capita discount program launched in 2014.

Yet much remains to be done. Our branches are proving to be vibrant hubs of new engagement among our church leaders. Congregations have joined in shared mission projects that they could never have done on their own. Several small congregations are engaged in exploring new options for sharing pastoral ministry. Yet a few remain isolated from the rest. Attendance at full presbytery meetings has slipped, with fewer than 60 of our more than 140 congregations represented at our recent presbytery meetings.

No congregations were dismissed, or began seeking dismissal from our presbytery in 2014. We continued the difficult task of seeking appropriate settlements for churches already in the departure process. A thriving new church development was officially enrolled, while another new church development was shaken by the untimely death of its pastor. Each presbytery meeting included a vigorous hour-long conversation about the ongoing costs of racism – it was sometimes painful, yet we were addressing rather than simply ignoring difficult things.

In sum, I believe 2014 had for us more of “the best of times” than “the worst of times.” We grew much, even when we struggled. We maintained charity in our disagreements, and joined hands often in worship and mission. God was glorified among us as we proclaimed the good news and carried forward the mission of Jesus. Thanks be to God!

With hope and gratitude,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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