Towards a Welcoming Polity
Nikki Collins is the coordinator of 1001 New Worshiping Communities and lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
As these immigrant pastors navigate our ordination process, which can take up to three years, they are also navigating the federal immigration system, building a congregation, and helping their new community build connections in their new American cities.
The 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) received and acted on seven overtures that speak directly to the representation of new worshiping communities and their leaders in our systems of governance. These overtures represent the voices of four presbyteries, a synod, and the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee to the Assembly. Collectively, the overtures received twenty-one concurrences from the breadth of the denomination. Presbyters in the Northeast, the Deep South, the West, and in between recognize the crucial and growing role of new worshiping communities in the life of the church, and together they presented the Assembly with the opportunity to forward Presbyterian polity in a way that serves the true diversity of the church and the movement of the Spirit among us. The overtures take note of the growing number of immigrant new worshiping communities in the life of the PC(USA) and the significant disparities in their representation at every level of church governance. Over the past few years, I have been privy to a series of conversations among mid council and new worshiping community leaders as they sought one another’s wisdom and experiences in supporting the new leaders and communities in their midst. Some of those conversations ultimately resulted in one of the overtures being passed by the Assembly. This article will provide context for the issues before the Assembly and aims to highlight the stories emerging across the church.
The issues we are facing center in the credentialing of individual leaders who serve new worshiping communities and the representation of these communities themselves at our tables of governance. The overtures call for standardized criteria and methods for chartering new congregations and flexibility in the process of credentialing leaders. Of the seven items acted upon by the Assembly, three passed with strong support from the commissioners:
- POL-15—a resolution proposed by the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee that calls the church to be more flexible in receiving immigrant pastors as members of presbyteries, recognizing the wisdom of the global church and the linguistic challenges for recent immigrants in navigating the ordination examination process;
- MC-07—also a resolution proposed by the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee that directs the Office of the General Assembly to standardize processes for the chartering of immigrant fellowships;
- MC-10—a resolution from San Fernando Presbytery that establishes a task force to explore the theology and practice of ordination as well as membership, church structure, accountability, and chartering, and to recommend needed changes to the 226th General Assembly.
The formation of this task force with such a broad mandate was an effort by the committee to create one body to address the intersectionality of issues emerging in the church and represented in the overtures before them. Who is ordained and which churches are chartered determine whose voices are heard in our councils. Where membership is counted affects per capita payments. Decisions about these issues signal the degree to which newcomers are welcomed into our church. The good news is that new people are choosing to participate in Presbyterian new worshiping communities, but the sad reality is their presence among us is overlooked by our polity and in our process.
More than one million immigrants arrive in the United States each year, and immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for 88 percent of US population growth over the next forty years.1 The demographics of the new worshiping communities in the 1001 movement reflect these shifts. Almost half of the communities formed in the PC(USA) since 2012 are among recent immigrants. Many of these new neighbors come from countries where the Presbyterian witness has been strong, and so they come seeking to connect with others who share their cultural, linguistic, and theological roots. Sometimes the welcome is hearty, and the process is relatively easy for the recognition of these immigrant pastors into the presbyteries in which they now live and work. However, leaders come in many different places along the educational and ordination process, and the transition to our system often is lengthy and cumbersome. Presbyteries frequently sponsor these leaders’ visas so they can do the missionary work of starting a new church here, but our own polity keeps them from fully leading even as they are integrally vested in the life of the presbytery and doing work on its behalf. The flexibility that is built into our form of government allows local presbyteries to determine appropriate means for education and examination of these ministers so that in some parts of the church the process has become simple, but in other places it remains inexplicably and unnecessarily opaque and impenetrable.
As these immigrant pastors navigate our ordination process, which can take up to three years, they are also navigating the federal immigration system, building a congregation, and helping their new community build connections in their new American cities. If their visas permit, they are also working another part- or full-time job, as the salaries offered to immigrant pastors are rarely adequate to support a family. And as this new church forms, it is also dependent on outside pastors (usually white leaders) from the presbytery to preside at baptisms and the Lord’s Supper. My colleague Michael Gehrling says it best, “To be sure, the love these ministers have for these NWCs is often profound, but the unintended consequences are not hard to see. Imagine the formative effects of an immigrant child growing up in a new worshiping community singing and hearing the Word proclaimed in the same language as their mother’s lullabies, but only receiving the body and blood of Christ from white hands.”2
If we want to love our neighbors and fully welcome them and support them in the formation of new faith communities, we can simplify our polity and our requirements to allow for, and indeed celebrate, the new leaders arriving to live and serve among us. This need not mean a dilution of our historic commitment to a well-educated clergy. The opportunity here is for the church to develop a robust process centered in the Spirit of God that brings genuine curiosity and respect for the breadth of gifts bestowed by that same Spirit. In a world that is global, digitally enabled, and in which information flows quickly and in ever-expanding ways, insisting on traditional models of preparing and examining leaders for ministry hinders our ability to grow and adapt for the world in which we live and the church that is always being reformed.
The overtures passed by the 225th General Assembly and the work before the task force the Assembly established present great opportunities for the church to respond to the movement of the Spirit among us, to fashion new ways of creating a connected, connectional church that seeks to nurture new worshiping communities among new Presbyterians. The question is this: Are we courageous enough to abandon policies, practices, and polity that have made us successful in the past in favor of those that suit the realities of today and prepare us for the unknown possibilities of tomorrow?
- Abby Budiman, “Key Findings about U.S. Immigrants,” Pew Research Center, August 20, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/20/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/.
- Michael Gehrling, in conversation with author, March 2022.