From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Oldenburg Believes PC(USA) Has Turned a Corner

Date 12 Oct 1998 20:04:43

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    Oldenburg Believes PC(USA) Has Turned a Corner 
    by Bill Lancaster 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.-In his first three months of travels, Moderator Douglas 
Oldenburg has seen many positive signs in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 
senses a rising level of trust, and believes the church has turned a 
corner, but does not believe the church is near resolution of the question 
of the ordination of practicing homosexual persons. 
    In a lengthy interview during the General Assembly Council meeting here 
September 24, Oldenburg responded to questions.  This is the first part of 
that two-part interview. 
    Q.  What are the most positive things you are seeing as you travel 
around as moderator? 
    A. "I think the most positive thing I've seen is the vitality of local 
congregations and the multitude of mission programs that are going on 
through congregations, presbyteries, and special ministries.  It's just a 
singularly unique privilege to travel around the church and see, and I wish 
I could take everybody with me.  I wish everybody could be moderator, just 
to witness what I'm witnessing. 
    "For people to say our church is dead or our church is dying - it's 
obviously not so, there's a lot of life out there. It's inspiriting, it's 
exhilarating, it's enlightening. 
    "I sense that there's a greater level of trust in denominational 
leaders, trust in people in Louisville, our staff people, and maybe trust 
in the future of the church." 
    Q.  To what do you attribute that trust? 
    A. "I think Cliff Kirkpatrick has had a lot to do with it.  The 
election of John [Detterick] has had a lot to do with it.  And maybe people 
are aware that if they don't trust their leaders, our church really does 
have a shaky future. 
    "I think there's a feeling that our leaders are really striving to be 
more theologically inclusive.  I have gotten a lot of affirmation over the 
appointment of Jim Mead as the vice moderator as a symbol of trying to be 
more theologically inclusive, as a symbol of recognizing in a positive way 
the contributions that we can make to each other theologically, as a symbol 
of the unity of the church.  There have been a number of people who have 
spoken to me about that as being the `defining moment,' as someone said, of 
the Assembly. 
    "I think the staff in Louisville is doing a better job of communicating 
to congregations and presbyteries.  I think Louisville has recognized that 
the local congregation is on the front lines and that governing bodies are 
there primarily, not exclusively, to support and enable local congregations 
in their ministry. 
    "I think there are four functions of the governing bodies above the 
session.  The first is that presbyteries, synod, General Assembly are there 
to support local congregations.  That's what they're there for.  That is a 
primary function, if not the primary function.  And therefore all of them 
have to be sensitive to what the local congregation needs and what it's 
doing and how can we support you and affirm leadership in local 
    "And the second function is, obviously, to do together what we cannot 
do separately as well.  I just think there are many things that local 
congregations can't do as well as we can do them together, such as 
responding to disasters around the world.  Someone has to coordinate that. 
Such as coordinating worldwide ministries.  And a number of other 
functions, curriculum preparation and so forth. 
    "And a third is, I think that those governing bodies exist to bring us 
together so that we can learn from one another, and so we get out of our 
parochialism.  So that pastors of large churches talk to pastors of small 
churches.  And pastors of Anglo churches talk to pastors of 
African-American and Asian-American churches.  We are enriched by the fact 
that we are exposed to people who are different than we are, come from a 
different part of the country. 
    "Where else does Frank Harrington sit down with a pastor of a small 
church except with presbytery?  My faith and life in the church [have] been 
deeply enriched by coming to know sisters and brothers from different parts 
of the country, different parts of the world.  And I don't think that would 
happen without the governing bodies. 
    "And, of course, the fourth function is the judicial function, which 
has to be done, it seems to me, by higher governing bodies [rather] than 
the local congregation - disciplinary functions and review cases and so 
    "But I think the first and foremost function is, what can they do to 
serve local congregations.  And I frankly think that message has gotten 
across.  I know John Detterick feels strongly about that.  He says that 
everywhere he goes, and I don't think it's just empty rhetoric.  He really 
means that." 
    Q.  What's happening with the racial/ethnic growth initiative? 
    A. "That is being talked about right now [at General Assembly Council]. 
I understand there will be a work group that will be getting together a 
major proposal for next year that relates to church growth, and a major 
part of that will be racial/ethnic church growth.  To reach the goal of 10 
percent [racial/ethnic members] by 2005 and 20 percent by 2010 is going to 
take some pretty vigorous work on our part and expenditure of time and 
resources and energy.  That is not going to be an easy task, because we do 
not have a good history of doing that very well. 
    "[What's] going to be disappointing to them [racial/ethnic persons] is 
we don't put the resources into doing that.   It's one thing to say we're 
going to do it and quite another to do it.  I think we've got to come 
through on that promise.  What I'm trying to do, along with the vice 
moderator, is raise some advance gifts for that and for the mission 
personnel thing that was voted on at the Assembly." 
    Q.  You mentioned to me earlier that the church was "turning a corner." 
What do you mean by that? 
    A. "One of the signs is that in 1997 we came in with one of the best 
financial years we've had in a long time - 5 percent over anticipated 
    "Another sign is that we had fewer churches withholding per capita than 
we anticipated.  We anticipated $400,000 and it only turned out to be 
$200,000.  I had a clerk of session come up to me the other day and say, 
`We've been withholding per capita for a number of years, and I want you to 
know we're sending a check to the presbytery.'  I don't want to put too 
much in that, but it's an encouraging sign. 
    "I think another encouraging sign, and again I don't want to put too 
much in this, but we've had the lowest decline in membership that we've had 
in recent years, 22,000 as opposed to 35,000, sometimes up to 40,000.  A 
business would say we're still losing money, but not as fast as we were. 
And I think part of that is we're taking more seriously evangelism.  All 
the seminaries have focused on that in recent years.  We're taking more 
seriously new church development. 
    "I think another encouraging sign is the enthusiastic election of John 
Detterick as the new executive of the GAC. 
    "Then again, I would go back to the trust level.  I think there is an 
increasing level of trust in the General Assembly, in the leadership of the 
church, and I think that's an encouraging sign. 
    "You only know when you've turned a corner in retrospect, but I think 
the fact that this sabbatical on the ordination question [of practicing 
homosexual persons] seems to be holding.  We don't have a plethora of 
complaints, and we did not try legislative action to resolve that issue 
again this year.  I think that's an encouraging sign.  My guess is that 
more people are talking about other things than the ordination of gays and 
lesbians, and maybe coming to know each other in a different way than just 
over an issue that divides us.  I think that's an encouraging sign. 
    "I think Cliff Kirkpatrick is a very encouraging sign.  I think Cliff 
is one of God's gifts to our church.  I think they both [Kirkpatrick and 
Detterick] bring a fresh wind and a fresh approach.  I think they're both 
on the same page in terms of how they think the church ought to move into 
the future. 
    "I think it's encouraging to go to a New Wilmington Missionary 
Conference and see 1,200 young people there excited about the mission of 
the church.  It's encouraging to go to the Global Evangelism Conference in 
Atlanta and see 1,500 people who are excited about sharing the gospel with 
the world.  It's encouraging to see 6,600 young people go to the Youth 
Triennium and six Montreat Youth Conferences that are oversubscribed." 

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