Not That Many Members Really Want to Leave

If you are in a congregation who is considering its relationship with our denomination chances are only 15-20% of the members really want to leave the PC(USA).  The other 80-85% either don’t mind staying or really want to stay PC(USA).

I used to think this was just my own observation from having gone through the discernment and dismissal process with my own congregation last year but then I heard The Reverend Dr. Jim Singleton, one of the leaders who helped establish ECO and the Fellowship of Presbyterians, say the very same thing to the 2014 National Gathering of ECO/Fellowship.  You can listen to Jim describe his observation from working with concerned congregations during the last two years here…

“I’ve been working with a lot of churches in the last two years and what it looks to me like in most churches is that you’ve got what I call a 20-65-15 kind of split.  In a lot of churches about 20% vitally want to stay, about 15% vitally want to leave, and about 65% really don’t care.  They’re ok whatever name is on the door.  And sometimes that 20 and that 15 are flipped in reverse numbers.” ~ The Reverend Dr. Jim Singleton, 2014 National Gathering of ECO/Fellowship

So how is such a small group of members able to persuade whole congregations to move from one denomination to another?

Here is the four step process I see happening again and again in leaving congregations.

Step 1: Establish a Grassroots Denomination Study Committee from Members of the Congregation

Several influential leaders in a congregation who are passionate about taking the congregation to a new denomination, work with session and form a denomination study committee.  The committee members themselves may or may not necessarily all be passionate about leaving when they join the committee but the leader of the committee, who is passionate about leaving, only provides them material to study that is strongly biased against the PC(USA).  The Layman and it’s publication “How We Got Here” is a primary example.  After studying these biased materials over a number of weeks, the committee then comes to the congregation with their findings, which, not surprisingly, support the idea that the denomination is  “deathly ill”.

It is interesting that of all the decisions a session will ever make, few decisions will ever be as consequential as this one and yet they always form a committee that includes members of the congregation that are not on the session to study the issue.  I think this very intentional.  When the committee presents their findings to the congregation, the leaving leaders want it to look like the process is a grassroots effort coming up from the pews rather than from the pulpit or session.

The 65% of members in the middle, who are part of the grassroots, see the conclusion of the grassroots committee and can identify with them.  Very few people will have the time it takes to study the issues in depth so the finding of this group is very influential.

Step 2: Promote the Unity of the Congregation 

The next phase of the process involves a campaign to promote unity within the congregation.  It may take different shapes in different congregations but the message is always the same, “regardless of the outcome we need to stay united as a congregation”.

The message may be “regardless of the outcome” but in fact anyone from this point on who expresses doubts about leaving is cast by the leaving leaders as being divisive to the unity of the congregation.

Even if an alternative group rises up with a positive message about the PC(USA), they are never given the same status or access to the congregation as the denomination study committee.  The committee becomes the official voice and their findings become the official message.  Any other message is seen as subversive and divisive.

Step 3: Take a Straw Poll

The third step in the process is a straw poll taken of the members.  In my opinion this is the single most divisive and destructive tool used by the leaving leaders.

By the time the straw poll is taken, grassroot members, the 65% in the middle, may or may not be convinced the PC(USA) is “deathly ill” but they are convinced that maintaining the unity of the congregation is important.  More importantly, they often believe the majority of the members want to leave.  And since few people want to be known as the divisive person who split the congregation, they cast their straw poll vote to leave the denomination, not because they want to leave, but because they want to maintain the unity of the congregation.

At this point the leaving leaders have the perceived momentum they need.  Rather than the true 15-20% who want to leave the congregation the straw poll indicates 80-85% who want to leave.  Only the 15-20% who strongly want to remain in the PC(USA) vote to stay.

The results of the straw poll instantly split the congregation and allow the leaving leaders to give the perception that a majority of the congregation is in favor of leaving.  This perception is important for quelling the 15-20% who are strongly in favor of staying as well as for persuading the presbytery that the congregation wants to be dismissed.

Step 4: The Pastor and Session Step Out from Behind the Scenes

Up until this point the senior pastor and session have been working behind the scenes but once momentum has safely been established the pastor and session come forward and put their foot on the gas.

At this point there is no turning back.

A Better Way

Since the 18th century, a corollary to our Presbyterian Historic Principles of Church Order has been,

“That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.”

“ … peaceably withdraw … without attempting to make any schism” is deeply etched in our Presbyterian history.  This is how Presbyterians settle irreconcilable differences.

The leaving leaders who are actively promoting secession from the denomination because the votes did not go their way are violating this historic principle. They are also violating their ordination vow to “further the peace, unity, and purity of the church”.

The better way would be for these leaving leaders and the 15-20% of the members whose conscious does not allow them to stay to peacefully withdraw and form a new ECO congregation.  But I’m guessing, that like Jim Singleton, the leaving leaders know better than anyone how small their numbers really are and that starting a new congregation isn’t a viable option for them.

I’m confident that if a congregation who enters this discernment process stays PC(USA) they will find many more members stay with them than they ever imagined.

Let’s #StayPC(USA) together.