On Friday 15 June I had a chance to meet up with a Presbyterian pastor from Cincinatti, the Rev Erwin Goedicke of North Presbyterian Church. We spend an enjoyable hour together at the the coffee shop of Troy Jackson’s Church, University Christian Church.
North Presbyterian is a long-established congregation in the Northside, an area of the city undergoing a transformation. Erwin described it as ‘a renaissance area’, ‘Cincinnati’s eclectic Eden’ and ‘an urban village’. The area’s original inhabitants had been Germans and Scots, and it had been Scottish immigrants who had founded the congregation in the nineteenth century. Now, however, the area is has a reputation as a ‘hip’ neighbourhood of student, artists and young professionals. It is much more racially diverse, and with its reputation for being a liberal-minded centre of art and culture has a growing gay and lesbian community.
Many urban Presbyterian churches seem small by our standards. With 90 members on the church roll, and around 50 worshipping on a Sunday, Edwin is reminded of Gideon, who was left was only 300 men to save Israel’s culture from subjugation (Judges 7:4–7). Yet 24 different organisations use the church premises during the week, and there is a busy youth ministry, resourced by full-time workers.
All members of the congregation are engaged in some kind of community work or mission, says Edwin. For example, many are engaged in neighbourhood work in the local area, on projects such as the local food pantry, urban gardening, educational enrichment for children in the local public (i.e. state) school system. So the church is seen as very actively involved in the life of the local community.
Youth ministry is supported by a large endowment which pays for both a youth director and an urban missioner. There is no set model for the youth work, whose format changes from year to year. At the centre of it is a group of around 30 to 40 kids who meet regularly for meals together. They come from around six different churches, and there is no expectation that the work will lead to church membership growth. Instead, they create a community, a safe place for young people, where they can together share their ‘consolation’ or ‘desolation’.
The congregation’s leadership is theologically conservative. They belong to the ‘confession church’ movement which opposes changing the standards of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to allow the ordination of active gay and lesbian persons to the ministry (in fact, the PC(USA) changed its standards in this way during the last year). However, the Kirk Session decided not to respond to the most recent consultation on from the denomination on the issue. They do not make a great play issue of it, but Erwin recognises that this means that although the congregation and its work is well-respected in the community, still it would not necessarily be a congregation in which gay or lesbian people would necessarily feel comfortable. ‘People know our views’, he says, ‘but we don’t have to throw it in their face’. He worries that there is a degree of anarchy affecting the denomination; and perhaps the thing to do is to sit on the fence and wait for it to pass.
So this is a church which, although wecloming in many respects ad much engaged in the community, does not see much numerical growth, and which will not, in the foreseeable future, return to the heady days when they could fill their large sanctuary. Yet they make their substantical buildings available to the community, and continue to spend their way through their endowments. Erwin is critical of much of the talk about ‘church growth’; it is, he says, something which is out of our control, for it is affected by factors as diverse as demographics and the charisma of the pastor! And too often we allow our strategies to become the mission, instead of being taken up in God’s mission.
Instead, he proposes that the standard for judgement should not be growth, but faithfulness. North Presbyterian is the oldest institution in its community. What if it continues to witness to the Kingdom, being salt and light to its community, regardless of whether that brings a grown in congregational numbers or not. After all, Christ spoke of a seed which needs to die before there is resurrection. What happens when the endowment is all spent is not really important!
It was a thought-provoking hour I spent with Erwin, and I’m grateful to him for spending time talking to me.
Another Presbyterian minister from Cincinnati I would meet later was the Rev Susan Bryan of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church. Susan would also be at the Community Organising Course I was to attend in Ohio the following week, and at the Presbyterian General Assembly due to take place in Pittsburgh.