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The PC(USA)’s Acting Stated Clerk shares her thinking on helping congregations and mid councils navigate change

The Rev. Bronwen Boswell is the guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Bronwen Boswell

LOUISVILLE — Historically, Presbyterians “are used to being on a bigger stage and having what we say mean something,” the Acting Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Rev. Bronwen Boswell, said last week during “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” “We get caught up in that decline thinking rather than saying, ‘What is it we still have? What are the resources we have plenty of, and how do we need to look at the way ministry is going into the future?’”

Boswell was the guest of hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe. Listen to their 45-minute conversation here. Boswell is introduced at the 18:07 mark.

While many congregations and mid councils are working to adapt to changing realities including the growing body of people who worship remotely, our thinking “isn’t quite there yet. It’s going to take a while longer because of generational change that’s happening.” Some presbyteries, including Shenandoah Presbytery, which Boswell served before her one-year commitment as Acting Stated Clerk, include rural congregations with little or no internet access. Other faith communities “do nothing but being on the internet,” Boswell said. “We are straddling a wide swath of what it means to be Presbyterian.”

Boswell characterized the many accomplishments made by faith communities during the years following World War II as the work of “the voluntary society. People joined in to do things, and churches were at that time social centers in many ways.” Many included bowling and basketball venues open to the public, and community dances were often held there.

But for children raised during the late 1960s and in the decades that followed, “faith development didn’t seem to be as organized or as emphasized,” she said. “You had youth groups and Sunday school, and yet we started adapting those things to make it easier for people to be there, and it didn’t change” the longstanding membership decline, especially among mainline churches. “We still don’t have a number of young people in church anymore.”

One development Boswell laments is churches offering Sunday school and worship during the same hour. “We lost a couple of generations of people who knew how to be part of a worshiping community because they were in Sunday school,” she said. Then, “when we expected them to come into worship, they didn’t feel they had a place there at all.”

As members of the voluntary society depart this world or diminish their church involvement, many congregations “have not yet found their legs on how they go about deepening their own faith and what it really means to follow Jesus in the midst of what’s going on in the world today,” she said. “One thing I’ve been thinking about is this idea of how is it we are making space? How are we training and bringing up leadership of all ages?” Church nominating committees owe it to the congregation “to look at the broad breadth of the folks who are in the congregation. How do we bring along that leadership and transfer leadership? We haven’t done that in some places as well as we could have.”

Boswell said she was raised in a small church where she was asked to serve as a ruling elder while still in high school. “When I came back from college, I went back on the session to do the work that needed to be done. How do we open those opportunities for that to happen? Folks need to be able to say, ‘I am willing to hand it over to other folks and have them do it their way.’”

Her own children, who are in their 20s and 30s, have all remained involved in their congregations, “and I’m grateful,” Boswell said. “I feel fortunate they have decided to stick with it. They have seen positive things about following Jesus in the church and they’re seen a lot of negative things, too, because they have two parents who have been working in the church for as long as we have been. They know the good, the bad and the ugly of what it is to be the church.”

Boswell told Catoe and Doong she encourages Presbyterians “to be open to questions and exploring, and to the reality that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Beyond that, everyone is made in God’s image. If we embrace that, we’ll help grow folks of a deeper faith and we’ll go out there and do what Christ is calling us to do.”

Boswell noted that many people attending PC(USA)-affiliated seminaries aren’t interested in serving “what the church looks like right now. They want to do something else, like justice issues. I have talked to some of them, and I tell them, ‘Please don’t discount the local congregation.’ That’s a place change can happen, and it is happening in a variety of ways.”

“We need to be telling our congregations that folks are looking to do other things, not necessarily the way things you have always done it in the past.”

Boswell reminded listeners that General Assembly policies on important crises including gun violence and the environment began as statements by a congregation or a mid council. “It’s not top down. It came from the communities that are part of our broader faith community,” she said. She said she rejoices as Presbyterians unite their efforts to effect change with those of other denominations and faith organizations.

And when it comes to speaking as the denomination’s top ecclesial officer on such topics as the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, “I reiterate policies and statements from the General Assembly. It’s not my personal opinion. It’s what the denomination has said.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“It’s powerful that we are a denomination that has something to speak to what’s happening,” Catoe replied. “It’s amazing to see how much we have spoken about stuff.”

“We are a church who says we are Reformed and always reforming,” Boswell said. “Change can be difficult, but if there is no change, there is no life, and we are a church that wants to have a lot of life in it.”

“Opportunities abound to do the work God calls us to do. We want to be the hands and feet of God, sharing and showing God’s love.”

New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Go here to listen to previous broadcasts.

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