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Case Study...

On October 12, 2016 two new staff positions were filled at Metro Presbyterian (PCUSA) Church (MPC) in Atlanta, Ga. With these two positions filled, there remains one open slot on the staff roster; though the hiring committee is considering splitting the remaining opening into two different positions. Once the final hires are made the staff that will be caring for this congregation of ~170 will consist of twelve paid positions. To date, the senior most “ministry” professional has been serving at MPC for four years.

MPC has lived through many changes in the past four decades, splitting four times, and changing pastors with greater frequency than United States presidents. Some resigned, some were fired, but all leave residue behind, and take parishioners with them. With each staff departure and each church split the congregation of MPC has gathered more anxiety unto itself, anxiety that it holds on to and internalizes. The four major splits in the life of MPC have all been organizational in nature: The church split in 1983 when the “Presbyterian Church in The United States” merged with the United Presbyterian Church in The United States of America,” to form the “Presbyterian Church in the United States of America” (PCUSA). At this juncture many congregants left for more evangelical pastures, fearing the loss of control over policy and doctrine as the more Congregationalist former PCUS churches would now be governed more directly by the denominational structure. Many of them found a new home in the “Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)” which had split off of the denomination in 1981 fearing that they would be forced in more liberal directions by the coming merger.

The next two splits came in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as the denomination started to change it stance on the position of LGBTq+ persons in the PCUSA, first allowing for openly gay celibate ministers to be ordained, and later allowing monogamous gay access to ordination. Today MPC remains non-affirming in its position on the LGBTq+, not calling any LGBTq+ persons into leadership, and requiring celibacy as a condition of membership. The most recent mass exodus came after the dismissal of MPC’s senior pastor when he had decided to dismiss the finding of a consultation done on the church. Even without these major events, MPC has been on decline for some time.

In the 1995 Situation Analysis from a re-focusing committee, the first admission is that MPC is not what it once was, “Metro Presbyterian has the staff and facilities to accommodate 1500 people, but the congregation is less than half that number (727).” The year prior a denominational report had shown that MPC was far older and drastically more homogenous than the surrounding community.[2] In the aforementioned 1990 consultation in response to the downward trajectory of church attendance; the Church Data Services’ consultant observed that “Since the mid 1970’s [MPC] seems to have lost its mission. Attendance has declined steadily since 1974. It seems that MPC has changed from a growth-oriented body to a maintenance-oriented body… MPC is at a crossroads.” That document claimed that the high water mark for Sunday attendance appears to have been around 1,200 people, and that in 1990, it was approximately 500. A similar report was done in 2000 to test the new outreach plan of launching more stylized services. That year attendance was recorded as low as 298.

A plan was put into action to save the church: there would now be three unique services each Sunday at MPC. An 8:45 “First Light” contemporary service with a praise band using the newest music and technology, an 11:00am “Traditional Service” that would make use of the Choir, hand bells, and pipe organ, and a 6:00pm “Last Call” contemplative/vespers service which would occupy an ancient-future niche, utilizing acoustic instruments, strings, liturgical framing, and intentional use of darkness and silence. This growth strategy was in line with the actions of the past (building a fellowship hall, an athletic facility, and a preschool). These multiple stylized services slowed the decline in attendance, but failed to stop it or lead to growth. Eventually in 2012 MPC hired a new pastor who took one look at the three struggling worship services and started the process of consolidating the congregation into one Sunday morning worship experience.

So in late 2012 the three services were “collapsed” into one new 10:30am blended service where aspects of each of the three would be allowed be practiced. The four members of the worship/arts staff were let go and replaced with one full-time Director of Music Ministries. From this point on, even with Sunday school classes shrinking, small groups shutting down, a thriving athletics program, and on-site housing relief programs, the Sunday Morning worship service became the scapegoat for the anxiety of the congregation and its fear of death. Clapping was banned in the worship service, as people began to applaud as a way of voting for which aspects of the service they enjoyed.

In 2016 this new blended service’s attendance runs somewhere between a low of 140 and a high of 200. MPC is once again in the hiring process, looking for someone, or someones, to lead Sunday Morning worship who will find the silver bullet that will grow the church back towards its former glory. The highest aim of MPC is to avoid its impending death. The mission statement “to know Jesus, and make him known,” is a vague slogan just like its predecessor “to discover real life in Jesus.” These are perfectly in line with the original commissioning call of MPC in 1952 of “to be a Presbyterian church in Atlanta.”

Today the MPC has a stable staff, several active outreach projects, three buildings, and zero debt; but they live in a state of panic. The congregation is paralyzed by its fear of death and blinded by a lack of vision for the future. As churches around Metro Presbyterian continue to shrink and close their doors, the people of MPC become more and more anxious.

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