Churches in the Southeast: Blessed and challenged

bopPHILADELPHIA, Pa. — “Churches in my region are both blessed with faith and history and opportunity, and challenged by change coming at them from all sides,” said Clark Simmons, regional representative for the Southeast in his status report to the Social Responsibility and Church Relations committee of the Board of Pensions (BOP) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The BOP’s spring 2014 meeting was held Feb. 27-March 1 in Philadelphia.

Simmons, who was raised in Jackson, Miss., and whose father was a respected member of the Board of the Pensions, has been serving as a regional representative since 1998. He serves both active and retired BOP plan members who live and work in five southeastern states: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

The 3,600 retired members in Simmons’ region constitute 22 percent of all current pension plan beneficiaries. Active plan members work for churches and church-related organizations.

pic for Simmons articleSimmons’ region includes 21 presbyteries in two synods.

  • Synod of South Atlantic: Central Florida, Charleston Atlantic, Cherokee, Flint River, Florida, Foothills, Greater Atlanta, New Harmony, Northeast Georgia, Peace River, Providence, St. Augustine, Savannah, Tampa Bay, Trinity and Tropical Florida.
  • Synod of Living Waters: Mississippi, North Alabama, St. Andrew, Sheppards and Lapsley, South Alabama

The denomination’s statistical report for 2012, the last year for which numbers are available, indicates that those presbyteries include 1,175 churches with more than a quarter of a million members.  That translates into nearly 2,500 active members (in the medical and pension plans) in addition to the 3,600 retirees.


Five denominations, all ‘Presbyterian’

When you say you’re a Presbyterian in Simmons’ region you have to add of what variety.

Simmons’ region is home to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and it was greatly affected by the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (1971) which has 742 churches in the five southeastern states.  His region was also the one most strained by Reunion by 1983.  In cities where Northern and Southern Presbyterians had defined themselves as “we’re not that kind of Presbyterian,” Reunion brought the tension of having to define what they were each positively “for” and how they were structurally united even if still culturally and politically divided.

The region is being affected today by the realignment of churches to both the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  The two denominations now have a combined 94 churches in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

How does Simmons view it all? Well, he’s both a southerner and a cradle Presbyterian so he embraces the nature of the southern family which may have disagreements and even feuds, but who are still kin in the end.

In a region that reflects the growing diversity of American culture, Simmons’ home presbytery of Greater Atlanta has 43 worshiping groups whose first language is not English. He admits that’s a challenge both to the presbytery’s ability to accommodate and fully include them in its common life as well as a challenge for the agencies of the General Assembly like the Board of Pensions to know exactly how best to serve them.

His presbyteries are also experiencing the push and pull of technology that make presbytery resource centers obsolete in a digital age. Those resource centers used to fill up to half of the square footage of a presbytery’s office space.  Add to that reality the downsizing of presbytery staffs, and you have many presbytery-owned buildings grossly underutilized. The overhead related to the maintenance of empty offices is a concern in many places.


Potential restructuring?

In the midst of a second round of General Assembly Mid Council Commission discussions about middle governing body restructuring, the presbyteries in Simmons’ region are having many conversations about models for effective ministry.

Even as presbytery staff size has constricted, the work load has not. So, presbyteries are exploring how to share resources — presbytery executives, stated clerks, etc. — without losing their unique identity as a presbytery.

One BOP member asked, “What would happen if those presbyteries simply became one?”

Simmons responded, “They are not willing to give up their presbytery boundaries, but they are willing to share resources. If we ask ‘why,’ the response is usually related to territory and trust. They know who’s in their presbytery but not those in the presbytery next to them.”

Simmons utilized a map of the region to punctuate his point. “Look at the map. Florida Presbytery — with its 45 churches — might logically consider some kind of geographic division between South Alabama and St. Augustine. But there is not a willingness to do that at this time.”


Positive relationships and trends

Simmons celebrated the strong positive relationship and sharing of resources among presbyteries within state boundaries in the South Atlantic. He acknowledged that there is cooperation, collaboration and even the sharing of “secrets” among presbytery execs. “The South Carolina execs meet together face-to-face once a month. Georgia execs get together once a quarter.”

He also described the “virtual” office of the Synod of the Living Waters and the strong identity the synod has forged with its congregations by having a positive mission called Living Waters for the World.

Simmons makes personal rounds to every presbytery in his region at least once a year: speaking at presbytery meetings, hosting retiree luncheons, responding to member questions, offering benefit overviews and explaining benefits. The current educational emphasis is on enrollment in 403b and Active Health.

Simmons is an active elder at Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Ga.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge