Too Many Churches? 

"I'm a seventh generation pastor," Frank Vardeman tells me. Frank's sitting behind the wheel of his Prius; we're on Highway 20, headed for Mishawaka, in northwest Indiana. It's a bright fall morning.

Frank's a rugged man with a gentle voice. In his youth he was an all-state Georgia football player (he has the bum knees to prove it), which also helps place his accent, warm and smooth as well-crafted bourbon.

Frank is an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline reformed Protestant denomination. He's what's called a general presbyter, a modern-day circuit rider, looking after churches and congregations in a region that covers the northern part of Indiana, from the Michigan border down to Zionsville, outside Indianapolis, and from the Illinois to Ohio state lines.

This is hard work. According to the job description: "The General Presbyter will nurture the community of the Presbytery and enhance our partnership in ministry with other governing bodies and ecumenical communities as we seek to serve Jesus Christ in this place."

All too often what that means lately is either closing churches whose congregations are no longer large enough to support their buildings, or putting out fires sparked by recent denominational votes in favor of the ordination of gay ministers and gay marriage.

Beyond these controversies, what makes Frank's job hard is the blizzard of social and cultural changes affecting generational relationships, communication and peoples' rapidly evolving understanding of community itself. While these changes are hardly unique to the church — they seem to be challenging all manner of institutions, from the arts, to education, to government — this knowledge provides cold comfort.

Numbers tell part of the story. Twenty years ago, there were 30,000 congregants in Frank's Presbytery; now there are just over 10,000. He is responsible for 82 churches in this region but, at the moment, three are angling to leave. The average age in many congregations is 60.

Frank worries about young people entering the ministry. ""They're going into these old places, out in the middle of nowhere, and I'm afraid they'll get very depressed ... Older churches can't compete with the nondenominational rock and roll churches with lots of video. Their sanctuaries don't work that way. Our seminaries train people for something that doesn't exist anymore."

click to enlarge Frank Vardeman (left) speaks with David Hoppe. - MARTIN BUECHLEY
  • Frank Vardeman (left) speaks with David Hoppe.
  • Martin Buechley

A shrinking tent

As we drive, Frank takes a call on his mobile phone from the elder of a church that is considering pulling out. The congregation, about 18 people in all, appears divided over what to do about gay marriage.

A large part of Frank's dilemma has to do with a major divide in his church over LGBT issues. In 2010, the church's General Assembly voted to ordain openly gay ministers. That prompted about 350 churches across the country to leave the fold. Then, last June, the General Assembly voted 61 percent to 39 percent to change its constitution's definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two people, traditionally a man and a woman," causing remaining conservatives to consider breaking away.

"A lot of churches are going to say, 'we're not going to do it,'" says Frank of their unwillingness to sanction gay marriage. "But the pastor will say, 'I'm going to do it, but not in the church.' It's a mess."

"It's a sad thing to have that kind of split in a congregation where people have known each other for years and then they're unwilling to walk down the same aisle in the grocery store, A church fight is very similar to a massive family fight."

Frank walks into these fights on a regular basis. "When you have that kind of conflict, you can sense it the minute you walk in the door."

Frank will tell you about the inspiring things congregations accomplish: the ways they care for the sick and grieving, feeding the hungry, providing help for homeless people and families. After Hurricane Katrina, he went to New Orleans as part of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and worked at rebuilding homes.

Then there is the sense of continuity churches bring to community culture, especially in rural and outlying towns. "It could be that every year at harvest time they sell 100 pies, or every spring they have a big rummage. When the church closes, that's gone. So instead of being in community with one another, people are in front of their TVs."

The diminishing congregations in many of Frank's churches are indicative of the gradual hollowing out of many Indiana small towns. The "get big or get out" ethos adopted by agricultural policymakers and industrial farming advocates has made it harder and harder for farming families to support themselves. "The kids leave," says Frank, "because there are no jobs. As these counties depopulate, the churches depopulate."

All of this makes the controversy over gay marriage and its impact on congregations more painful.

"What's disturbing to me are the folks who say they're ready to leave the denomination, and take the church and go to another place. To me, that's disturbing because they don't even want to talk about it. They don't want to enter into dialogue. The Presbyterian Church has always been what they said was a big tent. There could be people who were liberal theologically, as well as people who were more traditional or conservative. What is happening is that as conservatives leave, the tent gets more liberal, which upsets traditionalists because they see all the decisions going a certain way."

Frank remembers the late '90s, when the church took a different position, outlawing the ordination of gay people. "I thought seriously about leaving the denomination. I felt it was sinful to force people into the closet. To me, forcing someone to be other than God made them would be my definition of sin."

Frank felt the issue keenly, having spent time in the 1980's, with his pastor wife Heidi, ministering to a gay church during the height of the AIDS crisis. "I did so many funerals," he says. "I finally burned out. I got dizzy and saw all the faces of the men I had buried."

But he stayed with the church and worked for change within the denomination. "The reality is I bet every family has been touched by the gay issue. I don't care whether they live in Angola or Indianapolis."

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