Frequently Asked Questions
How is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) different from other Christian denominations?
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a branch of mainline Protestantism brought to the United States by early immigrants. The first congregation was organized in 1640 in Southampton, Long Island. The key differences between the Presbyterian Church and other mainline American Protestant churches, such as the Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church, are found in the denomination’s governance structure and rules, as well as its specific theological emphases.
Where does it fall within the western religious landscape?
Generally progressive/left leaning. Social policies and theological teachings. Other liberal stances: pro-choice anti racism, environmental care.
How big is the PC(USA)?
At the end of 2014, there were 9,829 congregations and 1,667,019 members in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
(PC(USA) Research Services)
How is the PC (USA) organized?
The Presbyterian Church is organized democratically. Decisions affecting the entire body of the church are made at a biennial governance meeting called the General Assembly. Representatives of local churches are sent to the General Assembly by regional governing bodies called “presbyteries.” Ordinations must be approved by the regional presbytery, but once people are ordained, they are ordained to the entire denomination, not just one particular congregation or ministry they serve.
What are “charges”? How can one be brought up on “charges”?
The Presbyterian Church is a democratic, representative body with checks and balances in place. Within its extensive committee system, larger committees consider business brought forward by subcommittees. There is also the ecclesiastical court, which functions much like the U.S. court system. Any individual or governing body and its committees can be brought up on “charges” in the event of a broken rule or breach of conduct. These concerns are heard by a committee called the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC). There are PJCs at every level of governance, and therefore charges can be appealed up to the national level. In the past, charges have been brought against LGBTQ people and the ecclesiastical bodies who ordained them. When we began filming, it was illegal to officiate at the weddings of same-sex couples. This policy was reversed during the 2014 General Assembly. Prior to the rule change, any clergyperson who officiated at these weddings, or any congregation that approved them, was subject to ecclesiastical charges. The result of these charges ranged from a simple censure to removal from ordained office.
What is the social culture in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
The Presbyterian church is not monolithic in terms of its social and cultural values, but many of its official policies tend to be more progressive when compared with other Christian denominations. The Presbyterian’s governance structure permits room for a wide range of theological perspectives and opinions about LGBTQ inclusion.
Many LGBTQ people are supported for entry into the ordination process because members of the Session in their home churches know them personally and are acquainted with their gifts for ministry. As these applicants progress through the process, they are more and more likely to encounter committee members with whom they are not personally acquainted.
In those cases, many LGBTQ people report that their sexuality or gender presentation seems to outweigh their other qualifications for ministry in the eyes of committee members, especially those who have personal biases against LGBTQ people. For some applicants, this aspect of their identity becomes the sole deciding factor. This dynamic is why many more LGBTQ people have begun the ordination process than have completed it.
What is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) policy toward transgender people?
Gender identity is a person’s internally held sense of their own gender. Transgender people feel their gender identity does not conform with the sex they were assigned at birth. Further, this internal sense of gender may not conform unambiguously with the external expressions of their gender, such as their body shape or characteristics, voice, or behavior.
Many transgender people have been the targets of strong reactions or even violence in encounters with people who don’t understand or respect the difference between a transgender person’s internal gender identity and their outward gender expression. The risk of encountering violence has only increased for transgender people as conservative groups in the U.S. have promoted legislation to curtail their freedoms, such as North Carolina’s H.R. 2, which eliminated any anti-discrimination protections in place for LGBTQ people statewide. The law has received the most attention for the provision that prevents transgender people from using the public restroom that conforms with their gender identity.
Transgender people have only gained wide visibility –though unfortunately not widespread understanding or empathy – in American culture in the last few years. The Presbyterian church has not singled out this group for any particular policy, though these individuals have had more difficulty navigating the ordination process than even gay and lesbian applicants because of biases and discrimination present in the culture at large. No transgender ordination application has yet completed the process and been ordained into a job in the Presbyterian Church.
What is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) policy toward gay marriage?
In 2014, the General Assembly voted to update the language in its definition of marriage from between “a man and a woman” to “two persons.” Following this vote, a majority of the church’s 172 regional presbyteries ratified the vote, which formalized this language into law.
Now, Presbyterian ministers are permitted to officiate marriage ceremonies between LGBTQ couples, and those marriages are recognized within the church.
When, and how, did the rules change to allow for LGBTQ ordination?
The rules preventing LGBTQ people from being ordained in the PC(USA) have been in place since the 1970s. LGBTQ Presbyterians and their allies worked to build support for an inclusive ordination policy for more than 30 years. Finally, the General Assembly voted to change the rules in 2011, and the presbyteries ratified the changes.
What does the ordination process look like in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
To become a Presbyterian minister, applicants must undergo an ordination process that takes a minimum of three years. People interested in ordination must first request permission from the governing body of their home congregations, called the Session. A Session committee interviews applicants and gives their permission (or not) to enter the process. Once approved by their Session, applicants are then evaluated by a committee at the presbytery level. The presbytery committee is staffed by representatives from congregations in the region. Once accepted by this presbytery-level committee, applicants are considered to be “accepted as Inquirers.”
Inquirers are then required to complete a Master of Divinity degree, along with specific required coursework, such as the study of Biblical Greek and Hebrew. Along with the degree, Inquirers are required to complete field education, psychological testing, and five intensive Presbyterian exams.
After fulfilling these requirements, Inquirers return to their home church and presbytery committees and ask to be allowed to advance to the next stage of the ordination process, called “candidacy.” After completing all the requirements of this process, Candidates are considered “certified” and ready to look for a job. Once they find a job -- and receive approval by their presbytery’s subcommittee and body as a whole to accept it -- they are considered “ordained.” The process is always grueling, but is far more difficult for LGBTQ people. For example, several of the individuals featured in Out of Order have been mired or blocked at various stages in their ordination processes by committee members who objected to them either personally or on principal as a result of their sexual orientation or gender presentation.
How many openly LGBTQ pastors have been ordained since the 2011 rule change?
As few as 12 “out” individuals have been ordained in the U.S. since that rule change. People can be ordained to work in a congregation, as a chaplain in a hospital or academic setting, or in a non-profit ministry. For example, Mieke and John were ordained into their work with the non-profit organization Presbyterian Welcome and Kate was ordained into a newly created position in a congregation. One transwomen was certified, but was never able to find a job and so never formally completed the ordination process.
What is the “secret gay church camp”?
More than a decade ago, Mieke co-created an annual retreat to provide extra support specifically tailored to the particular challenges faced by LGBTQ people seeking ordained ministry. Amanda, the film’s director, met Mieke in the summer of 2012 as she was preparing to leave for “camp.” Amanda was enthralled by the story, and through careful conversations with each member of the camp community, she was given permission to attend and bring Julie and Christy to conduct interviews with some of the participants.
How can I attend the annual retreat?
Please contact Parity’s Emerging Pastors program.
For over a decade, Parity has been creating space for LGBTQ Presbyterians seeking to follow their call into ministry. This retreat is a time to recover some of the transformative gifts for ministry that we bring as LGBTQ people.
Where will we be able to see this film?
In late 2016, the film will be released to film festivals and available for online and global sales distribution. Prior to the film’s official release, we are also working with congregations and community groups to set up invitation-only preview screenings. Check the screenings page for an updated list of planned preview and festival screenings.
What will you do with the money you charge for the screenings?
The money we collect for screenings of the film helps to defray the production costs.