Over the past year Pittsburgh Presbyery has made news for the churches it lost to another denomination. But at its most recent meeting there was unanimity and celebration when the 214 commissioners voted to ordain seminarian Jeff Eddings, who has already co-founded the fastest-growing church in the presbytery.
Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community on the South Side was founded in 2003 with $237,000 from the presbytery's New Church Development Fund. Now that fund is nearly out of money, and its overseers plan to ask the presbytery to build it back up. They hope one source will be money left by churches that are leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) for a more conservative denomination.
"We believe that God is not finished with what he wants to do here," said Vera White, director of new church development for the presbytery.
When the presbytery voted in 2000 to put $1.55 million of reserve funds toward new congregations, "we had gone 40 years without starting a new church," Ms. White said.
During those same four decades, it had closed about 60 churches and lost more than half its members. The presbytery, which covers Allegheny County, currently has about 150 churches with 42,000 members.
"We had lost the skills, and also the culture, of church planting," she said.
But at the turn of the millennium, the presbytery not only voted to spend generously on outreach but to allow the task force in charge to experiment to see what worked. "They showed that they were really serious about this," she said.
Since then, the presbytery has started seven congregations.
Hot Metal, which recently moved into the former Taco Loco restaurant and bar, has grown to 100 members since 2003, but has an average attendance of 200. It is co-sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, which gave $300,000 to help purchase the building.
"Church planting has to be the future of the church. Most young people who have been disenfranchised from the church aren't willing to walk into an established church," said the Rev. Eddings. Hot Metal is known for its rock music and tattoed faithful.
"We have to find the funding and more creative ways for denominations to work together, as they have for Hot Metal. Without support from both, we would not have been able to purchase this building."
Having attendance higher than membership is a sign of congregational health. Hot Metal shares that with two other new congregations. Mosaic Community Church, an 8-year-old multi-ethnic church on the North Side, has 47 members but an average attendance of 120. The Open Door, founded in 2005 at The Union Project in Highland Park, has 65 members and an average attendance of 86.
Fountain Park Church in Cranberry was another successful start-up, receiving $330,000 -- the largest grant to date -- in 2001. It has 125 members today. But that congregation was co-sponsored by Beaver-Butler Presbytery and has elected to charter only with Beaver-Butler, Ms. White said.
The newest congregation, the Pittsburgh Vietnamese Presbyterian Fellowship, received $12,000 last year, and draws 30 worshipers at Third Presbyterian Church, Shadyside.
Another congregation for new immigrants folded after two years in 2003, when its pastor returned to his native Brazil. And a start-up in Wilkinsburg left the Presbyterian Church (USA) to become independent when its pastor, a Baptist who had originally intended to become Presbyterian, changed his mind, Ms. White said.
Commissioners to Pittsburgh Presbytery will be asked to vote on the funding for new churches in the fall.
The task force is looking to five sources for continued support. They would like to receive $20,000 per year from the presbytery's operating budget. They are also asking for half the assets or proceeds of churches that close -- although that typically isn't much, she said.
A third request is for half the settlement money received from congregations that receive permission to leave the presbytery to affiliate with the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. So far two have done so, making "mission gifts" of $250,000 and $575,000 to the presbytery as part of the agreement to leave.
"That only makes sense. Something leaves, something new comes to replace it," Ms. White said.
A fourth source of proposed funding would come through the Pittsburgh Presbyterian Foundation, allowing individuals who are interested in local outreach to contribute money to start new churches.
The plan also calls for at least four existing congregations to support each new one with both finances and volunteers. This not only helps the new congregation but "it benefits the existing church by creating an energy and an evangelistic spirit that can bring a lot of hope and excitement to that church," Ms. White said.