Robert Austell hopes to become the elected head of mainstream Presbyterians on Saturday night, but he is somewhat of an anomaly.
He is relatively young, 44, as Presbyterians grow grayer by the year.
His congregation, Good Shepherd Presbyterian in south Charlotte, is small but growing, even as the denomination shrinks.
And he is a conservative hoping to lead a denomination that has liberalized its positions on gay clergy and Biblical interpretation.
Austell is one of four candidates to become national moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), the country’s largest Presbyterian denomination. The church’s 220th General Assembly is meeting in Pittsburgh. Almost 700 delegates will vote Saturday night.
But while many congregations who share his theological views have left Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he and Good Shepherd are staying put. In a time of culture wars and deepening spiritual divides, Austell hopes to unite.
“In his heart, Robert wants to make every church stronger,” says the Rev. Kate Murphy of Hickory Grove Presbyterian in Charlotte.
“We disagree on some really important issues. But we agree that the church’s primary mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We’re all called into relationships not to beat each other up over our versions of the truth but to help bear each other’s burdens.”
Presbyterians, as with Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians before them, have been drawn into bitter internal debates. Almost a dozen congregations have lined up to leave the Presbytery of Charlotte due to what they see as a liberal drift of their church.
Austell, though, says his candidacy is based on traditional goals all congregations can support.
“Does the denomination want to be issues-driven or are we willing to elect someone whose interests are missions and ministry?” he says. “My core calling is for us to be a church of the world, and we’re spending so much time fighting each other that this is falling by the wayside.”
Even those with reason to criticize Austell cite his willingness to work from within.
“What’s unique about Robert is that he is one of the very few people who identify themselves as conservative evangelicals who has remained very active in the governing process,” says Sam Roberson, the longtime top administrator of the Charlotte Presbytery until Austell orchestrated his firing in February.
“Most of them have sat on the sidelines, complaining about how terrible it is that progressive things are happening. Robert’s contention has been that if you’re going to be part of something, you have to participate.”
Into the debate
A year ago, Austell did just that, arguing against the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy before about 500 ministers and church elders of the Presbytery of Charlotte. Murphy argued the other side.
During his presentation, Austell called on Christians not to dismiss homosexuals, but said the Bible is clear about sexual boundaries.
During their private discussions of this and other issues, Murphy and Austell’s friendship grew.
“I think it starts with a willingness to really listen and really hear another person … not pigeon-holing in advance on what and who you think they are,” Austell says.
Adds Murphy: “I think Robert is wrong about homosexuality, but I think he’s right on so much else.”
From the Protestant Reformation, she says, “The pernicious lie has been that ‘if we could just break away and create a pure community, all our troubles would disappear and we can do God’s work.’
“We’re the only people who can make the Presbyterian Church stronger. If we can’t get along with each other, how do we think we even have a chance with someone who is not even Christian?”
Austell says he supports his church’s existing definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
But in May, he voted against the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“To curtail legal and civil benefits to my neighbors for the sake of asserting a Christian definition of marriage,” he says, “was something I was not willing to do.”
Presbytery staff reductions
Austell says the problems afflicting the local Presbytery, the country’s third largest, have better prepared him for the national office.
Along with the philosophical debates, the collective body representing 40,000 Presbyterians and seven counties has been bled by falling donations. Part of that has been the recession, part results from the philosophical divide. All the while, more and more individual congregations are setting their own courses.
The result was the same: The Presbytery staff had become unsustainable. First to go: Roberson, the group’s General Presbyter for a decade.
He says he was “ambushed” by Austell and other Presbytery leaders. Austell says he did not believe Roberson could make the necessary changes.
The staff was cut from around 10 to 2 1/2 employees.
“We were really the last of the major Presbyteries to crash and burn,” says Roberson, who believes some of the cuts were necessary.
Roberson has mixed things to say about Austell’s qualifications for national moderator.
“He is more rigid than he thinks he is,” he says, “but I think he tries to be open-minded. He tries to listen and learn.”
Austell calls the firings “heart-wrenching” but necessary, adding: “I better understand the issues of the national church by what we’ve gone through here.”
One of those issues is racial diversity. The Charlotte Presbytery has one of the highest number of African-American congregations in the country. That has led to some friction.
In a “State of the Presbytery” remarks in February, Austell spoke of a “relational crisis.”
“I have come to see far more clearly than when I came 10 years ago, we are still broken along racial lines,” he said. “We are segmented and separate and broken.”
The Davidson College grad and father of three was scheduled to make a series of short speeches to an informal gathering of delegates in Pittsburgh.
Saturday night, the four candidates will formally address the voting members, then answer questions. The vote follows.
As the vote approaches, Austell is sticking with the philosophical.
“Win or lose, my hope is the Presbyterian Church would rediscover its first calling as a church,” he says, “rather than be stuck in the political infighting of the day. Issues are not unimportant but they have eclipsed so much more of what we’re doing.
“My main priority is moving our mission to the forefront. I’d love to lead nationally. But if I’m not it and that still happens, well then that’s a success.”