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Presbytery executive knows technology can overwhelm

As he anticipates retiring in June after 10 years as executive presbyter of the Inland Northwest Presbytery and 24 years as a pastor, the Rev. Rick Melin reflects on the impact of changing technology on the lives of clergy and congregations.

Rick Melin
The Rev Rick Melin retires this summer

Early in his ministry, he was excited to shift from using a Royal standard typewriter with a carriage return to an IBM Selectric typewriter with interchangeable balls to change fonts.

Now society is shifting from desktop computers to PDAs—personal digital assistants—through cell phone connections that give mobile access to emails, websites, data, videos and games.

Most churches have computers and are online now, he said.

What a contrast today is, however, from promises a few decades ago that technology would mean 30-hour work weeks. 

Today fewer people work longer hours, and everyone is overwhelmed.

“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Rick said.  “The quantity of information coming in is not healthy—physically or spiritually.”

Because the change came gradually, he said it’s hard for people to notice.

When he was pastor in Brookings, S.D., he remembers how threatened the church secretary was when the church first brought in a computer.

“We sat and waited, watching things pop up on the screen.  Now information is there in two seconds,” he said.

Soon after the secretary learned the computer, she was excited and bought one for her house.  She began to type papers for students—no longer having to use white-out or correction tapes to make corrections.  She could make corrections on the screen before printing a paper.  She said it added years to her working life.

The amount of information that can be shared today can be as overwhelming to clergy and laity as it is to everyone else in the society.  That pressure changes the shape of ministry, he said.

It has changed Rick’s role as minister to ministers and congregations as executive presbyter of the Inland Northwest Presbytery.

Recently, he has focused on three priorities: new church development, congregational transformation and revitalizing clergy.

With more resources available, more demands on clergy and more papers piling up on the desks of clergy, he likens the demands to lepers portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar trying to touch Jesus to be healed and exhausting him.

As a pastor, Rick served churches in Brookings, S.D., Ellsworth, Minn., Kimble, Neb., and Clarkston before beginning at the governing level as executive presbyter in South Dakota.

He will continue as stated clerk of the Alaska Northwest Synod of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to complete his five-year term as record keeper and parliamentarian.  He plans to live in Spokane as he stretches into ventures of environmental action, woodworking and visiting grandchildren.  His wife, Carol, a nurse educator with the State of Washington, will also retire.

Growing up in Los Angeles, he graduated in 1967 in English at California State University in Northridge, attended San Francisco Theological Seminary and completed seminary studies in 1970 at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, where he met Carol. 

They stayed in the Midwest for a while before coming to Clarkston, where he served eight years.  When he felt called to enter governing-body work, he first was executive presbyter in South Dakota.

Along with changes in technology, he has seen social and cultural changes as the church has become less influential in communities and the lives of people.  Rick, however, believes there are positive aspects to churches’ no longer having a role of assured influence and prominence.

The church’s status up to the 1960s meant stores were closed on Sundays, and schools left Wednesday afternoons or evenings open for church activities.  By the 1970s, movie theatres were open Sunday evenings and youth sometimes showed up at youth group and left early to go to a movie.

That was a step in the change.

“Now soccer fields are full on Wednesday evenings and space for faith no longer has a protected status.  Adherents of churches have to make choices,” he said.

Similarly, the increase in technology giving access to entertainment and relationships adds a further layer of choice for people in faith communities.

 “In the 1970s, churches just went along doing what they had always been doing,” he said.  “Today, the church needs to show it is faithful to God, and that its faithfulness touches the lives of God’s people and God’s creation.”

Rick has seen that the avenues members once had for involvement in ministry through congregations and denominations are declining.  People finding their own ministries challenges what it means to be connected in ministry through a presbytery, synod or national denomination.

“That has impact on how we do church, mission and ministry,” he said.  “For several decades, people just put money in the offering plate and expected the congregation, presbytery and denomination to do ministry.

Whatever the timeline, Rick believes as others do that “we are in a changing time and our denominations are scrambling about how to do things as they face significant reductions in contributions and giving for mission.”

Groups in each denomination form and challenge their denominations on  issues, particularly related to the movement to be open and affirming of gays and lesbians, he said.

 Rick has seen other shifts in mindsets for congregations.  Now many seek to make good uses of earth’s resources.  Once some church people dismissed environmentalists as “tree huggers.”  he said that now most, especially the older generation, ask how to conserve resources and consume less.  They hear the message that resources are finite and people need to stop overusing them.

“Today, they see care of creation as a faith issue,” said Rick, who has been serving on the Steering Committee for Presbyterians for Restoring Creation.

What has he liked most about being executive presbyter?

Every day in ministry is different.  Every day people come with different needs,” he said.

For Presbyterians, authority rests with groups, not individuals such as bishops.  A presbytery is a group of churches in a geographic region, giving oversight to mission and ministry for congregations and clergy in a given area, he explained.

“As executive presbyter, I’m not a CEO, any more than Jesus was CEO of the 12 disciples,” Rick said.  “My role is to be helpful and supportive to ministers and congregations in the presbytery.”

Most often he has ministered to churches in transition—losing or calling a minister—and to clergy serving congregations.

He sits on all presbytery committees—Christian Education, Certified Lay Pastor Training, Trustees, Mission and more.

Rick described efforts on the presbytery’s priorities:

First, in church development, he has assisted with a new church in the Latah Valley and is exploring one in the Rathdrum Prairie.  He attends the Latah Valley church.

Second, to promote congregational transformation, he has helped congregations to ask themselves what God is calling them to do and be.  Then he helps them structure their staff and programs to move in that direction. 

The Inland Northwest Presbytery has offered “Journey to Discovery” training programs since 2005 in conjunction with churches in the Central Washington, Glacier, Yellowstone and Inland Northwest presbyteries and the Northwest Region of the Disciples of Christ.

The program from the Center for Parish Development in Chicago involves participants in celebrating where they have been, where they are and where, based on their gifts and contexts, they are called to move.

Third, with a Healthy Leaders grant to revitalize pastors, help them develop their spiritual lives and encourage them to take care of their health, he is helping strengthen church leadership.

“All three are long, challenging processes,” Rick said.

Given the speed of change in technology, many people expect changes to happen overnight, but most require hard work, he said.

Presbytery congregations in the process include churches in Post Falls, Sandpoint, Hayden, Coeur d’Alene, Reardan and four in Spokane--Bethany, Lidgerwood, Emmanuel and Westminster.

He finds the Healthy Leaders program useful, as the current economic stress adds to congregations’ and pastors’ feeling overwhelmed.  Piles of unused resources on the desks of clergy leave many feeling guilty.

“How do we change our style to respond to some of the many needs?” he asked.

Rick is hopeful and positive about the future for the church, because he considers the challenges clergy and church members face are challenges to be faithful.

“We have to grow, mindful of our spiritual roots and that our work is about spiritual work,” he said.

For information, call 924-4148.