In his first sermon since the death of his daughter and five others at The Covenant School in Nashville, Chad Scruggs, senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, referenced Isaiah 40 to describe how his family is coping: “We aren’t yet soaring on wings like eagles. We aren’t yet running without being weary. We’re simply trying to walk without fainting.”
His denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), is also grieving. The PCA planned its upcoming general assembly (GA) as a celebration of its 50th anniversary, but leading up to the event, the country’s largest evangelical Presbyterian body has suffered a string of losses, including the Nashville shooting and the deaths of two prominent pastors.
At the end of March, the Covenant attack shook the denomination—no other US Christian school had ever been targeted in such a deadly crime. “In the wake of the horrid loss experienced by our friends at the Covenant School, it is right and good and even Christ-like for disorientation and grief to feel stronger and more formidable than feelings of hope,” wrote PCA pastor and author Scott Sauls in the hours after the shooting.
Six weeks later, Sauls was placed on indefinite leave from his position as pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville after the Nashville Presbytery received complaints that Sauls had created an unhealthy work environment. Sauls admitted to the allegations and is undergoing a restoration process set out by the presbytery.
Last month, Presbyterians were shocked to lose two nationally known pastors in a span of 24 hours. On May 18, Harry Reeder, senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, was killed in a car accident. The following day, Tim Keller, of Redeemer Church in Manhattan, passed away after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Reeder and Keller were two of the most influential pastors in the denomination, having joined the PCA at its inception in 1973 and going on to lead two of its largest churches.
“The loss of two pastoral giants, fathers in our denomination, who disagreed on a lot but charitably so, should be a wake-up call to walk into [the general assembly] with the gravity it deserves,” said Brad Edwards, pastor of The Table Church in Lafayette, Colorado.
Though Keller and Reeder shared many theological convictions, they represented different camps within their denomination.
Reeder was a leader in the Gospel Reformation Network (GRN), a group of church leaders within the PCA concerned about theological drift for the denomination away from biblical faithfulness. The GRN questioned involvement in the Revoice conference on sexuality and engagement with critical race theory.
Keller tended to put cultural controversies in perspective by reminding everyone how conservative the PCA’s distinctives are.
“The thought of recent contentiousness continuing unabated feels vain and superfluous in light of what is arguably the end of an era for the PCA,” Edwards said. “I pray we don't squander the opportunity to appreciate their decades of denominational leadership, nor take the very real vacuum of their absence for granted.”
Bryan Chapell, the stated clerk of the PCA, has also called for a spirit of unity in the wake of the recent losses.
“The events of this spring should help us place our differences in proper perspective and proportion so that the priorities of the gospel temper our rhetoric, unite our church, and ignite our witness,” he said.
Like many denominational gatherings, the PCA general assembly is a mix of denominational business, seminars, and worship. The denomination’s seminaries and ministries hold luncheons, pastors network and connect with friends, and everyone dons their exhibit hall swag. Chapell will address the PCA’s grief in his report to the assembly, and the GRN luncheon is expected include a time to mourn Reeder’s passing, as he planned to attend prior to his sudden death.
In recent years the assembly has spent hours debating the denomination’s approach to pastors who are gay and celibate and whether to leave the National Association of Evangelicals. This year’s assembly will again debate overtures about what terms a pastor can use in describing same-sex attraction without disqualifying himself from ministry. The gathering will also consider clarifying its position on critical race theory and the roles of women in corporate worship.
Some pastors have expressed feeling “overture fatigue,” a weariness of endless legislation to amend the PCA’s Book of Church Order.
“The Nashville shooting is really the first event in recent months … that sets the tone for the atmosphere of GA this year,” said Jason Cornwell, a PCA pastor planting North Augusta Fellowship in South Carolina. “Couple this with the fact that I think we're dealing with some overture fatigue, and this likely won’t be as heated of an assembly as recent ones.”
A hymn sing planned as part of the 50th anniversary celebration will take on a more somber dimension given the tragedies of the spring. The event features alumni from Reformed University Fellowship, the PCA’s college ministry, whose chapter at Belmont University in the early 2000s led to the formation of Indelible Grace and helped launch the careers of songwriters like Sandra McCracken.
“It is sobering to have experienced the shooting, the deaths of Tim and Harry,” said Kevin Twit, RUF campus minister at Belmont, who is coordinating the hymn sing. “But actually the goal of Indelible Grace has always been to help us sing songs that are more honest about struggle and more explicit about the gospel.”
He told CT he has always chosen hymns that allow Christians to bring their full range of emotions before God. After a spring of sorrow, that might be what the denomination needs, leaders say—an opportunity to remember God’s faithfulness and look to the hope of the gospel to heal broken hearts and revive spirits for the next 50 years of ministry.
“Just as local congregations express their griefs and pain in worship, I envision the larger church doing the same,” said Robert Browning, chairman of the general assembly host committee in Memphis. “As Christians cry out to God in their prayers of lament and petition, we too will have similar times to express the same.”