Presbyterians install new leader

Church board expects Nord, from Minnesota, to be agent for change

October 31, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

After nearly three years of interim leadership and considerable discussion about their future, Baltimore-area Presbyterians have chosen a new spiritual leader to help the church reverse declining membership and respond to America's changing cultural landscape.

"Our primary competitor is not other churches," said the Rev. Peter K. Nord, who officially assumed his duties as executive presbyter Sept. 1. "Our primary competition is the amazing array of opportunities and the fact that people are so exhausted from their workweek and their other week, the soccer games and the other things they are engaged in."

The Baltimore Presbytery selected Nord in June and celebrated his installation last weekend. Nord, 55, who ran a parish of 800 in Grand Rapids, Minn., will oversee 73 congregations in the Baltimore area.

The Presbytery hired Nord as a "change agent" after two interim executives filled the post vacated in 2000 by the retirement of the Rev. Herbert D. Valentine, who led the Presbytery for more than two decades. Members of the nominating committee said they wanted someone who would energize the Presbytery and take it in new directions.

In a recent interview, Nord offered a variety of ideas that he said would build on the Presbytery's accomplishments. They include taking a high-profile role on political issues - such as opposition to gambling in Maryland - while working with politicians in areas on which they agree.

Nord said he also wants to help develop creative ministries to attract newcomers to the church, which - like other mainstream Protestant denominations - has seen its membership decline since the 1960s. One project under way involves reaching out to young adults in Harford County to help develop a nontraditional ministry.

Between 1992 and last year, the number of Presbyterians nationally dropped from nearly 2.8 million to 2.45 million. In the Baltimore area, membership has declined from 22,000 in 1985 to 20,250 last year, Nord said.

The reasons for the church's national decline are varied. Nord said some people have left traditional churches because they felt ministers scolded them over lifestyle issues, such as drinking overseas coffee harvested by underpaid workers.

"You came to church and you almost got beat up," said Nord. "That tension is important. What we have to discover is how we can build in that tension without driving people away."

The executive presbyter serves as a regional executive, working with ministers and parishes to develop a collective vision for the church. He also serves as a liaison to other ecumenical and interfaith leaders.

In addition to Baltimore City, Nord will oversee churches in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Washington and Baltimore counties.

In recent years, the Baltimore Presbytery surveyed parishioners about the church's direction. They said they wanted vibrant, growing congregations, according to the Rev. Daris Bultena, a member of the committee that chose Nord from among 50 candidates.

Bultena said the committee selected Nord because he had a vision as well as the spiritual and political skills to make it a reality. "He has a vision for transforming the church and a kind, compassionate spirit," said Bultena, who also serves as rector of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Joppa.

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