On Feb. 16, the 150 members of Mountain Shadows Presbyterian Church broke ground at the site of their future church, on the east side of Oracle Road, just north of Rancho Vistoso Boulevard on Mountainaire Road.
Two modular buildings will be constructed on the six-acre site. The main building will be large enough for 240 people during worship services. The other building will contain the church offices and two classrooms. The total project will cost about $1.3 million.
The congregation has been meeting at the Mountain Vista Recreation Center in Sun City for the past two years under the leadership of Rev. John M. Wall, 57, a pastor brought to Oro Valley from New Hampshire. Wall hopes to have the building ready for occupation by Easter.
"The builders say that is unrealistic, but I am still hopeful," he said.
Nationwide, active membership in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. dropped 12 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to "Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States: 2000," a religious census conducted every decade by the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, Tenn. In Pima County, the decline was 6 percent, but those numbers didn't deter the members of Mountain Shadows, said Wall.
"Individual Presbyterian churches have the capacity to grow and it has a lot to do with location," the pastor said. "Leadership, as well, but certainly location. When you look at the growth, it is pushing northward and there really isn't a (Presbyterian) church up in the north part of Oro Valley. People had a long way to drive from SaddleBrooke to St. Andrew's (Presbyterian Church, 750 W. Chapala Drive), although some still do. The Presbytery just felt the growth was going to continue up north and we needed to get a church in there now."
There are two major branches of the Presbyterian Church - the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). A smaller branch is the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, of which there are no congregations in the Northwest.
Theologically and in style of worship, Wall said, the Presbyterian denomination generally falls "halfway between Roman Catholicism or Episcopalian and the real free churches that have no liturgy."
In addition to Mountain Shadows, there are two other PCUSA congregations in the Northwest: St. Andrew's, with 1,500 members, and Tortolita Presbyterian Church, 10710 N. Thornydale Road, with 105 members. Desert Springs Presbyterian Church in America, 1551 W. Overton Road, is the only one of its denominational branch in the Northwest and serves about 110 members.
The divisions among Presbyterians center, as with most religious splits, on interpretation of scripture and theological stance, said Wall.
"The Presbyterian Church in America tends to be more evangelical and conservative theologically, but they are a growing denomination," Wall said.
The PCA split from PCUSA in 1973, primarily over the issue of women's ordination as elders and pastors. PCA churches do not believe in ordaining women, whereas PCUSA churches do.
Among the three PCUSA churches in the Northwest, St. Andrew's is the largest and most conservative, according to a church spokesman. In fact, the church is the only Presbyterian Church in the Northwest that has affiliated with the Confessing Church Movement, a conservative movement within the denomination that affirms the ban on ordaining homosexuals as elders or pastors and holds to a strict interpretation of the Bible.
Wall characterizes the Mountain Shadows Community as "moderate - we've got some people who are more conservative and some people who are very liberal and everything in between."
Mountain Shadows will be the second church Wall has helped build. His prior pastorate was in New London, N.H., where he served for 16 years. A native of New York who spent most of his high school years in Phoenix, Wall admits it is unusual for a pastor to want to take on the challenge of building a new church more than once.
"To me, it is like Paul going out around Asia Minor - starting new churches is a very authentic expression of Christianity," he said. "With the church in New London, I'd been a pastor in New York for eight years at a large church, I'd just turned 40, and I wanted to try something radically different. We started with 80 people and it is up to 250 now. When I decided to come to this job, some of my colleagues wondered why I would do it again, but I think its is exciting."
Some of the more "exciting" moments since the congregation purchased the land have been having to navigate building codes, obtain county permits, install new cow guards and endure environmental surveys for the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, Wall said.
"We passed everything, but it took us over a year to get the county building permit," he said. "I don't think they are all that excited about a not-for-profit going in because they get no revenue, so maybe that's why (the permit) took so long."
Wall said his congregants are primarily retired people from SaddleBrooke and Sun City, and one of his goals is to diversify the church's demographic, a challenge facing the Presbyterian denomination nationwide.
"We are an aging church," he said. "How do we attract young people? That is something the denomination really has to look at. A lot of our sister churches have a more performance-based worship service … they understand the dynamics of what the younger generation is looking for. And they offer things for the whole family - they take people from the cradle to the grave. That is something we can learn from."
Another challenge Wall sees for Presbyterians is "how will the different theological factions learn to get along." He said this is especially acute in the area of homosexuality.
"The Presbyterian Church hasn't had the sexual abuse issue, but one of our controversies is the ordination of gay people. Right now, at the General Assembly, we are split on it. It has been very hard on our denomination … I know two women personally (who are homosexual) and it changes drastically the way you see this issue. It is a great peril in our denomination - it could split our denomination."
Mountain Shadows has an annual budget of $235,500, of which $73,000 goes towards Wall's salary, housing, insurance and car allowance. For the first five years of a new church's existence, the General Assembly and local Presbytery subsidize operations. After that period, the church must be self-supporting, said Wall.
Currently, Mountain Shadows receives $18,000 from the General Assembly, $45,000 from the regional Presbytery and $12,500 from the Green Valley Presbyterian Church which is adopting Mountain Shadows as a "sister church." The remaining $160,000 comes from the congregation's offerings. Mountain Shadows weekly Sunday worship is at 9:30 a.m.
WHAT THEY BELIEVE: PRESBYTERIANS AT A GLANCE
Basic beliefs: Presbyterians believe in the absolute sovereignty of one God, the authority of Scripture, justification (salvation) by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as the only son of God and the priesthood of all believers. They believe in life after death and recognize two sacraments: baptism and Communion.
Governing structure: Representative democracy in which everyone has an equal vote. At the local congregation, the church has a group of nine elders elected from the congregation entrusted with decision-making for the local congregation. Members of that group are elected to represent the congregation at the Presbytery, the regional governing group, and then representatives from the Presbytery are elected to represent the region on the national level at the General Assembly. The General Assembly writes the denomination's rules and beliefs in The Book of Order.
History: The Presbyterian denomination grew out of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Its roots are from Switzerland, where reformer John Calvin did much of his writings concerning the reformation. The movement spread from Switzerland to other parts of Europe and the British Isles. Many of the early Presbyterians in America came form England, Scotland and Ireland and the first Presbytery was organized in Philadelphia in 1706.
Clergy: Presbyterians in the PCUSA branch ordain both men and women as elders and pastors. The PCA branch does not ordain women. Neither branch ordains avowed homosexuals. The church's constitution - The Book of Order - says to be ordained as an officer in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. "a person must either live in the faithful covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or, if they are single, to live in chastity." Clergy are required to have an undergraduate degree in any field and three years seminary training in theology.
Worship format: Call to worship, corporate prayer of confession, sermon, offering, hymn and benediction. Communion is offered at varying levels of frequency, depending on the congregation's local rule; most Presbyterian churches offer communion on a monthly basis. The focus of the worship service is the sermon.