Bidwell pastor thinks locally, acts locally
It’s more than 2,000 miles from Chico, home of Bidwell Presbyterian Church, to Louisville, Ken., home of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, the group that sets policy for the national church. But for Bidwell Presbyterian’s senior pastor, Steve Schibsted, it might as well be a million miles.
Back east, the General Assembly is highly active in the area of national and international issues. Recently it voted to take a stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestine and in favor of providing sick people with medical marijuana.
Bidwell Presbyterian Church won’t be discussing these issues, Schibsted said. Ever.
Simply put, there are more important matters at hand for the congregation. “Our priorities are different locally.”
Wearing a blue collared shirt, khakis and Ray-Bans, Schibsted could be any Chico businessman. And his well-furnished and newly renovated downtown office looks more like a doctor’s waiting room than a pastor’s retreat. But theological certificates and a pulpit robe hanging on the wall reveal this Southern California native’s vocation.
For whatever reasons, Schibsted said, the General Assembly focuses on matters that “tend to be more liberal” and are not very important locally.
“There have always been issues that dominate the energy and time with the denomination, like the ordination of gays and lesbians in 1979,” he said. “But locally our priorities will always be specific to our community.”
Nationally, the church recently has taken a strong stand against five American corporations (Caterpillar Inc., Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola and United Technologies) it sees as profiting from the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The church has gone so far as to threaten divestiture of its investments in these companies if they don’t change their ways.
It also recently joined the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church in supporting the use, production and distribution of medical marijuana for seriously ill patients.
These stances have little or no effect on Schibsted and his congregation.
“In my humble opinion, there are more important issues for us, like our missionary work, poverty and world hunger,” Schibsted said. “The divestment and marijuana issues are taking away energy, resources and time from issues I think are important.”
The loss of 30,000 national members a year and the ever-increasing age of the church’s members (who average 65 to 75 years of age) sit high on Schibsted’s priority list. About 1,500 to 2,000 people call Bidwell Presbyterian their “home church,” with 1,100 of those being actual members, he said. The difference between members and non-members is merely a formality at the big redbrick church at First and Broadway whose historical roots in Chico go back to 1868, when it was founded by John and Annie Bidwell.
“I’m focused on building a good, strong local church,” Schibsted said as he surveyed the recent renovations the 97-year-old building is undergoing. The $4 million renovation is still in progress, but necessary additions to the main hall, such as an elevator and commercial kitchen, have already been completed. New air-conditioning and lighting systems are also recent additions to the main hall.
With newly renovated facilities and a strong congregation, Schibsted is certain the church’s focus will remain on serving the community and its youth. “Americans are becoming isolated, lonely people,” he said, “but a strong Christian community can really change that.”