Two synods in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are doing their best to address a burning question plaguing the denomination and greater church alike.

“How are we to respond with the gospel in the 21st century when we have a church that is largely functioning out of a cultural context that no longer exists?” asked the Rev. Bob Conover, executive presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of the Redwoods. “This is the only question before the church these days.”

The synods of Pacific and Southern California and Hawaii are actively trying to respond to this question through the Cultivating Leadership in a Time of Discontinuity project. The year-long effort, made possible with funds from the Heiserman Grant program, aims to equip pastors and congregations in making the church relevant for today.

The program is supported by a $104,000 Heiserman Grant through the General Assembly Mission Council of the PC(USA).

Funds for the Heiserman program came from a bequest made in 1966 by Geraldine Heiserman, who was the widow of a Yuma, Colo., farmer and landowner named Lemont Heiserman. The bulk of their estate was left in trust to the church. The GAMC divided more than $990,000 of that gift among 16 synods to encourage mission projects that reflect partnership between or among two or more synods and-or the GAMC.

This leadership issue “can only be addressed by individual pastors and individual congregations making shifts that are appropriate to who they are and to who the culture is,” said Conover. At the same time, “we need to do this work together. We can’t do it on our own.”

The cultivating leadership program began in May 2011 with an all-day orientation event in three locations to help pastors learn about the program. From there, cohort groups of six to eight members were formed and have met once a month for a year. Eleven cohort groups were developed between the two synods.

The group members’ work has included developing spiritual practices, undergoing leadership assessments, reading together and developing adaptive leadership challenges for themselves and their congregations, Conover said.

Their last group meetings will be in May. On June 9 all participants are invited to bring two or three congregations leaders to a daylong event “to begin assessing whether or not their congregation might move forward in a similar process, but for their church,” Conover said.

The Presbytery of the Redwoods already has congregations who will be moving forward, he said. “We have hardly even begun.”

Ultimately, this is about reforming “the purpose of the church,” Conover said. “It’s about reforming our identity.”

Toya Richards, a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, writes frequently for Presbyterian News Service.