My hopes for the Mid-Council Commission Report (Presbypost)

What follows is a family conversation with other Presbyterians. Stay tuned – this blog will soon return to its regularly scheduled programming.

I have thought a great deal about the coming report of the Mid-Council Commission (MCC). I have put a great deal of thought into what the report might be because I love the Presbyterian Church (USA) and want to see it thrive. My personality naturally lends itself to trying to see how something can be improved, and given my relationships in and responsibilities to the different levels of our church, I have endeavored to see if there was a perspective I could offer that would be helpful.

To borrow from Heifetz, the PC(USA) is not broken. It works quite well for those who have inhabited it for the last 40-60 years. Theological jargon aside, we are not broken, just becoming increasingly irrelevant to the world around us. To my mind, the question before us is how to get our denomination out of the rut it is in so that it can, once again, have an impact in the places God has gathered us.

There are certainly issues that need to be worked out at the congregational level, and much work has been done to address that. We have yet to truly see the abundant fruits of that labor, but all signs point to a congregational missional renaissance being just around the corner.

There are also issues to be addressed at the General Assembly level. While some of that work is being tackled head on, the reality is that our national church expression is a six-headed beast, each with a different agenda. While the different agencies do well at playing nice, we must tell a different story about whether the “six agency system” is the best structure to employ. But that is a much, much longer discussion to be had at another time.

My focus here is on the Middle Councils of the denomination: presbyteries and synods.

From my understanding (and I have heard the recommendation presented numerous times now) the MCC intends to recommend a dissolution of synods as they currently stand (instead making them “mission partnerships” and transferring ecclesiastical authority to a limited number of large regional commissions) and no change to presbyteries. In short, I believe that the Commission should recommend the exact opposite. I believe that the best hope for change in our denomination is to approve a system of establishing and supporting presbyteries not based on limited geographical bounds and to keep the current structure of synods in place.

I will not pretend that the Fellowship of Presbyterians/Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (FOP/ECOP) has had no impact on my thinking. It most certainly has. I think much of the work done by this new organization has much promise.

While I will quibble with whether or not their proposed narrative reports are sustainable if the new body ever scales to a large level, I must point out that it is the exact same call the our current Moderator, Ruling Elder Cynthia Bolbach, has made in numerous gatherings. And while I will strongly and vocally challenge my FOP/ECOP sisters and brothers for seeking to exclude LGBT Presbyterians from full participation, I cannot deny that that behavior would be the only roadblock to me working to achieve the goals and vision they have set out. I feel like Gov. Stanton in the novel Primary Colors: Who cares if the good idea comes from your “opponent” (Don’t read into the use of that term. It comes from the book.)? If it’s a good idea, then it’s a good idea. I’m not gonna shoot down a good idea just because it wasn’t mine.

I have also been impacted by the ways our technology has changed our interactions with one another. Among other things, I believe that our access to technology has changed our concept of geography. Our lives are no longer primarily defined by the place where we live. I can be in relationship with people from all around the world because of the internet. This has caused us to rethink partnerships.

Here are two stories:

  1. I drive 20 minutes to go to worship when there is a congregation that is, literally, two blocks from my house. Forgetting the fact that I used to be the pastor of the congregation two blocks away, I also know almost a dozen people who live in my immediate area who attend worship where my family and I currently do. Do we look down on this? No, we do not.
  2. The synod I serve (Mid-America) has recently decided to makes its operating structure a virtual one. For all of our routine business, we are going to do our work with the tools available on the internet. Even though this work is in its early stages, many have already discovered that there are no longer many significant hurdles to similar congregations working together. As but one example, the truth of the matter is that the congregation I previously served and the one I now attend couldn’t be more different. Yes, there are benefits to the two being in relationship, but the larger church simply has much different realities to face.

These stories lead me to ask the question: Why can’t churches decide where they go in the same manner that people do? Up until now, I have had only one answer, “Because ‘likeminded-ness’ is a bad idea.” I do not want myself nor anyone else to get stuck in a theological ghetto. I think that is a bad idea. And yet…

I have recently been reading Steven Johnson’s “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” and one of his assertions is that innovation occurs as a greater rate when one is with others who understand problems in the same way you do (This is, I now understand, what my friend Rocky was trying to claim in our discussion of the NEXTChurch). To return to the big and small churches: a large church is not simply a more successful little church, nor is the inverse true. I love and respect the colleague who pastors the large church I now attend, but I would be hard pressed to say that he had any functional advice for me when I was pastoring a small church. He and I thought on different scales. But the other smaller church nearby? We knew how to work together. We were the same.

Blah, blah, blah.  What follows is my recommendation.

The current configuration and responsibilities of synods should not change. Here’s why:

Presbyteries should be allowed to form in either geographic or non-geographic networks. All responsibilities specified in the current Form of Government are retained, and the minimum number of sessions and teaching elders will remain at 10 apiece. The presbyteries are established by the authority of the synod in which it resides and presbyteries must be comprised of sessions within the same synod.

Presbyteries may be formed around the following in order for mutual support and partnership:

  • A common mission, consistent with the Constitution
  • A similar size (ie – larger churches working together)
  • A similar geographic context (ie – urban churches working together)
  • A common geographic location (ie – all the churches in the panhandle of Oklahoma)

No Presbytery may form based on theological biases (ie – no lists of “essential tenets” which would serve to limit the influx of new participants).

To tie back to the beginning of this recommendation, synods must be retained in their current (or very similar form) in order to support and resource these new, smaller presbyteries. The very fact of reimagining the presbytery will force the synods to shift their work and innovate in ways that are readily apparent to the congregations within their bounds.

The net result of this will be, I believe, smaller and more nimble presbyteries who are more able to respond to opportunities and support and nurture one another. The Reformed Church in America (RCA) calls this kind of setup a “classis.” I recently met an RCA pastor. We compared notes and agreed that, while the classis system has its own challenges, it was far preferable to the presbytery system the PC(USA) uses.

Whether you believe me or not, I suppose I should make clear that I am not suggesting this in order to retain my job. God is good. I trust I’ll have another place to serve if this one goes away. Also, I am certainly not intent on jacking with the careers of those who serve presbyteries. In fact, I see no reason why one person can’t serve five 10 church presbyteries with almost the same ease as one 50 church presbytery. As I think of the executives I serve, I can’t imagine that they would not be coveted by these newly formed “classises.”

If the goal of changing our structure is to help us more readily adapt to the changing world in which we live, I do not believe a shuffling at the synod level will even come close to achieving that. What is required is a reimaging of how congregations are in relationship as a presbytery. Shifting congregational relationships affects mission and ministry. Shifting Synod structure just affects where a PJC trial is heard.

As I said in the beginning, I am trying to be helpful, but I will let you judge if that goal has been accomplished.

14 thoughts on “My hopes for the Mid-Council Commission Report (Presbypost)

  1. Landon, how much fluidity for the congregations to move between the virtual presbyteries? If presbyteries are formed around likeness, would we not lose the persspeccive of those who are not like us (big, small, rural, urban, etc)?

    Pre 1972/73 presbyteries were a lot smaller. What can we learn from looking back and seeing what we may have given up in the model we now have? Maybe we need to become micro-breweries rather than Anheuser-Busch in structure.

    I do have some concerns about looking to ECO as a possible model for doing things. From my perspective, the ECO polity has too many unanswered questions and holes.

    • As a strong craft beer advocate, I am struck by the image of a network of micro-breweries. That will be fun to play with in my head. Thanks.

  2. Here’s me question with all this, and I think you lightly touch on this with your suggestion: Are we not still trying structural responses to adaptive issues? Mentally, our churches (and members) are still functioning in the 1950s “build it and they will come”, but they aren’t coming and we can’t figure out why. Changing the chairs around won’t change that. What if we shifted our focus from structural changes to shifting how we think about being church: focus on being “communities”, utilizing some lessons from all the monastic communities/models that popped up over the last couple of decades? Just a thought.

    • The question is between technical and adaptive, not structural and adaptive.

      There has to be an infrastructure for an organization to function. When Lewis and Clark hit the Rocky Mountains, they traded in their canoes for horses. Boat people had to act like mountain people. It was a structural change.

      Technical changes are those things that are done that allow a group to function as it had in the past. Shuffling synods is (to my mind) a technical change. Opening up a new way for presbyteries to be formed based on function is a change I want to test to see if it adaptive. I happen to think it is.

      But to your thoughts on congregations themselves, I agree strongly with the direction you are pointing us towards. I would love to see most, if not close to all, new communities formed like this.

      • That’s what I meant, yes: technical vs adaptive. Thanks. I still feel the changes we’re looking at are technical and we’re not getting to the real adaptive/mindset changes we need.

  3. I am reminded of an image someone shared with me a long time ago. I’m sure it’s a well known image, but maybe helpful?

    The church (whether local, presbytery, synod, or national) is like a loaded freighter, and change agents are tugboats. Change requires slow, steady pressure to change the trajectory of a freighter or help it navigate a busy port. Any sudden movements often results in the tugboat being destroyed or serious damage to the integrity of the freighter. Sometimes, the freighter is overloaded and some of the “baggage” needs to be shed in order to make it easier to move. But, that’s the purpose of a freighter, to carry stuff.

    Any larger organization is going to be slow to change, but change (adaptive) does happen or it will indeed die. And in the ashes of the old, more often than not something new and more responsive to the context emerges. I am not convinced the PCUSA is dying, but slowly trying to adapt to a world and context that is shifting faster and faster.

    There are large questions about nongeographic presbyteries or synods, but I’m sure with people like you and Cynthia and so many dedicated folks at the Presby Center at the helm, the change will happen. Keep it up, Landon! And thank you for your pushing and prodding us awake!

    • I appreciate the encouragement. I am floored by the number of people giving thought to these issues. It really is remarkable to see.

      I really like that freighter/tugboat image. I’m totally stealing that.

  4. I am reminded of this quote (by Kennon Callahan in Effective Church Leadership): ‘A denomination is better understood as a flotilla, a fleet, a convoy of many ships of different sizes and shapes. The art is to help now this ship, now that ship, and another, and yet another to chart a new course. As enough ships chart the new course, the rest of the fleet will see the new direction.’

    A focus on committees and structure rarely moves beyond technical into adaptive. I have yet to see a structural change that really made a major difference. I agree that tinkering with synods does not get us much. Your ideas about presbyteries certainly open up more adaptive questions. And I think smaller is a good thing to look at. What if presbyteries were no longer programatic and did not have paid staff?

    Sometimes I wish we could just wipe out everything above the congregation and rebuild from bottom to top. A synod exec once said to me ‘It is like trying to rewire the house with the lights on.’ We don’t know how to turn off the power so we can rewire.

    • Actually, an aircraft carrier group with tenders, gun ships, subs, and all the rest have to have clearly communicated new coordinates so the group can do the dance of changing directions together. It would not do for one of the smaller ships to ram into the carrier. Also, a carrier group is not a democracy. If the fleet admiral orders a change in direction there is no begging, pleading, cajoling, nudging, or waiting for the slackard to catch up. The carrier group moves as a unit. In the flotilla called the PCUSA we have nobody to give the orders to change course, and if we did there would be others who would want to go their own way.

  5. So, could presbyteries form their own missional council? We are a bit stressed in the Synod of the Pacific wondering if our incredible banking system is going to be consumed by this realignment. What if our presbyteries could choose where they want to go, just like the congregations?

    • To be sure, there would be A LOT of questions that need answers.

      Part of my thinking about retaining the current (of very similar) synod borders has to do, in part, because of programs that are in place that are working well and bring benefits of ministry.

      So, if I understand your question, presbyteries would stay within their current synod.

  6. Through the years and through the country, I’ve been impressed with how some synods still seem to “work” and others have not worked for a long time. Same with presbyteries. Some thrive and move with alacrity, while others are really moribund. Generally, but not entirely, the smaller presbyteries seem to trump the bigger ones in mission effectiveness. It seems to me the non-geographical presbyteries of Korean-American origin are similarly varigated insofar as I can listen to them about their sense of effectiveness. I tend to side with the “synod-to-mission” direction offered by the Commission ( and still not sure why we need anything at a regional juridical level?) But I would love for the commission to tender possibilities of alternative presbytery arrangements, including some non-geographical experiments.

    Hang in there, Commission!

  7. “the PC(USA) is not broken. It works quite well for those who have inhabited it for the last 40-60 years.” This made me laugh out loud. We’ve lost 50% of our membership in those years.

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