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.