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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Non-Geographic Presbyteries?

It's getting to be that time of year - well, every two years.  General Assembly will soon be upon us. One of the most riveting issues coming before the Assembly, for those who work with Presbyterian polity, is the report of the Mid-Councils Commission.

Now, I realize any non-Presbyterian reading these words - and, if truth be told, all but a small segment of Presbyterians - will gaze upon them and respond: "Say what?"

Yet, to those who regularly imbibe the rarified air of church governance discussions, the Mid-Councils Report is one of the most paradigm-shifting changes to come down the Presbyterian pike in decades - rivaled only by the 2010 Assembly's passage of the new Form of Government (nFOG) and, before that, nothing (not, at least, since the reunion of northern and southern Presbyterians in 1983).

That's because the Mid-Councils Report recommends that synods be abolished.

Yea, gentle presbyter, abolished. That entire section of the Form of Government will simply be cut from the good book - no, not that Good Book, the other one - as brazenly as ol' Tom Jefferson took scissors in hand and excised Jesus' miracles from the New Testament.

OK, I'll admit I'm waxing hyperbolic here.  But seriously, the reduction in the number of councils (née governing bodies, née judicatories, née courts) is a rather big change.  If this proposal survives the Assembly intact, and if its constitutional amendments are subsequently approved by a majority of the presbyteries, the only remaining councils above the level of the congregation will be sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly.

Doing without synods is not a new idea. Our mother kirk, the Church of Scotland, has never had 'em.  Here on our side of the Pond, the idea's been kicked around for the past couple decades at least - but this is the first time it's coming to the General Assembly with the unanimous endorsement of one of the Assembly's own special working groups, complete with all the enabling amendments to - in the resolute words of galaxy-striding space Captain Jean-Luc Picard - "make it so."

Most seem to think the Assembly will indeed do its part to make it so (although, in typical parliamentary fashion, probably not without tacking on enough minor amendments to allow the commissioners to see their fingerprints upon it).

The Abolish Synods movement is all about the so-called shrinking planet, as "leaving on a jet plane" has become commonplace and burgeoning communications technology offers unprecedented opportunities for keeping in touch across the miles (et tu, Twitter).  The Scots never thought they needed synods because their entire country is no bigger than South Carolina.  Now that our trademark wide-open spaces are neither so wide nor so open, we're coming to realize synods are a luxury we can no longer afford.

While the abolition of synods has been commanding most of the denomination's attention of late, another of the proposed changes has barely shown up on the radar screen.  If the Mid-Councils Report passes the Assembly and the presbyteries, it creates an unprecedented opportunity to tinker with the structure and membership of presbyteries. The report proposes that, for a trial period extending until 2021, congregations be given the opportunity (with presbytery approval) to pull themselves out of their present presbytery and join another 10 or more congregations in forming a "provisional non-geographic presbytery for specific missional purposes" that's more to their liking.

A huge question - one that may or may not be asked explicitly at the Assembly, although it will be on the minds of nearly everyone - is whether the desire to flee theological diversity for a community of the like-minded constitutes a specific missional purpose.  Congregations inclined to follow the lead of the newly-formed Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (née Evangelical Covenant Order) will likely welcome this move, because it provides a mechanism for doing what they've long dreamed of doing: stepping away from those pesky liberals who are comfortable with the idea of gays and lesbians holding church office, and associating only with biblical literalists like themselves who believe the only place in the church for such reprobates is on their knees in tearful repentance.

There's a superficial appeal to this flexibility, to be sure.  Who doesn't want to be missional, after all?  (It's the denominational buzz-word du jour, even though there's little consensus on what it means.)  Yet, as Wilson Gunn points out, in a recent Presbyterian Outlook article, the "provisional non-geographic presbytery for missional purposes idea" has some hidden pitfalls:

"While 'Geography isn’t what it used to be,' geographic proximity is a value. When times are tough we need to sit beside each other in the flesh. Presence is incarnational. Geographic boundaries are not 'arbitrary.' Most were created to provide an intentional variety of congregations in each presbytery such that the small, resource-strapped congregations and the relatively robust, larger congregations share common resources within a presbytery. This self-selected non-geographic approach can quickly concentrate the larger congregations across several presbyteries, leaving the remaining smaller congregations, who rely significantly upon the encouragement and guidance of presbytery committees and staff, in a presbytery completely lacking the resources to be able to serve them. The rich are likely to get richer and the poor poorer in this design."

Pastors of larger congregations are disproportionately represented among the leadership of the ECO.  Whether intentional or unintentional, the "missional" similarities they claim as justification for their separation will in many cases have the consequence of robbing neighboring smaller congregations of the sort of support, encouragement and leadership-training resources they could otherwise obtain from their larger neighbor - not to mention the lost per capita and mission funding they would otherwise have contributed to their former presbytery, to the mutual benefit of all.

Furthermore, Gunn sees such significant progress being made already by traditional presbyteries in the direction of becoming more missional that he questions the need for such presbyterial vivisection:

"The proposed purpose of these non-geographic presbyteries is being accomplished without reconfiguring presbyteries. Presbyteries, as noted in the commission report, are already experimenting. Presbyteries are already on the way to flat, flexible and faithful. Connectionalism has already taken a different shape than the former regulatory, centralized control. Mission dollars go directly from congregations to the local and international mission field. Once upon a time, 90 percent of a congregation’s undesignated external mission giving routed up through the denomination. Now we see about 10 percent of that mission dollar, yet National Capital Presbytery has over 100 different international mission projects that are sponsored by our congregations. I see just as much missionary energy, it’s just decentralized now."

Does "non-geographic" truly translate into "missional"?  It's for the General Assembly to decide.

1 comment:

  1. Carl, a thoughtful piece and I like the "fork in the road" photo. Are you advocating for taking the "road less traveled?" Anyway, I am a ruling elder commissioner this year and also am the Associate Stated Clerk in Utica (we've met at Stony Point). I'm ambiguous on the issue of abolition of Synods. I can be convinced either way, although I have concerns regarding disposition of assets and permanent judicial commissions. While PJC issues are not significant in Utica (knock on wood!) there definitely needs to be some Synod-style level for this function.

    I am VERY concerned about non-geographic presbyteries, although again, I'm open. My fear with this is that we will sub-divide into groups of specific ideologies, much like nations with a proportional system of electing parliaments. I'm not sure I like that idea. And if it's a "trial" until 2020 or whenever, how do you undo it in a decade?

    But thank you for providing me with much to think about on this issue.