About this blog...

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Big Changes Are Proposed for the Synod

The future of Synods has been a lively subject of discussion in the church in recent years.  Although the most recent General Assembly declined to adopt a special committee's recommendation to eliminate Synods from the Book of Order completely - they pushed that proposal down the road, for the 2014 Assembly to deal with - it certainly seems like the church is on the verge of some big changes at the mid-council (presbytery and synod) level.

Knowing that change is in the air, and aware that our region of the country is one where the inclination to eliminate synods is strongly felt, the leadership of the Synod of the Northeast has appointed a Transitions Working Group (TWG) to do some creative thinking on the subject of the Synod's future and report back with some recommendations.

I've been privileged to serve on the Transitions group. I'm one of only two presbytery staff members to do so (the other is Cass Shaw, General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Albany). In putting together the membership of this group - in consultation with the Synod Council, who called for its formation - Synod Transitional Leader Harold Delhagen intentionally sought out people who have not been deeply involved in the Synod's governance, but who have been active in the church in other ways. There is a larger-than-usual complement of people in their 20s and 30s (of which I am, obviously, not one). The result is what we hope is a fresh perspective.

Our group has just issued our report to the Synod. We're hoping a great many Presbyterians within the Synod will read it and comment on it.  The TWG's Transitions Blog has been, for some months now, the most prominent feature of the Synod's home page.

So, what's in the report?  If I had to boil it down into a single sentence, it would be something like this:

We are encouraging the replacement of rigid Synod governance structures
with both open-source and inter-presbytery networks,
and encouraging a Synod-wide dialogue among presbyteries about redrawing their boundaries.

That language does not come from our report.  It's my own shorthand summary of its principal recommendations.

A capsule summary like that inevitably comes out sounding like bureaucratic gobbledygook, so let me use the rest of this post to unpack that a little.

Foundational to our report is the recommendation that the Synod become what the Book of Order calls a "reduced-function synod" (G-3.0404). The Synod, after seeking approval of two-thirds of its presbyteries, would have to petition the General Assembly to make this change. Under the reduced-function guidelines, the Synod Assembly would be reduced in size to one ruling-elder commissioner and one teaching-elder commissioner from each presbytery, and would only meet once every two years. The principal function of the Synod Assembly would be to appoint members of the Permanent Judicial Commission, approve whatever limited budget the Synod would have, and to conduct whatever other financial or legal business is necessary.

Having recommended that move, however, we also think more needs to happen at the Synod level than the minimum required under the reduced-function model.  We're calling for some of the Synod's functions to be passed on: both to a variety of new "networks of passion, interest and need" that would function on a flexible, open-source model, and to the presbyteries.

We're making just two recommendations:

That the Synod reduce its governance functions and refocus its resources, creating two types of networks to support the role of presbyteries in strengthening the mission and ministry of its congregations:
a. networks of passion, interest, and need such that our connectional nature and our diversity can be used to enrich and grow the capacity of all;
b. networks of presbyteries (mission areas) collaborating to assure adequate leadership within their bounds

That a portion of those resources be used to foster presbyteries to engage together in a study of their own boundaries, particularly with regard to their capacity to sustain long‐term leadership commensurate with their needs. It is anticipated that this will require the appointment of a Boundaries and Leadership Commission, the provision of consultants, and the planning of a Synodical Convention. The purpose of the Convention would be to facilitate and coordinate presbyteries’ requests to the General Assembly for such boundary changes as may be necessary for the future strength of their witness and service.

One of the things we learned as we went about our work is that the Synod of the Northeast is blessed with substantial financial resources - well over 10 million dollars, much of that undesignated - much of which can (and ought to) be distributed to the presbyteries, should the Synod reduce its functions. In that event, we have a rare, one-time opportunity to strategically direct those funds in order to establish and strengthen the ministries of both types of networks, so the mission of the Synod may be strengthened as well.

Consequently, we're recommending that funds be made available to foster the growth of open-source networks of passion, interest and need. These networks would bring like-minded Presbyterians from throughout the Synod together to accomplish important work for the good of all. Here are some examples of the sorts of networks that could be formed (not an exhaustive list, by any means):

     ‐ Early Ministry Institute (EMI)
     ‐ Racial Ethnic (language-based or other emerging identity) Caucuses
     ‐ Northeast Collegium (executive presbyters group)
     ‐ Advocacy
     ‐ Stated Clerks group
     ‐ Interim Pastors group
     ‐ Mentoring and/or Coaching groups
     ‐ Support/mutual resourcing for leaders of presbyteries and congregations in distress or “survival mode”
     ‐ Prison Ministry support
     ‐ New Worshiping Communities
     ‐ Tentmakers (bi-vocational pastors) group
     ‐ Emergent Leaders group
     ‐ Young women pastors group
     ‐ Presbyterian Women of the Synod

The second type of network, by its very nature, may look a little more familiar, because it's actually a system of networked presbyteries. In the initial stages, the Synod would facilitate the establishment of networks of three or more presbyteries that the report dubs "mission areas." The Synod would accomplish this by making a major, up-front grant to each presbytery consenting to enter such an arrangement, followed by a five-year program of diminishing grants. Those grants would start at something like 90% of the cost of a full-time staff person serving three presbyteries, diminishing to around 10% in the final year. Presbyteries could use these grants in whatever way they wished, as long as they supported the goal of establishing inter-presbytery cooperative leadership.  Presbyteries could keep whatever paid leadership they presently have; or, they could move, over time, to save funds by migrating their paid leadership positions into the multi-presbytery arrangement. Networks of more than three presbyteries would receive proportionately higher grants in the aggregate, because each individual presbytery would bring essentially the same amount of money to the mission-area table.

If the proposal makes its way through both the Synod Council and the Synod Assembly, gaining approval in its present form, what difference would that make to us here in Monmouth Presbytery?

We're already in a partnership with New Brunswick Presbytery. If we found at least one neighboring presbytery to join our partnership (for example, West Jersey Presbytery), each of us would then, as part of a mission area of three, be eligible to receive the one-time initial grant (which the report suggests could be $50,000).  That would be followed, in subsequent years, by the five-year diminishing grants supporting shared leadership. In the first year of the five-year period, we'd collectively receive, as a three-presbytery cluster, a grant in the neighborhood of $108,000 ($36,000 each), then a steadily-diminishing amount in each of the four years thereafter. Over the five-year period of the grant, each of our three presbyteries would need to make whatever budgetary or program changes we felt we needed to make, in order to contribute our steadily-increasing share of the cost of mission-area leadership.

The end result would be that, after seven years (two years for initial organization, followed by five years of the leadership grants program), we would have consolidated many of our professional-leadership expenses  at the mission-area level, while retaining whatever individual professional staff we felt we needed and could afford.

At the very least, some presbyteries would likely decide to have no staff other than a part-time stated clerk and perhaps a part-time support-staff person. At most, others would retain their own executive presbyter, supporting professional leadership at the mission-area of a more specialized nature (stewardship consultants, Christian education consultants, etc.).

The Synod would not prescribe in any detailed way what sort of staffing patterns or structures the mission areas would ultimately adopt; there would continue to be a high degree of autonomy at the presbytery level. The mission-area boundaries themselves could shift over time, as well. As creatures of the presbyteries rather than the Synod, the mission areas would serve the needs of their member presbyteries, as well as offering them ways of joining together in common mission.

It's possible that the New Jersey presbyteries could decide to come together in a larger, statewide mission area. Some have suggested that recreating something similar to the old Synod of New Jersey would be a good thing. According to that scenario, this New Jersey Mission Area would then consist of seven presbyteries (West Jersey, Monmouth, New Brunswick, Elizabeth, Newark, Newton and Palisades), which would be able to pool their leadership-grant money  to recruit a somewhat larger number of resource specialists than any three-presbytery cluster could support on its own. It's possible that some New Jersey presbyteries would prefer to retain their own executive presbyter or other professional staff; others could decide to throw their lot in with the mission area for everything, even committing additional funds to make that happen.

The plan is gently directive that way, but not prescriptive.  It uses the grants program as a positive incentive to invite the presbyteries, in this era of diminishing resources and heightened missional needs, to consider covenanting together in some new and mutually-beneficial ways. It does that without requiring presbyteries to fully merge, which could result in presbyteries so large that present traditions of intimacy and community could be lost.

(By the way, the Korean-speaking congregations in our area belonging to the non-geographic Eastern Korean Presbytery could continue to associate with one another, as they presently do, in a single Korean-language presbytery. They would be eligible for grant funding comparable to that of an individual presbytery, although they would not be required to join a mission area in order to receive the grant.)

That's Recommendation #1: a significant deployment of Synod funds to establish two types of networks. Recommendation #2 stands on its own, regardless of what happens to #1, but could very well complement it. It is a one-time, major study of presbytery boundaries.  As the report explains:

"Our system of presbytery boundaries belongs to a much earlier era, when there were more than twice as many Presbyterians and when communication and transportation resources were less efficient than they are today. The original standard used for drawing some presbytery boundary lines, in the era before automobiles, was the placement of certain communities along railway lines; many of these trains stopped running and the tracks were torn up half a century ago. Communities belonging to the same county are often split among two or more presbyteries, negating the collective influence the churches could have in advocacy and in community mission coalitions. Massive population shifts have taken place as well. Yet — largely out of institutional inertia — the old boundaries persist, unexamined, in many cases to the detriment of effective ministry. The lack of capacity within some of these historic boundaries to find and support the leadership necessary to maintain the church has lifted this issue to a critical level.

A comprehensive redrawing of presbytery boundaries is long overdue, but can only be accomplished by bringing presbytery leaders together at the same time, to share their perceptions of local needs and to discern the Spirit’s leading, as they jointly prepare proposals to bring back to their presbyteries for vote."

This post has already gone on long enough, so I'll simply suggest that you read the report for full details on how this consultation would be accomplished. It involves a process of preparation and study guided by some expert organizational consultants, followed by a one-time Synodical Convention, at which specially-appointed representatives of the presbyteries would come together to discuss possible changes. They would bring their recommendations back to their presbyteries, which would then vote on whether they wanted to request the General Assembly to make those boundary changes.

As with Recommendation #1, in this second recommendation the initiative and final decision remains with the presbyteries.  The Synod's role would be as a consultant and a broker, providing the presbyteries with the information and resources to undertake these discussions thoroughly and faithfully.

That's what's in the report.  It's now in the hands of the Synod Council, which meets from September 21-22, and after that the full Synod Assembly, which meets from October 19-20. As with any report presented by a working group, once it gets to the deliberative body, anything can happen.

Whatever happens, though, you heard it here first!


  1. Carl
    This is a wonderful and helpful description of our work!
    Harold Delhagen

  2. WoW! That's a lot to take in. As a whole it sounds like a good plan with some strong options.