About this blog...

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

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Presbytery Consolidation that Never Was

Here's something I ran across as we were cleaning out old files, as we were preparing for the move of the Presbytery Office from Tennent to New Egypt. I meant to post it earlier, but somehow never got around to it.

It's  a map of the old Synod of New Jersey, dating back to around 1959. There were 8 presbyteries in New Jersey at that time, and a special committee had been working to pare that number down to 4. The map indicates where the boundaries of these 4 new presbyteries were to go.

The special committee considered the question long and hard. They learned that the original boundary lines of many presbyteries had been drawn with railroad lines in mind. Towns along a given rail line were clustered together in the same presbytery, so commissioners could travel to presbytery meetings by train.

Even in 1959, many of those original rail lines no longer existed.  America's love affair with the automobile was in full swing. The presbytery boundaries that had once made perfect sense had come to seem random and arbitrary.

The special committee was also trying to create larger presbyteries, so resources could be concentrated and deployed more effectively.

The plan was never implemented. It came up for a vote in the Synod Assembly, but went down in flames. Never again would there to be a move to rethink presbytery boundaries in New Jersey.

There aren't so many people around today who can give first-hand accounts of the debate in the Synod Assembly. (I was only 3 or 4 years old at the time.) I do remember talking with some old-timers in more recent years, who did have firsthand recollections of the vote. They told a tale of an acrimonious debate that left many on both sides feeling bitter.

This was even more widely-known because the old Synod of New Jersey was a "non-delegated synod." When the Synod met, every minister in the state was in attendance, with a corresponding number of elder commissioners.

New Jersey now has seven presbyteries (not counting the non-geographic Eastern Korean Presbytery, which technically covers the whole Synod, but has the majority of its churches in New Jersey).

CLICK ON THIS LINK for a full-size version of the map and take a look at the shaded gray lines. They indicate the proposed new boundary lines of 1959. Today, the overall number of Presbyterians in the state is a good deal less than half of what it was when the special committee was developing its realignment plan. Increasingly, presbyteries today are strapped for funds. You'd think the idea of boundary realignment would come up again: especially since it could be a way of restoring presbyteries to roughly the same overall number of church members each one had before the membership declines of the last quarter of the twentieth century began.

It's interesting to observe the shape of what the committee was calling "Central Jersey Presbytery" (Roman numeral III on the map). Most of Monmouth Presbytery (with the exception of the Southernmost part of Ocean County and a sliver of Burlington County) would have fallen in this new presbytery. All of New Brunswick Presbytery would have, too. Today, Monmouth and New Brunswick Presbyteries are sharing a Regional Presbyter. There are no merger discussions under way, but we all know that topic could come up for discussion in the future.

Maybe the members of the Synod's special committee were ahead of their time. Would it be a good thing to dust this historic artifact off and give it a fresh look?

What do you think?