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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?


  1. Wow. Fascinating map, Carl.
    Looks like almost all of Elizabeth was in III as well. That doesn't make any sense to me. Union County is far more urbanized than the rest of the proposed presbytery. When you say "The special committee was also trying to create larger presbyteries, so resources could be concentrated and deployed more effectively", I am not sure I agree with the assumption that larger presbyteries are inherently more efficient. My cynical side worries that those favoring larger presbyteries today mainly want presbyteries large enough to support an Executive. Larger presbyteries mean more driving, thus giving Presbyterians a more substantial carbon footprint. Fewer presbyteries in this synod would dilute our influence in voting on BoO amendments. And the presbyteries in NJ are not out of line with the size of presbyteries nationally, in terms of membership. 10-14K members is not small by any means. I do favor some kind of realignment; the present boundaries lack sense. And it would spread out the membership more evenly. But I would be against reducing the number of presbyteries. More creative and faithful staffing patterns would help solve some of our money difficulties. Merging and consolidation have not proven to be effective, in my view.

  2. I know there are some smaller presbyteries that are trying to go back to the days of having no executive, only a stated clerk, but to me those seem to be more an example of desperation due to financial problems than the result of any intentional design. Have you ever heard of a presbytery that has the money to pay an executive, who has still decided to forego that form of professional leadership? I've yet to see a presbytery without at least a part-time executive that seems strong. It's hard to conceive how a committee on ministry, for example, could function effectively in the modern world without some support from a professional staff person who knows conflict resolution, organizational theory, etc. It doesn't matter how skilled a COM chair is, eventually that person't term will end (either normally or suddenly - for a variety of reasons), and the committee has to start over again with a fresh person who has to work through that steep learning curve. I hear what you say about environmental stewardship, but that could be addressed at least partially through electronic-meeting technologies. As for the BoO amendments voting, there's something to that objection, but I have to ask the question if voting on amendments every 2 years is so important to a presbytery's life that it trumps all other concerns. Much to talk about here - it's not a simple issue!

  3. Another thing - the United Methodists (whose conferences are generally bigger than our presbyteries) have decided in recent years to go from 2 conferences in NJ to one. I know there was some confusion at first when that happened, but I haven't heard of any discontent since. So, there's an example of a similar denomination that's responded to declining membership by consolidating its governing bodies. Another model is what the RCA does - smaller classes (presbyteries) with no executives (only clerks), but a smaller, statewide synod that provides staff support to each classis.