New Ideas #1: Presbyteries
This is the first in an ongoing series of “New Ideas” thought pieces. We want to explore these ideas together and solicit your feedback.
We want to thank the hundreds of people who are responding positively to the ideas of a new way of being for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We want to let you know that this movement is still cooking on the stove and not a finished product. As this project unfolds, clear communication is our largest challenge. So often when a new vision is emerging it is difficult to communicate the core values and ideas of that vision with clarity. Over the next several weeks we want to identify and begin to articulate some of the core values, common concerns, and mutually held convictions that are catalyz- ing our many different proposed ideas. It is easy to get lost in the various structural options being discussed – a fellowship that would resemble a “Presbyterian order,” a new way of living in presbyteries/synods, and perhaps a whole new PC(USA), or even, if necessary, the creation of a new Reformed Body. These are all “structures” that we will be studying. But first we need to say more about the intended “what:” our vision for a new community and the inner workings of a new expression of “Church” among Presbyterians.
New Idea #1: Presbyteries
Our proposals for a new way to be Church are all about creating a stronger covenanted commu- nity. Among many things that we believe need reforming is the community we know as “pres- bytery.” Up to this point, Presbyterians have allowed geography and theological tradition to be the two things that put us into a presbytery. In the last 60 years, a certain understanding of the mission of a presbytery has determined the size and staffing. We want to call each of these into question because we’re envisioning a different way for congregations to come into covenant community.
1) Geography – Really? In this day of conference calls, video conferencing, Skype, etc., we question whether geography is the best way to form a presbytery. Might there be better ways of affiliating congregations that would give them a better chance of growing together?
2) Has our “diversity” exceeded healthy agreement? In the 1954 book, The Broadening Church (University of Pennsylvania Press), Lefferts Loet- scher described how a “subscriptionist” denomination of Presbyterians grew increasingly broad in their understanding of the faith. Loetscher traced events and movements that widened the door of theological acceptability for Presbyterians—and that was 1954. Imagine how much broader the denomination has become since then! In many of our current presbyteries, we have too many areas where we simply see the Christian faith differently. Those differences often cluster into two or three major groupings that could be called left, right, and middle, although in actuality they are far more nuanced than that. These differences make it very difficult for Committees on Ministry, Committees on Preparation for Ministry, or presbyteries as a whole to do what they are charged to do in service to Jesus Christ, let alone to determine if there is any particular belief that sets a particular candidate beyond our understanding of theological orthodoxy. While no one wants us to return to pre-1729 “subscrip- tionism,” many of us do believe there must be a clearer set of reformed distinctives upon which a presbytery can agree.
3) Is there such a thing as “too big”? Many presbyteries have dramatically increased in size over the years. Joe Small, recently retired Director of Theology, Worship, and Education for the PC(USA), has written a very helpful essay entitled, “The Travail of the Presbytery.” It was published last year in A Collegial Bishop? (Alan Janssen & Leon Van den Broeke, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010). In this essay, Joe dem- onstrates that presbyteries increased when it was believed that they had a particular joint mission that required a certain size and staff. However, for at least the past decade, many Presbyterians have come to recognize that the pri- mary expression of God’s mission is found in local congregations. We agree that a presbytery exists to help local congregations accomplish their mission. We believe that this is the historic understanding of the presbytery, and we are eager to work with the newly formed Middle Gov- erning Body Administration Commission to help presbyteries embrace a new vision for their life, mission, and witness.
- We believe a presbytery should be a covenanted community of congregations expressed through a “company” of pastors and elders.
- We believe a presbytery must be small enough to truly be a covenant community that meets in some fashion monthly, if not weekly.
- We believe the main purpose of these presbytery meetings must be biblical study, theological reflection, and mutual fellowship.
- We believe accountability comes through community more than organization
- Finally, we believe that these three elements (non-geographic affiliation, theological consen- sus, and covenanted community) can be attractive to anyone in the PC(USA) regardless of where they fall on our vast theological spectrum.
A “presbytery” as we have come to know it in 2011 seems a bureaucratic stranger in the King- dom. We want it to be different – and we believe it can and must be different. What do you think?