New Ideas #1: Presbyteries

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.

Our Vision

  • 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?

50 Responses

  1. John Crosby (Moderator) says:

    It would be interesting to see how this formulation of re-newer presbyteries lines up with what was shared at the NEXT gathering in Indianapolis… is this an area where common ground could lead both to health and more flexibility in other issues down the road?

  2. We are exploring some of these dynamics and models in rethinking our presbytery (Charlotte – a large multi-staff presbytery). One of the conversation pieces as we revision is a post I wrote on “missional presbytery” here:

    Would be interested in feedback and interaction as well.

    Robert Austell
    Pastor, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
    Charlotte, NC

  3. Martha Pardee Carlson says:

    I believe we ought to do this nongeographical thing with the entity we used to call Synod. We still have a lot of local mission and congregation-to-congregation support to be gained by working with the congregation’s neighboring congregations.

  4. Jason Haas says:

    Another aspect that needs to be handled is how a presbytery and GA votes. Is it a process where the majority wins no matter how large the minority. How cana body move together when up to 49% can be against the actions taken. It is a broken way of being in fellowship that leads to deep seeded angst, mistrust and has helped the PC (USA) get to where it is (among other things). So, how can we replace a parliamentary system that leads to division and fighting? Is it possible to decide by consensus with a minimum minority. That is votes are not taken but those opposed are counted and dialogue is required as we attempt to move together?

  5. Floyd Rhoades says:

    All of this conversations needs to be in plain English so that everyone is clear about these different suggested structures. At least three areas where we need to be pragmatic and appropriately focused are:
    1. Proceed cautiously so that we not create “silo” governing bodies who are so like-minded that there is potential for stagnation and elitism.
    2. Celebrate our differences but remain focused on reformed theology and sound mission emphasis. God did not call us to debate, He called us to make disciples of all nations.
    3. Pray without ceasing.

  6. Barnabas Sprinkle says:

    As the current FOG states, “Mission determines the form” (G-9.0402)–or it should! The clear question to ask is: What do presbyteries do (best), and how do we (best) accomplish those tasks? I’m ALL for “relational communities” instead of “governing bodies,” as long as the work of supporting congregations, ministers, and missions–especially in strife or decline–takes precedence.
    Size is not all bad. I pastored a small church, which utilized the conferences, training events, and conflict management team of a large presbytery. My current (larger) church needs its presbytery less, but even large nondenom churches often partner with larger groups to bring in consultants, hold trainings, support missionaries, etc. Bureaucracy does breed itself, but it usually starts out to accomplish things small groups cannot do alone.
    I’d recommend starting with the question, “Why do we have presbyteries?,” and then move toward how to reconfigure them. Otherwise, people may end up asking, “With whom do I want to be in community?,” which precludes the important question: “How can we be the Body of Christ together?”

  7. Marie Bowen says:

    As I read your thoughts and vision for presbyteries, I was thinking of worship yesterday at Elfinwild PC. One of the highlights of our time together was a sharing experience with another congregation. A talented group of young mimes from another church in Pittsburgh, Friendship PC, visited us and shared their exuberant praise through mime and dance accompanied by gospel music based on Psalm 150. I wondered how that kind of sharing could occur in a non-geographic presbytery?
    The technology is certainly available to broadcast a praise experience over the internet. It is not at all the same as being present and sharing worship in proximity with one another. God’s presence is not limited to time and space, of course, and I would not presume to suggest that He cannot act in something shared over the internet. However, Elfinwild, has none of the necessary technology at this time to make that happen. I suspect a majority of Presbyterian churches do not have that technology. May small Presbyterian congregations do not have an email address or website or even a full-time staff member to answer the phone. How will non-geographic presbyteries connect churches as these?

  8. John Erthein says:

    Several years ago, someone (I don’t remember who) suggested deliberately making Presbyteries smaller and multiplying them, so that they would more closely resemble fellowships with far less bureaucracy in each (is it really necessary to have EPs/GPs for example?). Some of the current support functions of Presbyteries could be assumed by smaller and more numerous Synods.

  9. Twyla Hajdukiewicz says:

    Considering the governmental structure is a good starting point for this fellowship, thought I wonder how much real consideration of real change can occur when so many of the people involved in the discussion have a vested interest in keeping the current structure. That said, as I ponder the potential issues, I offer the following thoughts, not necessarily as suggestions, but as topics that could be considered for discussion:

    It is an interesting question raised by Jason about a 49% minority that leads to resentment. The beauty of the parliamentary system is that it allows decisions to be made and necessary business to move forward with the majority (perhaps a slim majority) winning the vote. The challenge of a parliamentary system (as it stands now) is that it can leave a very slim margin between the pleased and the disappointed. The beauty of a consensus model is that in the end everyone agrees. The challenge of a consensus model is that the time and energy that are required for consensus decision-making can be impractical at best on a large scale. (Think of how difficult it can be to get a group of 10-12 people to agree on where to go for lunch, then multiply that by hundreds and make the issue far more important than lunch and you get some idea of the challenge.)

    Perhaps another way forward might be a super-majority, like we have for the Confessions and like the US government has for any amendment to the Constitution. While there would still be those pleased and those displeased at the end of any vote, the margin between the groups would be significantly larger and yet important decisions could still be made using a system that has worked more than it has failed for so many years. This system would also create a more cohesive fellowship that likely fought less and worked together more for the Kingdom of God.

    At this point it seems to me that either geography must go as a defining characteristic of the presbytery or that the church is likely to split or splinter. I am unable to imagine a way forward together without some realignment, and without a way forward together, breaking apart seems inevitable. God can do anything, but in my humanity I cannot imagine what it might be.

    Whatever the presbytery structure looks like, unintended consequences must be considered else we end up right back where we are today. hindering the spread of the Gospel with infighting and bad press rather than being a light to the nations as we are called to be.

  10. San Joaquin Presbytery has wrestled intently with these kinds of concerns with the end-result being a restructuring that puts the EP at half-time and demands more of the pastors in local clusters in terms of providing accountability, encouragment, etc. It’s still taking shape, of course.

    There was agreement that the regulatory functions of the presbytery can all but eclipse the missional functions–turning committees into something like ecclesiastical hall-monitors–capable of saying “no” to many things, but incapable of making anything good and fruitful occur. If our presbyteries cannot recapture the ministry-making spirit they once had, then they necessarily devolve into the impotence of bureaucracies. The purpose of presbyteries, if not to “help make ministry happen,” is impossible to justify (though this may be their default raison d’etre), and their value negligible. If the vine doesn’t bear fruit, it requires some radical pruning.

  11. You write, “the main purpose of these presbytery meetings must be biblical study, theological reflection, and mutual fellowship.”
    I have those experiences in other gatherings.

    My deepest appreciation for the presbytery to which I belong is shared mission, collaborative disciple-making, relationships of accountability with sisters and brothers with whom I do not agree, but in whom I see the imago Dei.

  12. Patrick Vaughn says:

    Barnabas asked the question, “why do we have presbyteries?” In the comments above and from the post, a basic answer might be: community, support and governance. To me to talk of “new” kinds of presbyteries is doomed to fail because it only perpetuates and prolongs current issues the PC USA faces currently. Community, support and a unified vision and vocation is something that can be achieved outside of a body called a “presbytery.” In fact if this “new reformed body” is to include people from outside the PC USA shouldn’t these covenant communities involve / include them? New Presbyteries, if they are to remain within the PC USA, just have the potential to become new breeding grounds for fighting and disagreement at higher levels such as Synod and GA. If members of a new reformed body are to remain part of the PC USA the answer will need to be more creative than putting lipstick on an old structures.

    • Patrick Vaughn says:

      Reflecting on my previous comment I deeply regret my choice of metaphor to describe my concerns. I could of and should have used one that was not sexist in nature and I apologize and ask for forgiveness. An appropriate metaphor would have been to say something like, “I fear we are putting a really nice paint job on the same house with rotting studs or putting new clothes on the same sick body.”

      Part of my concerns are illustrated by the fact that nobody held me accountable for my comments. One fear of mine is that a non-geographic presbytery and covenant community are mutually exclusive. What many of us yearn for are: communities of churches that support, encourage, challenge, and hold one another accountable as we seek to bear witness to God’s Kingdom. This kind of covenant community I believe cannot be achieved non-geographically. It must be lived out in face to face relationships as people seeking to live out the gospel in particular contexts together.

      To me non-geographical presbyteries cannot achieve the kind of community that is desired by many, however, they may be able to provide some kind of governance. Maybe the bodies with the purpose of covenant community and bodies with the purpose of governance need to be separate. I’m not sure. My last question / concern is: What is the point of remaining together in the same denomination if presbyteries (old ones and new non-geographic ones) function completely separate and at odds with one another? Aren’t we just moving the same old disagreements and stalemates to different or maybe I should say the same arenas like GA?

      I think that Noel Anderson in his comment makes a very good point about the difference between pluralism and diversity. In my mind there is not a possible way forward if we do not hold a common center. Kenda Kreasy Dean in her new book “Almost Christian” uses a helpful illustration of a farm without a fence. We seem to be talking a lot about fences, rather than the center. If all the diverse voices in the PC USA do not have the same center then we are indeed not diverse but pluralistic, in which case, no matter what changes we make to the fences it doesn’t matter because we’re not working for the same Head Farmer and there can’t be two Head Farmer’s on the same farm.

  13. It seems to me that as long as we focus our attention on what kind of structure we need we’ll continue to miss out on discerning the Spirit’s guidance regarding possibly a more important quetion: How do we most faithfully use the gifts that God has already given to the church (congregations, presbyteries, synods, GA and other denominations)? For the last couple decades I’ve heard people ponder, debate, argue, etc. about “How do we get more{of whatever we think is missing from the church}. That sounds a lot like we’re telling God that the gifts we’ve already been given aren’t good enough. All the while as we’ve complained about what we don’t think we have, thousands of the gifts {people and everything they bring to the table} have left the church either in frustration, boredom, or a sense that the church is no longer relevant to their spiritual lives.
    So, for me, it seems that focusing our prayerful conversation around relationship-building as we seek to hear God’s will for the Body of Christ. I believe the needed “structures” will become evident as people re-learn how to interact with and trust one another, and hear God’s call more clearly for the ministry that God has for us to live into.

  14. Doug H says:

    This all may be very interesting, but what is being described does not appear to be meaningfully Presbyterian. How is this not a schismatic movement which is being presented as denominational change? How would non-geographical Presbyteries or Synods not simply become theological ghettos, exacerbating the problem of a lack of commonality even more than it is now? How is the focus on congregationalism not going to functionally create a different denomination?

    This is all frankly baffling and frustrating for someone on the ‘left’ side of many denominational issues. For me, diversity is a good thing. Interacting only with those who agree with me seems tantamount to theological and intellectual suicide, not to mention a vivisection of the Body of Christ – a pile of gall bladders and lungs pretending to be a healthy body. I realize that interacting with people we disagree with can be frustrating – it is for us too, don’t kid yourselves. But it isn’t impossible, and we can do a much better job than we do without fleeing into homogeneity.

    • Suellen says:

      I’m with you Doug. We need to work a lot harder on teaching folks to enjoy diverse points of view, learning to love those who are different, remembering that God alone is Lord of our conscience and that unity in diversity is the sign of the Spirit at work.

      Is it impossible to imagine that one task of the Presbyterian branch of Christ’s multi-denominational worldwide body might be to model love and unity even when we have differing understandings about doctrine beyond the “royal law” oflove God and love neighbor.

    • There’s diversity and there’s pluralism. Diversity, for all its differences, celebrates something in common–it has some kind of identifiable center that its members can rally around. Pluralism has no common center–it is many diverse groups rallied around their own identified sub-centers. This hasty accusation of “homogeneity” neglects that there must be a center if we are to call ourselves Presbyterians or even Christians with some agreement. The aim is to fortify our identity as Christians first, and Presbyterians after. There are certainly diversities and variations which strain–and even defy–what the worldwide diversity of Christians would call Christianity.

      The circle of those who call themselves Presbyterians must necessarily reside entirely within the much larger circle of Christendom–of all who call themselves Christian. When that circle called Presbyterian seeps off the edge of that greater circle, then the only thing to unite Presbyterians will be polity and property. I fear that would be fine with many more progressive Presbyterians.

      Most of us won’t serve a denomination that is more concerned with being Presbyterian than Christian. And yes, it has come to that.

  15. Jahe Horner says:

    I have to confess that I would like to see us enlarge our vision to include entities of other reformed denominations in our new “Dotted’Line Synod” (see the video) and possibly “presbyteries”. That would mean writing a new confession, which I am all for. I think it would be great to be in communion with our Lutheran and Anglican Brothers and Sisters.

    Jake Horner
    Elder, Bellefield PC, Pgh, PA
    2nd Yr Student at PTS

  16. Christopher Joiner says:

    As I read this idea, I am reminded of Christ’s admonition in the Sermon on the Mount to “Let your word be ‘yes’, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘no’; anthing more than this comes from the evil one.” It is hard not to read this entire effort as one rather long and convoluted attempt to justify schism. I am willing to believe that many of the movement’s leaders do not intend to be schismatic, but the effect of this effort will be, and already is, quite divisive. Clarity is in order, and hiding behind the various metaphors like “still cooking in the kitchen” will no longer do. Let me be clear about my own feelings – I agree with many of the ideas articulated in your “vision.” I think there can be great benefit in smaller covenanted communities who focus primarily on theological reflection, biblical study, and fellowship. I think you would find very few Presbyterians who would take much issue with you on those points. But the way you get there, and the underlying foundation of your vision, is deeply disturbing. At root, it seems to me that you believe it is no longer possible for diverse Presbyterians to come to any kind of meaningful agreement and share in common ministry. Your answer to this diversity is “subscriptionism-lite.” But whether it is full-strength or “lite,” it is still subscriptionism, and that alone places you in the company of the EPC or the PCA or any number of other evangelical church bodies, but it does not square with almost a century of, yes, consensus in the predecessor denominations of the PCUSA. The desire to establish essentials and to draw lines that will determine theological orthodoxy is the thing here, and not structural realignment. Structure is a means to that end. I hope future “new ideas” will explore for your readers your vision for theological orthodoxy, and especially how and by whom it will be determined.

  17. I have read some good concerns here so far, many that echo my own. Some of my concerns are really centered on practical ministry questions. I labor in a presbytery that is nearly homogenous theologically, one that self-identifies on the “right” in the old binaries that get applied. But that theological “agreement” has not led to effective ministry. The same problems of dying churches, ineffective leadership, lack of vision and vitality – they are all too familiar. So, as I’ve experienced it, the idea of a subscriptionist model does not solve all the problems that the church is dealing with.

    I share vital ministry with some interesting, and more organic networks – one is a group of pastors from PTS that I keep in close touch with. We share a theological center, though we’ve never defined it, that I think would include shared Christology, a high view of scripture (though we would likely debate among ourselves some of the words that people like to use in those discussions), and a missional philosophy regarding the church. That has been enough for us to stay in deep fellowship, regardless of differences in other theological arenas. In the context of that fellowship, we find wonderful support for one another as we work out the practical ministry questions that face us as we lead churches in this time of change and transition. I get more support and insights from that group than from any Presbytery system I’ve ever been a part of . Can the “Fellowship” capture that in a bottle? I’d love to see it.

    The other network I found involves a group of local pastors, from various theological traditions. We are Foursquare, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Covenant….and we get along swimmingly. We have VERY different theological traditions, in many respects, but we all love the church and talk practical ministry together with great enthusiasm. The leadership and ministry insights I gain from this group are incredible. It has taught me that people with pretty big differences in important areas (like theology of scripture, baptism, etc) can still work together for the kingdom without the acrimony and strife that seem to plague us in the PCUSA. Can the “Fellowship” represent the possibility of that kind of vital diversity within the Presbyterian tradition?

    We must address the practical ministry aspect – any system created that simply changes the name on the door of the Presbytery office will, in the end, lead us nowhere. Far too many thoughts to put down here, but this is much of what I hope to hear in Minneapolis. If the talk is simply talking about how to circle the wagons theologically, I fear nothing worthwhile will result.

    Duncan MacLeod
    WestPres – Yakima, WA

    (My home presbytery is not hard to discern, since my location is listed here – I regret, in some ways, that criticism of the system will necessarily come back home and be felt by those who work with real effort in that system. As in any time of change, there is potential for hard words and hurt feelings – it is my hope we can navigate this process with only the most necessary of both.)

    • Matt Overton says:

      I share similar feelings and experiences with Duncan. I serve in a massive Presbytery and find little ability to form any meaningful connection with any portion of my Presbytery on any regular basis.

      However, I have had great success with relationships outside that context. I have had a great time interfacing with a super-local network of Presbyterian folks from some differing backgrounds who share a similar context of ministry. Likewise, I had fabulous non-Presbyterian interactions with pastors in my previous church in Northern California (AOG, Baptist, Young Life, Nazarene, Catholic, Calvary, and Church of God). That particular group was the epitome of theological dissonance, but was able to have great fellowship and center around what we could accomplish together for the glory of God.

      I believe our Presbyteries will never be able to capture any of that in any bottle. It is a fluid, free, and organic creation. It may be from the Spirit. Presbytery is a prescribed organization that is hierarchical. Our younger generations find themselves less and less responsive to those kinds of groups. We bypass them to create our own networks of professional relationships, solutions, and innovation.

      My own sense after watching the video is that any Presbytery structure we create is simply going to end up being a kind of subscriptionist clone of what we already have and I can’t possibly conceive of why the denominational powers that be would consent to any such structure.

      We need to be inspired by Reformed theology but freed to create a network of relationships and churches that meet the realities of our current historical context rather than a structure that was birthed out of a 400-500 year old context. We need something much more fluid, interchangeable, and adaptable. Can we even call that a Presbytery? Should we? Is that term useful?

      I need a structure the enables open collaboration and sharing. If the “Fellowship” can do that, great! But, if we are simply creating another Presbytery structure that engages itself and the world in the same old ways, then it will not be worth my time and energy to engage this issue. I would rather work around one rotting dinosaur rather than two (the newer one of course being only a few steps behind the old in terms of its stage of necrosis and rigor).

      Restrictive structures and hierarchical structures are either dying or simply being bypassed in our world today. They are no longer simply outdated, but rather have become a hindrance to creativity and Holy Spirit inspired innovation. Whatever is done must recognize that the issues we are facing are not just about theology, but also about massive macro-societal changes and shifts. A solution that addresses our current impasse as mainly a theological problem will only be able to propose inadequate solutions.

      Unless we can develop new kinds of Reformed associations that can swim in that new reality of constant change and adaptation, our congregations will cease to exist at all.

      Matt Overton
      Associate Pastor for Youth and Families
      Columbia Presbyterian Church
      Vancouver, Wa.

  18. John Almquist says:

    Bravo! This is a very positive development.

  19. John L. says:

    This seems a severely convoluted way to say “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Peter.” Why not just come clean and say, “God, I thank you that I am not like that sinner over there….”? As this proposal stands now, it’s possible to sound incredibly pious and right while being completely out of step with how scripture and the confessions understand community in covenant with God and one another.

    Also, while it seems that I would get to select which “fellowship of the like-minded” I would associate with at the beginning, there is at the same time a startling silence concerning how my continuing like-mindedness would be determined. Would it remain my choice, or would it become “theirs?”

  20. Bruce M.Rux says:

    I always have time to study, learn and grow. But I must confess, I am extreamly close to leaving the PC(USA) and joining either the Cumberland P.C. or the EPC.

  21. Wes Fortin says:

    I’m intrigued by this concept. Those that call for tolerance and unconditional unity, citing Corinthians, need to read on to Chapter 5 and 6 and especially 10. There are numerous Biblical calls to cast out those that teach false doctrines and those that won’t accept the truth. The greatest danger to the church is often not the threats from outside, but those that rise from within.

    As we discuss proposals for re-organization, I think there needs to be some “brutally honest” discussion on how we got here. Not to place blame or point fingers, but to put policy in place to ensure we don’t simply create a new group that, twenty years from now, splits again. The Apostle Paul did not mince words with his wayward churches or when addressing Christian Gnostics. Neither did our Lord and Savior when he pronounced that not all who cry “Lord Lord” will be saved. Neither should we fail to speak plainly and boldly. Otherwise, we will be back here again in short order.

  22. Does the fellowship’s proposal sound any more like “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Paul” anymore than being in the PCUSA, United Methodist Church, or the Roman Catholic Church, sounds like “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Paul” ?

    Paul did not so much condemn people in the church for falling under the banter of being under the teaching of Paul or Apollos, as much as he did the pridefulness of people boasting that they indentifed themselves with these teachers.

    We must remember that in the very same letter the apostle Paul spoke of the one body of Christ being comprised of many different parts (This can principle apply to modern denominations). I view the formation of the new fellowship simply as a new part of one body of Christ.

    The question that begs to be answered by those critics who accuse the fellowship of being schismatic is, why havent you gone back to the mother church? If insitutional loyalty, oneness, and cohesion is so important to you then what are you doing in the PCUSA? Unless, of course, you think the mother church is still the “synagogue of Satan.” I think we all know that the RCC is not that. She has had her own reformation and is not only one part of the body of Christ, but is the one from whom we all came.



  23. Alan L. Blankenship says:

    Know that I am most thankful for your efforts and earnestly pray for God’s leadership in this movement. I, however, am concerned regarding the consideration to keeping one foot in PC(USA) and perhaps, one foot out. I truly believe Satan to be a consuming power. It would seem this has been demonstrated within the denomination, certainly since the 1920’s emphasis on the importance of compromise in order to hold the denomination together. Hopefully, I am not alone in my feeling that the denomination is in a state of apostasy.

    I think there are lessons to be learned from the Angilican movement away from the Episcopal Church (USA) which can be effective as a new Reform Body really does re-form subscribing to the principals found in Chapter 1 (Preliminary Principals) of the PC(USA) Book of Order and allowing the Holy Spirit and only, the Holy Spirit to lead us through scripture.

    I pray for you and am grateful for your committment. In Christ, I remain,

    Alan L. Blankenship

  24. “We believe the main purpose of these presbytery meetings must be biblical study, theological reflection, and mutual fellowship.”

    When a body depleted of vital nutrients is supplied those very nutrients, the body begins to recover. This much is also true of the body of Christ and the word/bread/food that nourishes it. Here’s the idea: Why not make the texts omitted from the Revised Common Lectionary the focus of such biblical study, for that is where most of the missing scriptural and spiritual nutrients are to be found. My hunch is that the churches and pastors who are drawn to this fellowship will find great encouragement, as well as many bracing, challenging texts, at The Year D Project (see link below). “Let the Word do the work!”

    Timothy Matthew Slemmons, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Worship
    University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

  25. Thomas Huffaker says:

    Whatever the form of the new presbyteries, they should exist for a single purpose: to nurture, grow and mature their communities up into the body of Christ. This is how I envision it: perhaps a presbytery organized geographically for the small congregations (less than 100 members), and the other presbyteries based on the size of the churches in those presbyteries.

  26. Matthew Bardwell says:


    I’m honestly pumped about many of the conclusions that were reached listed on the white paper, so I’d like to jump into this and put my thoughts out there as this movement develops and try to be helpful.

    While I agree with the need for a covenanted community, the primacy of biblical study, theological refection, and fellowship which gives wisdom to make helpful decisions for participating local congregations, I’m not sure about the non-geographic nature of the proposal.

    First, the emphasis is community. Community has to be face to face meeting time. The only way for true mutual and and accountable relationships to form consists in regular in-person meetings. Ask anyone who’s been in a long distance relationship (like myself): the phone and Skype just don’t cut it!

    In order to stay small and develop community, these covenanted communities will have to be in the same place. They probably should be no more than 3-5 congregations and should commit to meeting regular meetings (bi-monthly or monthly). The meetings should consist of worship, study, prayer (breaking the larger meeting up into small groups so that people get to know each other and pray for each other, their congregations, and the matters that need to be addressed on the business side of things), and business concerning the presbytery.

    The churches in areas where they are not many congregations may have to be incorporated into another presbytery by distance on a temporary basis. One of the main concerns of the presbytery and the fellowship as a whole should be learning everything about and doing as effectively as possible church planting. The goal should be to develop new congregations which could then comprise new presbyteries that develop their own sense of vocation and community. I’ve seen this operate in Manhattan with Redeemer Presbyterian Church. There is an intricate network of churches that have an excellent community formed and all stay in touch with one another.

    So there would be kind of a double effect, you would have church planting going on, where you set up new congregations to bear witness and the gospel goes to new areas. While this is happening, the new congregations can form new covenant communities as new presbyteries. These new presbyteries would have deep bonds because the congregations would be young and hungry for a network of a few other church to be a part of.

    This structure could work with Reformed churches who do not want to be a part of the PCUSA in general as well. Church plants could choose whether or not they would be a part of the PCUSA, as well as outside churches who would like to join the movement.

    God Bless you all, I pray for wisdom and discernment for this movement.

    • Anthony ("Tony") D'Olio says:

      As Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking sites demonstrate, geographical proximity is not necessary to develop community, at least for the vast majority of “X” and “Y” generation people. If we truly want to avoid abandoning the denomination altogether, all of us are going to have to make compromises and, dare I say, let go of our idols. No strucuture is ever going to be perfect. The current structure certainly isn’t. But we may have to start thinking outside of the box if we want to maintain any type of denominational or connectional identity.

      • Matt Johnson says:

        I have to agree w/ Bardwell here. I can’t imagine a pastoral/ministry relationship that’s upheld primarily by Facebook/Skype/email and is comparable to a localized relationship. I use social media, and I’m 33 years old, but nothing creates true community the way face to face relationship does. What social media allows with regard to true community is an easier way to channel information for people who also have physical proximity.

        I’m very skeptical that a non-geographic presbytery model could accommodate the true needs of churches going through conflict, adaptive change, seeking vision for a local context they don’t know how to engage, etc. If the presbytery partners are not sharing that local context, they can only be minimally involved in such matters.

  27. Kevin Sanford says:

    Having read the original letter and then the white paper – has there been a shift from “clear and concise” to “a united theological core”? Or, are you saying there would be a “clear and concise, united theological core”, allowing the ambiguity of the latter to be mitigated via the force of the former?

  28. Linda SL says:

    You are asking members/churches to join presbyteries of like mined theologies under the umbrella of the PC(USA). Presbyteries will be small, for the purpose of elders and pastors growing spiritually and encouraging mission (which seems to be social justice) together. They will be across geographical lines, but still aligned with the denomination and accountable to the Book of Order (even if Ordination standards change) and accountable to and representated by the General Assembly. Hopefully, these Presbyteries will not be agents of “chism”.

    Members who do not agree with the direction, nor with the current changes to ordination standards of the PC(USA) have two choices. They can hold on longer to their membership and see if organizing around non-geographic Presbyteries/Synods will work to give a place to be true to Biblical Authority in their
    eyes or they can choose to leave this denomination.

    Some questions arise regarding these Presbyteries:
    1. Will staying a member, although aligning with a conservative Presbytery, still mean that I am associated with a denomination that is lax in their reformed views, moral standards, and theology of Christ. When I say I am a member of the PC(USA) aren’t I saying I agree with their views and the Book of Order. That may become a problem for me if current trends continue.
    Being a member means that I am declaring my agreement with this denomination….
    even if I am of the “conservative” leaning Presbytery.
    2. Will our witness and evangelism be compromised. Continuing to be a member means that as the Gospel is presented and people come to Christ through the ministry of my church, new Christians will be invited to join a denomination that does not hold up a theology that is Scriptural and reformed. Yes, I will be inviting them to join the part of the “body” that is my church and a Presbytery that is Reformed, but it will still be associated with the PC(USA). In your statement above, the Cause of Justice is only about Social Justice and does not include Salvation Justice nor emphasize evangelism.
    The world does social justice, the church should be distinct because it offers justice based on what Christ did on the cross and that is our evangilistic opportunity. Will evangelism be a priority of this model you propose?
    3. What about the chain of where money will go? Giving money to my church, Presbytery, and then to the National Leaders and PC(USA) endeavors is giving to
    the denomination that is not living into it’s Biblical mandate to disciple people according to Scripture. Where will the money go, even with these new presbyteries?
    Will the current Leadership in Louiville allow money to be diverted from National concerns and to stay within these “conservative” Presbyteries.
    4. Will these Presbyteries still be under the Book of Order which may change?
    How can we ignore a Book of Order that is compromised? What will be the authority in the obedience all Presbyteries must give to the order in the church guided by this Book of Order . Your proposal won’t be able to by pass the connectional nature we have because we are all under this structure that is outlined by the government and laws in the Book of Order. Our connection as chruches is based on the Book of Order and the government of the PC(USA). Of course, we are connected to the larger church of Christ as Christian, but we live out this connection in the PC(USA).
    How then do we reconcile problems in the Book of Order that oppose scripture and being members of this denomination?
    5. What does chism look like – a divided church? What responsibility will these Presbyteries/Synods have at the General Assembly? How can you avoid chism when that has been the main characteristic of this denomination. Do you think the leaders who are gaining power in the voting realm will give up that power now to more conservative Presbyteries?. You may be able to controll your church, your Presbytery and Synod, but the GA and progressives will stand their ground against change which will put these more conservative presbyteries into chism or dissagreement with them. The church is divided and your proposal only gives a structure of that division.
    6. What does it mean to allow the Holy Spirit to work in our midst? I appauld your efforts even in the midst of these questions, because I think that real change will come as like minded, evangelical, Christ-centered members gather and worship God alone and allow the Holy Spirit to work. So, thanks you for standing firm, guiding, bowing to the Holy Spirit’s lead.

  29. Bob Campbell says:

    A little known fact: there used to be geographic theologically compatible presbyteries. Into the 1830s there were two presbyteries in Philadelphia and three in New York City. The purpose was to allow those that were theologically compatible to be in the same presbytery and I suspect, to avoid the rancor that comes from tossing theological enemies into the same presbytery. One does not, therefore, have to reject physical closeness to have theological compatibility.

    It is curious that we seem to have forgotten this and that people get the creeping horrors at the idea.

    • Steve Frank says:

      Note to those of us with an urban/metropolitan worldview: Don’t forget those of us who inhabit rural areas in which the nearest “large” town (pop. 5,000) can be 30-50+ miles away and the nearest medical specialty is 100-200 miles away. (Yes, some of us live in such a world.) While majorities of rural folk tend to be conservative, can we actually create two viable presbyteries in places like Eugene OR, Casper WY, Boise ID, Bozeman MT, Santa Fe NM, Dubuque IA, Lincoln NE?

      This point is not to argue against such creative ideas. It is only a factor in any equation rescaling “presbytery.”

  30. I’m glad for this place for all of us to compare our notes. I loved Dave Peterson’s image in his Scottsdale talk of experiments in garages that should be shared across the board. Some of the best bands emerge out of garages. I’m intrigued with Matt Bardwell’s observations. It seems denominationalism per se is devolving rapidly. My favorite image for this devolution is not schism but fragmentation, like broken glass. Smaller, more local, seems to be the direction of this devolution (what everyone calls local option), back to the grass roots. So why not presbyteries made up of three or four congregations, like garages where together we experiment on how to play together? I picture all of us under the guidance of the same Book of Order, using the same Confessions, but establishing covenantally very local institutions of accountability such as COM’s and CPM’s. Money flow would be decided locally with the wise counsel of fellow garage members. Pension stuff would be left as is since that doesn’t seem to be broken. It would be different. Messy. Creative. Like a garage. Maybe we’re beginning to be on to something…

    • I like the idea of smaller presbyteries, or maybe of covenant groups within presbyteries. Some kind of re-ordering that would allow for shared mission to be more of a realistic and hands-on endeavor. I am torn on the need to have geographically proximate partners. Certainly it’s nice to grab a pint with a colleague who is across town or county, but I don’t know that proximity is a necessary part of the mix. Shared mission passions or ministry philosophy or other criteria might make for more creative and dynamic cells that could inspire and provoke one another irregardless of location. What if cells were organized by missional experimentation, or passion for multi-generational worship, or urban ministry experience, or world mission projects – in other words, let ministry focus drive presbytery (or cell group) formation so that we might inspire/push one another forward.

      Above all, I appreciate the use of the word “messy”…. 🙂

      Kind Regards,
      Duncan MacLeod

      • Patrick Vaughn says:

        In some of the comments people have been talking about “cultural influences / changes” that pose problems or challenges for our current structure and denomination state. One of these is how geography and partnership play out. Is it necessary to be “next to” in order to partner and be in community? As I have thought about this I have come to believe that the answer once again is messy. It’s yes and no.

        The challenge for the church local and as a denomination is to have “binocular vision” (I’m borrowing this phrase from “OMG: A Youth Ministry Handbook” edited by Kenda Dean). This is what they mean by binocular vision, “youth ministry (or you could say churches) must learn to view ‘place’ through binoculars, bringing near and far horizons into focus simultaneously.” Binocular vision helps us to see and be in partnership with those next to us and far away. The mobility and technology that are trademarks of our culture require us to be adept at interacting in this way. Duncan, maybe that’s why you feel torn, because we should feel torn. Maybe this discomfort / torn-ness will lead us to partner with those locally who may not have the same passions or affinity with us but who are seeking to witness to God’s saving love in the same local community. Maybe this discomfort will lead us to seek non-geographical partners with similar ministry interests so that like garage bands we can jam and experiment and learn from one another within the same “genre” of music. I think the solution isn’t to resolve the tension between near and far or geographical or non-geographical but to live in it.

        Another cool thing about “binocular vision” is it pertains to our witness as well. The church is Christ’s body locally and globally. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation to our neighbor (local) and our neighbor (global). Binocular vision helps us break out of church / christian maintenance mode and into recognizing where God’s Kingdom is at work and bursting forth. Binocular vision challenges us to be on the look out for where and how God is calling us into participation and partnership.

  31. Pam Petersen says:

    As a relatively new Presbyterian (14 years) with deep evangelical roots, I am very encouraged by the way God’s Spirit it moving within the denomination. We must stand on the Word of God as our sole authority in obedience and love. There are many procedural and organizational issues to be addressed but prayer and time spent listening to the Holy Spirit’s leading must be our focus and priority. I know God will bless us as we seek to do His will.

  32. James Coone says:

    Currently I am a member of a very large presbytery both in geography and number of congregations. It is extremely difficult to connect with like-minded ministers and elders as none of us can make it to all the presbytery meetings due to travel time/distance, finances and other demands of our congregations. My support network actually comes through PFR and the Wee Kirk Conference system.
    I am glad to see this discussion unfolding, will follow it with great interest, and will participate as appropriate.
    There is one central, significant factor in all current discussions that will determine whether or not the PCUSA has a future. That factor can be summarized in one compound sentence, What is the Bible and how does it define or influence our behavior and attitudes toward God and one another? If we become so divided on this question that we can no longer have civil conversations with each other, then no amount of reorganization, regardless of how well intentioned, will be able to hold the pieces together.
    May we find the Lord’s guidance and wisdom as we seek an effective way to be the Church.

  33. Andrie Chen says:

    It appears that in order to meet the concerns addressed in the majority comments a new reformed body is needed. I long for a presbytery that will provide guidance, encouragement, caring and love to both clergy and lay people but not a ruling or rule-making organization.

  34. Suzanne Ebel says:

    Do we really need to reorganize presbytery structures when our difficulties are theological, specifically differing views of the supremacy and centrality of Jesus Christ, and biblical authority; and the issue of ordaining practicing gays. Do we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater? I have the sense that we get all balled up in structures and forms because we can’t agree on the basics. I appreciate all you are doing, and I long to be part of a presbytery where one knows the Holy Spirit resides; but I wonder if the lack is not due so much to structure as to lack of obedience and resfusal to follow Christ. What are some other thoughts about this?
    Reverend Suzanne Ebel (New Mexico)

  35. Lisa E says:

    Matthew Bardwell’s comment dated March 12 offers ideas which seem beneficial on several levels. It offers potential for growth spiritually, communally, and denominationally. I agree developing covenanted communities requires local proximity. The dilemma my church faces is we are part of a very liberal presbytery that we disagree with on just about every issue. Reorganizing within our local area would be possible, as there are still a handful of conservatives in our presbytery, but doing this while remaining within the current structure will only cause a wider chasm within the denomination’s groups, while giving more power to increasing liberal numbers in the GA. I’m not sure remaining in the current PCUSA holds any option if we cannot agree on the foundational issue of scriptural authority.

  36. Steve Trotter says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which the position of “presbytery executive” came into being. The title itself says something that has no biblical, historical, or spiritual roots in the faith.
    One thing that would help presbyteries is abolishing the position of “executive.” let pastors and normal people–non ordained folks–do what “executives” find themselves doing. A few things would change immediately. More folks would be engaged in ministry. Superfluous “work” would go undone–and un-missed.

  37. Our church is investigating all the options open to us for a faithful response to the change in the ordination standards, i.e. the removal of the fidelity and chastity phrase. I’ve listened to the conversation and have two questions that needs to be answered. 1) What are the benefits to remaining connected to the PCUSA? If we are going as far as seperating via fellowships, networks, or Non-geographic Presbyteries then why not take it one step farther and seperate completely? Is there a compelling arguement or benefit to staying in these ways verses leaving completely? What are the cons to leaving verses staying but living in new relationships based in various affinities? 2) What about the money? In good conscience I know we can not use our finances to support the PCUSA. Will the Presbytery allow us to withhold our monies or divert them to these new affiliations? If not, what do we do? Will they come after us for not paying per capita. We are a larger church and our dues are substantial. Will we be able to remain in a new fellowship and be able not to pay our per capita?

    On another note, does anyone know the process for leaving the denomination and what the experience has been for those who have done it? What did they learn? What process worked for them to communicate with the congregation? If they had to do it over again what would they do differently? Would they have stayed? How has it effected thier ministry? Has it recovered or are they stronger now than before as a church?

    If we are going to actually speak openly about leaving then we need to also hear what’s entailed before we start down that road. We need to count the cost before we take that path. I’d be interested in hearing from those who did it successfully, with a large chunk of thier church going with them. How did you accomplish that?

    • Hasso says:

      @Pastor Pfeil: Re: Money: My congregation, Bethel Pres. in Columbus, has been withholding per capita for some time now, and I have not heard of any disciplinary action taken against us. We have spent our per capita instead on speakers and events as a ministry to others in the presbytery.

      However, if you choose to jump ship entirely and join a different congregation, things get more complicated. The members of your congregation would have to make that decision together, and I know nothing about the process.

  38. Keith Sunahara says:

    I identify myself as an evangelical Christian, but being relatively new to the PC(USA) I lack some of the historical background regarding the conflicts within the PC(USA). The white paper really only devotes a few sentences to the motivation for the formation of the Fellowship PC(USA). My understanding from the white paper is that the PC(USA) is in decline due to conflict. This conflict has a number of foundational causes: “differing understanding of scripture, authority, Christology (both the person and work of Christ), the extent of salvation (creeping universalism), and a broader set of moral issues around which fracture lines appear.” Such deep divisions within the PC(USA) have coalesced around these causes that the only basis for unity is now the property clause and the pension plan. Since nobody wants decline, the best thing to do is create some degree of separation between the divisions so that both sides (especially the conservatives) can have a chance of flourishing while maintaining their reformed/Presbyterian identity.

    The way I see it, the source of these foundational causes of conflict is usually one’s position on the authority of scripture. If human experience/knowledge, in the form of psychology and hard sciences is given authority over scripture, then profound differences in theology, biblical interpretation, and ethics develop between people who view human experience/knowledge as authoritative versus those who view scripture as authoritative. For those who place human science above scripture, approaching scripture with the presupposition that miracles do not happen results in interpretations of scripture that impact Christology and salvation, even if that person claims that he or she accepts the authority of scripture. For those who place psychology above scripture, since psychology has determined that homosexuality is not a deviant behavior, then any passages in scripture that describe homosexuality as sin, should be ignored because they are wrong.

    Scriptural authority is a deal breaker for me. I can maintain fellowship with someone who has a different interpretation of scripture from me (as frustrating as that can be at times) as long as at the end of the day, we both agree to obey scripture however we interpret it. However, placing human experience/knowledge above scripture, either in their interpretive presuppositions or as a direct comparison to scripture would be a reason for me to break fellowship, or at least distance myself from that person in an organization sense.

    Can the steering committee provide a more detailed description of the position of scriptural authority for those people who are voting to approve the amendment to the ordination standards? In general, are they people who believe in the authority of scripture, but interpret scripture in a way that homosexuality per se is not a sin? Or do they simply believe scripture is wrong when it describes homosexuality as sin? Or is it something more nuanced? I am assuming that the reason for the amendment to the ordination standards is to provide a means for the ordination of gay clergy.

    Keith Sunahara, Church of Christ Presbyterian, Chicago IL

  39. Roy Fauber says:

    Our church, established in 1746, is about to be torn apart by reaction to the Amendment 10-A, leading to exploring association with Fellowship PCUSA. I am struck by how little members of our congregation know about PCUSA positions, much less have any concern about them, yet vital energy and focus that should be spent on the activities that our church was so involved in and proud of (mission work in particular) is being expended on finding a “new path.” So, we are exploring associating with Fellowship PCUSA before even learning about where we actually “…see the Christian faith differently” (from Fellowship-PCUSA website FAQ).
    Fellowship PCUSA makes many statements justifying a need for something new, yet leaves many fundamental questions unanswered, or supplies answers couched in such vague language as to be incomprehensible to the average person.

    Here is a listing of a few of my questions generated by reading various documents on the website:

    1. What specifically is the “core theological identity” and what are the “essential beliefs”?
    2. What are the Biblical references for these beliefs?
    3. What is “relational unity”?
    4. What is the new “ordination model”?
    5. What does “release the Gospel to new missional communities” mean?
    6. Is “tolerance does not produce unity,” is tolerance not to be tolerated?
    7. What are the “many contentious issues” with which “conservatives” disagree?
    8. What specifically does a “more historical understanding of the Scriptures” mean, and how does that differ from the views of PCUSA?
    9. What are some examples of “experimentation” for which there is a bias?
    10. What are examples of “…where we simply see the Christian faith differently”?

  40. Frank Kinkead says:

    I hear over and over the call for peace and unity; living within PCUSA as an attached but separate organization. I also hear a lot about what I call virtual communion in fellowship through the internet, email, etc. While this fellowship is all well and good, we have a human need for face time with our fellow Christians. That need is why church began. Once the early Christians came to a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ they came together to experience worshiping God with a common understanding brought to them by the Apostles and through Scripture and revealed by the Holy Spirit. So, if I had a vote, I would say GEOGRAPHY-YES a good thing!

    We all know what God calls sin and, for some reason known only to our Lord, he has chosen to leave that thorn in our flesh after we were born again. So we are not looking for perfection in community but we are looking for common spiritual ground that affirms our faith in Christ. The only part where we are “To Big” is the part where we have gotten to big for our britches. We are “smarter” than the Holy Scriptures, the source of our knowledge, faith, and trust in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Personally, I think that whether we like it our not, our Lord will soon take PCUSA down a peg or two for it’s presumption on his grace.

    Lastly, I must confess that I abhor the Presbyterian “vast theological spectrum” which only breeds disunity.

    Frank Kinkead, Elder-Grand Lakes Presbyterian Church, Katy, TX

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