Posted by: The Presbyterian Outlook in Untagged on Jun 11, 2012
One of the least discussed aspects of the report of the Mid-Councils Commission to the 220th General Assembly is the data that were collected for the purpose of informing the decisions of the commission. The narrative report contains the responses to the mandate for data collection from the 219th GA, and although all the data (tons of it!) are included in the full report, most of it is not included in the shorter narrative. The voluminous appendix containing all the data reports, however, contains much that could inform the church on a host of issues that should be considered by church leadership as we try to put this denomination on a better path for the future. (D.Min. candidates take notice!)
As a member of the commission, I actually read all those reports, and for me, the most startling feature of the data is that they point to the fatal flaw that is now threatening the denomination: there is today and has been for quite some time, an enormous chasm between the “higher” levels of the church and local congregational leadership. Multiple sources of data, collected in widely diverse ways show that while the leadership of General Assembly, synods, and presbyteries are quite “connectional”, that is, they are generally knowledgeable about the mission and ministries of each other, local church ruling and teaching elders are generally quite disconnected, or non-connectional.1 It is not a stretch to say that some are so disconnected as to perceive the hierarchy of the denomination as a burden or an anathema to their congregations. When half of all session members surveyed respond that they have neither a strong nor a weak relationship with their presbytery, the whole church should wake up and realize that we have been pretending to be connectional, when in fact we have been, for some time, quite dis-connected.
These data suggest that if the PCUSA is to ever develop a positive culture that strives to support and connect congregations as the body of Christ, there will need to be a dramatic shift in how all higher councils view their work. For too many years, higher councils have viewed local churches as the ones who needed to support the denominational structures, when all the time those congregations were assessing how well the bureaucracy did or did not support them. I served on both presbytery and synod general councils for many years, and not once in those years did we ask, “What should we be doing to foster the success of our churches?” In fact, we generally bemoaned the lack of support from our churches, as though it was abundantly clear that it was their role to support us. For too long, churches (especially those that were financially stable) were not seen as in need of support. This mutual neglect meant that neither council really understood the other. It was logical, therefore, for local congregational leaders, who understood that those “other” councils relied completely on their funding, to ask for some kind of clear return on their investment. And, if they were frustrated or angry about higher council decisions, a way of responding was to withhold those vital funds. This is still our system, and this is very often how it still works. Our current crisis is the logical extension of these attitudes and patterns of behavior.
The Mid Councils Commission recommendations are designed to begin the process of turning away from these ingrained habits and attitudes. They are about restructuring a system to give more choice and control both to presbyteries and to local churches. The elimination of synods is designed to give more control and decision-making to presbyteries. It has been seen as a repudiation of synods, but it is really just the need to have fewer levels of administrative cost and regulation. Significantly, all the presbyteries in a geographic area may still choose to keep their synod’s programs and support services. These are not eliminated, just subject to a “market” force of whether or not the presbyteries value the programs and services. The intent is a system more accountable and responsive to stakeholders.
Nonetheless, the reduction of hierarchy will not make any significant difference in how local congregational leaders view the church unless other, more dramatic changes are made. Local churches must see relationships with other congregations as a vital, integral part of their church’s mission and ministry, and they must readily see how connection to the broader church in their communities, in the nation, and around the world is a unique value of Presbyterianism and clearly a fundamental part of what God is calling the church to do.
So, the commission’s second major recommendation is to experiment with allowing presbyteries to discern with churches how they want to be connected. This “season of experimentation” is about giving presbytery more flexibility to respond to churches that want more choices and more responsibility for connecting to the larger body of Christ. In our present structure, the constitution defines that for them, so the only choice is compliance. The recommendation is to return both the freedom and the responsibility to a genuine, purposeful partnership of congregations.
This recommendation asks churches and presbyteries to answer two fundamental questions:
How do we make presbytery an integral part of each congregation’s mission and ministry?
How do we make being “Presbyterian” and holding ourselves accountable to a larger body of Christians a strong value for local congregations?
For me, as a member of the commission, the value of experimenting with other ways of creating communities of churches is that it may mean that there is more active participation in a community of which your church chose to be part. As an educator, I liken it to schools of choice. In most school districts, parents are told which school their children will attend, and if they don’t like that, their only recourse is to move. Parents in these schools are largely uninvolved. When the district says, “We have many wonderful schools, which do you think is the best match for your family and your child?” the whole attitude changes; parents and children take involvement in the school more seriously. It also makes the schools more responsive to parents and children because they want their school to be valued. Could that happen to presbyteries? Would “presbytery of choice” make us more faithful to each other? And in that, will we find what it means to be the body of Christ? These are among the questions that the “season of experimentation is designed to explore.
Finally, another major recommendation from the Commission is that the denomination conduct a similar process with General Assembly agencies. As another council that looks to presbyteries and congregations for support, the same questions need to be asked. How does the denomination craft a clear and positive vision focused on developing strong, connectional congregations?
A last note about the urgency for a change of attitude: in my presbytery, a dying church has recently been reborn, and as part of that process, renamed itself without using the word “Presbyterian.” The “brand” is not seen as useful in attracting new members; it may even be a liability. If we are to survive, we need to find ways for church members to clearly understand what it means to be Presbyterian and why that is part of what God is calling us to do in the world.
1 In all 16 synods, face-to-face consultations were held with a member of the commission and all who chose to participate from the synod. When asked what needed to be preserved in the church, the number one answer was “connectionalism.” However, when asked what needed to change, the number one answer was communication, especially with local churches. In other words, we want to be connectional, but we know we don’t do it very well. Other frequent responses to the question “what needs to change” referenced too much bureaucracy, too much “legalism”, and too little direct support to churches. While these data were somewhat informal, Presbyterian Research Services conducted more structured research using focus groups that represented diversity in size, age, and ethnicity. When asked what the presbytery’s number one function is, the answer was overwhelmingly to support local churches. However, our failure in this regard is also evident from the PRS surveys of synod, presbytery, and congregational leaders. Large percentages of session members equated presbytery with financial and membership reports, review of records, and other compliance issues. Only about a third of session members reported any programmatic or mission support. Half of all session members surveyed responded that their church had neither a strong nor weak connection to presbytery.
Jane Dundas Smith represented the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii on the Mid Councils Commission. She is a former synod moderator, has served on general councils of her presbytery and synod, and was a commissioner to the 200th General Assembly. A retired school superintendent, Jane is a ruling elder in the First Presbyterian Church of San Bernardino.