The March 12 issue of the Presbyterian Outlook has an updated version of an old proposal to move (back) to much smaller presbyteries. Philip Butin, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, had published a version of this “big idea” more than a decade ago in the Outlook. In light of the ongoing crisis of middle governing bodies, he presents an updated version.
If we had small presbyteries of 12 to 20 congregations, just about all of the cadres could have an ongoing, organic church life together. The pastors could readily know one another and meet more often than at presbytery meetings. The elders active beyond the congregation could get to know another, too, and take the lead in regional projects that should be lay led.
Butin proposes something like remaking the current presbyteries into the new synods. I have thought about that before. I think, though, that synods have almost no function anymore. They should probably be laid down. There is one model of synod, though, that we might revive: the state synod. Sometimes, the church needs to speak to the state in an organized way, just as it needs to speak to the national government in an organized way. A state synod could be a very modest organization. The ongoing tasks that might be dealt with at the synod level could be what remains of our church camps and our campus ministry.
I think presbytery size these days is driven more by the economics of funding full-time executive presbyters than it is by the organic right-sizing of church units. I am a big fan of EPs/GPs. I think they are the backbone of church order. If I had my druthers, only presbytery executives and stated clerks would have an advisory vote at the General Assembly. Smaller presbyteries could rarely afford a full-time executive or stated clerk. These duties would have to be attached to a particular congregation or two. So be it.
An organic presbytery would be a viable unit of church governance. We would not sink to congregationalism, as we are now threatening to do. But we could move past the sense of crisis and doom that stalks the middle governing bodies now.