Sunday, August 12, 2007

One-Hour Presbyteries

Suppose each congregation in a presbytery were no more than one hour from every other church in the presbytery. (This principle could apply in other polities, too, even among congregational polities.) This would be small enough that all the ministers and elder cadres could have steady, organic relations with one another. This is closer to the way presbyteries used to be organized. In some places, especially in the west, this rule might not be practical. Still, I think a one-hour dispersion rule would be a good rule of thumb for the Presbyterian Church.

I am working on a document about rebuilding the Presbyterian establishment. In the draft, I argued that the Executive or General Presbyters, the ongoing staff person of the presbytery, is a natural advisor to the General Assembly. The EP, though, is not a constitutional officer. The constitutional officers -- the offices every presbytery has to have someone fill -- are the stated clerk and the moderator. I also believe the stated clerks are natural advisors to the General Assembly. The moderator usually serves for only a year, so does not have quite the breadth of experience that the stated clerks and EPs have.

A reader of my presbyterian establishment draft commented that EPs are a recent invention. In order to assure that most presbyteries had the resources to afford a permanent paid staff member, the presbyteries were made much larger. In much of the country presbyteries today far exceed the one-hour rule.

If going to one-hour presbyteries meant doing without EPs in most places, so be it. I think it is more important to the life, connection, and solidarity of the church that the local ministers and elder cadres know one another.


Quotidian Grace said...

This is a very interesting idea, Beau.

My presbytery (New Covenant--southeast Texas) would probably become three or four presbyteries if the one hour driving rule applied. In fact, the Houston metro area alone might account for three presbyteries. It's an hour and a half drive from one end of the metro area to another in almost any direction.

Would that improve our relationships? I'm not sure. Most of us are used to driving long distances, so aren't that daunted by it. This may only be true west of the Mississippi.

There are regional clusters in our presbytery -- some are more active than others.

In our particular case, the current EP (called the GP here) has made a big difference in improving relationships and is very valuable to us. I realize that is not always the case.

On the other hand, if there were more presbyteries in our area--we'd have more votes at General Assembly.

Denis Hancock said...

I think you might have to balance two (or more) issues here:

1. Keeping people from having to drive long distances.

Of course, this would not be possible in the Presbytery of Pueblo (Colorado) where some PC(USA) congregations could be a two hour drive from the nearest Presbyterian Church. The Pueblo Presbytery (where my parents used to live) goes from the Kanasas/Oklahoma border to the Continental Divide and from the New Mexico Border to about Colorado Springs. Alaska presents even greater logistical problems.

2. Keeping the Presbyteries more or less the same in population.

And this was dealt with quite well by QG. In fact, of you take the two largest congregations in Houston (where my parents are now living), their numbers would exceed the total population of the Presbytery of Missouri Union, where I live.

When one looks at the PC(USA) voting patterns over the past 12 years, I would imagine that some Synods would have a collective conniption fit at the thought of more Presbyteries in the regions of the PC(USA) where this situation is a problem.

It's a great thought, Beau, but I don't see it happening, although it is a tempting thought. I didn't realize that the reason for consolidating Presbyteries was to make it possible to hire an Executive Presbyter.zbm

SPorcupine said...

The core idea sounds right to me but it sounds like you need a sliding scale.

In suburban New Jersey, forty-five minutes would be unthinkable for that. In rural Kentucky, an hour and a half could be completely routine for household errands.

Maybe the standard is simply having some minimum number of churches. The standard might by an hour's drive or eight churches or 1000 members.

Anonymous said...

What is a presbytery?

My impression is that in the old P.C.U.S., it was one of four "church courts." I assume it had programmatic functions, but the name implied constitutional duties of governance.

In practice, what accompanied that set-up was smaller presbyteries and smaller synods, in which collegial relationships seem to have thrived (according to the memories of those who served in them).

What has a presbytery been since 1983? Practically, it has been larger, requiring the combination of predecessor bodies and the necessary challenges of such unions. I've been in a presbytery that has done that beautifully and in two that have done it horribly.

Structurally, it has been a programmatic bureaucracy. In order to accomplish all sorts of programmatic tasks that someone believed essential, we have formed committees by the boatload. We go begging people to serve on these committees. Ask any moderator of a presbytery nominating committee if you can have the job. You won't get any opposition!

I am very receptive to every attempt to rethink this arrangement. I have served on and moderated plenty of presbytery committees. Not only is geography a challenge, but free time for meetings and work and events are too. The sheer difficulty of getting people together is enough to stop hitting our heads against the same wall.

Gruntled said...

I am all for a practical, flexible sliding scale. My objective would be to make presbyteries organic units for ministers, especially, and as many elder cadres as can make a go of it. Organic organizations need many fewer committees, and can build up more trust.

Mark Smith said...

My presbytery is really close to fitting your description. I'd say that one end to the other is no more than 1.5 hours.

The real distance in our presbytery seems to be economic and political/theological.

Jon said...

I'm in the same presbytery as Mark and I think it works reasonably well (~40 churches; not a huge presbytery geographically). But my father is in southeast Ohio and I know that distance is a barrier. It does seem, as Quotidian says, that regional clusters can be a help in these situations.

If I were working on this, I would check out the RCA and UCC to see how they handle it. My sense is that the RCA has smaller presbytery equivalents, but that they are often under-resourced and ill-equiped to handle conflict, organization, etc.

I would find a way to measure and test this question before suggesting it to the church.

Rev Dave said... hours travel time presbytery out here in the sticks would consist of me and my lovely wife.

I guess we would swap the moderator's role every year or so!

Anonymous said...

'Probably a nice idea for some judicatures. For us here behind the Zion Curtain (Utah) however, the distance between our most northern and southern congregations is over 400 miles. Half of our 23 particular churches are large enough to have the resources to call an installed pastor. And our aggregate membership has declined 15% since I arrived 8 years ago. We could do a couple of 1-hour presbyteries with about five or six congregations each.

Gruntled said...

How far would y'all have to go to get together a dozen congregations? I think 12 - 20 might be a good rule of thumb for the number of congregations in a presbytery that was expected to really know each other and work together.

Anonymous said...

I agree Beau. My similar proposition has been that no Presbytery be larger in membership than can meet in it's smallest church.
Part of the issue results from the move for Presbyteries to be be a programming agency in addition to being a governing body. The fact is that many if not most churches have at their disposal a whole range of programming support options in education, mission, and church development. Many of our churches are working ecumenically in these arenas with their neighboring sister churches of all denominations.
Do presbyteries NEED executive Presbyters? Mission Enablers? Education Staff? many Presbyteries can no loner afford such staff, even though they extend over hundreds of miles of territory in order to obtain a critical funding mass. As governing bodies, the real staff required is Stated Clerks, and the essential governance work can be done more effectively and with greater trust in smaller groupings