Sunday, March 11, 2007

Small Presbyteries Would be Beautiful

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.


Jody Harrington said...

That's a very interesting idea. My presbytery has over 100 churches in it and is spread out over a large area of Texas. We definitely have a strain between those in the "hinterlands" and those (the majority) located in the greater Houston area.

Certainly real connectionalism between that many congregations is just a pipe dream. On the other hand, by having this many churches in one presbytery we can take advantage of the economies of scale . That means we have staff to help plan connectional gatherings and resource and oversee New Church developments.

My concern with smaller presbyteries is that they would be unable to do NCD work--and Louisville is not able to fund or assist with that either. Without NCD's, the PCUSA is really toast. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Pardon my pessimism, Gruntled, but the "problem" with this idea today is the same as it was in 1982. You can't dilute the votes of southern presbyteries on amendments to the constitution if you don't force them to meet in vast groups. Remember, that process counts the votes of presbyteries! You've got to keep the southerners disenfranchised, you know. Otherwise it wouldn't be fair.

DennisS said...

In the Western half of Kansas are 25 congregations. The median membership is 58. Median attendance was 35 in 2005 (the middle half ranged from 17-52). The largest attendance was 115. There are a total of 10 pastorates (with 3 having two congregations) in the area of over 200 miles by over 200 miles.

This is an area of continued decline in population. In the last 10 years we have lost over a third of our PCUSA membership. Of those who remain in these rural areas the majority are elderly. A full 56% of our membership have been active members for over 30 years.

Of our 111 active members, 69 have been ordained elder or deacon. Fifty years ago, of our 375 members, 70 had been ordained elder, deacon, or trustee.

Becoming our own presbytery has very few advantages. Our resources continue to decline.

Stushie said...

Do away with synods altogether - the Church of Scotland got rid of theirs years ago. They only exist to serve themselves.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Talleyrand, speaking the inconvenient truth! It's the dirty little reality underneath the reunion.

Let's face it: very little about the structural adjustments made in the wake of reunion has been salutary. I've been a member of two enormous southern presbyteries that functioned horribly. To westerners, territories that take over four hours to drive across may not seem that burdensome, but when you grew up Presbyterian in North Carolina, you know it's ridiculous. The relationships cannot be tended, committees cannot do any real work because everyone has to drive so dang far to meet, and PYC's can hardly get things done because many of the kids can't drive.

By contrast, I've been a member of a smaller presbytery in South Carolina where the relationships are good, the committees fairly functional, and morale is high. If that is a priority, I endorse smaller presbyteries.

Mark Smith said...

Did I read you right? You are advocating getting rid of YADs and TSADs and the other ADs?

If so, I think it's a bad move. How many congregations have an elder under age 25? How likely are they to get chosen to go to GA?

Anonymous said...

Thank you all, even the pessimistic (cynical?) Talleyrand. Dennis, Western Kansas is in deep trouble under any structure. Having two 100 by 100 mile presbyteries might actually help. QG, I agree that new church development is vitally important. If there is any point in a synod, that might be one function. In truth, though, I think that cross-presbytery networks like Presbyterian Global Fellowship will be the real agents of church planting.

And yes, Mark, I would absolutely abolish the YADs, and I don't see much point in TSADs and Ecumenical Advisory Delegates. I think we should send youth to GA to help and be trained in leadership, but they are a menace as participants. I think the Elderterian Church should be run by elders.

Mark Smith said...

How many elders sent to GA have been under 25?

It sounds like you want the church to be run solely by elderly elders. That's the whole reason for YADs in the first place - to give voice to a group traditionally disenfranchised in the church.

Why are they a "menace"? Because they are more liberal than you?

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, someone figured out how much conflict in the PC(USA) is almost directly attributable to the fact that YADS and TSADS have a vote in committee meetings. They vote in favor of conflict-inducing business at a rate sufficient to bring to the floor and to the Presbyteries problems that we would not have had if only those who can vote on the floor had a vote in committees. I don't want to eliminate the advisory delegates from the GA entirely, but I am very much in favor of taking away their votes in committees, for the sake of the peace and unity of the church.

Ed McLeod said...

I echo Stuart's experience. I served in three relatively small presbyteries in South Carolina, where we tended to know and trust each other. In that environment, Presbytery wasn't "them", it was "us". These presbyteries were made up of about 75 churches, and, in response to quotidian's concern, all have had modest to good success with new church development, at least as much success as has the very large presbytery in which I find myself these days.

Mark Smith said...

“and I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids."

- Every villain on Scooby Doo

Could it be that the youth and seminarians (who are at a stage in life where they are forced to confront different ideas while building a worldview) force us to think about problems that we'd rather not think about?

Talleyrand - is the "conflict-inducing business" generally biased to the liberal side? If so, then I think we see a real generational split in the church. We complain loudly about young adults leaving the church. Why should we be surprised if they are disenfranchised by the Old School leadership?

Anonymous said...


I really don't remember the details, I just remember the study and its general conclusion.

One thing I've learned to appreciate about young people, both out of my own experience and watching youth become adults in the church: they have a wonderful tendency to grow up, after which they do not say and do as many unwise things.

Let these wonderfully committed young people be GA commissioners when the time comes. In the accountability-free role of YADs, they are harming the church.

Gruntled said...

I agree with Talleyrand on the YADs. Their theological position is not the issue -- in fact, at most the GAs I have attended, the conservative YADs have been more effective than the liberal ones. They are much more likely to go off half-cocked, though, and are not likely to have much perspective on issues that we have been dealing with for a long time. I think elders should be elders (and I don't think elderly begins at 26).

Anonymous said...

Moreover, Mark, the whether the business is "liberal" or otherwise is really a red herring. At the end of the day it doesn't matter all that much that it is "conflict inducing," though, as they say, no harm no foul.

The fundamental point is one of good order: is it good polity for the rules to be such that committees as a whole can recommend business to the Assembly when a majority of the committee members who will have a vote on the floor oppose that recommendation? I say it is not.

Mark Smith said...

"One thing I've learned to appreciate about young people, both out of my own experience and watching youth become adults in the church: they have a wonderful tendency to grow up, after which they do not say and do as many unwise things."

I read that and hear "Only old people are smart enough to make the right decisions".

Discrimination against the young - pure and simple.

Anyone who has gotten through the selection process for YADs is unlikely to speak and vote frivolously. Don't let the fact that they have fun at meetings fool you - they are just as thoughtful and faithful as anybody else. They just don't have "the way we've always done things" as permanently ingrained.

Anonymous said...

The "selection process," Mark?

I read that and hear, "I've never been on a Presbytery nominating committee and have no idea how it works."

Mark Smith said...

'I read that and hear, "I've never been on a Presbytery nominating committee and have no idea how it works."'

A while ago (you may or may not know, I've just returned to the church after a long absence) I was the youth member of the Synod of the Northeast Nominating Committee for a couple of years.

I was also the YAD to Synod one year.

The process that selected me as a YAD involved each church choosing and sending one youth to an overnight event. The youth learned about each other and collectively discerned the qualities required the attributes required for Synod or GA service as a YAD. The youth chose their own representatives, which were in turn endorsed by the Presbytery Nominating Committee.

That's three levels of selection - first by the local church, 2nd by the youth of the presbytery, and 3rd by the presbytery nominating committee.

How are the YADs from your presbytery chosen?

Anonymous said...

In my experience, YADs are chosen the same way elder commissioners are: the sessions of the presbytery take turns sending one of their number. The pastors and/or clerks are asked for a recommendation, which the nominating committee accepts as a matter of course, without further inquiry.

Likewise with clergy commissioners: whoever signed the book next after last year's commissioners go this year, because it's their "turn."

Anonymous said...

However they are selected, the point remains the same. We should eliminate the votes of advisory delegates in committees, and only allow those who will have a vote on the final disposition of the business on the floor vote in committee. It's not about politics or theology. It's just good order.

Anonymous said...

"To give voice to a group traditionally disenfranchised." That is the reason Mark offers for the existence of YAD's. He may be right, for all I know. Is it the only criterion for evaluating the continuing wisdom of having YAD's? I doubt it. I was a YAD after my sophomore year in college, and I was selected because my dad gave my name to the Presbytery. I loved the experience, and returned to report enthusiastically to my congregation and presbytery.

The question seems to be, Are YAD's doing more harm than good? Having been a minister commissioner, I can tell you that I grew weary of floor speeches by enthusiastic YAD's (though it isn't only YAD's who talk too much). I also saw the remarkable lobbying efforts aimed at them by the interest groups (again, not only at YAD's.

If the aim is to give voice to a disenfranchised group, then maybe give it voice in committee, and no vote. I understand Mark's point, and I appreciate efforts in all church activities to nurture youth in active participation. Yet I am inclined to agree that such a goal, in the context of governance, is superceded by the Assembly's need to conduct its business faithfully.

Youth can learn about the legislative process without being an advisory delegate to the state legislature; that is what civics education does. Youth can become invested in the church's polity without having a pseudo-ruling role in its highest governing body.