With dramatic changes occurring at all levels of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is proposing that the upcoming 219th General Assembly create of commission to work with sessions, presbyteries and synods “on the mission and function of middle governing bodies.”

The proposal — unanimously approved by COGA at its Feb. 22-24 meeting here — calls for a 21-member commission to be appointed by the moderators of the 218th Assembly (the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow) and the moderator to be elected by the 2010 Assembly, July 3-10 in Minneapolis.

As a commission, not a committee or task force, the body would have the authority to take action.

“If I had a wish list for this General Assembly, this [commission] would be at the top,” General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons told the committee. “This year we have lots of overtures about middle governing bodies that go from tinkering to eliminating synods to creating non-geographic synods and presbyteries.”

Some presybteries “are doing amazing things,” Parsons noted, while others are “foundering.” There’s “a mass of stuff out there and we need to get at it,” he added. “I think it’s time to have a commission, with powers of the Assembly to act, to get into this, to bring to the forefront some directions for middle governing body life.”

The COGA proposal lists six foci and powers for the proposed commission:

  • To consult with sessions, presbyteries, synods “and the wider church” on the mission and function of middle governing bodies;
  • To develop models that reflect the changing roles of middle governing bodies in the rapidly changing church and world;
  • To report to the next Assembly on its findings and any proposed Book of Order changes;
  • To implement and decisions forwarded to it by this year’s Assembly and approved by the presbyteries and report back in 2012;
  • To organize new or realign existing presbyteries and synods in response to actions of the 219th General Assembly or requests from presbyteries or synods; and
  • To supervise the existing Special Administrative Review Committee on Puerto Rico.

The last comprehensive study of the PC(USA)’s governing body system occurred in the late 1960s in both predecessor denominations. At Presbyterian reunion in 1983, middle governing body boundaries were realigned “but basically preserved the work of these two former studies. “The structure coming out of reunion is clearly devolving,” Parsons said.

“This will also be the first attempt in our biennial [General Assemblies] world to empower a group to work on things between Gas and empower them to make some decisions.” He made it clear that the commission “will act by request of middle governing bodies and not initiate directives to them.”

At least two COGA members — Kent Grimes of Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Barbara Campbell-Davis, executive presbyter for New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina — said they hoped the Assembly will address the middle governing body issues that are already on the docket in Minneapolis.

In response to Grimes’ query about the prospect of the Assembly merely referring those items to a new commission, Parsons said, “That’s not our intent.” Campbell-Davis — citing oft-repeated attempts to eliminate synods as an example, said, “I don’t want to see these issues just punted. That has happened too much.”

The proposal was adopted with just one amendment — proposed by the Rev. John Wilkinson of Rochester, N.Y. — to include congregations in the mix. “Presbyteries are evolving because congregations are evolving,” said Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester. “The whole thing is evolving.”

COGA’s Feb. 23 vote on the commission followed a conversation the previous evening with leaders of the Association of Executive Presbyters — Betty Meadows of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, Sally Hinchman of Shenandoah Presbytery and Jeff Hutcheson of Southeastern Illinois Presbytery.

The wide-ranging conversation touched on how General Assemblies and presbytery meetings are structured and run. “We have been talking a lot about how they can be more missionally effective and how we can better serve God when we meet,” Meadows said.

“Many of us were at the “Big Tent” event last summer (the first non-Assembly year gathering of Presbyterians for mission education and advocacy without a legislative component) and felt the excitement and community-building there,” Hinchman said. “That needs to be incorporated into the General Assembly.”

Hutcheson argued for meeting formats where “discernment is the core value and our processes reflect that rather than 51-49 votes to decide things.”

Reyes-Chow told the group: “I hear this everywhere I go at every level of the church. People feel the need to look at the big picture, at the core issues we face as a church.”