The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Mid Council Commission (formerly Middle Governing Body Commission) has voted unanimously to eliminate synods and vest their ecclesiastical functions in five regional administrative commissions of the General Assembly.

But by a vote of 11-8, the commission rejected a proposal from its constitutional issues group, led by commission chair Tod Bolsinger of Los Ranchos Presbytery, that it recommend “the organization of non-geographic presbyteries and other covenant communities of congregations for missional purposes.”

The issue will almost certainly be revisited when the commission gathers in Dallas in February to prepare its final report to the 220th General Assembly next summer in Pittsburgh.

Under the synod proposal to the Assembly ― including a number of constitutional amendments which will have to be ratified by presbyteries ― the PC(USA) will move to a three-tiered governance system of sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly.

If the measure passes the Assembly and the enabling amendments are ratified by the presbyteries, the 16 synods and their constituent presbyteries will be charged to develop transition plans to transfer assets, funds, projects and programs and report those plans to the 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland.

The Rev. Terry Newland of the Synod of Living Waters, the only synod executive on the commission, said he “could live with” the elimination of synods. “I am more concerned about the shared life of the church, not structure and assets,” he said. “How we struggle with each other is most important.”

The council’s recommendations give special attention to racial ethnic ministries, inclusiveness and representation.

“My main reaction is anxiety,” said commission member Warren Cooper of Philadelphia Presbytery, “because generally racial ethnic ministries have historically found their home in the synods … I’m not so much concerned about the existence of synods, but where that place of belonging is going to be located ― about function, not structure.”

At the urging of commission member David Seung-il Rue of Sacramento Presbytery, a new commission task will explore the advisability of creating an additional administrative commission for the five Korean-language presbyteries in the PC(USA).

According to the recommendation, the regional administrative commissions ― corresponding to the five regions used to rotate General Assembly meeting around the country ― will be charged with facilitating church and presbytery partnerships and realignment.

Five additional regional judicial commissions would be established to handle the church court functions currently performed by synods.

As the PC(USA) has become more polarized around a variety of issues, non-geographic presbyteries have been touted by some as a way to keep the denomination together. The ratification of amendment 10-A earlier this year ― which permits the ordination of non-celibate unmarried persons, including gays and lesbians ― has added urgency to those conversations.

“We’ve talked about the health and division of the church,” said commission member James Harper from Greater Atlanta Presbytery. “My concern is what good idea, what new thing are we going to put on the table to deal with health and division issues in the church? We must value the integrity of the people who say they want to stay … with integrity.”

Commission member Liza Hendricks, general presbyter for the Cleveland-based Presbytery of the Western Reserve, expressed “lots of reservations. I am concerned about two confessional churches under one umbrella. I also have pragmatic concerns about potential conflicts for congregations choosing where to belong.”

Commission member Laura Stellmon of Utah Presbytery agreed. “I struggle with congregations and pastors dividing into non-geographics,” she said. “In the West, in small communities, that division is painful and hampers mission for years down the road. We need to talk about how all presbyteries can be well-functioning, supportive and healthy.”

Bill Stafford, a commission member from Milwaukee Presbytery, said, “We don’t have to propose non-geographics as something we agree on, but we have to think about whether it’s a viable enough response that we want the church to pursue it.”

 Bolsinger agreed. “We’re not going to resolve these underlying issues, but we’ve got to lift them up so the church has a better chance to find clarity.”

The Mid Council Commission was created by the 219th General Assembly (2010) to consult widely with the church on the mission and function of middle governing bodies ― now called mid councils with the adoption earlier this year of the new Form of Government ― and to “develop models that reflect the roles of middle governing bodies in our polity and the changing context of our witness in the United States and their relationship with other governing bodies.”

At earlier commission meetings, the 21-member body identified operating assumptions for its work:

  • There is no “one-size-fits-all” model for middle governing bodies;
  • Congregations are basic but insufficient centers for mission and ministry (Presbyterian connectionalism);
  • Structure must serve and support healthy, shared, spiritual and collaborative leadership;
  • Structure must serve to create “a big dance floor” for middle governing bodies of all sizes, shapes and styles.

During an extensive report by its data-gathering group, the commission discerned several “directions” for its work:

  • Get back to mission, ministry and connectionalism;
  • Reduce hierarchy and emphasis on structure and governance;
  • Keep those elements of Presbyterianism that have always defined us, but flatten the organization;
  • Get out of survival mode and embrace the future and a theology of abundance;
  • Focus the denomination’s energy and resources on local congregations; and
  • Pay particular attention to racial ethnic and immigrant ministries.

Commission member John Vest of Chicago Presbytery, chair of the commission’s emerging models group, outlined questions that must be answered in evaluating various structural models:

  • Will our models support new church development?
  • Will our models help us reach emerging generations?
  • Will our models help us manage the polarity of our church?
  • Will our models help us become a truly multicultural church?
  • Will our models ensure participation of racial ethnics?
  • Will our models be flexible enough to adapt in anticipation of continuing rapid change?
  • Will our models nurture connectionalism and relationships
  • Will our models enhance parity between ruling and teaching elders?
  • Will our models reflect a missional ecclesiology?
  • Will our models enable participation, creativity and innovation?

“The hardest thing seems to be connecting our values to our structures and organization,” Vest noted. “For instance, everyone says connectionalism is a value, but we don’t know how to create structures that embrace and embody that value.”

The commission’s final meeting before the Assembly is slated for Feb. 2-4, 2012, in Dallas.