MGB Commission votes to eliminate synods

Group is divided over non-geographic presbyteries

October 10, 2011


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.

  1. One clarification may be in order. This report states that "the regional administrative commissions ... will be charged with facilitating church and presbytery partnerships and realignment." Is it envisioned that "realignment" includes authority to dismiss churches, or it is limited to re-organizing former Synod boundaries to embrace Presbyteries anew? Will Presbyteries retain their authority "to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches"? Clarity is important in a climate of distrust.

    by Lowell Meek

    January 31, 2012

  2. When this news release was originally published on October 11, 2011, it stated that the General Assembly would meet in San Jose in 2016. We are pleased to see the error has been corrected. We are already preparing to welcome the participants who will be coming to Portland in 2016!

    by Elaine Markuson

    October 25, 2011

  3. ¿En esta nueva estructura como funcionaria el Sinodo de Puerto Rico? ¿Se convertiria en un solo presbiterio o continuarian los mismo tres presbiterio unidos a una de las unidades a crearce?

    by Jose M Capella-González

    October 18, 2011

  4. With this recommendation to create regional commissions, this begs the question: "Where are these commissioners coming from?" Will they be elected by the Presbyteries through a nomination process? Will there be a vote at presbyteries for the commissioners? What will the number of Commissioners be? Will some 'executive' be in charge when the commission doesn't meet ? What sort of 'executive power' will this person have? Are we moving from a representational church to a hierarchical one ? What sort of balanced representation will there be? Will there have to be a balanced theological perspective along with the racial and gender balance? How does this 'flatten' the structure? You're getting rid of 16 synods, and creating 5 commissions? Does this really flatten the structure, or just cause less people to do three times the work. These are questions many churches should be asking, along with "How will this help this congregation proclaim the Gospel of Christ?"

    by Neil Zampella

    October 15, 2011

  5. The results of the commission's work to date could have been perdicted ata the time of Reunion. There has been an attempt to first weaken and then remove Synods from the structure of the Church all along. Jerry's ariticle siimply reflects his bias that he has reflected in reporting on the issue over the years. The Church has always "toyed" with structure rather than docused on missional issues becaus that is what is easier to do. The whole exericse with the restructure of the Book of Order is a ready example such as the change in title for ministers and eldersm and for "governing bopdies" aas if that accomplishes something. In the meanwhile the basic connectional network of the Church has been undercut for only for racial ethnic ministries but for our educational ministriy efforts as well as social justic ministries. We have focused on philantrophy at the expense of stewardship to the point that "selective" large donors and large churches direct the life and mission of the Church. There are fewer and fewer checks and balances on executive leadership in the process and a loss of "ownership" of the ongoing life and mission of the Church.

    by Robert H. White, Jr.

    October 15, 2011

  6. This is a better outcome than I anticipated, and one, eliminating synods, that I agree with. Please look at making presbyteries smaller. 200-300 church presbyteries are too large to have much personal relationships. How will the legal issues be processed without a PJC in a synod? This could be a sticking point. What action will be recommended to make parity between ruling and teaching elders?

    by Harry Bolick

    October 15, 2011

  7. A point of clarification is surely in order here. In Jerry's otherwise fine article, this statement could easily be misunderstood by those unfamiliar with our authority as a Commission. We DO NOT have authority to "eliminate synods". We voted to make a RECOMMENDATION as part of our report that will go to a General Assembly Committee for consideration and action. We intend to offer a number of MODELS of how the church could be organized for a changing world and this was simply the first one we agreed together to pursue and recommend to the church for conversation, thoughtful consideration and discernment. More to come...

    by Tod Bolsinger

    October 11, 2011