Commission proposes non-geographic presbyteries

Sweeping change is seen as part of a “season of reflective experimentation”

February 4, 2012


The Mid-Council Commission will propose to the upcoming 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that congregations be allowed to create “provisional” non-geographic presbyteries “for particular mission purposes.”

The proposal, a version of which was informally rejected at the commission’s fall 2011 meeting, passed 15-5.

“In Indianapolis [at the last meeting] we slid back into fear and the status quo, fearing that what we might do would be worse than what we’ve got now,” said commission member Sam Roberson, executive presbyter for Charlotte Presbytery. “Don’t get icy feet when there’s a chance to move forward in a significant way.”

The proposal is part of an envisioned “season of reflective experimentation” until 2021, when “all relationships established under this provision shall be rescinded.”

During the “season of reflective experimentation” 10 or more congregations within an existing synod or contiguous synods may, with the concurrence of their existing presbyteries and synod or synods form a non-geographic presbytery.

The provisional presbyteries will have all the authority of existing presbyteries except to dissolve, dismiss or divide congregations or “to approve the sale, mortgage, lease or transfer of the real property of its constituent congregations without the consent of the congregation’s presbytery of origin.”

Congregations who form provisional presbyteries will “retain affiliate status” within their original presbyteries, with voice but not vote at presbytery meetings. Distribution of per capita and mission funds will be determined according to “covenants” between the presbyteries of membership and affiliation.

“This is a deeply thoughtful adaptive shift to a rapidly changing world,” said commission chair the Rev. Tod Bolsinger of Los Ranchos Presbytery, “and not an anxious reaction to anything else that’s going on in the church.

“We believe we have the capacity as a church to make this shift,” Bolsinger added.

Earlier, the commission voted to recommend the elimination of synods as ecclesiastical structures in the PC(USA). In their place will be “regional administrative commissions” to coordinate ministry and mission across presbyteries. Regional judicial commissions will be created to serve as appeals courts in the church’s judicial system.

“We were asked by the General Assembly to come up with models, plural,” said Ruling Elder Bill Stafford of Milwaukee Presbytery. “This encourages all kinds of experimentation.”

Ruling Elder Miriam Dolin of San Francisco Presbytery agreed. “This is a chance to be creative and to challenge others to be creative,” she said. “We need to offer as much as we can ― freedom to think, believe and experiment.”

The Rev. Lemuel Garcia-Arroyo of Salem Presbytery expressed reservations. “What is preventing churches from getting together now for mission purposes?” he asked.  “I fear the worst with non-geographic presbyteries ― I’m afraid there are lots of other reasons that are not missional.”

Hanging over the commission’s work is the creation of a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order, which was launched two weeks ago by the Fellowship of Presbyterians, a group of Presbyterian dissidents galvanized by the passage last summer of an amendment to the PC(USA)’s Book of Order that allows the ordination of sexually active gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Presbyterians as church officers.

The Rev. Terry Newland, synod executive for the Synod of Living Waters, said the non-geographic presbytery proposal “undoes centuries of Presbyterian wisdom. We already self-select our congregation every Sunday morning by driving by all those churches with which we disagree. Now we get to self-select our corporate bishop, the presbytery.

“We need to take advantage of  all the gifts of all the people,” he said. “Self-selection precludes the full sharing of gifts.”

Ruling Elder Warren Cooper of Philadelphia Presbytery said he started out “categorically opposed” to the non-geographic presbytery proposal, “but I embrace the opportunity to do something different.”

Cooper said the proposal is “like moving the furniture around in your living room ― all the pieces are still there, but it gives the room a different feel. This [proposal] gives us the chance to feel differently about our mission in the church. It creates the opportunity to hit the ‘reset’ button.

“Just letting them (disaffected congregations) go (to other denominations),” Cooper said, “doesn’t set well with me.”


  1. I doubt if 8 0r 10 small churches would be interested in long distant relationships in a new geographic Presbytery, but I'm thinking a group of big churches might be. After 50 yrs as a PCUSA minister my supposition is this is a "tall steeple" club which will be led by pastors who don't seem interested in the rest of the Church. It looks like an attempt to get out of the "control" of the Presbytery in which one lives.

    by Alden Hickman M.Div '63

    February 16, 2012

  2. Have anyone read the whole final report? cause it seems to me that our judgement should be an informed one. Trying to ascribe intentions a priori to the commission may not be the best way to understand the spirit of the recommendations. Try to read it with new eyes and without the usual suspicion, but with hope and faith.

    by Richard

    February 15, 2012

  3. I attended the Fellowship 'Assembly' in Minneapolis. Based on what I heard there, the proposal or overture by the MCC does not address the concerns of Pastors and Elders who need a safe harbor. The fact that the old/former Presbytery will hold property title and retain the power to dismiss or divide Congregations (or not approve such) demonstrates that our Denomination is still concerned about retaining a corporate power structure. A response from an ECO or Fellowship representitive should have been included in this article. The threat that hundreds of congregations might leave the PCUSA is the real reason for this proposal.

    by Chuck

    February 7, 2012

  4. Is there any evidence at all that disaffected congregations would even be interested in NGPs?

    by Randy Argall

    February 6, 2012

  5. This isn't the first time Presbyterians have had presbyteries based on ideology. The 18th-century church had some presbyteries which were based on acceptance or rejection of revivalism and modified Calvinism. There are lessons to be learned from the experience, but it isn't quite true to say that this "undoes centuries of Presbyterian wisdom."

    by Alan Terlep

    February 4, 2012

  6. A betrayal of trust by those who put this Commission into place and to the PCUSA. "covenenat, smovenant--who cares--let everyone do what is right in their own eyes and call is "freedom". Haven't God's peaple been here before?

    by Lynne

    February 4, 2012

  7. I would be interested to know if the GA's commission to the MCC was an effort to forestall a break-away from the PCUSA which we know has now occurred with the formation of ECO. If that was the primary motivation, then perhaps the "need" for NGPs has passed. Joint mission efforts among congregations of different presbyteries are not precluded by our present structure. What are the rationales and needs that will be addressed in continuing to pursue NGPs?

    by Mark Diehl

    February 3, 2012

  8. Not too many years ago the GA constructed a rationale that held that nongeographic presbyteries were innappropiate and abolishs several Native American presbyteries. Then they decided it was ok to have Korean presbyteries due to diffuculies over language. Now this commission has proposed to create ideology-based presbyteries. Whats next. Presbyteries with churchs with praise bands and those who don't?

    by David Walters

    February 3, 2012

  9. Establishment of NGPs gives the impression that it will impose isolation, and thereby minimize healthy dissent among both perspectives of affected parties, and does not appear to be a good idea. We need to try to get all the kids to play together; but in the end, if one group is hell-bent on staying or going, we have to let them, and hope our hands are on the plow.

    by Andrew

    February 3, 2012

  10. I want to commend the MCC for its work as a whole. The commission it was given was nearly impossible in our current context, and I'm very grateful for their willingness to wrestle with the tensions in our church on our behalf, while still landing on proposals that push us in our thinking. Though I don't fully agree with the theology behind non-geographic presbyteries, I also understand that there needs to be more options in which to live out our calling with integrity and purpose. Though this proposal may be a practical step in that direction, I await more reflection on the dynamics that force us to reinterpret our polity in such fundamental ways. We will be a stronger church when we can recognize and honor our differences while still being connected to one another in Christ.

    by Scott Lumsden

    February 3, 2012