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“season of reflective experimentation” until 2021, when “all relationships established under this provision shall be rescinded.”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.”