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Assembly committee rejects proposal for non-geographic presbyteries

Mid Councils Issues recommends referral of move to eliminate synods as ecclesiastical units

July 4, 2012

Pittsburgh

The Assembly Committee on Mid Council Issues has recommended that the 220th General Assembly disapprove a proposal that would allow “the formation of provisional nongeographic presbyteries for particular missional purposes.” The vote was 34-15.

The committee added a comment thanking the General Assembly Mid Councils Commission (GAMCC)―which brought the proposal ― for its exhaustive work over the last two years and encouraging mid councils to continue to seek creative ways to collaborate across presbytery and synod boundaries.

The committee recommended that another GAMCC proposal―to eliminate synods as ecclesiastical units of the PC(USA) be referred to a task force composed of members of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, the GAMCC and commissioners to this General Assembly. The vote on the referral was 37-14.

The GAMCC, created by the 219th General Assembly (2010), conducted perhaps the most extensive research ever undertaken by an Assembly body during the last two years. “Our charge was to determine how our mid councils are best organized,” said the Rev. Tod Bolsinger, a pastor in San Clemente, Calif. (Los Ranchos Presbytery), and chair of the commission. “Are the structures of history the best platforms into the future?”

The consensus of the GAMCC was that they are not, and so proposed the elimination of synods and the creation of non-geographic presbyteries, Bolsinger said, to “create the conditions for presbyteries to collaborate to strengthen missional congregations―a bold season of learning … of reflective action, innovation and experimentation to collaborate and reorganize in any way they believe is needed within a safe and reflective structure.”

Commission member Jane Smith, a ruling elder in Riverside Presbytery, outlined the research the commission conducted in 2011 and said the number one suggestion by those surveyed was “Do away with synods.” She noted that similar moves to eliminate synods have been entertained by the General Assembly since 1968.

But committee members were clearly reluctant to take such dramatic steps. They were buttressed during the committee’s open hearings by a steady stream of speakers opposing the elimination of synods and the creation of non-geographic presbyteries, no matter how many safeguards were built in to prevent misuse of the practice.

James Kennedy, stated clerk of Kendall Presbytery, argued that “we need resource generation and the assertion that synods drain resources is certainly not true in the Synod of the Pacific” (of which Kendall is part). On the contrary, Kennedy said, “Synods can be the powerhouses of the denomination.”

The Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, a Minneapolis pastor in the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, argued that non-geographic presbyteries are simply not necessary. “We have all kinds of mission partnerships across presbytery and synod boundaries,” he said. “Our missional capacities will be diminished by all the ecclesiastical functions that will be duplicated and churches that leave will take too many resources with them.” 

The Rev. Cynthia Campbell, former president of McCormick Theological Seminary and now interim pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, argued that “the new Form of Government (adopted last summer) grants us great flexibility and we’ve not begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.”

Non-geographic presbyteries, which many committee members feared would result in like-minded congregations forming their own presbyteries―albeit with the consent of their geographic presbyteries as the GAMCC proposed―“would defeat the beauty of our system to bring different people together to figure out how to be in mission together,” Campbell said.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly took the unusual step of asking for referral of the non-geographic presbytery proposal, said COGA chair the Rev. John Wilkinson of Rochester, N.Y., “because it strikes at the very essence of what it means to be Presbyterian.”  Wilkinson added, “Yes, yes, yes, do things differently. We’re not interested in maintaining the status quo. Be innovative and less regulatory.”

But the proposal at this time, Wilkinson said, “needs more bake-time so it can be acted on more faithfully and effectively. We want to avoid a ‘no’ vote at this Assembly, This is not delay for delay’s sake, but a season of reflection and refinement.”

Assembly committee members, though torn, chose not to cook non-geographic presbyteries any more.

The referral on synods calls for a 32-member Task Force on Synod Boundaries―with two representatives from each of the 16 synods―to “bring to the 221st General Assembly (2014) a proposal for a reduced number of synods and their boundaries, taking into account administrative, diversity, judicial, financial and missional duties.”

The Assembly Committee is recommending adoption of two of the GAMCC’s recommendations:

  • Creation of a task force to review the nature and function of the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly, “specifically with respect to their relationship with and support of mid councils as they serve the vitality and mission of congregations in our changing context.”
  • Appointment of a National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force “exclusively to review, assess, and explore the call to, responsibility in, and vision for racial ethnic ministry within the PC(USA), reporting its findings for implementation to the 221st General Assembly (2014).”

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