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Whither synods?

Synod School mini-course participants speak of presbytery involvement

August 1, 2013

STORM LAKE, Iowa

Maybe it should be the presbyteries rather than a commission of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that decides the future of synods.

At least that’s the idea of many of those who took part in a mini-course July 23 at Synod School, a midsummer ministry of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. More than 40 Presbyterians gathered in an amphitheater in Siebens Hall at Buena Vista University here to discuss the future of synods.

The second Mid-Council Commission ― sometimes called MCC-2 ― is currently considering the same question: What should be done with synods? Created by the 220th General Assembly in 2012, the commission will decide what it will recommend regarding synods when it meets again in September.

“I would say to you that we must change,” said Dave Crittenden, transitional executive for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, addressing the mini-course attendees. “And we will change whether it be done to us or not.”

But Crittenden also said he believes the Book of Order, which lays out the form of government of the PC(USA), provides enough flexibility for presbyteries and synods to “decide how we’re going to move into the future regardless what the Mid-Council Commission would have to say.”

The first Mid-Council Commission, which worked on the issue of synods for two years before presenting its results to the last General Assembly, recommended that synods be eliminated as ecclesial bodies in the church’s governance system.

But the Assembly referred its recommendations to the second commission with instructions to “further discuss, refine and bring to the 221st General Assembly recommendations that consider the composition and organization of the mid-councils (synods and presbyteries) in ways that reinvigorate their capacity to support missional congregations and advance the ecclesial nature and character of those presbyteries within the unity of the church.”

When it met in April, the synod passed a resolution that advised the Mid-Council Commission to “take no action regarding the future of synods, including the elimination thereof, merger or functions that are appropriate to synods, but rather to recommend that presbyteries consult with their synod on what functions are appropriate within their synod.”

“There is no easy fix,” Crittenden said. “This isn’t something we can fix technically so it’s adaptive work. It means we’re trying to get everyone involved.”

For Stephanie Anthony, moderator of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, and pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, Wis., synods are about working together. She cited Synod School, efforts in collegiate ministry, the synod’s loan fund for presbyteries and congregations, and work in racial ethnic ministries as examples.

“There are things we can do together that we just can’t do the same way apart,” she said. “We belong to each other and the synod is one of the ways we belong to each other.”

Bill Stafford, the synod’s vice moderator and an elder commissioner from the Presbytery of Milwaukee, said, “As we look at whether synods are useful or not, the fact that you’re here says that at least in some cases [synods] are. That’s not true for every synod.”

Stafford speaks from the experience of having served on the first Mid-Council Commission. “There are, give or take, five functional synods in the denomination,” Stafford said. “One size does not fit all.”

Crittenden is approaching the future of synods and inevitable change with two questions: (1) What is God doing in the world and how are we going to be a part of that? and (2) How will we be with each other?

But he pointed out that the answers to those questions should come from a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” approach.

Drawing input from presbyteries will be vital for determining the future of synods, Stafford said. “Other synods are hopefully asking the same kind of questions.”

Some presbyteries, according to comments from those attending the mini-course, are working on overtures to the 221st General Assembly that would echo the resolution passed by the synod earlier this year.

“If we have the conversations [with our presbyteries] we will find out what the presbyteries want,” Crittenden said.

Duane Sweep, associate for communications of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, is a frequent contributor to the Presbyterian News Service.

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