By a nearly three-fourths majority, the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today (July 5) rejected a proposal that would allow the creation of non-geographic presbyteries “for particular missional purposes.” The vote was 480-169.
The Rev. Tod Bolsinger of Los Ranchos Presbyery, chair of the General Assembly Commission on Mid Councils that brought the recommendation, said the intent of the commission “was to bring a genuine plan for transformation, a radical reordering because the world is changing rapidly and our structures are not.” He called the proposal “experimentation for a limited period of time under the strict supervision of existing geographic presbyteries.”
But at the end of the day, opponents of non-geographic presbyteries easily prevailed. The Rev. Bill Hennessy of Western New York Presbytery said, “The commission report is invaluable for congregations seeking to be more relevant, however what constitutes ‘particular missional purposes’ was never explained clearly. I believe the purpose is theological affinity which would undermine unity and reconciliation.”
The Rev. Joann Lee of the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area said she grew up in Midwest Hanmi Presbytery―a Korean-language non-geographic presbytery―and the experience was not positive. “Understanding of the whole church is limited by non-geographic presbyteries and is a disservice to geographic presbyteries.”
Lee said, “We overlook the root causes of our divisions by separating ourselves from one another. We should not be running away from our differences―creating non-geographic presbyteries simply avoids the problems.”
The Assembly added a comment to its action recommended by its Assembly Committee on Mid Councils Issues: “That the congregations be encouraged to engage in collaborative missional endeavors, irrespective of their locations within particular presbytery geographic boundaries.”
The Assembly referred a recommendation from the Assembly committee regarding the future of synods. The Assembly committee sought a task force composed of two representatives from each synod to redraw synod boundaries in ways that will make them more effective.
Instead, the Assembly voted to refer the matter of synods to a task force―“composed of an equal number of persons from the Mid Council Commission, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly and commissioners to this General Assembly”―that is charged to “further discuss, refine, and bring to the 221st General Assembly (2014) recommendations that consider the composition and organization of the mid councils 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.”
The language of the referral was offered by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) prior to the Assembly in response to the non-geographic presbyteries proposal, but COGA chair the Rev. John Wilkinson of Genesee Valley Presbytery said COGA “would welcome inclusion of consideration of synods as part of the task force’s work.”
The Mid Council Commission had recommended that synods be eliminated as ecclesiastical units of the PC(USA).
The Assembly authorized creation of two additional task forces: one to “review the nature and function of the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly specifically with respect to the relationship with and support of mid councils as they serve the vitality and mission of congregations”; and the other to “review, assess and explore the call to responsibility in and vision for racial ethnic ministry within the PC(USA).”
Consideration of a proposal to combine as many of the task forces as possible was delayed until Friday morning while the varying requirements for them are studied.
Many commissioners praised the work of the Mid Councils Commission, which during its two years conducted the most exhaustive research into the denomination’s ecclesiastical structures ever. Their work resulted in a 300-page report. The Assembly agreed to produce a study guide for the commission’s narrative report and commend it for study to the whole church.