The year was 1983 and the setting was a presbytery meeting called to consider the plan for reuniting the two branches of the Presbyterian church. I was a young minister in my first call, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was uncertain how I would vote.
Philosophically I understood the desire for reunion, but also understood the pain and loss reunion would bring. I knew well, and was comfortable in, the denomination that ordained me. I knew the faces of the men and women who led it, their stories, and the tales of those who went before. I knew the shape of its churches and the cadence of their voices. My great, great grandfather had voted in favor of the split that had led to this current discussion.
As I looked forward in ministry, I was certain that this corporate merger would bring an era of institutional fights and organizational chart-building that would last the whole of my ministry. Would this really be service to the Gospel?
But I came to this presbytery meeting ready to listen. There were certain presbyters whose voices I had learned to trust and I needed to hear what they had to say. I wanted to honor my role as a minister of Word and Sacrament by practicing the discipline of discernment as a member of the presbytery. I didn’t want to vote my own prejudices or even a proxy for how I thought my session would vote. Discernment meant listening to my colleagues and my heart to find the voice of God’s Spirit.
The current Book of Order puts it this way: “Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ” (F-3.0204).
It is unique to each of our four councils, from sessions to the General Assembly, that we are not boards of directors or trustees, but presbyters uniquely called to councils of discernment and obedience to God’s Spirit. This is the reason we don’t call the members of our church councils “delegates” or “representatives.” Both words—delegate and representative—have rooted in their meaning “standing for others.” It is fair to expect your representative to vote the way you want them to vote. Not so your commissioner, for they bear your commission of trust. They are empowered to act, discern, even judge, in your stead. Or as the Book of Order says, "to find and represent the will of Christ.”
As ruling elders or teaching elders we are called into fellowships of discernment and charged to do just that. Over four decades of being with sessions, presbyteries, synods, and General Assemblies, I have seen courageous acts of discernment where the commissioners to our church councils have made valiant decisions guided by a bold Gospel. Every successful congregation has stories of a time when their church’s session brought to life new ministries or faced difficult crises because they trusted that together and with open hearts, the Spirit would lead them where their own wisdom might fail.
Trusting in discernment, the larger church has opened its ministries to all races, genders, and orientations, and oriented itself toward justice even when the culture said no. Elders gathering together, listening for God’s Spirit, are an amazing force for the Gospel.
So how did I vote so long ago on Reunion? I listened to all the voices without and within, and in the end, I heard the voice of my then-unborn daughter. I was able to see in the visions others were casting an image of a future church — to be her church — that was as broad as our nation and as diverse as God’s realm. For her to have that church, I cast my “yes” vote.
Perhaps some would say this wasn’t what I was delegated to do, or even what I wanted to do. I must admit, looking back, I have seen much of what I feared that day come to pass. Also, what I had hoped for. So over nearly four decades I have never regretted that yes vote once. Nor more importantly, have I lost trust in the voice of God’s Spirit expressed that day.
That is the power of a Presbyterian council.
Questions for discussion
- How have you witnessed and felt God’s movement in your congregation at times when you relied upon discernment and trust in the Spirit’s leading?
- In what ways might you continue to commit “to find and represent the will of God” with your colleagues in ministry?
Thomas Hay has served since 2008 as the director of assembly operations and Assistant Stated Clerk with the Office of the General Assembly. Previously he was executive presbyter in the Presbytery of Shenandoah (Va. and W.Va.) and for twenty years served in pastoral ministry in churches in North Carolina and Virginia. This summer he celebrates forty years of ordained ministry.