Last Wednesday on Zoom, mid council leaders learned more about an underway project by the Office of the General Assembly to map boundaries of presbyteries and synods. In addition to developing an up-to-date interactive map that is accurate and precise, the project will establish a process that makes it quicker and easier to update church boundary visualizations in the future.
The consultation included a presentation of project work to date, a list of goals and next steps and questions from mid council leaders about how the boundary map will be modified going forward. Leading the presentation were Tricia Dykers Koenig, Associate Director for Mid Council Relations, and Vicente Guna, Associate Director for Technologies.
Watch the recording here or click the image below.
Jihyun Oh, Director of Mid Council Ministries, greeted the 59 Zoom participants with a reminder that this was the second online consultation conversation with mid council leaders since last summer’s General Assembly. She also spoke about the sense of urgency surrounding the project: there is currently no single place to get comprehensive mapping information about mid council boundaries.
“This project is near and dear to Tricia’s heart and Vicente’s map-making heart,” Oh said by way of introducing the main presenters.
An early slide showed the project’s main goals: to create “an accurate delineation of mid council boundaries … based on literal descriptions of geographic domains contained in the records of presbyteries and synods, as well as other sources of information provided and vetted by mid council leaders.”
Throughout the presentation Dykers Koenig and Guna emphasized the lead role mid councils will have not only in continuing to provide information that is incorporated into the boundaries map (a first version of which was shared), but making any changes to boundaries that address inconsistencies or contradictions in the official geographies of mid councils. Much of the data that was incorporated into the underway boundary map was submitted by mid council leaders to Dykers Koenig, who compiled it on a spreadsheet before Guna plotted it onto the map. Other PC(USA) data came from denominational records and General Assembly minutes.
The 224th General Assembly (2020) authorized an administrative commission to act on presbytery boundary changes on the horizon, and those actions in 2021 meant that OGA needed to update the church’s paper and online maps. The boundary project currently underway does that and more.
“We intend to create a digital geographic database which will be fairly simple to maintain and accessible to all Presbyterians,” Dykers- Koenig said. After any General Assembly where there is a boundary change, changes to relevant data points will result in a new and up-to-date map. “We are also asking you to think about how you might use this information and what formats might be most helpful.”
Laurie Griffith, Associate Director for Constitutional Interpretation, said that precise boundaries have special significance to synods and presbyteries because of the different council responsibilities in the Book of Order. Presbyteries develop strategies for mission within their boundaries, and synods organize their presbyteries and support their work. Organizing and planting congregations is key to these responsibilities. Knowing the precise boundaries of a mid council — and the mid councils next door having the same understanding — promotes informed and collaborative decision making.
Guna has worked as a cartographer inside and outside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), including working on the currently available (but out of date) mid council directory map. His presentation included an introduction to technology and data formats being used for the boundary map, the GIS (Geographic Information System) software that displays data (ArcGIS) and the cartographic base map information — a TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) system that includes county lines and physical landmarks. Guna joked that through his cartographic work for the PC(USA) he has virtually visited each of the 3,000-plus counties in the United States.
On the underway boundary map project, preliminary work has included accessing denominational maps and records from the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS), including records about synod and presbytery boundaries from a major mapping effort in the years after the reunion General Assembly of 1983.
The current boundary mapping project will provide the PC(USA) with more than a more accurate look at its current mid council boundaries and clear up misunderstandings and inconsistencies. “We want to create smart maps that can be used to do spatial analysis and provide insights that help with different questions across the denomination,” Guna said. GIS technology makes it possible to filter different categories of information — to adjust a map to view congregations-by-size, for example, or to zoom in on regions or specific boundaries (such as the presbyteries in a single state), or to analyze geospatially distributed information (such as population or land use) to find patterns and help with decision making. This project is the starting point to provide a unique source of accurate and reliable data.
Guna gave examples of three types of issues the boundary mapping project has already turned up: voids (such as an area unclaimed by a presbytery in the current map), overlaps (where an area is claimed by more than one mid council) and clarifications (where information describing a mid council’s boundaries should be more detailed to avoid misinterpretations).
Dykers Koenig thanked mid council leaders for submitting so much of the information that has already been central to the map work, and encouraged them to contact her directly with any questions they didn’t discuss during this consultation. Meetings with particular mid councils will be scheduled, including conversations with mid councils where the boundary mapping project has turned up the kind of issues Guna listed.
“We want to keep all this together so in 20 years people working in OGA don’t have to recompile this information,” Dykers Koenig said about the mapping data and methodologies. “It will make my decently-and-in-order heart sing to have all this information in one place.”
At the end of the meeting questions were relayed by Tim Cargal, Associate Director of Ministry Leadership Development. They included whether the data already collected on spreadsheets as well as on maps could be shared with all mid councils, not just those directly involved in a mapping issue (Dykers Koenig: yes) if there is an order of “issues” mid council leaders should look for (Guna recommended looking for all at one time) and how any boundaries will be redrawn (Dykers Koenig: OGA will make no decisions about boundaries. Those decisions will be made by mid councils, with the General Assembly voting on official boundary changes when necessary).
Over video and chat mid council leaders pointed out a few issues related to their presbyteries or synods that they noticed on the first version of the boundary map Guna showed. They also praised the project work to date and the boundary map’s usefulness to future missional planning.
The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, closed the meeting by thanking the mid council leaders for their faithful participation in the project.
“This is a great opportunity for the PC(USA) to innovate and look at possibilities where others have turned away from things that may look too hard … Our competent and curious staff makes the entire church look good, including those we partner with.
“We are in a time of innovation and I’m excited about it.”