“You are not tied to a manual,” says Manuel Silva-Esterrich by way of encouraging presbytery leaders to use the “new” Book of Order (12 years young this year) to explore new approaches to ministry as they care for their congregations. “It is a tool you can use. The tool shouldn’t use you.”
A guest in the second of two recent “Encounter” podcasts (part of the “Along the Road” series), Silva-Esterrich's words apply equally well to the first episode, which focuses on the experiences and perspectives of leaders in one especially innovative presbytery: New York City.
Listen to the episodes directly from the Mid Council Ministries section of pcusa.org or from podcast providers.
Encounter: The Presbytery | Innovations in Church Polity (35 minutes)
Warren McNeill, stated clerk of the Presbytery of New York City, and Wilfredo Garcia, co-chair of the presbytery’s Commission on Ministry, talk about the flexibility of the new Book of Order and how it has enabled New York City and other presbyteries “to adapt to changing circumstances while strengthening their mission and ministry and covenantal community of faith.”
valerie izumi, continuing her run as “Encounter” guest host, focuses the discussion on how presbyteries such as New York City use the new Book of Order’s increased latitude to adapt to current challenges and opportunities.
Garcia introduces himself as a father, accountant, GA 225 commissioner and hospice chaplain, showing the many “hats” mid council leaders often wear. McNeill, who is starting his 18th year as a mid council leader across three presbyteries, connects his upbringing as a fourth-generation Presbyterian to his joy at being a grandfather. Even though he lives in Texas, he can see his grandson often, “thanks to the wonders of tech.”
During the pandemic, tech helped McNeill and Garcia carry out their presbytery work across the extraordinarily diverse community that is New York City. Before they discuss those innovations, izumi provides a short history of the new Book or Order, beginning with the 217th General Assembly (2006) Form of Government Task Force. izumi quotes writing by Cindy Bolbach, moderator of 219th General Assembly (2010) and moderator of the task force, predicting that the new form of government would ensure the presbytery continued as the central governing unit of the church while encouraging greater flexibility at all council levels. Bolbach hoped that the new order of government would take a “missional polity” approach that eschewed a more traditional corporate model of church.
McNeill thinks the new Book of Order accomplished those goals, saying, “in general there are more opportunities to do things differently” — including connectional initiatives such as the Matthew 25 effort by the Presbyterian Mission Agency that both McNeill and Garcia praise. At the presbytery level McNeill says that “many of our leaders are experimenting with new things. That old line— 'We don’t do it that way’ —we don’t hear as much anymore.”
“The new Book of Order helped us become more relevant to our new contexts,” Garcia says. “But it is up to us to make it work for us and the rest of the people. Even good ideas are bad if they are not implemented.” That includes a more open style of communication, which Garcia credits McNeill with encouraging in New York City.
“Different voices are being invited to the table that had not been invited before,” McNeill says, adding “there is a new awakening” happening in the presbytery.
“I tell people a lot that if the Book of Order doesn’t expressly prohibit something than there is permission to do it — as long as it works in a ministry’s context.” McNeill then cites innovative examples such as the increased use of Zoom and other digital meeting tools across the presbytery, virtual ordination ceremonies and standing rules changes that allowed votes to be taken remotely. A lot of work went into acclimating presbytery members to the use of online tools even before the pandemic. Today, all of the presbytery’s congregations can meet by some form of electronic media.
Garcia likes how the Book or Order’s flexibility allowed “the church’s witness not to be cancelled by Covid” — a phrase he credits to a presbytery email he read early in the pandemic. “It was an invitation for creativity and imagination and to implement things that were appropriate in the context of different congregations.”
When izumi invites McNeill and Garcia to share advice with other presbyteries, McNeill says, “Resiliency is a key requirement going forward. We’ve gone through a very difficult time none of us were prepared for. We need to be open and faithful to the new possibilities. I believe that God has a wonderful plan for us going forward.”
“We shouldn’t be afraid of taking risks and using the flexibility given to us to think creatively about ministry,” Garcia says.
At the episode’s end, izumi encourages listeners from other councils to share their missional polity innovations on this clickable form.
Encounter: The Presbytery | Ministry of Nurture and Care (42 minutes)
During a second Book of Order-connected discussion, izumi focuses on section G-3.0307, which speaks to “the presbytery's role as pastor, counselor and advisor to its Ministers of Word and Sacrament and congregations (and commissioned ruling elders and certified Christian educators).”
Silva-Esterrich, Encounter's regular host, features as podcast guest, talking with izumi about ways presbyteries can “discern their hope for ministries of care,” including the process of calling new leaders.
Silva-Esterrich, manager of call process in the Office of the General Assembly and a leader of the soon-to-relaunch Church Leadership Connection, reflects on how the Book of Order allows for fresh approaches to ministry, including the work done by committees and commissions on ministry (COM) and preparation for ministry (CPM). Today’s committees and commissions are increasingly divided into smaller groups — focusing on things such as finances or pastoral care. The 2011 changes to the Book of Order have encouraged groups involved with calling pastors and other church leaders to keep reviewing what’s working and not working in their areas.
After mentioning ways presbyteries have reconfigured themselves during the pandemic, and how they have changed their approaches to ministry, Silva-Esterrich and izumi consider the Book of Order’s a mix of “love language and procedural language,” with Silva-Esterrich saying that the dual approach makes sense given the wide array of talents committee members and commissioners need to use in their work.
“I tell them you are not HR,” he says. “You need to not only do tasks but reflect on them.” That can mean pre-reflection in the form of knowing “what is the hope of your presbytery” as well as careful and unrushed discernment. He recommends mission studies as an important early step in a successful call.
As with the earlier Encounter episode with McNeill and Garcia, izumi and Silva-Esterrich look at the Book of Order’s openness to interpretation, with izumi noting that presbyteries “don’t need the permission of OGA [Office of the General Assembly] to do something.” Overcoming the fear of failure and embracing vulnerability are other suggestions for mid councils and congregations looking to implement and sustain new approaches to ministry.
“The ministry of care is the first part of the call process,” Silva-Esterrich says, “beginning with losing a person who was in a position. COMs need to be there for everyone in the process. That is the first thing to do.”
He urged special patience with pastor transitions. “We need to be spiritual with this, and biblical. There is not one model of a pastor …We are seeing a majority of people coming out of seminary who are different from the former model.”
“A healthy call process helps us have healthy ministries,” Silva-Esterrich says near the end of the episode. “There are things OGA can help you with about this, so call us. Sometimes we can share process information developed by another mid council or congregation or COM.” The Office of Call Process makes Zoom presentations to committees and commissions and some in-person presentations, including in Spanish. Contact Silva-Esterrich by email here.
After thanking Silva-Esterrich for sitting in the guest chair for the Along the Road podcast, izumi signs off with a benediction that connects to both Encounter episodes.
“The church’s governance enables you the flexibility and freedom to fulfill your many functions … This gift should be lived out with love, care, intentionality and faithfulness so the mission of the presbytery and its people can thrive.”
See the full list of Along the Road podcasts.