“How are those governing bodies best organized to be responsive both to the Spirit of Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship? Are the structures of history the best platforms for carrying our mission into the future?”
Mid Councils, Discipleship and Change. Those were the key issues that were before our Commission. Not diversity, not denominational splintering, not the ongoing wrestling with ordination standards. But, discipleship in a rapidly changing context. And most pointedly: the ways that our mid-council structures are organized to serve or not serve our mission as followers of Jesus in changing world.
After almost two years of listening, studying, conversing and engaging the church with this big question, the Mid-Council Commission report is now offered to the church. We propose to flatten the hierarchy, and experiment with flexibility. We offer an extensive report on the many good and innovative mid-councils that are already adapting. We call for some ongoing conversations. We have offered short videos, and a brief Powerpoint that captures our convictions of the kinds of structures need in the future: Flat. Flexible. Faithful. Those resources capture the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the report, so, let me introduce this discussion by offering the ‘why’.
Why do we make these particular recommendations? Because we believe that for the church to be “best organized to be responsive both to the Spirit of Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship” we need to continue to make a clear shift in the priorities and purpose of our structures:
- Mid-Council structures must exist to serve the health and mission of congregations.
- Presbyteries must be given the power, and permission--for a season of experimentation--to structure in any way they discern will best serve the health and mission of its congregations.
This is based on a clear ‘adaptive’ principle: Genuinely transformative solutions to our biggest challenges come from giving the work back to the people most affected. In this way, we see our report as further discernment of the work of the Spirit expressed in the PUP report, the passing of the new Form of Government, and Amendment 10-A: The people at the most local level of mission should determine (within broad constitutional and theological bounds) the form and structure that will best serve its congregations.
It also brings to the surface three deeper issues underlying the challenges in the church today and calls on PRESBYTERIES (not congregations alone and not even a General Assembly commission like ours) to address them.
- Who has the power? We have often been asked. “Why do we need to allow presbyteries to reorganize? Why aren’t ‘affiliations’ within existing presbyteries enough?” Our answer: Because a presbytery is where the power resides. In this regard, our report continues what PUP and Nfog started: Giving both the power and the responsibility to local elders working collaboratively within their presbyteries for creating the structure that will best serve the mission of its congregations. (And that was the goal of our report.) Presbyteries are both “covenant communities of missional congregations” and the “corporate bishop.” A presbytery is where the elder representatives of a congregation have the best opportunity to be heard. A presbytery is the best and most local environment for experimenting with new ways of doing ministry. With our recommendations presbyteries will have all the power and responsibility to discern the structure that best serves its congregations.
In many places in the church, emerging groups, younger leaders, minority voices and innovative thinkers have challenged us to consider whether our current structure continues to favor those already in power. When power is given back to the people most affected by a challenge, then the adaptive creativity and new possibilities emerge from the people themselves and not from some top-down fix. This “GA Commission” has discerned that the best thing the “GA” can do is give back power to the presbyteries themselves to discern “the best platforms for carrying our mission into the future”.
- How much permission can we entrust to presbyteries? One church historian told us: “Healthy churches are entirely about increasing trust. You can’t create structures to work around the lack of trust and you can’t regulate the building of trust.” Our proposal suggests a bit less regulation and lot more trust. With a few less regulations holding us together, we will need to continue to build the kind of relationships where people willingly invest in our “connectional” life together. Indeed, we believe there is no other way. Our Models Report also demonstrates that the presbyteries that have less regulations and more intentional relationship building have the least amount of contention and the most amount of innovative mission. Our report builds on this by asking of the General Assembly: Can we entrust the presbyteries to determine the best structure of ministry for its congregations—including the organization of its boundaries and its membership.
And this last bit is the rub, for some. Our recommendations entrust presbyteries with the power to create more flexible or porous boundaries. To be clear, our report does NOT remove geographical presbytery boundaries. Indeed, it does not change any boundaries whatsoever. What it does allow is presbyteries to work more collaboratively within a LARGER geographical region to help discern the best ‘fit’ for a congregation. All it does is remove the necessity for CONTIGUOUS boundaries. This bit of flexibility adds lots of potential creativity. There could be smaller presbyteries within the boundaries of a larger one; presbyteries could be formed around mission needs or convictions; a single congregation in one presbytery could become a member of a different presbytery within its geographic region (if it was determined BY THE PRESBYTERY that it best served the mission of the congregation). Multiple presbyteries could combine to be served by one administrative staff or presbyteries could align for more services without having to ‘force’ every congregation to go along. .
- Are we willing to try an experiment to discover new ways of being the church? A Presbyterian pastor said, “We Presbyterians are so good at talking about problems, that after a while we think we have actually done something.” Talking is good. Conversations are important. Thoughtful, reflective discourse is necessary to any wise decision. But, we need more than discussion right now, we need innovation. We need to reflect and discuss while trying some new ways of being the church in mission. We believe that a season of experimentation by presbyteries could engage the emerging leaders to collaborate more and foster the innovative capacity of the church to greater mission in the culture. And that is our goal: Engagement. Energizing creativity. Collaboration.
Our proposal does not require change at the congregational or presbytery level, but allows for a SEASON of creative experimentation. Further, it also does NOT allow any change to become a fixed part of our structure without further GA approval in 2021. Many presbyteries will not want to reorganize at all. Others will be energized by the potential discoveries of new ‘adjacent possibilities.” Our recommendations would allow innovative leaders more flexibility, more power and more trust to help us all discover new ways of being a connectional church.
Our report envisions a kind of Gamaliel moment for the church (Acts 5:38–39), a moment of allowing more freedom and insisting on more discernment to continue to discern the structures that are “responsive both to the Spirit of Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship.”
Our conviction is that the mid council structure that will best adapt to the future is the one that will expect and enable PRESBYTERIES to experiment with whatever structure is necessary to serve the mission of its congregations. Presbyteries—that is missional congregations collaborating within the structure of a covenanted community—are our future.
Our commission would ask the General Assembly: You tasked us with listening to the whole church and convening a conversation about the changes in the world, please let this conversation continue in the presbyteries. If the presbyteries want the power, trust, flexibility and responsibility of this season of reflective experimentation, they will pass the recommendations. If there is a better way, then let’s discover that together in local conversations. But one way or another, let’s continue to give this work back to the church!