While presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly are part of the body of Christ, they are derivative rather than primary organs. In the American colonies — and then the new nation — Presbyterians were first gathered together in congregations, under the Word and Sacraments, and only as time went on gathered into larger entities: the presbytery, the synod, the General Assembly.
Building community in such bodies that are beyond the congregation — the primary unit — is more difficult and yet is just as important as what goes on in the congregation.
It is important because it is through the more inclusive governing bodies that the Presbyterian Church is able to launch ministry, drawing on the resources of an entire region that would otherwise not be possible. In addition, the presbytery is indispensable in terms of managing ongoing relations between pastors and congregations and exercising authority over other member ministers, those who do not serve congregations.
As the Presbyterian Church developed a style of governance in the higher governing bodies akin to corporate models — during the course of the 20th century — much was lost in terms of the collegiality that had earlier existed in such bodies beyond the congregation.
Though the cultures of the former UPCUSA and PCUS differed in rather significant ways, both allowed a much higher level of acquaintance and community-building within presbytery, synod and General Assembly.
This was especially true before rotation of elders. Then the church had a somewhat permanent core of lay ordained leadership which was knowledgeable about Scripture, the confessional tradition and the polity of the Presbyterian church. The downside of this system, of course, was that only a limited number (of mostly older white professional males) served — to the exclusion of women and others who may now occupy the office as well. The upside was a cadre of experienced committed lay leaders who exercised significant roles, not only in their congregations and their communities but in the higher governing bodies of the church.
With the increase in size of many of the middle governing bodies, the rotation of elders and, for the most part, the much more haphazard training of lay officers, there is no longer the sense of community that once existed, and functioning tends to be more impersonal and bureaucratic.
How can we build community in the Presbyterian Church under these changed circumstances?
Undoubtedly it will require strategic thinking and the development of new institutions and ways of doing things to recover something of what has been lost that is essential in the life of the church.
The institutions in place that could most facilitate such community rebuilding are camps and conference centers (Presbyterian and others), seminaries, church-related colleges, all of which could be more intentional in developing individually, and in geographical groupings, events and programs that gather Presbyterians together, to build community, to inspire, to experience the strength of the larger church and to envision ways in which the larger church can both support the congregation and enlist the congregations in larger mission efforts.
The outline of what needs to happen will vary from level to level and from governing body to governing body — with the General Assembly occupying a unique location in the system.
Given the Internet and the many ways that we can now communicate, it would seem that communication channels could be developed locally, regionally and, eventually, nationally, that would provide the connections we so desperately need as a church to give and receive — ideas, plans, resources — to support the manifold mission of the church.
The General Assembly may find its most important role — other than the classic functions of providing the base for a denominationwide program of missionaries and mission, and such things as pensions/health, publication, funds management, etc. — in being the “switchboard” for the parts of a complex system.
Such a system must include not only the “formal,” constitutional structures and programs but the vast array of informal extra-constitutional groups, movements and programs which gather to support various causes and mission.
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