Overtures address flexibility in presbytery membership, the formation of new synods, synod function, and, radically, the removal of the chapter in the Book of Order regarding synods, G-12.
Some of the questions these overtures address include: what are synods, what do they do, are they even necessary? If they are necessary, can they be streamlined, merged, shared in some way? These questions alone do not address other more sticky questions associated with property, assets or bequests that would have to be liquidated and disbursed somewhere.
Some of the vibrant ministries of current synods are the objects of some questions. What to do, for example, with the robust technology ministry of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest? There is hardware and software to deal with along with the tech support provided to the presbyteries and congregations of that synod. Where would they turn for tech assistance if the synod is gone?
There is also the question of the permanent judicial commissions and their work in resolving conflicts and addressing disciplinary matters. This important constitutional function of synods would need to be re-routed.
The overture to eliminate synods, coming from the New Hope Presbytery (04-02), allows for a Synod Transition Administrative Commission in order to address these financial and constitutional issues but without allowing for the placement of some of the thriving ministries of the synods. An effort to reach a representative from New Hope Presbytery was unsuccessful.
Another overture (04-06), coming from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), calls for the formation of a commission to consult with sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the wider church about middle governing bodies. This overture asks this commission to consider a variety of approaches from outright elimination of synods to a paring down or perhaps a complete reorganization. The overture also looks at presbyteries and their relationships to the sessions they serve and to the synod of which they are a part, making it broadly address middle governing body issues rather than dealing only with synods. Such a commission would report back with recommendations to the 220th General Assembly scheduled to gather in 2012.
“The COGA overture came about through conversations with middle governing bodies around the country. It grew out of 15 years of conversations having to do with some of the struggle middle governing bodies are having, some of the innovative things they are doing, and what is needed as we move forward as a denomination,” says Gradye Parsons, PC(USA) stated clerk.
Parsons also notes that the discussion about middle judicatories is going on across the religious spectrum. Not only is it taking place in Protestant denominations but also in the Jewish world. The hope is that the commission will listen to the needs of sessions, presbyteries, and synods and encourage discussion and partnership among those entities. “We really expect different models to work in different parts of the country,” says Parsons, who expects that new partnerships between synods will evolve. Another possibility is that a governing body could merge with another, combining resources, enabling the new body to minister in new ways.
JANET TUCK is Voice editor for the Synod of Living Waters in Franklin, Tenn.