Recently some evangelical pastors of many of the larger congregations in the PC(USA) signed a letter pointing out a crisis in the denomination and calling into question whether (given our recent history) our problems can be successfully addressed within our current framework or whether this may be an unwise use of energy that distracts us from the mission of the church. These signatories have received quite a bit of criticism, with which I do not agree.
However, my purpose in writing is to address a related issue I have not heard discussed. To me, it is like the elephant in the room or the emperor with no clothes. This unaddressed issue is that when the pastors of some of our largest churches feel the need to write such a letter, we might well ask ourselves what in our system has caused them to have to try to communicate in this way. Far from seeing this letter as arrogant, or as having been written by an elite, I see it as being symptomatic of the fact that our largest congregations have been systematically disempowered and under-represented in the PC(USA).
Presbyterians who are members of large-membership congregations are extremely under-represented at presbyteries, synods, and General Assembly. The median PC (USA) congregation is now barely over 200 members. But many of our denomination’s members are in larger membership congregations. Let’s compare the voting strength of two thousand Presbyterians who are distributed among ten congregations with the voting strength of the same number (two thousand) of Presbyterians who are all in the same congregation. (Then we will do the same by comparing the voting strength of members of a four-thousand member congregation with members in twenty congregations of two-hundred members each.)
Suppose each of ten 200-member congregations has a full or part-time pastor who votes at presbytery. Each congregation will also get one elder vote at presbytery. While we understand that the 200 members congregation’s pastor (as well as its elder commissioner) do not represent the congregation and cannot be instructed how to vote, nevertheless in my view it is naïve not to suppose that in many ways the minister and elder commissioners will be influenced by the ethos, perspectives, and theological view of the congregation they help lead! Now imagine a 2000 member congregation. It has the same number of members as ten 200 member congregations. Typically this two-thousand member church may have 3 pastors, and the Book of Order gives it 4 elder votes at presbytery. So it has seven people who are a part of its life voting at presbytery as commissioners, whereas ten 200-members congregations would have 20 votes, almost three times as many votes as one 2000 member church has.
Imagine now a 4000 member congregation. It typically may have 5 pastors, and it gets only six elder commissioners, for a total of eleven commissioners whose perspectives are shaped by its life, values, ethos, and theology. On the other hand the same number of Presbyterians (4000) distributed among twenty 200 member congregations would have 40 persons voting, almost four times as many.
Is there a good reason why Presbyterians in median sized congregations of about 200 members should have 3 to 4 times the representative power of Presbyterians who have happened to join 2000 or 4000 member congregations? Is it any wonder that these larger-membership churches would feel disenfranchised, and that some of their pastors would sign a letter expressing frustration?
What message are we sending to congregation when our system tells them, “we want you to pay a per-capita that is strictly proportional to your membership, but the more you grow, the less proportional voting power you will have”?
Let me now give you an example. I love very much my own presbytery, the Presbytery of New Covenant. We have sensitive, committed, passionate leaders, and we try hard in our life and ministry to represent all sized churches and all theological perspectives consistent with the Reformed faith. We have 106 congregations, but it so happens that in our presbytery pastors from our four largest congregations signed this letter. These four largest congregations have approximately 38 % of the Presbyterians in our presbytery, but the pastors of these churches and the elders their sessions elect have approximately 10 % of the votes at our presbytery. We also have many retired, at large, and validated ministers who get to vote, and they are equalized by elders who have leadership positions in the presbytery or who are assigned on a rotating basis from congregations of over 200 members. A few of these elders who also get a vote due to equalization come from these 4 churches and a number of honorably retired pastors who can vote at presbytery retired from them, so that probably increases their vote percentage from 10% to no more than 13%. Still I think it is fair to say that in our presbytery (where, again, these four largest churches have 38 % of our members) as in presbyteries across the denomination, the perspectives, ethos, experience, and values of individual members of larger-membership congregations are under-represented at least three-fold.
Before I close, let me re-emphasize:
–neither pastors nor elders “represent” a particular church, and they cannot be instructed on how to vote. Nevertheless it is unrealistic and even foolish to think that pastors who lead a congregation and elders who are elected by its session as commissioners do not in many ways reflect its ethos, values, and theology.
–commissioners to General Assembly are elected by presbyteries. Under-representation at presbytery will inevitably be reflected in the composition of the group of commissioners sent to G.A. (Having chaired the nominating committee of our presbytery, I know that while we tried to fairly represent larger congregations, historically the percentage of GA Commissioners from our four largest congregations in any give year has been very small compared to the 38% of our congregants contained in these congregations.)
So to summarize: Under our Book of Order, one member of a one-hundred-member congregation with a pastor has, arguably, seven times the strength of representation in presbytery as one member in a 4000 member church. Even if the one-hundred member congregation is without a pastor, one of its members has over three times the proportional strength of representation of a member in a 4000 member church. If you are a member of a two thousand member church, your strength of representation is typically one-third of that of a member of a two-hundred member church, near our median size.
Presbyterians who are members of large-membership congregations are under-represented at presbyteries, synods, and General Assembly.
Is it any wonder the pastors wrote a letter?
Final note on the proposed New Form of Government (nFOG), presently being debated and voted for ratification by the presbyteries: If nFOG passes as I understand it, each presbytery will decide on the number of voting delegates to be allocated to each of its congregations. Individual presbyteries might choose to ameliorate the arguable imbalance I am discussing; others might decide to exacerbate it. Many might leave things as they are, thereby maintaining the ethos and theology of larger membership congregations still substantially under-represented at meetings of middle and higher governing bodies. If nFOG fails to pass, many presbyteries could intentionally ameliorate somewhat the under representation of larger membership congregations through their discretion to assign equalizing elder votes to offset extra clergy votes in their respective presbyteries.
Winfield Casey Jones is pastor of the Pearland Church in Pearland, Tex.