Special to Presbyterian News Service
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA – “What’s become evident, as our commission has been meeting, is that everyone looks at middle governing bodies from a very different lens,” said the Rev. Tod Bolsinger, moderator of the Middle Governing Bodies Commission, which is considering the role and structure of such entities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“In one sense, our committee is the microcosm of the church — everyone has their own experience of how their presbytery functions, and that shapes what they want, expect and hope for in this process,” Bolsinger said.
One such example he pointed to is the strong sense of the differences between the ‘southern church’ and the ‘northern church,’ referring to the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which reunited in 1983 to form the PC(USA). There are assumptions in some parts of Presbyterian church culture, Bolsinger said, that “the way we do things” is born out of these two distinct entities. But even they are not sufficient to describe the full diversity that is found on the commission and reflected in the wider church.
“Northern church? Southern church? Those differences don’t mean anything to me — I come out of the Western church,” he said. “What we are trying to do on the commission is to raise the issues, to engage the conversation, and to invite people to join us in it, beginning now — an open source concept, putting it out to the church.” And in that process, the commission might tend to raise issues more than solve them, he said.
“We’ve been getting a lot of requests — ‘Could your commission help us with this problem?’ Then we listen to people tell us about their problems, big problems, that we can’t solve. But in the process it helps us to realize that which we are up against as we talk about the work of change,” Bolsinger said.
“At our most basic, we are congregations who believe that we need to be in covenant relationship beyond the local congregation. So, if we were to start with that understanding, might we be able to, in a healthy way, begin to create a structure that enables that?” he asked.
One illustration that Bolsinger and the commission heard from Steve Yamaguchi, presbytery pastor for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, is the idea of a dance floor. What might it look like to have the biggest dance floor possible, to teach folks how to dance using the entire floor, but to have clear boundaries? What might it look like to dance to the edge without falling off?
“There are those who are afraid, when they hear this analogy — ‘If you do that, you know what people will do? They will dance with scissors!’ Bolsinger said. “But there are also those who hear it excitedly and say, ‘Turn me loose!’”
“We’ve been using a mental model that regulation brings safety, and we’ve been trying to use polity as the answer,” Bolsinger said. So talk of a ‘larger dance floor’ brings questions — what if someone wants to change partners? What if someone starts break dancing instead of waltzing?
“What if we were to create a healthy, open polity, based on our trust of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ — if we had that trust, what kind of polity would we have?” Bolsinger wondered, knowing that there are those who snicker and roll their eyes at such thoughts. But, in the process, we might find healthier ways of organizing ourselves so that maybe, as a church, we can develop more trust.
It’s not an easy process, he said. “Of course some people are just clumsy and step on toes. So, presbytery meetings become the place where we tell people to stop dancing, rather than saying, ‘Let’s figure out how to dance well together.’”
If we were to create a structure that was based not on regulation but on trusting one another, then we might have to figure out how to trust each other.
But, Bolsinger said, we are soaked in an institutional culture that believes change comes more from changing the rules than from building relationships.
“If we don’t have rules to make people do something, they won’t” — that’s the regulatory model that we’ve been a part of,” he said. What he hopes for the commission is that “we might help the church rethink what it means to be the PC(USA) going into the future.”
That’s a big question, but Bolsinger is optimistic.
“If the commission can begin to help the church see what it is that we might want, the question will then become “How do we get there?”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives
in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is
not following her wanderlust out into the world.