One of the practical advantages of our new Form of Government (nFOG) is the opportunity for sessions and other councils to have increased flexibility in their decision-making and organization. As it is defined in an online description from the Office of the General Assembly:
“This revision is not so much about ‘what’ councils do — our essential polity — as it about ‘who’ and ‘how.’ Increased flexibility in structures and procedures in a less regulatory environment is a major change.” (“Frequently Asked Questions About the New Form of Government”) bit.ly/nfogfaq
Practical consequences of this new freedom will allow the session to adjust procedures to the specific atmosphere and tasks of a local situation. As one pastor of a small congregation put it, administrative elasticity gives church leaders the ability to design a blueprint that really matches their needs, not a one-size-fits-all pattern. It is now possible, for example, for the session to set its own quorum (the previous requirement was the moderator and one-third of the elders.) This could be an advantage if a number of members travel frequently and find it difficult to attend stated meetings. It is also possible to set a smaller quorum for routine actions and a larger one for more weighty or controversial matters. Perhaps a third number could be established for issues that are to be decided by an e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook tally. The policy should be established in writing, however, so that all members know exactly what it is and there is consistency of application. See G-3.0203.
Another change in the nFOG that could be utilized for local situations concerns the terms of service for ruling elders and deacons. Although the previous Form of Government required that these officers be elected for three-year terms and be arranged in three classes, the current arrangement allows different term lengths and class compositions (G2.0404). Perhaps it would be advantageous, for example, to have two classes of ruling elders to allow focus on projects like capital improvement or long-range fundraising that require extended periods of concentration and consistent leadership. On the other hand, it might be more useful to have four classes of elders so that leaders with specific talents and experience could take on short-term goals that require particular expertise.
With nFOG in place, church leaders might reconsider a previous provision (G-6.0403b, 2009/2011) that has been considerably expanded regarding the ordination of individual deacons for specific ministries (nFOG-2.0202). The advantage of this arrangement for a small congregation is that even if there are insufficient members to compose a formal board of deacons, individual deacons may be ordained for specific tasks of “compassion, witness, and service,” e.g., a congregational visiting nurse, a teacher of Bible or theology, or a person with a MSW or Ph.D. in counseling who is willing to volunteer needed services. Larger congregations could expand a board of deacons (say from 24 to 30 members) and have the additional members focus exclusively on new ministries. Perhaps deacons could “be on loan” to new congregations in the presbytery or to churches that are struggling in order to help them discover new ways to develop a diaconal ministry in their specific situations.
The possibilities for new and flexible forms of ministries for church leaders are almost endless. They are limited only by the creativity and imagination of the local session and the direction of the Holy Spirit given to each congregation.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) living in Johnstown, N.Y., and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College. A second edition of his “Selected to Serve, A Guide For Church Leaders,” based on nFOG, is scheduled to be published in May by Westminster John Knox Press.