by Cathy Surgenor
Presbytery meetings! Who needs them? Who looks forward to them? Surprisingly, many commissioners to the Hudson River Presbytery meetings do. One person wrote, after the December 2013 meeting, “The enthusiasm of the community made me realize how much I had missed these meetings.”
The meetings where representatives of a presbytery’s churches gather to worship, conduct business and socialize are an essential part of our life together and a primary opportunity to build community. However, attendance at these meetings is often seen as a duty or even a burden because they last several hours and the tenor of the meetings can vary from friendly to boring to tense or even hostile.
Last year, members of the Hudson River Presbytery Coordinating Cabinet decided that, while their meetings were rarely hostile, they could definitely be made more interesting. They decided to introduce some major changes and to track the response to those changes through a feedback form designed for that purpose. The long-term impact they hoped to achieve was to create meetings so dynamic and participative that the congregations would learn about the work of their presbytery and begin to see themselves as part of it. They would think of the presbytery as “us,” not “them.” They asked this author to design the feedback form/survey, collect and analyze the results, report back to the coordinating cabinet after each meeting and modify the feedback form to reflect new adaptations. A guided conversation helped determine the long-term impact they hoped to achieve.
Changes in structure and flow of meetings
The leaders decided to explore a trend several other presbyteries are undertaking. Eliminating most committee reports allowed time for “community conversations.” Attendees could choose from among four to six topics and participate in the discussion(s) of interest to them. Conversation topics and leaders were chosen ahead of time and discussions occurred in assigned breakout spaces. Committee leaders could use this time to share their work with those interested in their topic. For example, the Congregational Change Committee held a discussion based on the book “Our Iceberg Is Melting,” which created a demand for further exchange of ideas on church change. A “community conversation” on gun violence led to several congregational studies and a General Assembly overture.
The response to this greater opportunity for participation was immediate. After the April meeting one attendant reported, “There was a sense of togetherness that I have not seen in some time in presbytery meetings.” Another expressed gratitude for the “warmth and comfort of being with Presbyterians who share my beliefs even if we argue greatly over issues and details.” Attendees reported having greater opportunity to spend time with old friends and to make new ones. In fact, these conversations and sufficient time for friends were repeatedly cited as the most valuable aspects of the meetings.
“Community conversations” did not occur at every meeting. Twice, powerful guest speakers provided connection with the wider church and the issues that confront it. Attendees appreciated the opportunity to engage with these church leaders in a small group discussion before the actual presbytery meeting as well as during it.
Lively worship services, which always included Holy Communion, were also cited as a highpoint of the meetings. People appreciated the wide diversity of music (from traditional reformed hymns and organ music to a soaring solo sax player or camp songs under a tent). Insightful, inspiring preaching was highly valued.
The sense of community developed through conversation and worship carried into the business portion of the meetings. Throughout the year, over 95 percent of respondents reported that the business portions of the meetings were conducted in “a spirit of respect and good will.” Even difficult discussions such as the gracious dismissal of congregations were conducted in a manner of mutual respect. In April, May and July a strong majority of respondents reported a sense of the Holy Spirit being present during the business portion of the meeting.
The desired long-range impact of having congregations become excited about the work of the presbytery is still a work in progress. The majority of survey respondents described “mild interest” in their own reports back to their congregations. However, a positive note is that a third of the respondents reported that individual members expressed greater interest in particular topics and programs under discussion. This increased interest can be built upon.
Deliberate, well-monitored change led 85 percent of respondents to report that presbytery meetings have become more enjoyable. A majority found the meetings were more productive. Nearly half reported that they themselves have increased their participation during the meetings. Ninety-four percent of respondents agreed that their overall experience of the December presbytery meeting was positive. Of those, 44 percent stated they “strongly agreed.” It’s safe to say they are looking forward to the next meeting.
CATHY SURGENOR is principal evaluator for Evaluation Builds Understanding. She is a member of the Hudson River Presbytery who understands the challenges of faith communities.