Special GA commentary by Steve Salyards
Many of the overtures that presbyteries have sent to the Office of the General Assembly for consideration by the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fall into specific categories, such as reorganization of synods, divestment from fossil fuels and renunciation of jurisdiction. But the solitary overtures that address a particular topic can have just as much impact on how the PC(USA) operates as the higher profile ones. Let’s take a closer look at three of these that propose changes to the Book of Order regarding the functioning of ruling elders and councils in our system.
Individually commissioned ruling elders (OVERTURE 44)
Having come from a synod, Overture 44 from the Synod of the Northeast does not require concurrences to be considered by the GA, but at this time two presbyteries have concurred. This overture proposes amending G-2.0301 “to Allow for Individually Commissioned Ruling Elders.” Put another way: An individual would no longer need to be elected to service on a session in order to be ordained as a ruling elder.
This overture suggests a simple modification to the section on ruling elders and would change the phrase “they shall serve faithfully as members of the session” to “they may be individually commissioned or may serve as members of the session.” The rationale for the overture points out that the requirements for ruling elders are centered on character and service and not on church governance — and it would follow that they could be ordained to other service beyond participating on the session.
For context, it is important to note that a number of years ago the Form of Government was changed to allow deacons to be elected to a board or to be individually elected, ordained and commissioned. Part of the rationale (though not the exclusive reasoning) for this was the fact that while churches are required to have sessions, a board of deacons is optional.
Historically, ruling elders have been viewed with church governance as a distinct component of their responsibilities; the Foundations of Presbyter-ian Polity section F-3.0202 begins, “This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders.” The argument could be that even if a ruling elder is engaged in a form of service that is not related to the governance of the congregation, their time on the session informs, prepares and shapes them for that service.
The rationale to this overture points out that there may be times when being ordained as a ruling elder commissioned for service elsewhere would be appropriate. For example, ordination as a ruling elder may be appropriate with an individual who is preparing for mission work. Another example could be someone who has completed some seminary training and who has been identified as a good candidate to serve as a commissioned ruling elder,
but had not been previously ordained. Other possible cases involve work in the congregation and service to higher councils. However, in the latter example, a strong case can be made that having experience at the session level would be very useful at higher levels.
The rationale points out the reality that Presbyterians have already found means of creative polity for this to happen, so why not explicitly permit it?
The heart of this overture lies in how the Presbyterian system of church government — including the role of ruling elders within it — is viewed. Yes, ruling elders are there to serve. But, are they fundamentally there to be part of the collective guidance of the body first and foremost on the congregational level?
Parity on committees above session (OVERTURE 24)
Overture 24 is from the Presbytery of St. Andrew (with a concurrence from Presbytery of the Mid-South). Like Overture 44, this action also intersects with what it means to be a Presbyterian. This overture recommends changing G-3.0109 to remove the requirement for parity on committees of councils above the session. To be clear, it does not address the councils themselves and many committees of higher councils do not require that the non-teaching elder members be ruling elders.
As anyone who has served on a nominating committee can attest, it is usually harder to find enough non-teaching elders for some committees, so not requiring parity would make the process easier. A case certainly could be made for some committee (perhaps education, worship or church revitalization) to not require exact parity.
But there are other committees that deal with the heart of what it means to be Presbyterian. If parity of teaching and ruling elders is required on the higher councils, would it not make sense by extension that parity be required of the closely-related committees that deal with nominations, ministry and preparation for ministry? An argument could be made that certain committees performing mandated functions shall maintain parity or that committees that require the membership to be teaching and ruling elders would have parity.
Virtual attendance in session meetings (OVERTURE 14)
Overture 14 “On Amending G-3.0203 to Allow for Virtual Attendance in Session Meetings When Appropriate Technology Is Available” is from the Presbytery of Lake Erie and has (at time of publication) received five concurrences.
The title pretty much says it all: At a session’s discretion, members who cannot otherwise attend (due to mobility issues, illness, travel or other situations) may fully participate and vote via appropriate virtual or electronic connection.
On one hand, we Presbyterians have always valued our corporate discernment in face-to-face meetings where we can see, hear and interact with each other directly. On the other hand, we have busy lives, travel can be expensive and time consuming and technology can assist those with limited mobility to more easily participate in meetings.
But what this overture really suggests is that this has become a matter that needs to be codified in our Form of Government. Electronic meetings and electronic participation in meetings are already an option within our parliamentary procedure as noted on page six of “A Guide to Parliamentary Procedure in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” There is a slight distinction between an electronic meeting where all parties are in different locations and join the meeting electronically and one where almost all are in one location and one or two join electronically. In my experience, these have been treated the same way under the parliamentary procedure.
The argument can be made that — for reasons of clarity or because it involves councils and not just committees — this provision should be included in the Form of Government. However, under the current polity ethos to include as many parliamentary options in handbooks and manuals as possible, the assembly may rework this overture to become a recommendation or direction to presbyteries and sessions to include such a provision, if desired, in their individual operations manual. The Handbook for Clerks of Session from Pittsburgh Presbytery has a good discussion and example for doing this.
The underlying theme for all three of these overtures is the way we understand our roles and operations as Presbyterians who value collective discernment. We look forward to the collective discernment of the General Assembly as they consider each of these items that bring a unique polity question in its own right.
STEVE SALYARDS is a ruling elder living in La Verne, California. He is an IT manager and geologist at UCLA, writes the G.A. Junkie blog and has been active with his presbytery and synod.