Guest GA commentary by Barry Ensign-George
There promises to be a lot of talk at General Assembly – and no doubt long afterward – about structure and organization and administration at the denominational level. Overtures from presbyteries offer a variety of ways of reorganizing: form special councils and committees, hire a consultant. Other ideas are sure to emerge.
Deep inside this talk there are theological issues. What does faithfulness to Jesus Christ require of us as this part of the church gathered? How can we shape the structures of our life together in such a way that they serve who Jesus calls us to be – on the scale of the denomination?
The timing is interesting – this is a bicentennial moment! Presbyterians here in the United States first established a denominational agency (a “board” it was called) 200 years ago, at the General Assembly held in 1816. It’s the bicentennial year for denominational agencies among us. In establishing the first denominational agency, those GA commissioners gave our denomination a distinctive shape and a mixed structure, opening up disagreements that have played out for years and continue to shape our denomination in the present.
As we continue to think through how best to structure the life we share at the denominational level and continue to discuss specific proposals, it will be helpful to remember that this is a discussion we’ve been having for a long time. We are the present form of this conversation, and since we’re coming in mid-stream it will be good to know something about how the discussion got here… because there are parts of our history it would be good not to reenact.
2016: The bicentennial for Presbyterian agencies
The first Presbyterian (mission) agency was established by the 1816 General Assembly, held at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia in May of that year. The population of the United States was growing rapidly (fueled by immigration especially from Europe), and the population of the U.S. was expanding westward. It was the era of the great voluntary societies, organizations formed by people seeking to improve life for people in need (they were an early form of non-governmental organizations). Some voluntary societies engaged work that was not exclusively religious (societies seeking to bring aid to the poor or to provide education). Others were organized to engage specifically religious ends. The American Bible Society was a particularly relevant example. These groups had significant success, which the various denominations were unable to match. Presbyterians watched the success of these societies and decided to try to bring the efficiency and focus of the voluntary societies into the denomination.
The GA formed a committee to consider a specific set of needs. Presbyterians were particularly concerned about the inability of their polity to match the population growth and spread. The expansion created a need for more and more congregations – who needed new presbyteries and more pastors. The report of the committee notes these needs and suggests a restructuring to meet them. The GA committee on mission was to become something else:
“For the purpose of enlarging the sphere of our missionary operations then, and infusing new vigour into the cause, your Committee would respectfully recommend a change of the style, and enlargement of the powers of the Standing Committee of Missions. If instead of continuing to this body, the character of a committee bound in all cases to act according to the instructions of the General Assembly, and under the necessity of receiving its [the GA’s] sanction to give validity to all the measures which it may propose, the Committee of Missions were erected into a Board, with full powers to transact all the business of the Missionary cause, only requiring the Board to report annually to the General Assembly; it would then be able to carry on the Missionary business with all the vigour and unity of design that would be found in a society originated for that purpose; and, at the same time, would enjoy all the benefit that the counsel and advice of the General Assembly could afford.” (from “Extracts from the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”)
The proposal was that this new board (what we call an “agency”) would pursue a specific task: send out missionaries to organize Presbyterian congregations in places where there had been none. The board was to be given power to make its own decisions about how best to do that. The committee’s proposal included a plan to set up an independent funding structure for this new board: The board was to be authorized to “take measures for establishing throughout our churches, Auxiliary Missionary Societies … to aid the funds … of the Board.” Notice that the relationship between the board and the General Assembly is a bit unclear. The board was to report every year to the General Assembly (which then met annually) and to be given “counsel and advice” from the GA – but it’s not clear which body has the authority to direct which.
Whatever questions might have been raised, the General Assembly approved these proposals, and thus the first denominational agency was established.
1816: What did they do?
Those GA commissioners established a new organizational structure for American Presbyterians. They established an agency (a bureaucracy) alongside the existing General Assembly structure. In the interest of efficiency and (presumably) effectiveness, the new agency was empowered to make its own decisions about how to carry out its tasks. Indeed, it was given wide latitude to decide what its tasks were. The commissioners established a funding stream for this new agency, a new funding stream alongside already existing funding.
The new structure those commissioners set up is still with us today: the modern denomination. This kind of denomination is characterized by a complicated authority structure. Mark Chaves, a sociologist who now teaches at Duke University, calls this a “dual authority” structure. Modern denominations have a “religious authority structure” and an “agency structure.” The religious authority structure handles matters like authorizing worship, selection and ordination of leadership and ecclesial discipline. This structure is built on people’s desire to be authorized to carry out specific religious tasks. The agency structure is similar to other task-oriented organizations, including businesses. It seeks efficiency in performing tasks, tasks determined by… well, that’s an abiding question. Chaves suggests that the congregation is basic to both authority structures. Religious authority structures seek to establish and care for congregations. For agency structures, congregations are a “resource base.” Agencies pool people and funds to achieve particular ends that can’t be fully achieved by individuals, congregations or presbyteries acting on their own.
For now, the PC(USA) almost perfectly embodies this “dual authority structure.” The Office of the General Assembly is our primary “religious authority structure.” The Presbyterian Mission Agency is primarily an “agency structure.”
It will come as no surprise that these authority structures are often not simply “dual,” but dueling. Tension over the relationship between the two structures has flared periodically over its 200-year history. Dispute over the relationship between the two broke into the open in the 1830s and 1850s. Differing ways of relating the two characterized the two denominations that came together to form the PC(USA) in 1983. Fortunately, we have not lately been in a time of open dueling between our dual authority structures. But the relationship is clearly wired for static, something we’ll want to remember as we feel the urge to merge.
The past is not the present, but it keeps following us
The modern denomination has taken a variety of forms over these two centuries. Its form has shifted as forms of organization in society around us have changed, gaining bureaucratic complexity in parallel with similar changes in large organizations across our culture. It is unclear whether the modern denomination is moving to a new form, or perhaps this denomination and others like it are about to drop the “modern” for some other adjective (“after-modern”?). Still, trying to combine two authority structures into a single organization will always be hard work. As we consider whether to merge the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly, we will need to bear in mind that we are merging two authority structures that exercise different kinds of authority in service of different kinds of goals. Failure to bear this in mind paves the way for future dueling.
BARRY ENSIGN-GEORGE is a teaching elder, who served for 12 years as associate for theology in the PC(USA) Office of Theology & Worship.