by Sallie Watson
Almost 200 years ago, a trail was charted between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Independence, Missouri, that would allow for trade to happen between the two locations. The Santa Fe Trail came to be the first major highway across what would become the United States and stayed in use until the late 1890s when the railroad came along to memorialize the path.
When I lived in New Mexico, I was thrilled when a colleague invited me up to Las Vegas to see a local stretch of the Santa Fe Trail. In my mind, I imagined that I was going to see a path more wide than not, made smooth by the tramping hooves of cattle and horses, along which wagons and their passengers rode decently and in order to their destination. Eastbound passengers would surely stay to one side of the path and westbound passengers would keep to the other, of course. It would be clearly demarcated and easy to follow.
Instead, I was surprised to find more of a mess. The Santa Fe Trail may have followed a general direction to and from Missouri, but it was neither decent nor orderly. The wagon ruts along the trail revealed more a bowl of spaghetti than a precursor to the interstate. The paths went in many directions. It was clear that one driver had created a path around a slower wagon, perhaps, or believed that a shorter way was possible. Another driver may have gone yet another direction in order to take in the vista or possibly to seek shade or water. Less-than-obedient cattle may have taken their wagon along a path offering more succulent dining options or paused along the way for a siesta. There were a number of different ways that one could have traveled and still claimed to be on the trail.
Not only were the wagon ruts I observed numerous, they were weathered. Over the course of almost 200 years, they had eroded the soil to the point that they more resembled riverbeds than wagon trails. Some of the ruts were worn so deeply that I was unable to see the tops of my teenagers’ heads as they ran inside of them.
Everything old is new again: 200 years later, welcome to the Santa Fe Trail as metaphor for mid council ministry.
Before the PC(USA) was born in 1983, the Northern and Southern streams of the church had different ways of functioning. Some had only a stated clerk in office; others had paid or volunteer staff or both. Sometime in the 1970s, in a move which some believe mirrored a societal emphasis of the day, the role of executive presbyter was formed. While clearly not a bishop in the truest sense of that role, some have said that EPs have “all of the responsibility but none of the authority.” Some EPs held the reins of their presbytery tightly; others took a more casual leadership approach on the trail. But for a while, especially post-reunion, it appeared that all of the presbytery “wagons” were on the same smooth path moving forward.
Fast-forward to the postmodern, missional, connectional — whatever you call the current day — church. Scholars (most notably Phyllis Tickle) have declared that we are living in the midst of an every-500-year “garage sale,” a predictable cycle in which the church decides what institutional trappings to keep and what to throw away. In the midst of that cycle, the anxiety related to an unknown future is ever-present in the system. The anxiety is compounded in presbyteries by churches’ declining membership rolls (and concurrent declines in per capita and mission giving) along with churches who seek to leave the trail altogether — some by dismissal to other denominations, some by closing, some by merging. In short, where mid councils are concerned, there is no longer a wide, smooth, unified path forward.
A new way forward: Leadership models
Sue Krummel, associate for mid council relations at the Office of the General Assembly, has said that there are now 38 different names for the one position that used to be called executive presbyter: missional presbyter, presbytery pastor, general missioner and many more. Some of the 170 presbyteries are choosing to go without presbyter leadership altogether or are devising volunteer positions to carry out the responsibilities previously overseen by the presbyter. There are about 25 presbyteries with current vacancies that have no plans to formally fill the position again. And almost a third of presbyteries have experienced turnover in the position within the last three years alone. About half of the stated clerk positions have also experienced turnover in the same period of time.
Some presbyteries, such as Grand Canyon and DeCristo (both in Arizona), have decided to share staffing. In that case, a single presbyter (presbytery pastor) and stated clerk serve all of the Presbyterian churches in Arizona. Other presbyteries, such as Santa Fe and Sierra Blanca (both in New Mexico), experimented with a similar shared staffing plan leading toward a move to become one presbytery, but were unable to find a workable way forward together. Along with a stated clerk, Sierra Blanca now has in place a two-year transitional shepherd whose main job is to teach the presbytery how to function in four clusters without a presbyter in place. Santa Fe is currently lining up transitional leadership as well, with an eye toward a largely volunteer-run presbytery.
In another model, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos in California is staffed by two co-leaders: a leader for vision and mission, and a leader for polity and administration/stated clerk. Tom Cramer, the leader for vision and mission, says on the presbytery’s website: “I have been called to bring people together, inspire them to imagine what we can be, and create with them a new way of being the church.”
There is also an increase in the number of presbytery leaders affectionately called “slashers:” those who serve two roles as a presbytery or synod “leader-slash-stated-clerk.” A survey of the mid council directory on the PC(USA) website shows that there are about 30 people currently serving in both roles for a presbytery. Some who serve in this dual-function position have noted that it is difficult trying to “serve two masters;” others in the role feel little conflict at all.
Forming new trails: Colleague groups
Students currently enrolled in Presbytery Leader Formation, a three-year continuing education offering for first-time presbyter leaders that is sponsored by the Association of Mid Council Leaders and the Office of the General Assembly, have impacted the shape of the curriculum that is offered. Less of the coursework, led by volunteer currently-in-the-field presbytery leadership, is “how-to” material geared toward large presbyteries flush with resources. Many of the courses are now aimed, for example, at teaching systems theory and how to ride the wave of change. Some faculty members are graduates of the program; they have also noted a rapid rate of turnover in presbytery leadership. One faculty member is currently working with a few new leaders who have come to replace leaders who had been her classmates just a few years earlier. In such a rapidly changing atmosphere, it is no surprise that one of the most essential components of the week is rich twice-daily worship. Participants sing heartily together, enjoy an opportunity to reflect on the Word, share prayer and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
Along with the collegiality experienced through Presbytery Leader Formation, gatherings like the annual Association of Mid Council Leaders meeting, study groups (like those which meet in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Burlingame, California), “EP forums,” more informally-chosen colleague groups and even “Lilly Grant Groups” are places where those in mid council leadership can circle the wagons and find refreshment for the journey. Many have discovered the value of trusted “traveling companions” who both understand the work and serve as a supportive sounding board.
Trail markers: Energy, intelligence, imagination, love and hunger
Popular country and western artist Willie Nelson was once questioned by his friend Bob Shelton, former president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, about why he went through a period of recording albums of old standards (like “Stardust” and “Over the Rainbow”) instead of continuing to compose new material. Nelson replied, “Because I wasn’t hungry.” Nelson felt financially comfortable enough that artistic creativity was no longer required. Shortly after that, when many of his possessions were impounded by the Internal Revenue Service for back taxes, he experienced that hunger again. He produced a new album called “The IRS Tapes” and once again, for Nelson, the original work began to flow.
The PC(USA) is being well-served by healthy leaders who are taking to the trail with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. However, through my personal experience with EP colleagues across the country, it is clear that there is renewed “hunger” along the way. Presbytery leaders are road-weary with a surplus of judicial cases, gracious dismissal policies, displaced anger, a constant exodus of members and congregations, and other difficult responsibilities that quickly drain the joy of their calling.
In sum, from the “Wild West” of mid council ministry: While it is very much the case that the paths of each presbytery are all over the map, it is clear that the wagons are headed in the same direction. No one at present is sure if their presbytery will ever “arrive” this side of Paradise. It is far more certain that the journey will contain some peril and some surprises, but much more delight. In this time of garage sales and emerging churches and multiple possibilities for moving forward, may it be that the hunger currently being experienced leads mid councils and their leaders to once again channel the creativity of the Spirit as we follow God’s lead along the trail.
Sallie Sampsell Watson serves as general presbyter for Mission Presbytery in Texas. She and her family live in San Antonio.