For Less Regulatory Governance

There is an increasingly urgent voice in the church, calling for our governance to be more enabling and less regulatory. Chapter 14 of the Form of Government, which deals with ordination, certification and commissioning, is the most severe focal point for this frustration, and is a major source of the disconnect between congregations and the denomination.

The Department of Constitutional Services of the Office of the General Assembly reports that the largest source of requests for their guidance is this one chapter. Easing the problems in Chapter 14 would be a major help to our sessions and presbyteries. An Advisory Committee on the Constitution task force made a valiant attempt in this direction last year. It separated Form of Government material into basic principles, required practices and advisory comments. Unfortunately, General Assembly commissioners found the result more confusing than helpful, and that effort was shelved.

One difficulty in reform is that many people really do like prescriptive, regulatory manuals. The rules become a safe, impersonal way to respond to genuinely difficult situations. If a committee on ministry has doubts about a proposed non-pastoral employment, it is easier to tell the minister, “The book doesn’t allow that,” than to say, “We think this is not a valid use of your ordination.”

Another problem is that the detailed manual has created constituencies which want the affirmation of being explicitly in the book. The continuing pressure to expand the material on certified Christian educators, and the calls to include certified interim pastors, are plausible responses to our regulatory use of the Form of Government. By the way we use the book, we tell them that Chapter 14 is itself the source of legitimacy and authority for their ministry. Surely what we want to say is that the source of authority is the gathered body of Christ, listening to his call in a world filled with lively, changing challenges.

Even though we rejected the Advisory Committee on the Constitution’s approach, perhaps we can still simplify Chapter 14. Instead of trying to cover every possible circumstance (and our changing world always offers new circumstances to consider), we can declare the basic principles of ordination and certification, and clarify who has the authority to answer the questions which will arise. No easy task; yet it could help churches to find leadership to serve God’s people.

Line John Niles Bartholomew, recently retired executive of the South Atlantic Synod, lives in Orange Park, Fla.