Commission: ‘No’ to synods. ‘Maybe’ to non-geographic presbyteries

– The General Assembly Middle Governing Bodies Commission has voted not to recommend that the General Assembly change the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to allow non-geographic presbyteries.

            The Oct. 8 vote against that recommendation was 11-8 – but the commission immediately began discussing ways to include non-geographic presbyteries among other possibilities it might present for the church to consider. Other ideas that group might put forth could include creating covenant communities, or missional orders, or some form of more porous boundaries between presbyteries.

            “I am very much against the principle of the idea” of non-geographic presbyteries, said Warren Cooper, a ruling elder from Philadelphia Presbytery. “Yet I am very cognizant that it has a place among other ideas,” suggesting that the commission give the General Assembly arguments for and against the concept. “Where I am personally against it, I think it would be irresponsible for us as a commission not to put it forward,” Cooper said.

            The task force did vote, however, to recommend significant changes in the role of synods – asking the General Assembly to discontinue the role of synods as councils and to create five regional administrative commissions to take over ecclesiastical tasks.

            Any constitutional changes would have to be approved by the General Assembly and by a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries. And the commission won’t actually approve its final report until its next meeting – scheduled for Feb. 2-4 in Dallas – which means it could still make changes then.

            Non-geographic presbyteries. The commission’s debate over non-geographic presbyteries – currently a very hot topic in the PC(USA) – reflected both pragmatic concerns and cornerstone beliefs.

 Evangelicals who contend the PC(USA) made a mistake in passing Amendment 10-A, which removed from the denomination’s constitution language requiring those being ordained to practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single, have said that non-geographic presbyteries could give some people a way to stay in the denomination without violating their consciences.

David Seungil Rue, a ruling elder from California, said if the PC(USA) doesn’t listen to evangelicals and make some arrangements, “we are going to lose them.”

James Harper, a teaching elder from Atlanta, said some evangelicals will see non-geographic presbyteries as “a theological compromise” in which they have no interest. But others want to stay in the PC(USA), “to be able to thrive in mission and ministry together without the politics,” Harper said.

He asked the commission not to “doubt the intentions of people who are saying `Give me a way to stay’ by saying what we really mean is we want to leave,” adding that sometimes “we use `conservative evangelical’ something like a swear word.”

 Harper said evangelicals like him are asking this question: “Can I stay in this denomination with integrity and relief of conscience?”

Others asked whether forming presbyteries with only like-minded people actually violates foundational Presbyterian principles, and amounts to a temporary fix.

“It’s a compromise – that’s not what we need,” said Miriam Dolin, a ruling elder from San Francisco Presbytery. “That’s not creative, that’s not out-of-the-box” thinking, and “it’s going to change us forever as a denomination . . . We are not called to live with people who only think like us.”

José Olagues, a teaching elder from Grand Canyon Presbytery, said that “I want to be at the table with all of my brothers and sisters, all the children of God. Yet I’m being told that my form of Christianity is not as good as that of another member. I need my sisters and brothers who disagree with me at the table. Yet if they don’t want me, I don’t know what to do. I wrestle with it.”

Terry Newland, executive of the Synod of Living Waters, said that “for me, it’s not about forbearance or tolerance or enduring together,” but a belief “that God has gifted each one of us with gifts that will help us as a whole and will help me. It’s more a selfish thing . . . When we keep segregated, I am deprived of those spiritual gifts . . . It’s a yearning for more wholeness in my spiritual journey. It’s not about keeping the marriage together.”

Newland also said of the push to divide into like-minded groups: “There’s nothing Presbyterian about that. It’s building a congregationalist church.”

Some on the commission found themselves being pulled in multiple ways.

“Everything inside of me has lived with ecumenism and interfaith and diversity,” said Sam Roberson, general presbyter and stated clerk of Charlotte Presbytery. But he spoke in favor of recommending non-geographic presbyteries to the General Assembly, saying “I think this is a time in our history . . . when I’d like to put this before the church.”

While the commission voted down a recommendation to ask the General Assembly to approve non-geographic presbyteries, it’s also asking the Advisory Committee on the Constitution to provide advice on any constitutional issues or concerns that such a proposal might raise.

Synod restructuring. While the commission members struggled with whether to approve non-geographic presbyteries, support for the idea of changing the role of synods was evident as soon as they began discussing the idea.

            Commission members praised it as a way of flattening the hierarchy of the PC(USA), potentially saving money, and reenergizing mission work at the regional level.

            The commission passed a series of recommendations regarding synods that it plans to include in its final report.

Many of these provisions would require constitutional changes, and the approval of both the Assembly and a majority of the presbyteries. While the commission won’t approve its final report until February, its moderator, Tod Bolsinger, a teaching elder from California, explained that approving recommendations with constitutional implications now would give the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and other interested groups a chance to respond to the recommendations before the report is complete.

 The commission voted to recommend that:

         Synods be discontinued as councils and their ecclesiastical functions be vested in five regional administrative commissions of the General Assembly.

         During a transition time, synods – in consultation with their constituent presbyteries – would create and implement a transition plan to transfer assets, funds, projects and programs, including those relating to racial ethnic ministries, to appropriate entities. Those transition plans would be submitted to the 2016 General Assembly for its approval.

         The authority and intent of the Mid-Councils Commission be vested in these regional commissions “in order to facilitate churches and presbyteries to build partnerships and realign where necessary” to fulfill their missional objectives.

         Those regional commissions have the power and authority to “enforce the church’s commitment to inclusiveness and representation,” including forming committees on representation.

         The General Assembly be authorized to create five regional judicial commissions to serve as courts of appeal of decisions of presbytery permanent judicial commissions, and as courts of original jurisdiction in remedial cases against presbyteries, or upon reference from presbytery judicial commissions.


While the recommendations don’t state this, one possibility might be that the five regional commissions might be drawn along roughly the same lines as the districts among which the biennial meetings of the General Assembly are rotated.

Commission members voiced a desire that the process move faster. But with the approvals needed from the assembly and then a majority of presbyteries, and then giving time for transition, they acknowledged any changes in the synod structure likely would take at least three to four years to achieve.