Crossing boundaries: Should presbyteries remain bound by the map?

INDIANAPOLIS – Should the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) allow the creation of non-geographic presbyteries?

The General Assembly Middle Governing Bodies Commission hasn’t decided yet what it wants to recommend about that. But its deliberations Oct. 6 illuminated some of the tensions surrounding this issue – including the recognition that some evangelicals distressed about the prospect of ordaining gays and lesbians may be ready to bolt the PC(USA) if they can’t find a place in the denomination where they can follow their consciences.

The commission does hope to reach a determination at its third face-to-face meeting, Oct. 5-8 in Indianapolis, on whether it wants to recommend any changes in the denomination’s constitution to the 2012 General Assembly. Constitutional changes also would require approval from a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries.

There are other options open for consideration too – including the concept of presbyteries with more “porous” boundaries that are regionally rather than nationally-based, and the concept of covenant communities rather than separate presbyteries.

The commission also plans to discuss whether the denomination should remove the council status of synods, using some version of regional administrative commissions instead.Votes on these issues are likely to come either late Oct. 7 or early Oct. 8.

The commission’s discussion Oct. 6 showed how conflicted some of its members feel about the idea of permitting non-geographic presbyteries. Some evangelicals have said they want an option that would allow like-minded Presbyterians to work together in mission in presbyteries that would pledge not to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians.

Tod Bolsinger, a teaching elder from California and moderator of the commission, indicated in a presentation that he supports the idea of allowing non-geographic presbyteries. Bolsinger spoke of the need for “a much deeper, committed connection that I believe needs to be reconceived, reframed, reenergized for a new day.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“It is a practical solution to trying to keep the denomination in some sort of way together,” said Warren Cooper, a ruling elder from Philadelphia Presbytery. “I find it to be antithetical to the principle of mutual forbearance. I find it potentially to be the first very big step in the disintegration of the denomination.”

Others suggested that saying “yes” to the idea of non-geographic presbyteries may be a way for the PC(USA) to act boldly and try something new.

The idea is to be permission-giving, rather than to mandate non-geographic presbyteries, said James Harper, a teaching elder from Atlanta. “Permission-giving is creative, bold and out of the box,” Harper said – whereas a lot of the resistance to the idea seems to be “fear-driven . . . We’ve got to move from the fear to the bold.”

Some raised pragmatic concerns – including a recognition that some evangelicals are pursuing other options and may not wait for the PC(USA) to figure things out.

“We are speaking as though we can prevent it from happening,” said Jane Smith, a ruling elder from Riverside Presbytery in California. “I don’t think we can. The train is well down the road.”

Commission members listed some of the tensions the discussion raises about competing Presbyterian values – including such things as creativity versus a loss of diversity, or effectiveness for mission versus unity.

If a congregation wants to spend the time and money to fly representatives across the country for a presbytery meeting, “I think they ought to be allowed to,” said John Vest, a teaching elder from Chicago. He said this could be “a new way of doing Protestant church” and that “what we have done isn’t working. Our church is slowly dying.”

If a change is made, the reason for doing so should be missional, not to create new voting blocs, Vest said – so he also suggested proposing that if non-geographic presbyteries were approved, any new constitutional amendments would have to be approved by majority of elder commissioners to presbyteries, rather than a majority vote of the actual presbyteries.

And there might be a change as well in the policies for dismissing congregations from the denomination – so congregations couldn’t just move to a new non-geographic presbytery, and have that presbytery then agree to dismiss those churches with their property to another denomination, Vest said.

Some expressed concerns about what it says to the world when Presbyterians are so divided they would need to create new internal divisions – and whether creating non-geographic presbyteries would further accelerate that division.

“I’m concerned with us developing two confessional churches under one umbrella,” said Liza Hendricks, general presbyter for Western Reserve presbytery.

“I feel like I’m in a tennis match, going back and forth,” said Karen Dimon, a teaching elder from Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery. “I’m drawn to doing something creative and bold and different. With the ongoing disputes in the denomination, “I’m frankly beginning to experience battle fatigue.”

Dimon said she also understands that many of the disputes “are all about money, property” and that “I don’t think you can legislate relationships . . . I’m really concerned.”