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Proposal would ‘hit the reset button,’ allow non-geographic presbyteries


The General Assembly Mid-Councils Commission has voted 15-5 to permit non-geographic, “provisional presbyteries” as part of a “designated season of reflective experimentation” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The vote on that recommendation to change the denomination’s Book of Order came Feb. 2 during a three-day commission meeting in Dallas. The recommendation will go to the 2012 General Assembly for approval, and would also need approval from a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries.

It calls for the season of experimentation to expire in 2021, unless a General Assembly acts to change that. Before the vote, one commission member described this as an attempt by a deeply divided PC(USA) to hit the reset button, to take a chance on something new and hope it will lead to healing and innovative work in mission.

The recommendation also comes at a time when some evangelicals are thinking hard about whether they want to remain in the PC(USA), following the denomination’s vote last year to permit the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. Some have left for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and in January the Fellowship of Presbyterians created a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, to which some evangelical congregations already are planning to move.

The Fellowship also has been discussing ways that evangelicals can remain in the PC(USA) but “differentiate” themselves, by finding ways to work together in mission and to act in conscience on the issue of ordination standards. One way of doing that, Fellowship leaders have said, might be to join together in a non-geographic presbytery.

The proposal from the Mid-Councils Commission would allow the creation of provisional, non-geographic presbyteries “for particular missional purposes,” when requested to do so by at least 10 congregations and 10 teaching elders, and with the concurrence of the existing presbyteries (those to which the affected congregations already belong).

The petition (to create a provisional presbytery) shall include a plan outlining the missional purposes of the proposed presbytery and continuing covenant relationships with existing presbyteries,” the recommendation states.

The commission also adopted a recommendation to allow presbyteries to dismiss congregations, with the approval of all the affected councils, to temporarily join another presbytery, either a provisional one or an existing one, within certain parameters.

The congregation would be temporarily dismissed to another presbytery within the synod, or to another geographically contiguous synod, although “the congregation shall continue to affiliate with the presbytery of origin for the purpose of mutual blessing,” the recommendation states. Per capita or mission funds from that congregation could be divided according to a covenant between the presbytery of membership and the presbytery of origin.

The provisional presbyteries would have all the rights and powers of other presbyteries, except they could not conduct transactions involving property or dismiss congregations to other denominations without the consent of the presbytery of origin.

The 2016 General Assembly would be asked to design and make provisions for an evaluation of the season of experimentation.

Before they voted, commission members voiced both hope and hesitation.

This proposal has a deadline that gives me comfort,” said Barbara Ranta, a ruling elder from Seattle Presbytery. “So much in the church doesn’t seem to be working right now, because people don’t want to work together.” This gives a chance, she said, for people who are “desperately exhausted with the battles to shake off the dust and move on to a new thing.”

Sam Roberson, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Charlotte, spoke in favor of the proposal — saying it gives the PC(USA) an opportunity to move forward in a significant way.

I implore you not to get icy feet,” Roberson said. He also said he does not believe Presbyterians will form non-geographic presbyteries “exclusively” for reasons related to ordination standards — but might group themselves according to shared mission emphases, such as urban or rural congregations clustering together.

John Vest, a teaching elder from Chicago, said the only thing the PC(USA) would be giving up by approving this would be “forced diversity based on arbitrary geography.”

Other commission members, however, lamented the price a connectional church might pay if Presbyterians affiliate only with those with whom they agree on controversial matters.

With this approach, “I self-select my congregation by driving past all those congregations with which I don’t agree,” then selecting a presbytery, too, said Terry Newland, synod executive of the Synod of Living Waters. “I don’t see the difference between that and congregational polity . . . I can select who I hang out with and whose accountability I will respect.”

This is not the first time the commission has considered this issue. In October, it voted 11-8 not to recommend that the General Assembly change the PC(USA) constitution to allow non-geographic presbyteries.

Warren Cooper, a ruling elder from Philadelphia, voted against the idea of non-geographic presbyteries in October — and for the recommendation at this meeting.

Cooper acknowledged that he had described himself last fall as being “categorically against the concept,” and he added, “that has not changed.” But he said his sense of the possibilities has shifted: He now sees an opportunity he doesn’t want to let slide by.

If 10 congregations have to agree to do mission together in order to form a provisional, non-geographic presbytery, then “the activity of the mission they choose is more productive than whatever they would do if they stay” in their existing presbyteries, Cooper said.

The intention is not to give people a secret loophole to do what they want to do because they don’t want to be around certain people.” Cooper said he wants to “open up the closed hand that was a fist, and do something productive with it.”

Tod Bolsinger, a teaching elder from California and the commission’s moderator, said the recommendation gives congregations permission “to dream and create stuff” if they form a provisional presbytery with a distinct purpose for mission.

The recommendation gives those wanting to form non-geographic presbyteries a window of six or seven years to show the advantages for mission such flexibility would provide, said Vest, the pastor from Chicago. He said of those seeking such flexibility: “You’ve got until Dec. 31, 2021, to prove it works better.”