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A look at the (no longer new) Form of Government

Perhaps it is too early. After all, the new Form of Government became the current Form of Government barely 11 months ago. But a lot is — and is not — happening that can be sensed.


I write this as a presbytery stated clerk who, like my colleagues, has been engaged in the transition to this new set of rules, has answered questions from all directions about what needs to be done and what differences there are, and has defended these new rules against critics and critiques of all kinds. I write from my own experience only.

First, a look at the intended outcomes of what — to adapt the now-familiar acronym nFoG — I shall call the cFoG: that it make the church less regulatory and more “missional.” I see little evidence that either is happening.

Missional is a term of art used in recent years to describe the notion that the local church is the mission, and that the local church meets this calling to the degree that it exhibits in its life and behaviors the mission of Jesus Christ to bring the Gospel to the world — specifically its neighborhood. Some even now are finding that the term has been distorted in application to the degree that it is not useful. But the concept by whatever name is clearly critical. The cFoG’s emphasis on the local church as the locus of mission is urgent and well-stated.

The primary cFoG strategy for achieving the hope for missional churches is the change in vector of presbytery duties and responsibilities. Presbyteries are no longer initiators of mission: The old Form of Government provision G-11.0103c, which called for presbyteries to initiate mission, has been deleted. Presbyteries are now called to turn their efforts to helping churches do the things they are called to do.

The difficulty with this shift is it seems to assume several things that are not true. One is that presbyteries weren’t trying to do that before. A second is that it assumes a presbytery has the power to get congregations to behave in certain ways. And third is the assumption that “the presbytery” is a repository of wisdom on what churches can do to get more members, the frequent presenting issue. Some wisdom is necessary, but if a presbytery can be the source of this wisdom, it will not likely be because the Form of Government says it should. While the intent was fine and noble, I see little evidence that the cFoG mandate has begun to turn congregations into missional churches.

The primary method the nFoG devised to correct the regulatory problem was to remove organizational and procedural requirements of councils above sessions. Sessions have always been unregulated: there were and are no required programs and committees of sessions. The same is now true of presbyteries (except for committees on representation). Where congregations and sessions now can set their own quorums, meeting notice requirements and such, the effect is generally to require congregations to amend their bylaws, since many state laws set requirements if they are not in the bylaws. (Michigan law, for example, requires a quorum of 50 percent for congregational meetings, unless bylaws set a different quorum.) Nothing in the cFoG listing of duties, responsibilities and powers of sessions and congregations increases the ability of a church to do mission. Indeed, there is little difference between the old FoG and the cFoG.

While presbyteries now have the freedom to organize themselves in their own ways, the duties and responsibilities of presbyteries have remained largely unchanged. The only major changes I can find are that the old FoG provision calling for presbyteries to initiate mission has been deleted, and a provision has been added in G-3.0301c giving presbyteries the duty formerly given only to synods and the General Assembly: to warn or bear witness against error in doctrine or immorality in practice in or outside the church.

The bottom line: since the duties, powers, and responsibilities are functionally the same, the structures and procedures will tend to remain, albeit with different configurations and names. I believe that regulatory difficulties were never caused by the presence of committees, but by the assignment of duties, responsibilities and powers. Regulatory behaviors emerged only to the degree that these powers were challenged, a common event in American society.

The nFoG project was conceived and initiated by the Office of the General Assembly. In 2007, the Stated Clerk was asked by The Presbyterian Outlook in an interview about the lack of trust in the church, and he responded that any lack of trust that might be present was the result of a Book of Order with too many rules.

If the nFoG project was motivated by a desire to improve the level of trust in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by limiting the rules, it has not achieved that goal. Some of the reason lies in how it proceeded. A task force of very wise, faithful, experienced and diligent people labored intensely over the writing for several years, taking great steps to solicit feedback from the church as it proceeded. And the task force members did fine work. I believe what they wrote is a truly excellent document that will serve the church well.

But whoever selected the committee apparently did not think it necessary to include sufficient numbers recognized by the evangelical community in our church as their own. From the outset, the evangelicals began to raise a series of objections to the nFoG project, and many voted against it when the time came. The result was that we adopted a new Form of Government with the approval of only 90 presbyteries; 81 voted against it.

The result of this division has been troublesome. There are churches seeking to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and many of their arguments claim that the cFoG is so flawed that individuals and congregations are compelled to leave if they are to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. In my experience, the claims against the cFoG are spurious, distorted, exaggerated or untrue. The argument that the cFoG is a top-down structure that gives presbyteries powers they never had before, is simply false. If trust was not a problem before — many declare that it was not — it certainly is now, and the approval of the nFoG has not helped.

I personally believe the cFoG is a good document. It is better written, better organized, more congruent and more easily absorbed than the old FoG. It will suffice as the rule of polity to guide and govern the church if we will let it, and it will not turn the church into some kind of apostate chimera.

Whether we can turn less to regulation and more to mission remains to be seen, but it will likely not be the result of the cFoG. The OGA prepared a PowerPoint presentation on the nFoG that ended with two questions:

» Can we learn to approach our polity not as a set of rules but as a description of our common life?

» Can we change the pattern of creating a rule to address every uncertainty, and learn to apply the broad principles of our polity with creativity and flexibility?


These are the questions that face us. The cFoG presents an occasion for making these attitude changes, but whether we do so — or not — is the choice of every Presbyterian and council.

The cFoG can work well as a governing document. But the indications at this point suggest that by itself, it is not accomplishing its intended goals. Doing that would seem to require a change in attitudes, expectations and heart.


EDWARD KOSTER is stated clerk of the Detroit Presbytery.