Synod structure stays: Assembly takes action on mid council issues

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PORTLAND, Ore. – There will be no change this year to the existing synod boundaries. That’s what the assembly voted on after prolonged discussion of the issues assigned to the Mid Councils committee of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The committee recommended to the assembly that item 05-01 be approved (with comment), to rescind the action of the previous assembly that directed the establishment of a new configuration of synod boundaries. The assembly took the committee’s recommendation. What that means is this: The number of synods does not need to be reduced and the existing synod boundaries are not required to change. However, it does not mean that commissioners are content with the status quo.

Discussion surrounding a minority report indicated a desire for better efficiency within the denominational structure. The minority report proposed that a special committee of eight be appointed to assist synods and presbyteries in creating a substantive plan for reconfiguration. According to the proposal, if presbyteries and synods were “unable or unwilling to engage in a collaborative process of reconfiguration” and such a plan could not be agreed upon within eight months, the next assembly (meeting in 2018) would be asked to change the boundaries to achieve a total of 10-12 synods (down from the current 16).

Lynne Hanna, a teaching elder commissioner from North Central Iowa Presbytery, spoke in favor of the report noting that the reduction in church members in the past 30 years has affected all aspects of the PC(USA). Hanna noted that presbyteries and congregations have made modifications to become more efficient and said she believes that it is now time for synods to follow suit and not operate under the assumption that the denomination can continue with the same structure and fewer members.

“Should the synods stay or should they go? Lordy, lordy, I don’t know!” said Judy Johnson, ruling elder commissioner from San Jose Presbytery and a member of the Mid Council Commission II. Johnson encouraged commissioners to consider how Jesus’ commandment to love another would be met and served by in their decision about synod structures.

Commissioners asked for financial implications, but were told that only the costs of the appointed special committee were known ($16,280). The costs of merging synods could not be known or estimated until it was known which synods would merge and what the new boundaries would be.

After much debate, the assembly voted against the minority report and then in favor of the committee’s recommendation, removing the direction from the 221st General Assembly to reduce the number of synods by configuring new synod boundaries.

A comment attached to the overture notes: Synods are recommended to “continue conversation and collaboration of ministry and mission between and among synods” and urged “to undertake an intentional system of review and self-study and to report to General Assembly on a bi-annual basis.”

Other action taken pertaining to mid councils includes:

Dependent care policy. An overture to amend the Book of Order to require councils to adopt a dependent care policy was not approved, but amended to recommend that the Presbyterian Mission Agency develop resources for dependent care policies.

Family leave policies. The assembly followed the committee’s recommendation to disapprove an overture that called for the six agencies of the PC(USA) to adopt a family leave policy that would include at least six weeks of paid leave and six weeks of unpaid leave for new parents or to care for dependents requiring health assistance. Don Stanley, teaching elder commissioner from Shenango Presbytery, noted, “We have to rely on legislation to do something that is at the heart of the Christian gospel – that is, to support one another.” Teresa Clark, ruling elder commissioner from Heartland Presbytery, spoke against the motion saying that the policies in place already comply with the federal mandate (12 weeks leave, during which they can exhaust all of their paid leave – e.g., vacation and sick leave – and apply for disability to receive 60 percent pay for the remainder of the 12 weeks). When asked, Tony De La Rosa, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said of the $260,000 per year financial implication, “Some employees will no longer have a job or benefits or salary” because other employees will receive a benefit that is above the labor market. However, “You may determine that the principle defies the ultimate result.” In this case, the ultimate result was that the assembly urged the PC(USA) agencies to consider six weeks of paid family leave, but did not require the change in policy.

Presbytery dissolved. The approval of the consent agenda on June 22 approved the merger of the presbyteries of Central Washington and Northwest Coast. The assembly took a moment today to recognize that action had effectively dissolved the Presbytery of Central Washington. Presbytery members were asked to stand as the assembly prayed.