Special GA commentary
Probably the longest ongoing discussion coming to the PC(USA) General Assembly this year concerns the role of synods and how many there should be within our structure. While the discussion has been happening for many years — certainly since the present structure was put in place as part of reunion in 1983 — the current discussion became more concrete when the 2010 General Assembly formed a Commission on Middle Governing Bodies, later renamed the Mid Councils Commission (after the change in terminology in the Book of Order). It was notable as it was the first GA special commission formed in the denomination in 85 years. Its primary recommendation to the 2012 GA was to discontinue the ecclesiastical functions of the synods and repurpose them as “multi-presbytery missional partnerships.” That GA chose to ask for more study and created a new commission based, in part, on the first commission. The second commission returned to the 2014 assembly with the recommendation to cut the number of synods at least in half: from 16 to no more than eight. The assembly again chose a somewhat different path and set the number in the range of 10 to 12. The assembly also directed that a “collaborative process between the synods and presbyteries” decide the new configuration.
So that brings us to the 222nd GA where there are differing proposals: to maintain the status quo and drop the subject, and to keep moving forward with a smaller number of synods. This will be one of the major issues before committee five on mid councils.
On the status quo side, there is an overture from Santa Fe Presbytery and also the report from the synods that responds to the referral of the last General Assembly. The overture, business item 05-01, is very simple, asking that the action of the 221st GA to reduce the number of synods be rescinded. It has 15 presbyteries and one synod that have registered concurrences. The report from the synod collaboration (business item 15-13) is more detailed and has three recommendations, but the first — like the overture — asks that the action of the last GA be rescinded. It also asks that the current boundaries and ecclesiastical responsibilities be retained and recommends that the GA encourage synods to “continue accelerating mission partnerships and exploring shared functions.”
In addition to Santa Fe, Central Washington and Northwest Coast Presbyteries (acting as one) along with Kendall Presbytery provided additional rationales. They emphasize that in the western U.S., the distances involved and different cultural settings make the merging of ecclesiastical functions a challenge. The Santa Fe rationale begins its argument with this:
The requirement to reduce the number of existing synods to “10-12” is an onerous burden upon the synods in the western half of the United States because of our vast geographic reality. It is impossible to conceive how the mission and ministry of any one presbytery could be enhanced by enlarging synod boundaries to encompass a span (for example) from Canada to Mexico, Hawaii to New Mexico, or Alaska to the Dakotas to New Mexico to Hawaii.
And the rationale of the presbyteries of Central Washington and Northwest Coast makes this argument, recognizing that ministry will still go on at a local level:
These synods have discussed combining into a single synod, which would achieve the “letter” of the requirement of reducing the number of synods to “10-12,” but it would defeat the intention and spirit of the idea of actually reducing the number of synods.
On the other side are two overtures that propose the reduction in the number of synods, both requesting another administrative commission to do the work. Business item 05-03 from Scioto Valley proposes the commission determine boundaries for the 10-12 synod range adopted by the 2012 assembly. They note that the collaborative process discussed above has not succeeded and that:
The church is continuing to live with a structure established for a significantly larger church. Further delay in addressing the boundaries of the synods will not serve the church’s needs in the 21st century.
In the second overture, item 05-04, Maumee Valley proposes an administrative commission to do the work of determining the boundaries but also proposes a simple plan for the new boundaries. They note that the Association of Stated Clerks is organized in seven regions and the proposal is made to structure the synods along those boundaries.
One question that arises from this overture is: If the boundaries are already determined by these regional groupings, what need is there for a commission to return to the next assembly with a recommendation for new boundaries? The argument could be made that under this overture, the action could be amended to form a commission to use these boundaries and just begin the work.
The interesting thing about these actions is that they all presuppose that an intermediate level of councils is still required by the PC(USA). It will be interesting to see if the first Mid Councils Commission report is revisited and if the question of whether the denomination still needs synods at all is addressed.
And that is the question still before the assembly: What is the role of synods? And based on that role and the missional needs of the church, should there be synods? If so, how many should there be? Synods that still have programmatic functions can make the argument for their continuing in their present form. But as more synods find themselves approaching reduced function (either intentionally or otherwise), the argument for the status quo gets harder and combining or eliminating them becomes more compelling.
It is also important to remember that another GA committee will be looking at “The Way Forward.” It may make sense to divide the workload by splitting these issues between two committees, but the two issues are intertwined and some mutual consideration would be helpful.
These are not easy issues. We shall see what the commissioners and advisory delegates discern related to the structure of the PC(USA) going forward.
STEVE SALYARDS is a ruling elder living in La Verne, California. He is an IT manager and geologist at UCLA, writes the GA Junkie blog and has been active with his presbytery and synod.