A Road Map of the Mid-Council Commission Report

March 22, 2012

The Report from the General Assembly Commission on Mid Councils (Report) is the product of eighteen months of labor, and it shows, in many respects. Unfortunately for the average presbyter, the report is too long for casual reading (103 pages including Appendices and End Notes). Yet, its potential as a game-changer for the PCUSA requires diligence in study and wisdom in application before it is considered at General Assembly. My aim in upcoming posts is to equip my readers for thoughtful discussion of its contents, to appreciate the richness of some of its background, and to alert all to the possible drawbacks or trade-offs if it is enacted. To set the stage, today I simply offer a road map to the Report:

• The Recommendations (pages 4 through 8), which are in fact the motions the Commission is presenting to the General Assembly, appear first. When all is said and done, what is enacted in these recommendations stands alone as “authoritative” in the life of the church. So the overriding question will be, Is this what we want to happen, regardless of how we feel about the content that follows in the Report?

• Rational: An Executive Summary (starting on page 9) draws the basic points out of the Report and identifies the basic proposal that is being made through the recommendations.

• A section on Changing Context and Adaptive Change (pages 16 through 43) makes an appeal to a radical new view of the church in its present context. This will be a mind-stretcher for most readers, but I found much of it to be challenging and edifying.

• The Reports (pages 44 through 79) describe the process the Commission undertook to prepare themselves for their task, the best practices of many presbyteries, and the particular concern that emerged for Racial Ethnic Ministry Strategy.

• Appendices (pages 80 through 103) complete the Report.

All in all, the Report, which supports the eight recommendations, is a well-documented paper lifting up an ideal vision of the missional church. This vision is based on two primary proposals: to “flatten denominational hierarchy” and “reinvigorate presbyteries as the locus of support for missional congregations” (Report, 9). 

The flattening of hierarchy and bureaucracy is accomplished, according to the proposal, by “repurposing” synods as “multi-presbytery missional partnerships.” The current synod responsibilities would be redistributed to five “regional administrative commissions of the General Assembly” for ecclesiastical accountability for boundary decisions between presbyteries (described in the second proposal below) and to facilitate the church’s commitment to diversity. Synod Permanent Judicial Commissions would be lifted out to a separate structure, thereby preserving three levels of judicial review (presbytery, “synod,” and GA).

The Report proposes that presbyteries can be reinvigorated by a more flexible, if temporary, experiment in connectional relationship beyond geographic boundaries. Provisional (i.e. temporary) non-geographic presbyteries and presbytery realignments would be allowed for “specific missional purposes.” Pages 9 through 15 of the Report flesh out what is meant by the various concepts embedded in these proposals. A glossary on pages 82 through 87 makes clear the meaning of a new missional vocabulary.

A list of eight assumptions, “Guiding Principles,” is found in Appendix #1 (pages 80–1). They include the following assertions:

1. We live in a post-Christendom context.

2. The missional congregation in a healthy, covenant community (presbytery) is the center of mission and discipleship.

3. Councils exist to serve the mission of the congregations in their local context.

4. The Commission is committed to refocusing the mid council structure away from institutional concerns and onto serving fruitful and faithful missional congregations.

5. There is no “one size fits all” model; context is everything, so decisions about mission should be made as close to the local milieu as possible.

6. Our structures must serve collaboration between teaching and ruling elders.

7. [I am still chewing on what this guiding principle actually says, so I will not paraphrase it here . . . yet]

8. We envision a “big canvas with a clear frame,” that is, lots of room to be creative within the framework provided our Foundations.

My intention in subsequent posts is to review this report through three major filters: First, to evaluate the framework and analyze the impact of the eight recommendations to see if their likely outcome matches the vision and reflects the guiding principles. Secondly, to do a “reality check,” that is, assess whether (in my humble opinion, of course, only mine) there is a reasonable chance that the model promoted in the Report is actually doable. That evaluation will attempt to address such questions as these: Do average Presbyterians really know what they are talking about when they discuss “missional ministry”? How much power does a presbytery of origin actually have in the life of a congregation that moves to another (or new) presbytery, or in other words, how much flexibility really is granted? What exactly is meant by the church’s “commitment to diversity,” and what limits does that understanding put on the formation of new presbyteries? Thirdly, to assess the likelihood that this Report can and will be adopted by the General Assembly this summer.  What are the red flags, and for whom?


2 Responses to “A Road Map of the Mid-Council Commission Report”

  1. What probably interest many is how will the administrative commissions be populated?

    Will it be by election from the Presbyteries it will oversee, or will it be selected by others.

    In other words, is this another way of changing the PC(USA) from a set of democratically elected governing bodies, to one that is appointed from a ‘hierarchy’ in Louisville?

  2. David Stearns Says:

    Thank you Mary for what you are taking on in deciphering this. Most of me wants to see this happen, so I hope any problems can be worked out. However, a bit of me worries that rather than easing tensions it will only serve to further polarize and separate us, ultimately leading to two denomonations in one. Maybe that’s what we want, but I’m not so sure.

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