Flattened Bureaucracy without Synods: Necessary, Safe, Effective?

March 23, 2012

Oh, where to start? The Report of the Commission on Mid-Councils covers a lot of territory, theologically and practically. Since my calling is to “bring the Word to life,” it is interesting to me that little biblical study is reflected in the Report. I have no doubt that the Commission undertook study of the Scriptures, but its task was particularly focused on denominational concerns. With precious little in the Bible to offer direct guidance on matters of church structure, we are left only with allusions to exodus, exile, and the Kingdom of God.

Nevertheless, the vision of the church promoted in this document is organic in nature, relational and covenantal. This is consistent with Pauline ecclesiology: The Apostle Paul regarded the Church as the Body of Christ, with each part necessary to the whole (1 Cor 12). Paul talked of growth and maturity of faith (Ephesians 4), ideas picked up in the Report. And it certainly is worth mentioning that “decently and in order” is not first a Presbyterian maxim but the admonition of the Apostle to a church sorely lacking in both good manners and reliable organization (1 Corinthians 14). For my Bible study students, this Report represents the “Application” of the old inductive method: Observation, Interpretation, and Application.

So, out of this organic view of the church, can one say a logical and fruitful implication is that the church would be better served by “flattening hierarchy and bureaucracy by repurposing synods”?  The Commission was charged with figuring out what to do with synods, a question that has been before the church for years prior to the last assembly. Up until now, most arguments that have been presented in favor of eliminating synods have been financial and practical. Synods, it has been said, are an unnecessary level of bureaucracy, they drain energy from presbyters, and they cost a lot of money to maintain, so why have them? But nothing in this Report necessarily convinces us that there is anything inherently wrong with an added level of organization. Even in the rudimentary common life of the Israelites, there was a division of labor and strata of responsibility for problem-solving (Exodus 18). Rather, the Report lifts up another alternative solution, which redistributes the responsibilities originally vested in synods “downward” toward presbyteries or “upward” toward General Assembly.

The responsibilities imparted to presbyteries allow what the Report calls collaborative creativity, though it is not clear that any regulation from synods has prevented such collaboration up until now. I am not sure I can recall a single instance in 25 years of membership in San Francisco Presbytery of ever sensing that the Synod of the Pacific in any way prevented, hampered, deadened, or otherwise compromised the possibilities for collaborative creativity. Unfortunately, I can think of several instances where the Presbytery itself has done so. Eliminating synods may or may not have a significant impact on the design and implementation of ministry; but significant change to the presbytery would have to be made for the desired result. That topic will be covered in my next post.

Is there any harm to eliminating synods? Permanent judicial commissions have to be rearranged into those five regional administrative regions of the General Assembly. The commissioners also heard loudly and clearly that support for racial-ethnic ministry has come largely through synods, and finding a new locus for this ministry area is a high priority, distributed probably upward rather than downward, since the Commission recommends the GA appoint a task force to study the issue further. A pastor friend of mine is convinced that eliminating synods is a terrible idea, insofar as synods have buffered presbyteries from some of the control coming from General Assembly. I am not sure I understand the sort of (negative) impact the General Assembly can have on a presbytery that it doesn’t have now while synods are in place. Perhaps this argument needs to be expanded a bit, in order to appreciate the angst that goes with it.

What the proposal (on p. 9 of the Report) does call for, though, is the creation of five Regional Administrative Commissions of the General Assembly to “offer ecclesiastical accountability for boundary decisions” related to presbyteries (okay, that makes sense) and “to facilitate the church’s commitment to diversity.” This last one throws up a red flag for me, only because I am aware of the church fights that have been conducted over the years to expand our “representation lists” to include not only diversity of race, socio-economic status, and age, but also theological and sexual diversity. Will it be the role of General Assembly to enforce upon presbyteries pluralism of theology and full inclusion of people committed to the LGBTQ lifestyle? If this is the case, then non-geographic presbyteries formed around theological affinity may be squelched from the beginning. This would not be good news for evangelicals, or liberals, for that matter. No possibility of More Light presbyteries or so-called Confessing presbyteries. Where is the hope for  anyone who sees the formation of a new presbytery to be a solution to the deep divides and ongoing turmoil of cantankerous ‘presbyteries of origin’?

I have written before about “the right kind of diversity” here, and I simply call the church to consider that too heavy a hand in the definition and requirements of diversity may in fact cause greater harm than good for the denomination as a whole. In my presbytery, at least one attempt at new church development failed because the presbytery required it to be seeded with members from three theologically divergent and incompatible congregations. If this is what the Commission has in mind as a missional a solution, we will all be very disappointed with the outcome.



2 Responses to “Flattened Bureaucracy without Synods: Necessary, Safe, Effective?”

  1. Will McGarvey Says:

    Hey Sister,

    I couldn’t follow your link to your previous post “right kind of diversity” – in invited me to log in on WordPress, but even that didn’t work. I’d like to see that.

    I’ve appreciated your sharing on the Middle Governing Body report, as I’ve not found many helpful places to look. Your surveys of what is included has been very helpful to me. I too found a Pauline ecclesiology in the document, even though I look more to Jesus himself for my ecclesiology.

    As you know, Jesus himself doesn’t say anything about Presbyteries or Synods. While Synods were helpful in a time when they oversaw Regional Programs and other ministries such as Camps and Conference Centers, it seems as if their roles are becoming more centered on judicial issues. If we choose to do away with most of the provisions of Synods, there will still be a Judicatory layer between Presbyteries and the General Assembly – found in one of the five Regional Administrative Regions of the GA.

    Have you heard how the Racial-Ethnic congregations may find connections or remediation when they are not able to be in Presbyteries with an acceptable rate of representation? If too many suburban white congregations leave the PC (USA), will other Racial-Ethnic congregations be able to have enough Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders to represent their congregations on Presbytery committees and councils?

    I wanted to read your views on “the right kind of diversity” but the link went to a dead end WordPress login. As a happily married (21 years and counting), and now out bi-sexual man, I do want to hear about your views on diversity. After struggling against thoughts of violence to myself based on the misinformation you and others have shared publically, I have come to receive the grace of God, and a level of acceptance based on my reading of the Bible and Confessions.

    Which leads me to two questions: What do you count as God’s grace? What if God’s grace includes me? What if God’s grace includes other LGBTQ people?

    • revmary Says:

      Hello Will—Sorry about the bad link, I think I’ve fixed it now, so you should try again.
      Your question about R-E congregations is an interesting one, if I have understood you correctly. Is the assumption behind your question that R-E churches are relatively small and short-handed? Is the other assumption that suburban/white congregations are the ones likely to leave (which is likely the case in SF Presbytery)? So on one hand, doesn’t their leaving open a door for more representation overall (percentage wise) by R-E congregations? And you are saying, yes to that, but do those congregations have enough people to populate the various committees and councils? It certainly presents a challenge to those who remain to find a way to encourage full participation by all congregations, but it seems to me that this would something you would be good at. Don’t you?
      Regarding your grace question, it depends on what you mean by “including” (the question being, “included in what?”).
      Holy Week blessings,

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