The MCC Challenge to Presbyteries

March 24, 2012

The reinvigoration of presbyteries is a central vision within the Mid-Councils Commission Report. One does not even need to read between the lines to recognize that presbyteries are going to be required to step up to new realities, with less help coming from “above” and more responsibility for what happens “below.” But as the locus of support for congregations, presbyteries have the important calling of fostering creative ministry, facilitating networking, and otherwise fanning the flame of good ideas within its bounds. This will all work if presbyteries can be truly supportive of their congregations in a relational way. If, however, they read the Report and nFOG to mean they have more power to dictate or define their mission to congregations, which some fear, the experiment will fail, depending on what kind of presbytery one has in mind.

A fundamental shift in the mindset of presbyters must take place to fulfill this vision. It is a difficult shift particularly for congregations that have depended on the financial support of the presbytery to stay open. Not to mention the 44% of congregations that do not have a called/installed pastor! [I found that statistic shocking.] Further, since over half our congregations have 100 or fewer members, and the average age of our members overall is 61, we are also looking at a generational issue and the expectations that go with feeling less able to do the work. In the last congregation I served, the average age was 68.5, and often I would hear from potential church officers during nominating season, “I have served my time. Talk to the younger folks,” of whom there were precious few. Those precious few have grown up with an entirely different set of expectations for the church (pretty low), often a sequestered Sunday school experience that did not translate into adult discipleship, and far more options for their discretionary time and less time to pursue them. They are far more likely to demand personal benefit and visible fruit of their work at the local level, therefore less likely to see the value of doing something with and for the presbytery. And committees are anathema to so many—okay, as a lover of meetings, even I can admit that one!

So how can a presbytery step up to the opportunity? The Report offers some basic ideas on page 12 that, it is envisioned, would help galvanize and reinvigorate the mission of its constituent churches.

Experiment with its organizational structures, within constitutional bounds. The presbytery must have a Committee on Preparation for Minister, a Committee on Ministry, a Permanent Judicial Commission, and a Committee on Representation. But beyond these ecclesiastical necessities, there is a lot of latitude for a presbytery’s organization of its mission and the way it conducts its meetings. The very practical question is this: is expertise required to suggest new ways of going about its business, and if so, who is expected to have the experience and wisdom to lead such an effort? If “executive presbyters,” then they receive the challenge to see themselves more as pastoral catalysts than bureaucratic hacks. If “consultants,” please no; can we not learn to do this ourselves with the resources we’ve got? If “council leadership,” then by the Spirit in Christ-centered dialogue, they must learn to work together for good ideas, best practices, and consistency with a faith and theology grounded in the Scriptures (that “theological friendship” Barry Ensign-George was talking about in the Report, page 42).

Stimulate engagement, learning, and missional collaboration. Please hear what I say with the tenderness with which it is written: a significant number of our presbyters (especially ruling elders) do not have a basic grasp of the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, or of church history that should be informing their work. They might be the first to tell you, “This presbytery stuff is above my pay grade,” and so they are particularly impressionable and perhaps naïve about the very foundations of our faith. I know this is true because even members of the GA Permanent Judicial Commission have said they are not theologians and do not have the will or ability to make judgments based on Scripture and the Confessions. Their honesty is appreciated, but the reality behind it is catastrophic: we have not equipped presbyters for the work they will be called upon to do in the coming years. Adult discipleship and equipping must be the top priority at all levels of the church, starting right now, whether the MCC Report is adopted or not.

Expand definition of “neighbor” to account for virtual relationships possible in the digital age. In so doing, let us not forget that a plate of cookies personally delivered with a compassionate smile goes way beyond a poke on Facebook.

Create provisional presbyteries around specific missional purposes. This is where I will pick up in my next post.



3 Responses to “The MCC Challenge to Presbyteries”

  1. Mary, let’s raise your value of consultants, whom you dismiss out of hand, for assistance in experimenting with leading us toward effective ministry and mission. Just a few reasons:

    1. If you’re steeped in the broth of the soup, it’s hard to think of how to become a salad.
    2. We don’t know what we don’t know. This is a deep insight recognizing the limits of our ability to discern certain factors to which we are blind.
    3. A neutral third party quite reliably sets the stage for productive change and innovation, and in fact is often the key element allowing for it. Most multiple-organizational groups can only collaborate if they have a highly neutral person facilitating the collaboration. A neutral third party allows us to get beyond suspicions that occur when one of our own leads us, we wonder if they are not simply building his or her own dominance.
    4. An abundance of “our people” (fellow Presbyterians) who can advise – even on this particular challenge of experimenting with org structure – are not in the regular leadership structure or are not recognized for their advisory skills in this area, and are effectively shut out and overlooked. I speak from personal experience on this.
    5. An ounce of humility, believing that we may not ourselves have all the answers, is worth a pound of advancement.

    • revmary Says:

      First of all, my apologies, Dave—I am glad it is a dear friend who has reminded me once again that I do not have all the answers myself. My dismissal of consultants was thoughtless and unnecessary (the Report didn’t even mention the idea). I guess it came out of frustration with the experiences our presbytery has had with consultants, of late. That is to say, great consultants come in and labor through a process with us, and then when they leave, the mischief of old patterns bubbles up to the surface again as if they had never come. The change we must see is a heart change, no, a transformation, and a consultant can only point us toward it but cannot do it for us. I guess that was what I was trying to say, but I said it poorly enough to raise the ire of someone I admire.
      So I am very sorry. And especially to one who has GOT to be one of the world’s most able, Spirit-led, effective, and empowered consultants. Readers, I am not exaggerating; take a look at his organization’s website at So we have to take Dave’s word here very seriously.
      The rub comes in finding a “neutral” third party who is missionally minded and can stick around long enough for the adaptive change to take place. I agree with you, Dave, that there must be a huge untapped resource out there, and maybe now is the time for them to be coaxed out of the woodwork.

  2. Mary, I would like to address one of the sacred cows of the PCUSA that for some reason jumped out at me from your blog. As long as Presbyteries are still required to have a Committee on Representation, we are missing the point of being the body of Christ. Beau Weston argued this very well in 2008 in his monograph Rebuilding The Presbyterian Establishment that this well-intended approach to diversity has been a failure. Simply put, we can’t move forward with the issue of the Church in the 2010’s while our leadership selection process is built on addressing the injustices of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. As long as Presbyteries are mandated to make this a key component of their organization, we are a sociological body and not a truly biblical spiritual one. The New Testament spoke of the body being a diversity of spiritual gifts and capabilities that have nothing to do with 20th Century American social failures. Likewise in the NT the old divisions of male and female (gender), Greek and Jew (ethnicity), and slave and free (social status) have been done away with. Everyone should be evaluated for spiritual leadership based on spiritual maturity, not filling mandated slots for representation.

    If the Church cannot get past something as existential as this, how can we expect Presbyteries to be as truly creative, innovative, and effective as the new MCC Report envisions? If we lock out the people with the spiritual capabilities to make a difference, then the entire effort has no chance of succeeding. It seems in our effort to combat racial and gender exclusion, we have replaced it with spiritual exclusion. We subvert the one thing God has given us to overcome our accumulated failures and inherent weaknesses.

    Mike Armistead

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s