Thinking About Non-Geographic Presbyteries

Photo by Brian Hillegas

A few weeks ago I wrote about my deep ambivalence regarding the current PC(USA) debate about non-geographic presbyteries. After the recent meeting of the Mid Councils Commission, I’m still ambivalent. But I am definitely leaning more and more toward giving this idea a chance.

I’m sympathetic to the concept, primarily suggested by more conservative members of our denomination, because I understand both the missional and theological frustrations that are prompting it. Some congregations feel that their presbytery is not providing sufficient support for the mission they feel called to do. Others feel that the PC(USA) has made grave theological errors. They want to stay in the denomination, but are looking for relief of conscience.

At the same time that I appreciate these frustrations, I’m dubious about non-geographic presbyteries because I value diversity. And there is no way to deny that in some cases—perhaps many or all cases—non-geographic presbyteries will result in a significant loss of diversity.

But, I’m becoming more and more convinced that in today’s church we cannot regulate diversity. We must find new ways of being church together.

I think we are groping for a new kind of Protestantism. The old version of recognized that we each have the right, and responsibility, to discern the will of God and express that discernment in our theology and church practice. Yet this resulted in countless denominations that each regulated a single way. That’s not diversity—that’s imposed unity. And under this system, if you find yourself at odds with your denomination, you join another one, or create a new one altogether. Where does that get us? There must be a better way.

The question for us now is this: how can we develop a single denomination that allows for a true diversity of belief and practice?

I fully believe that one of the church’s witnesses to the world should be how diverse people can live together with a common purpose. But the model of doing that through votes and regulation isn’t working. What we are currently witnessing to the world is an exact reflection of the world’s polarized strife. We need to do something different.

There is not one shred of evidence that what we have been doing for decades (centuries?) is working today. To the contrary, if the numbers tell us anything, our way of being Presbyterian is slowly killing the church.

It occurs to me that we don’t regulate or assume that congregations will be diverse. If we are honest, we must admit that in today’s world, when geography is no longer a limiting factor, congregations are essentially affinity based. People go to whatever church they want to, not the one closest to where they live.

If our congregations are not really diverse, we seem to expect diversity at the presbytery level. But why should presbyteries be different from congregations? Why not expect and foster diversity at a “higher” level like the General Assembly? If we were to have a bunch of affinity based presbyteries, functioning well as supporters of missional congregations, coexisting together within the wider denomination, isn’t that a balance of unity and diversity?

I am an adult convert to Presbyterianism—you know, the kind the church needs in order to survive. I came to this church because something about Reformed theology spoke to me.

None of the conflict and division that characterizes our church is what I signed up for.

I’ve only been a part of two PC(USA) congregations. I love those churches because of their local mission and witness. Like most young adults, I’m not invested in this because of brand allegiance to Presbyterianism.

I honestly don’t get the fear of losing what the church currently is, because a lot of what we have isn’t working.

It may be time to try something different like non-geographic presbyteries. I don’t think that doing so would kill the church. Again, if the numbers tell us anything, the church is already dying.

Will non-geographic presbyteries lead to more division? Can we get more divided than we already are?

Perhaps if we turn down the heat of our conflicts and focus on our mission in the world, we’ll figure out new ways being together in all of our diversity.

I’m putting this out there because I’m honestly trying to figure this out. If you are a Presbyterian and have some thoughts on the points I’ve raised in this post, please let me know what you think.

Comments

  1. I completely agree with you on a couple of points, but will pose a further question about one of the point.

    I agree that we are in a place where we don’t have much to lose. Discerning the future of the church can be difficult. However, we are in a unique place where we don’t have much to lose in a lot of senses.

    Will we lose our diversity? In some ways, yes, but not in others. If non-geographic presbyteries prevents more congregations leaving the denominations, then we will still be bound to one another in one way or another. It seems to me that whether the ‘big votes’ move forward at the GA level or the presbytery level, it seems to me that it will all come out in the wash, in the end. The conversation over those contentious votes will simply happen on a different level.

    Recently, congregations, pastors, members of congregations were able to speak to one another in the context of their local churches to discuss their understandings and theologies pertaining to sexuality. Then, they sat together, year after year, and voted. These same pastors and elders came to GA and voted together, year after year. It will simply shift the location of the conversation of the overall theological issues from the presbyteries to the General Assembly level.

    As another latecomer to the PC(USA), I don’t see a particular threat to the diversity of our denomination with the institution of non-geographic presbyteries. Maybe I see more cost to travel to gather together to share in mission with one another, but I don’t see a real threat to the diversity of the PC(USA) with this change.

    What threat I can possibly see is this: Can we really afford to spend so much time/money re-drawing the lines of presbyteries? Congregations, pastors, members already align themselves with interest groups within the PC(USA). There are already avenues to access like-minded partners in the missions that are participated in. NEXT Church, the Fellowship, Covenant Network, Presbyterians for Renewal, Presbyterian Peacemaking, the Hunger Program, the various mission networks, the list goes on…there are more than enough ways in which Presbyterians can find other Presbyterians with like-minded interests. Can we really afford to split and adjust presbyteries for the sake of the mission that churches are already participating in? Is this really the best way to think about ways in which our churches can participate in mission? OR, are we confusing the words ‘mission’ or ‘theology’ with the word ‘politics’?

    I am a queer Presbyterian pastor. Over the years, I have been told time and time again that I should not be here. I have been faithful to this denomination, through the times when I, personally, was told to stay out. I have experienced the dedication of local congregations to living into the call of Christ and was affirmed enough to continue to persevere. And now, when the overall governance of the church has shifted and welcomed me, there is yet another shift to continue to split. I should hope this is not the time that we give up on educating one another and continuing to be in conversation with one another on a personal level.

    On one hand, I am tired and I just want to work, serving and loving God’s people, leaving behind the bureaucratic excuses of ‘we can’t get work done unless we’re with like-minded people.’ Leaving the denomination is attractive when I lean to this hand. And on the other hand, I do believe that we can be stronger together than apart. Staying with the denomination and continuing the conversation is attractive when I lean to this hand. Today, I’m split…

    Thanks for the conversation.

  2. Ginny Smith says:

    You’re asking good questions, John. I have been a part of the Presbyterian family my entire life and have found it’s diversity to be crucial to my growth in faith.

    It never ceases to amaze me that people expend so much energy and time trying to avoid conflict and trying to set up communities made up of people who are just like us. In considering our current situation in the PCUSA we’re at it again. There is nothing inherently wrong with conflict and diversity is built in to the human condition. And there is no way to avoid either. In fact, learning how to live with and love people who look, think, and feel differently than we do is what Jesus was all about.

    What is it about diversity that frightens us so? How can we grow in the faith if there aren’t people with differing perspectives encouraging us to review what we hold most dear? In my experience even in communities where people seem to hold the same perspective, there are still theological differences. I have been a member of 4 congregations and served 5 in a pastoral capacity. While they appeared to be of like mind on the surface, there was diversity in all of them and there was conflict.

    John, I have many more thoughts than this, but I’m tired. I’ll get back to you at another time. But just one question. What did you sign up for?

    If we think that non-geographical presbyteries formed around theological like-mindedness will solve our current problems, we are deluding ourselves.

    • I don’t think the concept of non-geographics is about fearing diversity. I think that those who would like to see non-geographic presbyteries are doing so because they want to stay in the PC(USA), but want to engage diversity in different ways than at the presbytery level. If they were interested in like-mindedness across the board, they would leave for another denomination or create their own.

      I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with conflict. In fact, I think that some degree of conflict creates the creative tension in which we grow. But, I also don’t think we need to enable perpetual conflict that is wreaking havoc on the church.

      Do I think that non-geographic presbyteries will solve our problems? No. But, they may give us some breathing room to figure out how to 1) better live together and 2) refocus our energy on the mission of the church.

      What did I sign up for? I became a Presbyterian because I feel that the Reformed tradition provides a good approach to the Bible and theology. I appreciate our worship style. I value our democratic polity and the way we discern the will of God together.

      But, I’m obviously not too hung up on brand allegiance or else I would still be a Southern Baptist. And the majority of people in Presbyterian pews are exactly the same. The kids who I have taught in a decade of confirmation classes will not stay in Presbyterian churches simply because they grew up Presbyterian. They will stay—and new adults will come—only if we give them something worth staying for.

  3. Clark Cowden says:

    John,
    Thanks for writing your comments here. You make some very good observations.

    I was raised Presbyterian, then left it for other churches in high school and college, and unexpectedly came back to it after college. I agree with you that we cannot regulate diversity. We have tried this and it hasn’t worked. I think we all value diversity. Some of us value a greater breadth of diversity than others, but we all see the value in it. But, the way we have been going about it doesn’t seem to be working.

    I agree that we are groping for a new kind of Protestantism and that we need to try something else. I had one pastor tell me recently that if he was in a different presbytery that had more unity, that he could handle more diversity at the General Assembly level. I thought that was an interesting comment. I think the purpose of presbyteries is to be a covenant community of missional churches (to use Darrel Guder’s definition). I think we want presbyteries really focused on helping congregations get un-stuck, moving back into their neighborhoods, discovering what the Spirit of God is already doing there, and helping those congregations thrive. If organizing churches into some different kind of configuration would allow for great participation in the mission of God, then I think that is worthy of some conversation.

    I think these discussions are important and I am glad that you are a part of them. Keep it up!

    Clark Cowden

  4. Hey John,

    Thank you for your thoughts and your willingness to share how you are struggling with this. I struggle with it too. In light of your thoughts, I wrote this blog as a reflection. http://theresaecho.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/my-thoughts-on-non-geographic-presbyteries/

  5. John,
    Though I am not part of the Fellowship, as the conservative movement has come to be called in it’s most recent iteration, I am intrigued by the model of “orders” within the Roman Catholic Church and its similarity to non-geographic presbyteries (based around affinities for certain ways of being Christian, all lifted up as faithful, yet honoring diversity within the unity). But my fear as that some affinity groups within the PCUSA on all sides of the debates do not seem to honor or respect other expressions of faith as “faithful.” I’m intrigued by the potential, but sadly skeptical about reality.

    I too am not a life long Presbyterian, but I do appreciate that out form of being forced us to come together to wrestle with what it means to be Church, to be faithful, to be authentic–the degree to which we do this is uniquely Presbyterian. But, you’re right in that something is amiss and it does not seem to be working, depending on how one defines “working.”

    Just a thought.

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