I guess I just can’t help myself. Here’s a post on Presbyterian ecclesiology. Feel free to tune out.

I’ve written about my disappointment that the Mid Councils Commission recommendation to allow experimentation with non-geographic presbyteries didn’t gain any traction at the PC(USA) General Assembly this summer. I’m not disappointed because I think non-geographic presbyteries are the perfect solution to our denomination’s many problems. But I do think that this could have been a generative experiment as we try to figure out how to be Presbyterian in the 21st century. I strongly believe that connectionalism needs to be about relationships and mission rather than regulation and bureaucracy.

And, it’s impossible for me to ignore the numerous indications of how connectionalism and communication are changing in the wider culture—whether the church is willing to keep pace or not. For example, in the newspaper today is a story about the increasing number of young people not getting driver’s licenses because the need for cars is being eclipsed by digital social networking—“Fewer tech-savvy teens are driving.” Geography simply doesn’t mean the same thing today as it has in the past.

But I also want to make clear that the shift in Presbyterian ecclesiology that I’d most like to see is not non-geographic presbyteries, but a return to much smaller presbyteries instead of the large, expensive, and inevitably bureaucratic presbyteries we now have. It only takes 10 congregations to form a presbytery. I suggest that presbyteries should have no more than 20 congregations altogether.

Contrary to rhetoric suggesting that the MCC recommendations about non-geographic presbyteries would disrupt the fabric of Presbyterianism, I believe that what we were ultimately trying to do is elevate the importance of presbyteries within the Presbyterian system. If there is anything my service on the MCC convinced me of it is that presbyteries should be the most meaningful and most effective networks of missional partnerships we have as Presbyterians. The reality, of course, is that they rarely are.

As Joseph Small has pointed out in one of the most helpful essays on presbyteries that I have read, the typical presbytery in the middle of the 20th century consisted of 35 congregations. As the denomination was reorganized in such a way that mid councils became mission agencies—rather than support structures for the mission of local congregations—the size and complexity of presbyteries increased. It is now assumed that presbyteries need staff members and organizational structures. But along the way, the relational and connnectional core of presbytery functions has been eclipsed by institutional maintenance and parachurch mission work. Now that presbyteries are increasingly incapable of sustaining these structures, we are losing sight of what is truly important about presbyteries.

In a micro-presbytery of no more than 20 congregations, ruling and teaching elders would be much more likely to get to know each other and share common visions of ministry and mission. There would be no need for staff: moderators and stated clerks would be volunteer positions drawn from the membership of the presbytery. There would be little to no additional budget. There would not be assets to manage or liabilities to protect. It would simply be a small group of churches gathering together for mutual accountability, relationships, and shared mission.

If non-geographic presbyteries won’t get a season of experimentation, let’s try experimenting with micro-presbyteries. I think this might actually catalyze a revival of what it means to be Presbyterian.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. John, I wonder if you have had a chance to reflect on 4th Presbyterian Church and its participation in Presbytery activities?

  2. I am strongly for smaller presbyteries. I simply want forces beyond our own ideologies to help pull us together into them. Geography did that. If there is another way to encourage us to look beyond our left-right-progressive-moderate-conservative-presbyopia, then I’m in. But otherwise i believe we’ll balkanize.

  3. Any way to test this within the confines of a larger existing presbytery? Nothing like evidence to support change, or at least generate further consideration.

    • Well, the Presbytery of Chicago used to have regional clusters of congregations called Mission Councils. All but one are now defunct. In our context, I think we could resurrect this idea and give it a spin, though the problem will be that a church would still be part of the larger presbytery. I wonder if we might be able to create provisional micro-presbyteries for a certain period of time for this kind of experimentation. This would be a better test of the model than creating one more layer of structure within already cumbersome presbytery structures.

  4. This is how the Presbyterian Church throughout Brazil handles its work. When a presbytery become more than 10 churches or so they believe it’s time to create a new one. Think about the two major functions of COM and CPM. These become decision making groups of people who know one another. They have intimate knowledge of churches, pastors and candidates and can make decisions that are rooted in life together. It reduces the need for professional staff. They encourage each other to do the work of mission. It’s not perfect, and when it breaks down there are ways to bring in outside help. But oversight for churches, pastors, and ministry candidates all happens in relationship. How many times have you been at a presbytery meeting and simply trusting that CPM did their work. It seems like even a candidates congregation doesn’t know their candidates. Good thinking John. It may have a good future.

  5. I also wonder about this possibility John. And I, too, found Joe Small’s paper very helpful. We read it as the NEXT stuff was just starting to bubble up. I particularly appreciate the way he marked the change of the ethos of presbyteries. Thanks again for contributing to this conversation. Oh, and you owe me a phone call :).

  6. There’s a great piece in the September issue of The Atlantic, called “The cheapest generation” that is very pertinent here. It doesn’t seem to be online yet.

  7. Re: Joseph Small’s essay and his reference to Rubem Alves, I don’t think our presbytery has a critical mass saying “No” to the validity of the current state of affairs. Maybe because it’s too big and factioned to speak with one voice, maybe because the effectiveness of someone’s individual church or committee pacifies them.

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