largeview_chicago2On Friday I suggested that instead of tweaking calcified denominational systems, perhaps what is needed most is a reboot. I further suggested that perhaps the best place to start is in local presbyteries. What would it look like to start from scratch by studying our mission field(s) and designing a Reformed church to meet those needs?

I happen to be part of a task force charged with recommending a plan for the future of the Presbytery of Chicago. At our presbytery assembly on Saturday, here is how I tried to contextualize the work we are trying to do.

The first incarnation of the Presbytery of Chicago was formed in 1847. In the 166 years between now and then, there have been numerous understandings of the purpose and mission of the presbytery, each represented by a variety of mission statements, strategic plans, and organizational structures. Our current strategic and organizational plan, adopted in 2001 and reaffirmed in 2005 and 2010, represents our most recent attempt at a faithful articulation of our mission and an organizational strategy to accomplish that mission.

But now is a new day for us. The world is changing and we need to change too. Ken Sawyer‘s comments on change and reformations in the 16th century are remarkably pertinent for us in the 21st century.

The recent moderators’ conversations on the future of the presbytery have helped us understand that significant change—not just minor tweaking—is needed in our presbytery today. Eleven years of litigation and indebtedness has taken its toll in a variety of ways, most notably in the sale of our office building and the impending sale of Presbyterian Camps. There is a general sense of paralysis and a lack of vision for what it is that we should be doing as a presbytery. We do not feel connected with each other and mistrust abounds. There is frustration with presbytery leadership and our structures feel overly cumbersome and bureaucratic. Presbytery Assembly meetings have become too business-oriented and lacking in opportunities for worship, relationship building, and training. There is great concern about our aging membership, dying congregations, and a lack of new church development. Along with mainline Protestants around the country, our decreasing membership has resulted in the tightening of budgets and the reduction of presbytery staff.

But there is also much hope. There is so much potential in this presbytery.

It is time for the Presbytery of Chicago to reinvent itself. It’s time for a reboot. Imagine what it would be like if we started from scratch and designed a presbytery to meet the missional needs of our present and future contexts.

Simply put, our local mission field is the 9.5 million children of God that make up the Chicago metropolitan area. Within this mission field and beyond into our global context for ministry, God’s mission in the world has infinite possibilities. Here in the Chicago area, we have 35,000 Presbyterians poised to join in this mission of God. We are gathered together into over 100 congregations and worshiping fellowships. According to our polity, these congregations are the front lines of God’s mission and ministry in the world and it is the job of the presbytery to support these mission fronts in a unified and coordinated way.

In order for the presbytery to do this effectively, we must address our connectional shortcomings. Much more basic than structures and organizational models, which we assure you will follow in due time, a comprehensive culture change must begin with relationships. Far too often, Presbyterians have tried to shape culture through structures and rules. We believe that this puts the cart before the horse.

Angela Cowser—a Presbyterian teaching elder transferring into our presbytery, a community organizer, and a scholar at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary—has guided us to see that Jesus modeled leadership development through investing in relationships. We believe that now is the time for our presbytery to follow Christ’s example by investing time and energy in our relationships with each other and that significant transformation will follow. From this adaptive work of relationship building, clarity about our vision and mission will arise. From this clarity, together we will develop appropriate and effective organizational structures.

But first, we must attend to our relationships and connectionalism.

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

Reader Interactions


  1. John,
    I’m on a similar task force in the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. We are tracking along with you.

    Relationships matter. It is recognizing that the only reality that we have with God is an incarnational one where the Spirit of God lives in and through us within the social and organizational structures of our time.

    The question that we must face is whether the model of the modern institution is compatible with an incarnational social order. Or, can the leopard of structure change its institutional spots, which she or he grew to hide within the industrial form of modernism, sufficiently to adapt to a changing world where the food that nourishes the body and soul is no longer the product of the factory system, but of human relationships in community.

    I’m convinced that in order to understand, we have to address the philosophical questions raised by postmodernism. Not the postmodernism as understood within our tradition, but rather the larger ones that European Continental thought asks. Thanks to the influence of Jamie Smith at Calvin College, I have begun to read Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Boudieu, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty with great benefit and insight.

    I don’t think the answer to our questions about the future are in our past. They are in front of us right now, and our response must be a relational / incarnational one.

    If anyone is interested in having conversation about this at the Next Conference in two weeks, I’m glad to partake.

    Thanks John.

    • Ed,

      I am serving in the same capacity in the Presbytery of Arkansas. I am hoping to be in conversation with others working toward the same goals that you, John and I are.

      I agree with you that we need to go through this process looking forward rather than backward. Our difficulty is that we are financially stable and theologically rather moderate so we lack the sense of urgency in financially struggling or conflicted presbyteries.

      I will not be attending Next, but I would value finding some venue for conversation with you and others as we go through this process.



  2. I remember an old quote that read something like “We have forgotten our purpose, we must therefore develop a program.” I have been involved in writing goals and objectives for our local Presbytery in the past, and was impressed with the frequent lack of anything in the discussion which made us sound different from the Baptists down the street (except maybe worse Hymns).

    I fully agree that relationship is what most defines a church. If we want to have a Presbyterian Church in the future however, we need to have our membership aware of what has created Presbyterianism as a branch of the Christian church, and what, if anything, defines a Presbyterian. If there is nothing other than dignified congregationalism, then we deserve to disappear. There is no point in redefining a vacuum.

  3. John, I was an assoc. exec in Chicago 1986-1993. I can tell a lot of stories and show where some bodies are buried. I already had my McCormick D.Min., but when Hugh Halverstadt announced a course with a title something like “Ecclesiastical Theology for Middle Governing Bodies,” I jumped at it. Unfortunately, I have lost all my papers and files from that class. Each of us did an analysis of the de facto theology underlying the realities and practices of our respective MGB’s, what was missing, and what was needed. Chicago seemed to me to be a deeply corporate system based on private power and processes. Hugh agreed and went further. No leadership could change the presbytery as it was; the structure and power dynamics would shape the leaders. His conclusion was that there was no way to fix Chicago Presbytery other than to break it up into maybe 3 entities so that there could be the possibility of something relational. In the late 80’s I produced a poster of the presbytery much like the poster of neighborhoods on your site. By sifting a lot of data we noted that 4th had many more members than all the city churches combined. The ten largest churches presbytery wide had no need for presbytery just as the presbytery had no need for the synod. The only collegiality was the natural relationships of particular pastors, based on size of church and ideology, of course. Before coming to Chicago I had used IAF community organizing expertise to use CO techniques to “organize” churches in Trenton NJ as were organizing the community. We had some success, but the conclusion of my paper was that the forces that drove pastors to be protective of themselves and their congregations needed to be overcome or broken. The last time I looked anywhere, most congregations still own their pastors.

  4. I’m wondering if reboot is the right tech metaphor. If I reboot my computer it comes up with the exact same settings, OS, and programs.

    Every now and then I like to reformat my computer because it has become cluttered with installed programs, out-dated drivers, countless documents, pictures and other files. So I backup only what is necessary to keep, wipe the hard drive, put down a clean version of the OS, and only put on the hard drive what I think is needed to get me going at that time.

  5. You should check out what we’re doing in Baltimore…….

  6. I agree that the image of “re-booting” isn’t radical enough. However, I would also suggest it, as well as “re-formatting”, is too mechanistic as the basis for the kind of renewal you envision. I would think an organic metaphor would be better but none comes readily to mind.

    This would allow for some continuity with the past “DNA”, while opening up to new possibilities for the future.

    Fred Milligan

      • Yeah, “rebirth”would work, but I’m guessing John is trying for something with more currency in today’s culture, like “re-grow”, “re-plant”, but “rebirth” is certainly biblical and organic.


        • Some continuity with past DNA suggests “evolution” which I think is taking place with massive growth in communications and Christians crashing into other cultures and religions. We don’t know what to do with our traditions which not only come from but bind us to the 4th and 16th-17th centuries. I think a good question is What is worth keeping in our tradition? We can’t answer “everything” because we have already abandoned many older “essentials.” What are the new essentials for a world in which we are in relationship with other religions and spiritualities and cannot claim imperial superiority? What do we have to offer? I’ve been working on these questions and hope to blog soon on them. I would write more quickly if someone would ask me to preach on it.

  7. Here’s some good thinking from a friend, Dr. Scott Bader-Saye, an ethics prof in Austin, TX at the Episcopal seminary:

    Blogs » scott.bader-saye’s blog
    Bonds of Affection: The Ecclesiological Significance of Storge
    published by scott.bader-saye on Tue, 02/19/2013 – 15:15
    I was recently rereading portions of C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves and I began to wonder why storge (affection) has never been given the same theological attention as eros, philia, and agape. The theological debates over eros and agape (e.g., love as desire, love as gift) have raged at least since Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros (1930), and most contemporary ethicists who write about love, write primarily about the relation of these two (see, for instance, Gene Outka’s Agape, Amy Laura Hall’s Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love, Tim Jackson’s The Priority of Love, and Werner Jeanrond’s A Theology of Love). There are also those theologians who have recently prioritized friendship and discussed it as the root description of the love we have for one another in the church. Drawing on Aristotle’s account of friendship as determinative for the good working of the polis, theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches (in Christians Among the Virtues), as well as Paul Wadell (Friendship and the Moral Life and Becoming Friends), have urged us to think about the centrality of friendship for the Christian life. The Ekklesia Project titled its inaugural and self-descriptive pamphlet “A School for Subversive Friendships.” This is all well and good, but what has become of poor, downtrodden storge? Is “affection” just too weak to do any real theological work?

    One place where affection lives on theologically is in the phrase “bonds of affection,” long used in the Anglican Communion to describe the connection that links us across history, continents, and languages. In recent years this phrase has become important as those bonds have been strained by actions on all sides of the debates over homosexuality and women’s ordination. To remedy the strain, one proposal, now in its death throes, was to create an Anglican Covenant that would define more precisely, and juridically, the nature of our communion. While I think there is a good biblical basis for the language of covenant, I am also aware how quickly covenant can morph into contract (see, for instance, Hobbes and Spinoza). And contract replaces relational goods with legal demands.

    So, what is the value in keeping alive, even strengthening, the theological importance of affection, especially for the church? Affection grows by virtue of shared time and space. Its most basic form is the love within families, but it extends out to include fond feeling for those in our neighborhood or workplace, even pets. What is most interesting is that affection does not rely on shared interests or passions (as does friendship) nor does it rely on shared attraction (as does eros). Rather it grows out of the regular routines of shared life, short conversations, exchanged pleasantries, and proffered gratuities. Affection is of all the loves most linked to place—it arises among those who find themselves sharing common life, not because we chose one another but because we found ourselves thrown together in sharing the ordinary. I think of the kind of relationship that grows between those of us who take the bus to work and the regular bus driver of our route. The affection that can grow over time emerges out of small acts of gratuity—the shared smile, the “thank you,” the “have a nice day” that exceeds the payment already made for the ride. The excess of mannerly gratuity may seem small but it develops over time into affection which heightens sympathy and can become meaningful when, say, discussions arise at city council about compensation for bus drivers. What moves many of us at that moment is not likely an abstract account of just wage (though that would not be a bad thing) but rather the affection that has convinced us we share a common life.

    Affection may be what we most need in the church because, as Lewis observes, affection “is indeed the least discriminating of loves. . . . Almost anyone can become an object of Affection. . . . There need be no apparent fitness between those whom it unites” (Four Loves, 54). The danger of thinking about the church in terms of friendship is that it may imply that we need a high level of agreement in order to be church together. This is a potential recipe for schism or a divided congregation of a “church within a church.” Further, as Aristotle noted, it is hard to have many true friends. We are not likely to find a large number of people with whom we share enough commonality and we are unlikely to have the time to develop the relationships if we did. But we can share affection for a wide swath of people with whom we do not have much in common and with whom we may not be inclined to be friends. One of the gifts that arises from affection is that we begin to appreciate things about one another that we might not have attended to otherwise. Lewis notes, “[Affection] can ‘rub along’ with the most unpromising people. Yet oddly enough this very fact means that it can in the end make appreciations possible which but for it, might never have existed” (58). Just as the reader with wide taste can find a suitable book on the rack outside the used book store, Lewis writes, so “the truly wide taste in humanity will similarly find something to appreciate in the cross-section of humanity whom one has to meet every day. In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who ‘happen to be there'” (60).

    Perhaps, then, rather than lamenting the weakness and unenforcability of the bonds of affection in the Anglican Communion, we might strive all the more diligently to nurture affection so that appreciation might come.

  8. John was also on the Mid Council Commission where he wrote most of the section of the current context of the church. The “Colors of Vitality” section of that report and the accompanying study guide are available on the PCUSA website. Relationship is a key focus of what makes a postmodern presbytery effective. Check out the full report – it’s excellent.


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