On 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.