Between Pain and Empowerment: Presbyteries and the Renewal of the Church

Candour, April 2006.

We need "healthy presbyteries" as well as "healthy congregations." Parishes cannot do all that mission needs to do, nor be all that we need to be to be fully church. However strong our sense of identity as congregations or through our connection with Christian movements, we also need to be part of the wider church, nationally, globally, and ecumenically.

Like the Christian life itself, this is a spiritual reality which needs to be embodied in human life. The church is not only who we are locally, it is who we are together, and who we are in connection with the whole body of Christ. We need structures which expose people to these dimensions.

Presbyteries are part of that story. They are not some sort of trap people have fallen into, even if for most of us they are not yet the energizing centres of life and mission they could be. If presbyteries are to be more about empowerment than associated with pain or embarrassment, they need to change.

Of course that is a journey most presbyteries have been on for some time. Change itself is not usually the problem. A reformed heritage gives us permission to change our structures for the sake of the mission of the church - more perhaps than we sometimes realise.

The difficult thing is agreeing on what is needed, and finding cures that are not worse than the disease. We may know that we need new ways of freeing up people and churches to follow the Spirit; even if minimising the effects of sin and foible is an exercise in containment not of perfection. However we are not always sure where the Spirit is leading us. There is no escape from extended, informed and prayerful discussion.

It can be helpful to remember that over time the primary functions of presbyteries have changed. After the Reformation they developed out of Sessions whose responsibilities included all the congregations in a town, and as replacements for the diocesan structures of the medieval church. Scotland's story was affected by the politics of the day, but the idea of leadership of the church by assemblies of elders in which none could hold authority over the other became a key.

Presbyteries were one level (others were session, synod, general assembly, and international assembly) of this model which found its inspiration not only in secular models such as city councils, the conciliar movement attempts at reform in the previous century, and the ecumenical councils of the early church, but also in Acts 15 and other biblical examples. The purpose of presbytery developed from fellowship, biblical teaching, and responsibility for discipline, to quasi-legal court of appeal. They had a mission for the provision of places of worship to cover the territory, the supervision of education and poor relief and the processing of disputes.

Today we need to reassess whether the things we do are worth the energy, and have a clear sense of where commitment beyond the parish is worthwhile. It may be that an important part of the discussions we need is to gain clarity about the pastoral, discipline, and mission functions that are best dealt with regionally. We may need to be quite radical in pruning what would be nice, but is no longer essential. We may need to allow parishes more space to make their own mistakes. We may need to see all our assemblies as more about inspiring and encouraging others than telling them what to do. To get there we also have to address not only the mission focus of the business of our presbyteries, we also have to address the culture of interaction that surrounds the process itself.

Even at its best for younger elders and youth leaders, presbyteries are a spectacle from another planet. Yet there is diversity and complexity in our experiences of presbytery. What is seen as good change by some is seen as a recipe for disaster by others. We may not share the negative or the relatively positive experiences of others, but we need to take both seriously if we are to reach consensus about new structures and more appropriate cultures of decision making and conflict resolution. It is frustrating when there may be a common sense of malaise but not an agreed vision of how things need to be and how to get there.

Both the problem and the solution lie in our values, our attitudes to others and our way of life as a community. Some things need Book of Order change through formal decision making. Some things need a change of heart and culture which cannot be expressed in regulation. We may find that one of the lessons along the way is the need to learn to communicate more than be concerned to win debates.

As long as Presbyteries involve open forums, meetings will at times be unhappy places. We cannot have a participatory life based on a theology which believes that each person has something to offer, without the risk of forms of Presbyterian road rage. If presbytery meetings are to no longer be places where bad behaviour is excused; they also need to be communities which help people face and process their frustration - including the frustrations and anger generated by presbytery itself.

We are not always going to agree. We should not expect to, but we can give space for healing, reconciliation, and mutual understanding, even with views strongly held. Being church is about being big enough to know that gatherings of wounded healers will sometimes be more about one than the other, but it will also be about making it less likely rather than more likely that we dump stuff on one another, and that we learn ways of acting together which model Christian standards.

Hopefully we really are leaving behind cultures of language and procedure which have outlived their usefulness, and no longer give permission for insult, politicking, and seeking to effect change by narrow majority rather than general consensus. In the quite recent past some meetings have been places of humiliation and convoluted process more than of fellowship, inspiration and effective decision making. It may be a long haul, but we can commit to moving from being places where trust and transparency seem hard to find, to places which reflect the best of participatory decision making and the avoidance of power games and corruption. Peacemakers seldom get there in a day and we should not be surprised by the time scale or the cost involved.

Sometimes our best contribution in a meeting is to do nothing and pray. Chronic helpfulness can prolong agony rather than save time or improve the quality of decisions. Wrangling over points of order like aged sumo wrestlers may demonstrate that some care about process, but it might just be better to let the moderator make a mistake.

Even at their worst, presbyteries have often rescued me out of my own little world. They have forced me to take seriously people and views I need to understand better than I want to. In the long run they have made me pleased to be part of a church which works serious stuff through seriously whether I agree with a particular outcome or not. We are stronger for facing issues than avoiding them.

Respect is the essence of the empowerment of people to take responsibility for their lives and ministry. It may be less difficult than we think for presbyteries to become bodies which it is considered a privilege to belong to, which contribute to a sense of the catholicity of the church, and which renew not only congregations through its resource and planning decisions, but its people through the inspiration of its vision and the support of its fellowship in a common cause.

Things we could do

1) Make the practical application of John 15 an exercise in prayer and action for every level of the church.
2) Take time for celebration and encouragement and thanks.
3) Let go of the need to know - trust others to make decisions without everybody being involved in everything.
4) Put executive decisions in the hands of working ministers and elders; consult with senior ministers and elders, but restrict decisions to those holding parish positions.
5) Allow parishes to make their own mistakes with their own resources.
6) Commission profiles for each presbytery which outline the history of mission in the presbytery area, how places of worship were established, and the story of how the community and the church interacted. Share that story and grow it year by year.
7) Introduce peer reviews for presbyteries and allow parishes to invite review by parties of their choice who may be from other presbyteries.
8) Make courtesy a way of life


"Presbytery" Chapter 8 in the 2006/2008 Book of Order
Wilkins, Lewis L. "The American Presbytery in the Twentieth Century" in Milton J Coalter, John M Mulder and Louis B Weeks, eds., The Organizational Revolution. Presbyterians and American Denominationalism, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, 96-121.

John Roxborogh