The 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted by a margin of 421 TO 158 to rescind the action taken by the 221st General Assembly (2014) which directed the establishment of a new configuration of synod boundaries.
The majority of the Mid Council Committee agreed with the recommendation to rescind the action based on the reasons summarized in the written rationale for the overture on the floor Wednesday afternoon.
The requirement to reduce the number of existing synods to “10–12” is an onerous burden upon the synods in the western half of the United States because of our vast geographic reality. It is impossible to conceive how the mission and ministry of any one presbytery could be enhanced by enlarging synod boundaries to encompass a span (for example) from Canada to Mexico, Hawaii to New Mexico, or Alaska to the Dakotas to New Mexico to Hawaii.
Some plans posited to meet the requirements of this report fulfill only the letter of the requirements and change nothing else. For example, the “Synod of the West” idea seeks to combine the five westernmost synods into one, while retaining a permanent judicial commission and establishing geographic administrative commissions within the existing bounds of each synod or presbytery. Each would continue to oversee its own assets, and likely continue its own ministry, without any real change. Such an exercise would be shallow at best and hypocritical at worst.
The Synod of the Southwest, in consultation and collaboration with its four presbyteries, has embarked upon a project to enhance the leadership of its historic racial ethnic populations that would be placed on hold, if not in fact halted, as a result of the attention that is required to effect a change in boundaries. This diminishes our joint emerging sense of purpose, partnership, context, and call.
The establishment of new synod boundaries, as previously noted, does not serve to enhance our ministries or our ability to work across current synod boundaries. Already the Synod of the Southwest, in consultation with and at the encouragement of its presbyteries, has reached out to the Synods of Mid America, Lakes & Prairies, and Lincoln Trails in establishing the Theocademy, for use not only with the dominant culture but also with the Native American people, and is in the process of establishing Teocademia for people of Hispanic descent.
The Synod of the Southwest and its constituent presbyteries, at the direction of the assembly, have earnestly entered into the requested collaborative process with three other synods. While those conversations have proved meaningful and fruitful, the presbyteries represented were able to find common ground for mission that could be accomplished within the present alignment of synod boundaries. None of the presbyteries, or the synod, of the Southwest was able to conceive of ministry that could only, or even best, be accomplished by the realignment of synod boundaries.
The Synod of the Southwest, in consultation and collaboration with its four presbyteries, has established a common understanding of, and relationship based upon, their mission and ministry and an emerging sense of purpose, partnership, context, and call.
If the report seeks to combine synods in order to save money, it is not evident that any study has been done to show actual costs and savings. In fact, in addition to other unidentified expenses, the realignment of synods is certain to create expenses associated with partitioning of restricted funds.
A written minority report questioning the decision to rescind was submitted and found support from the commissioners even though it failed to prevail.
Commissioner Mary Dahs of Scioto Valley Presbytery spoke to her desire to “preserve the work of the two commissions who have offered ways to create vibrant synods for the future of our church. I’m a teacher, and when the school told me to do something for the good of my students, I did not ignore their directions and say that the students are fine so I don’t need to comply. The representatives of the synods are saying everything is fine in the synods, but two commissions have found to the contrary. I realize they love their synods and the work that they do, but two commissions have looked at the whole picture and found differently. The decision to redraw to add diversity and use resources wisely received overwhelming approval in two commission reports. If we are seeking a way forward, we should continue that work.
Daly was alluding to the long history of transforming the synod structure that was first addressed at the 219th General Assembly in 2010 when the first Mid Council Commission (MCC1) was asked to “develop models that reflect the roles of middle governing bodies in [PCUSA] polity and the changing context of [the denomination’s] witness in the United States and their relationship with other governing bodies.”
When the MCC1 returned to the 2012 General Assembly in Pittsburgh, they came with a plan to dismantle the denomination’s current 16 synods and begin an experiment in non-geographic presbyteries. This plan had eight recommendations – which were rejected. A second Mid Council Commission was created, but conversations failed to produce a plan to reduce the number of synods, although some steps were taken to restructure the work within the synod bounds of responsibility and mission.
Because of this long history, some, like Commissioner Tim Luoma of Scioto Valley Presbytery felt the “need to honor work that has gone before; think how we will feel if work we have done is ignored.”
In a rebuttal, Commissioner Todd Freeman, Committee Moderator from Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, said the Mid Council Committee spent most of their time on this overture – including the research done before attending and did note the 2012 Mid Council Committee report. “We reminded ourselves that we are not bound by any previous GA – recognizing that the work at that time and place was guided by the Holy Spirit, and our work in this time and this place is also guided by the Holy Spirit,” said Freeman.
Other commissioners reminded the assembly that the PCUSA has half the number of members present 30 years ago, and that has ramifications at all levels of the denomination. “It is incredulous, even ludicrous, to think we will continue with the same synod structure,” commented Commissioner Lynne Hanna from North Central Iowa Presbytery.
As of now, business will continue as usual within the 16 Synods of the PCUSA with the anticipation that discussion started during the six-year long process will continue to bear fruit for the future ministries of the 16 synods.