The Mid-Council Commission 2 opened three days of tweaking and fine-tuning its recommendation to reduce the number of synods in the PCUSA from 16 to eight on Monday at the American Airlines Training and Conference Center in Dallas.
Adoption of the recommendation, drafted by the MCC-2 during a September 2013 conference and reported by The Layman, is expected by Wednesday when the three-day conference concludes. The final recommendation, which has to be completed by Feb. 14, will be presented for approval by the 221st General Assembly (GA), which takes place June 14-21 in Detroit.
During Monday’s meeting, the MCC-2 panel received a high level overview of the proposal and discussed possible revisions in preparation for a focus on finalizing what will be submitted for consideration by the GA.
“We want to make sure everyone has a sense of the logic of the report and how the rationale connects to the recommendation,” said Jim Wilson, ruling elder from Scioto Valley Presbytery, as he provided the overview.
A focus on the language
Primary discussion centered on changing the wording of the current draft to give a better, more thorough explanation of what the panel is seeking to do, given its mandate by the 220th General Assembly. Modifying word choice was debated to soften the tone of the recommendation.
“I do think the language is important for the spirit that is created. We don’t want to have wording that sounds punitive,” said the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop of New Hope Presbytery.
Joyce Lieberman, associate for Constitutional Interpretation for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) explained the procedures the group had to follow in order to adopt the final draft that will be sent to the GA, sharing that reports such as this will be presented in 20-minute intervals on June 15 before going to committees for further evaluation. She indicated that the panel needs to formulate how it wants to present its recommendation — as a whole or individual components — as it hones in on finalizing its work the next two days. She also encouraged discussion of the recommendation, if necessary, and amendments to parts that may need tweaking.
“Ideally, by the end of this meeting you will have adopted your final report,” Lieberman said. “Perfect the rationale and when it’s perfected it will be presented for adoption.”
The current proposal on the table
The MCC-2 chose the fewer synods option over two others in September, deciding that route was more viable than eliminating synods and creating Permanent Judicial Commissions (PJCs) and Administrative Commissions (ACs) to act in their place, or creating minimal function synods.
Under the fewer synods option, the MCC-2 recommendation would recommend that the 221st GA:
a. Direct that the number of synods be reduced to no more than eight.
b. Direct the moderator of the 221st General Assembly, in consultation with the stated clerk, to appoint six members of Mid-Council Commission 2, created by the 220th General Assembly in 2012 to consult with and assist synods and their presbyteries in seeking to determine the most prudent boundary changes to accomplish the reduction in the number of synods to no more than eight, with the results of that consultation to be reported to the 222nd General Assembly (2016).
c. Recommend that if the synods and their presbyteries are unsuccessful in reaching agreement as to a proposal to reduce the number of synods to no more than eight for action by the 222nd General Assembly, that the 222nd General Assembly direct its moderator, in consultation with the stated clerk, to appoint an administrative commission with the authority to recommend to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) the boundary changes necessary to reduce the number of synods to no more than eight.
d. That the 221st General Assembly (2014) establish a “Committee on Mid-Councils” and charge it to engage in a process for the ongoing strengthening and nurturing of the mid-councils of the PCUSA, with particular emphasis on collaborating with the synods of the PCUSA to support clarity as to their ecclesial and missional identity, purpose, structure, and strategies by amending Standing Rule C.1.a. as follows:
a. The stated clerk shall propose the number and designation of assembly committees to the General Assembly, which shall include a Committee on Mid-Councils. The stated clerk shall present the proposed committee structure to the General Assembly for consideration and ratification at the first assembly meeting at which business is transacted. In making these proposals, the stated clerk shall consult with the appropriate General Assembly entity or entities, and may consult with other persons.
Additionally, the MCC-2 proposal, in its current draft phase, recommends that the 221st General Assembly (2014) direct the agencies of the PCUSA to review their processes to streamline any that require approval by a synod of a request by a lower council if such approval has become perfunctory or unnecessary and that the 221st General Assembly (2014) continue the Mid-Council Commission 2 through the meeting of the 222nd General Assembly with the authority to organize new synods, or divide, unite, or otherwise combine previously existing synods or portions of synods; and to approve the acts of synods to organize, divide, unite or combine presbyteries or portions of presbyteries.
Expressing some concerns
Ruling Elder Judi Johnson of San Jose Presbytery, commented on the need to improve stewardship through the synod reduction rather than focusing just on numbers, whether in terms of staffing or finances.
Wilson said the move was not one to focus on saving money.
“It’s to be viewed in a context of how the church can be more fully expressive in its missional ecclesiology,” he said.
There was some concern about the two-year period given for synods and presbyteries to work out new boundaries to meet the reduction before an AC would be formed to complete the task. Shoop questioned if two years was enough to accomplish such an endeavor “in this particular denomination” and was told that only the boundaries needed to be determined in that time. All additional legal proceedings to finalize such moves likely would come after that window had passed.
The Rev. Eileen Lindner of Palisades Presbytery, observed the need for accountability in reaching new boundaries within the two-year window offered in the recommendation.
“This has been a problem for 30 years,” she said of issues related to the current synod structure. “We have been unable to hold ourselves accountable for making this work. We have to find a mechanism that keeps us bound to moving forward.”
Lindner used a “carrot” and “stick” analogy in discussing the way to prod the synods and presbyteries to determine their boundaries within two years if the synod reduction measure gains GA approval. She explained the suggested way of engaging both synods and presbyteries in the process as the “carrot” to entice them to complete the mission. If that method proves unsuccessful, then the “stick” — or AC involvement — will be used, according to the draft proposal being scrutinized over the next couple of days.
Boundary change request given OK
The Mid-Council Commission 2 also approved a boundary change request from the Presbytery of North Puget Sound (NPS).
The Synod Alaska-Northwest gave approval for a merger of NPS with Presbytery of Alaska at its Dec. 10, 2013, meeting. The merger was made necessary when Presbytery of Alaska dismissed six churches from the PCUSA in April 2013, falling below the required number of 10 to form a presbytery.
The Presbytery of Alaska approved a plan of merger between the two presbyteries on Nov. 14, 2013, and NPS gave its OK for the plan on Nov. 23, 2013.
With approval from the synod, the ecclesiastical merger of the presbyteries became effective Jan. 1, 2014, and will be followed by a period of corporate transition through Dec. 31, 2014. It will be known as the Presbytery of North Puget Sound and governed by the laws of the State of Washington and the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). A new name for the presbytery will be chosen sometime during the 12-month transition period that lies ahead.