During a three-day meeting at the American Airlines Training and Conference Center in Dallas, the Mid-Council Commission 2 chose a “larger but fewer synods” model to be recommended at the next GA meeting, slated for June 14-20, 2014.
The MCC-2 voted unanimously Tuesday, Sept. 10 to choose the fewer synods option developed by a sub-committee over two other proposals that had been drafted for consideration.
One of those options was to remove synods and create regional Permanent Judicial Commissions (PJCs) and Administrative Commissions (ACs) to act in their place. There would be eight such regions, with current synods combined in various geographic ways under such a proposal.
The other option passed over was to create minimal function synods, again reducing the number of mid-council bodies currently in existence, and limiting their roles to involvement in administrative and judicial affairs only.
While noting that any decision reached may be met with controversy one way or another New Hope Presbytery’s Byron Wade, co-moderator of MCC-2 with Ariel Mink of Redwoods Presbytery, acknowledged the commission’s progress.
“I’m very heartened that we continue to do the work that has been given to us,” Wade said. “We have discerned God’s direction for where He wants us to go.”
Under the fewer synods option, the MCC-2 will 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, 220th General Assembly (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.
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 the boundary changes necessary to reduce the number of synods to no more than eight.
Additionally, the proposal asks the 221st GA to 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.
The reason for MCC-2
The second 15-member MCC was commissioned by the 220th GA to determine the future of synods in the Presbyterian Church (USA), following up on work conducted by the first commission appointed by the 219th GA (2010) on the future of synods.
This is not the first time there has been a call for changes in the structure of synods.
The MCC-1 recommended to the 220th GA in 2012 that synods (currently 16 that oversee the 173 presbyteries of the PCUSA) should be eliminated as ecclesial bodies, though they could remain as missional partners, said Jill Hudson, coordinator of mid-councils for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).
The recommendations of the first MCC were voted down by the GA, which formed a second panel to further discuss, refine and bring to the next GA meeting recommendations that consider the composition and organization of mid-councils (synods and presbyteries) in ways that reinvigorate their capacity to support missional congregations and advance the ecclesial nature and character of those presbyteries, within the unity of the church.
Jane Smith, a member of MCC-1 and MCC-2 from Riverside Presbytery, said roles of synods need to be clearly defined moving forward.
“What I struggle with in talking about synods is to what end. What is the role?” she asked. “I agree strongly if this commission determines it should continue to have this level of council, but we need to be aggressive in determining what they are responsible for … for the benefit of the presbyteries and the whole church. If we are not giving up on this level, we need to determine what it is responsible for.”
The decision to recommend fewer but larger synods came after a full day of discussion on Tuesday that included listening to reports for all three proposals as well as a substitute proposal and numerous motions for amendments to the reports – some that were approved and others that were turned down.
In providing rationale for such a recommendation, the report from the sub-committee indicated that eliminating synods as ecclesial bodies at the present time would add complexity to the governance structure of the PCUSA rather than simplifying it, noting that even though the national denomination is much smaller than it once was, it remains too large to eliminate any intermediate level of accountability between the General Assembly and the presbyteries.
The report also indicated the need for a reduced number of synods and a streamlining of their roles and functions, pointing out that it is poor stewardship of human and financial resources of the denomination at this time to continue with such a large number.
While acknowledging that the task of merging 16 synods into eight will not be without its challenges, the report indicated that a collaborative effort of the existing synods and presbyteries would be the most prudent means of reduction rather than a directive from the General Assembly. The MCC-2,which recommends six of its members assist with such realignment, sees this proposal for establishing boundaries as consistent with a shift in the PCUSA away from denominational control toward more local authority, thus the decision to put such decision-making in the hands of the presbyteries and synods involved in the changes.
When presenting the recommendation to the full committee, Western Reserve Executive Presbyter Liza Hendricks said the model “provides creativity and a way to engage the synods about their functions,” adding that the importance of missional work and the purpose and identity of the synods should be stressed.
Smith added, “That, to me, is the compelling piece. I want there to be some purposeful piece in all this, and that is something we can be excited about.”
Noting a need to move the process along in a timely manner, the panel also recommends that an Administrative Commission be formed to complete the reorganization of boundaries if the synods and presbyteries do not reach an agreement by the 222nd GA.
“Our synods are smart and good folks. They know this is in the works,” Hudson said. “Once the assembly on this committee takes action, they (synod leaders) will begin the process. A lot of it will be part of an ongoing process.”
The commission also gave its OK to a recommendation from Landon Whitsitt of Heartland Presbytery (also a Mid-America Synod executive) that called for a “Standing Committee on Mid-Councils.” It addresses the concern Smith expressed for the functionality of synods.
The motion approved by MCC-2 addresses the GA’s relationship with other councils and reads, “That the 221st General Assembly (2014), in order to ensure that the responsibilities listed in G-3.0502 are fulfilled, establish a ‘Standing Committee on Mid-Councils’ and charge it to engage in a process for the ongoing strengthening and nurturing of the mid-councils of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with particular emphasis on collaboration with the synods of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to support clarity as to their ecclesial and missional identity, purpose, structure and strategies.”
More to do
While the decision to recommend fewer synods has been made, the MCC-2 committee work is far from complete. The panel will continue to frame its final report to send to the GA over the coming months, focusing on its proper wording and rationale for such a recommendation.
Eileen Lindner of Palisades Presbytery offered that the report to the GA should explain the values that led to the recommendation, including recognition of the pervasiveness of change in the church; mutual accountability, which Lindner said “is not lip-service but our polity and our heritage as Presbyterians;” and the role of synods in identifying and developing leaders, such as racial-ethnic groups and young people.
Jason Ko of Los Ranchos Presbytery observed that the report needs to be presented in such a way that is “transparent, eliminates any distrust and mitigates any anxiety” by those affected. Scioto Valley Presbyter’s Jim Wilson added that it should express “humility in whatever we recommend. We can’t pretend we have a corner on the wisdom of the church,” he said.
“There’s work that needs to be done, but I look forward to it, with an emphasis for making a compelling argument,” Smith said. “We need to make a good case for what we’re doing.”
The MCC-2 will have another meeting Jan. 13-15, 2014, in Dallas as it works to finalize the full recommendation, which has to be completed by Feb. 14, 2014, for presentation to the 221st General Assembly.