As part of its mandate to determine the future of synods in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mid-Council Commission II (MCC-2) engaged in dialogue with synod leaders via conference calls during the summer.
Results of that dialogue were shared during the first of three days of meetings for the MCC-2 on Sept. 9 at the American Airlines Training and Conference Center in Dallas.
From July 5-Sept. 6, MCC-2 co-moderators Byron Wade (pastor of Davie Street Presbyterian Church of New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina) and Ariel Mink (ruling elder and vice moderator of Redwoods Presbytery in California), along with addition members of the 15-member commission communicated with synod moderators, executives and two additional synod representatives about their views on the second MCC’s charge.
That directive from the 220th General Assembly was to pick up where the first MCC left off, further discussing, refining and bringing to the 221st GA (June 14-20, 2014 in Detroit) 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.
“We’re down to the home stretch to determine what is the future of synods,” said Jill Hudson, coordinator of mid-councils for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).
Hudson said the 219th GA (2010) established the first MCC to look at the possibility of eliminating or reducing the number of synods, presently 16 that oversee the PCUSA’s 173 presbyteries. All the recommendations made by the first MCC (primarily to eliminate all 16 synods) were voted down by the GA last summer, and a second commission was developed and charged with doing further work to explore the future of the mid-council bodies.
In presenting results of the conferences with 13 of the 16 synods (Living Waters, Puerto Rico and Alaska Northwest did not participate) as well as a meeting with the Synod Executive Forum in Seattle, Mink shared the views of synod leaders.
She noted that the overlying theme was that whatever recommendation the MCC-2 sends to the GA, the rationale regarding any reconfiguration needs to be based on missional priorities and objectives.
Findings also revealed the need for a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down directive, moving past a “one size fits all” solution to take into account the needs of presbyteries within the individual synods. There also was a general consensus that presbyteries and synods should be involved in a discernment process regarding the evolution of synods.
The findings showed that larger synods would lead to expanded networks but could eliminate a connectional/relational identity. There also could be hardships for those representatives in remote locations if the geographic boundaries are greatly enlarged.
Other concerns brought up in the conferences were the possibility of losing racial/ethnic groups (Native American, African-American, Korean, Hispanic) , the relational nature of the synod, an increased cost for travel and time if the footprint is enlarged, the need to add staff and redistribution of giving.
Expansion of the synod boundaries also was questioned. Would they be split geographically east and west, north and south, etc.? Would population, political affiliation or diversity of ethnic/racial communities factor into the boundaries?
The Rev. Jason Ko of Los Ranchos Presbytery, said he sensed some anger and frustration from the timing of such a decision regarding the future of synods with a number of churches leaving the PCUSA now to align with other denominations like ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
“What I heard loud and clear was anger and frustration,” Ko said. “They seemed to be asking, ‘Why are we looking at this now when we don’t know what the denomination will look like in a year.'”
When asked about the impact of churches leaving the PCUSA and the effect on presbyteries, Mink said only “three or four” synods expressed concern about that issue.
Mink went on to report that the consultations indicated that synod leaders are of the mind that the losses of their mid-council body would far outweigh the benefits. She noted a loss of connectionalism/relationalism; stresses on staffing; the costs of travel; and the complexity of assets and potential redistribution as concerns expressed from the synod level.
On the positive side, increased networking opportunities were mentioned along with a greater ability to share best practices and lessons learned, along with an expanded reliance on technology.
Wade said he detected a feeling of openness on the part of synod leaders to at least explore options for the future.
“What I heard was if we had our druthers, we’d rather stay as we are, but we know the GA won’t explore that so we’re open to at least discuss it,” he said. “But if we do it (make changes to the current structure), (the MCC) will have to have a pretty good rationale for why it is being done.”
Jane Smith, a ruling elder from Riverside Presbytery in California, said the question of a synod’s purpose still needed to be addressed.
“What I perceive is that we have a question of what is the purpose of a synod, other than things outlined in the Book of Order,” she said. “I sort of feel, that beyond various administrative requirements, we haven’t defined the goal of synods.”
Smith added that the feedback received was strictly from the point of view of synod representatives and did not consider input from presbyteries or local congregations.
“We’re asking (synods) to assess themselves about whether this downsizing should take place,” Smith said. “While it is important to listen to their concerns, we have to understand this is from the synod’s point of view. We don’t have presbyteries or local congregations weighing in.”
The Rev. Eileen Lindner, pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Tenafly, N.Y., of Palisades Presbytery, chimed in, “We asked the fox how things are at the hen house so we should not be surprised at their responses.”
The Rev. Liza Hendricks, general presbyter for Western Reserve Presbytery, viewed the future of synods as one that may prove to be difficult to cope with once a final recommendation is submitted to the GA by the MCC-2.
“How hard it must be to think about loss, which this is largely about,” Hendricks opined. “It’s a matter of giving up or losing something rather than what they might gain. It’s difficult to look at what might be on the other side of change.”
Mink said she was appreciative that so many of the synods were willing to engage in communication regarding their futures.
“It was a very valuable exercise; it was helpful to talk with the synods,” she said. “They need to see that we are not just a rubber stamp commission, that we are truly invested in listening and understanding. Their opinions do matter and are heard.”
The MCC-2 will continue meeting in Dallas through Wednesday. A final meeting is scheduled for Jan. 13-15, 2014, in Dallas, with the commission’s final report due to the GA by Feb. 14, 2014.