Following a tedious review process, the Mid-Council Commission 2 (MCC-2) adopted its final report – due by Feb. 14 – during a three-day meeting at the American Airlines Training and Conference Center in Dallas Jan. 13-15. The recommendation to reconfigure the current synod model from 16 to eight will be presented and addressed during the 221st General Assembly (GA) in Detroit June 14-21.
Receiving input from all parties seated around the table during multiple sessions, the MCC-2 panel engaged in robust debate that led to a number of revisions to the original proposal of reconfiguring the number of synods drafted during the September 2013 meeting.
The commission modified the recommendations it established four months ago following several amendments brought forth by panel members, as well as amendments to amendments. The group reworked the proposal to eliminate one recommendation, add another and revamp wording to more accurately reflect what it will be asking the GA to do.
MCC-2 concluded that elimination of synods as ecclesial bodies would not at this time simplify the governance structure of the PCUSA, though it determined that the current denominational structure no longer fits today’s church. Examination of the current structure revealed that synod functions could be handled effectively and efficiently by larger bodies, observing that reducing the number of synods would best be accomplished by collaboration between the existing synods and presbyteries rather than as a directive from the General Assembly.
Jane Smith, ruling elder from Riverside Presbytery, noted that the changes made should correlate with the mandate of “reinvigorating presbyteries in missional opportunities with local congregations” given to the panel by the 220th GA rather than merely reducing the number of synods.
“We need to find ways to rethink how our traditional structures can be more accountable to our local congregations,” Smith said. “It’s not simply downsizing.”
Additional discussion centered on ideas such as whether the focus of the recommendation was merely on changing synod boundaries or determining the mission of those synods. Some members of the panel explained that the boundaries had to be determined before a mission could be established. Others made the argument that a mission was needed to determine those boundaries.
The panel also spent time refining the rationale for the recommendations proposed for reconfiguration of synods and reinvigoration of presbyteries through a process of collaboration. That rationale also includes a review of the effectiveness and relationship of the OGA and Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).
The amended proposal
Under the new proposal adopted by the MCC-2, the report now reads (with individual recommendations):
1-That the 221st General Assembly (2014):
a. Direct that a new configuration of synod boundaries be established through a collaborative process between the synods and presbyteries resulting in no more than eight larger regional synods, each with an emerging sense of purpose, partnership, context and call. The synods shall report to the 222nd General Assembly (2016).
b. Inform all synods and presbyteries that designated members of Mid-Council Commission 2 will be available for conversation, clarification and collaboration during the synods’ and presbyteries’ two-year process of reconfiguring synods.
c. Recommend that the 222nd General Assembly (2016) direct its moderator, in consultation with the stated clerk, to appoint an Administrative Commission for the following purposes:
- To assist synods and presbyteries who have been engaged in substantive plan for reconfiguration but have been unable to resolve particular issues in their process;
- To recommend to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) the boundary changes necessary to achieve a total of no more than eight synods, if there remain synods and presbyteries that have been unable or unwilling to engage in a collaborative process of reconfiguration.
2. That the 221st General Assembly (2014), in order to ensure that the responsibilities listed in G-3.0502 are fulfilled, 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 Presbyterian Church (USA), with particular emphasis on collaborating with the synods of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 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.
3. That the 221st General Assembly (2014) continue the Mid-Council Commission II through the meeting of the 222nd General Assembly with the following authority:
a. Pursuant to G-3.0502d, to organizing new synods, or dividing, uniting, or otherwise combining previously existing synods or portions of synods; and
b. Pursuant to G-3.0502e, approving the acts of synods to organize, divide, unite or combine presbyteries or portions of presbyteries.
4. That the 221st General Assembly (2014) accept this report as the commission’s answer to the items referred to it by the 220th General Assembly (2012).
Addressing some changes
Throughout two days of discussion, there were a number of revisions made from the original draft proposed four months ago, many of them focusing on the proper language to be used.
For example, in proposing an amendment to action taken if synods and presbyteries are unable to establish boundaries to fulfill the restructuring model, the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop of New Hope Presbytery suggested the spirit of the recommendation should offer support and collaboration rather than an “if then” punitive measure as suggested in the original draft.
“We need to hold them accountable, but I think we need to strike a more generous tone,” she said.
Scioto Valley Presbytery Ruling Elder Jim Wilson offered an amendment to Shoop’s recommendation that the panel approved. He said he saw no reason that synods and presbyteries could not come to the 222nd GA in good faith with recommendations for boundary changes.
“This is an issue that has been hanging over our denomination for 30 years,” he said, adding that there had to be action taken if boundary changes were not formed during the window of time allowed for such a move. “For us to acknowledge they can refuse to do this makes this recommendation meaningless.”
The Rev. Landon Whitsitt, executive and stated clerk for Synod of Mid-America, indicated that a number of synod executives he has spoken with already are giving consideration to the recommendation that will go before GA.
“They’re already taking it seriously,” Whitsitt said.
Commissioned Ruling Elder Barbara Gilliland of Pueblo Presbytery addressed the need to clearly convey the message of the recommendations to OGA.
“I feel we need to be very strong in this language,” Gilliland said. “The (current four-layer governing) system seems to be broken or not functioning well. We’ve got to do what’s good for all.”
Work of the commission
The second 15-member MCC was established by the 220th GA to determine the future of synods in the PCUSA, following up on work conducted by the first commission appointed by the 219th GA (2010) on the future of synods.
The charge given to MCC-2 revolved around considering the composition and organization of the Mid-Councils 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.
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 172 presbyteries of the PCUSA) should be eliminated as ecclesial bodies, though they could remain as missional partners.
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.
MCC-2 has had four face-to-face meetings and three others via conference call in formulating its recommendation for submission to the OGA.