let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith [Heb. 12:1,2a]
“What a long, strange trip it’s been”
started this post just over two years ago and since that time have
returned to it and revised it three other times, not counting this final one. Such is my faith journey and evolving
thinking on the place of synods in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Well, my thinking is still not complete or fixed, but I figured that I
was at a milepost that probably needed an annotation. So here it
Over a decade ago I had my first introduction to the
Synod of Southern California and Hawaii as a commissioner to its annual
Assembly. At the time the Synod was working through some financial
challenges, especially with its camps and conferences program. At that
meeting the Assembly concurred with the recommendation to sell a
conference center many considered the “crown jewel.” (Think property
near Malibu.) While that was clearly not the beginning of the decline,
since the program was becoming tight on cash and the objective was to raise some, in the Synod it is still
remembered as a major mile-marker in the history of the organization’s
Fast-forward to 2006 and I’m back at Assembly as a
commissioner. The Synod is in the midst of a transition process and
there are concerns among many commissioners about the slow pace and nature
of the transition. The office building is probably going to be put on
the market. Mission giving has declined and per capita monies are dropping.
The Synod is under stress and it is the view of many, correctly or
incorrectly, that the transition is simply reorganizing to do things
the way they have always been done. (I stepped into this in progress
so do not personally have a good feel for what was actually happening in that transition work
but a couple of people I trust highly were not optimistic about the progress and direction.) At the Assembly a substitute motion was adopted that
would hand the transition back to more direct input and control of the presbyteries for a series of
consultations and visioning meetings. As the Moderator of my
Presbytery I was one of those to participate in the consultations. All
of this is the background that got me thinking about the place and
future of synods as middle governing bodies of the PC(USA). And based upon my past experience and the information I had received from others I entered the process with more than a little cynicism about the value of synods.
There are currently sixteen synods in the PC(USA) and as
many of you are probably aware, the place of synods in the denomination is
not just something that I am thinking about but is a topic of
discussion for the PC(USA) as a whole. Over the last few years there
has been national activity to study, and possibly do away with synods. There was an overture to the 218th General Assembly. Part of the national funding system for synod support will change, if not disappear. And the Synod of the Southwest and two of its
presbyteries had serious issues resulting in a national consultation
in February 2007 about the nature and financial viability of the present Middle Governing
It is interesting that in the midst of this there
are groups. principally Presbyterians for Renewal, that are looking at
a model for coexistence in the PC(USA) that would have like-minded groups move into a “Seventeenth Synod” that is national and parallel to
the present structure. (Analysis by Pastor Lance at Full Court Presby)
On the one hand, there are several
strikes against synods in their traditional sense. They are part of
the earliest structure of the American Presbyterian church, established
before the General Assembly. But with the advent of faster
transportation and communications the need to have a regional governing
body to improve interaction and connectionalism has disappeared.
Considering the number of observers that now attend General Assembly a
rough calculation would suggest that more people attend GA than all the
Synod Assemblies combined. With the decrease in general mission giving
it seems that Synods are being squeezed out between the presbyteries’
and the national budgets. In light of the lack of resources and
program, do synods still serve a purpose?
In thinking through
this question, working with the consultations, and closely watching our
Synod in operation, I have come to the following conclusion: The Synod structure currently mandated in the PC(USA) Constitution is not specifically necessary, but there are desirable functions that should be done in “synod-like” entities. Basically, I do see a need for certain things to be done on a scale above the presbytery but below the General Assembly. If the synods were to go away these functions could be done by entities that are not individual middle governing bodies, but could be something like “super-presbyteries” or “General Assembly sub-regions.” So what are these functions?
One group of functions is the ecclesiastical duties, specifically including judicial process and records review. And this group is recognized in the New Form of Government where the draft includes synods, but allows for “reduced function” to cover only these duties. (3.0404)
I think that the argument for a division of labor in the review of records is fairly straight forward. At the present time the 16 synods review the records of the 173 presbyteries. Eliminate the synods and a GA committee would be responsible for the review of all 173.
The concern with the judicial process is partly the same argument. Eliminate the synod and the GAPJC hears appeals from all 173 presbytery permanent judicial commissions. But with judicial cases there are some added complexities when you start looking at appeals. To have a remedial case against a presbytery be heard first by the GAPJC means that it is the court of first impression and the details of having the case reviewed on appeal would need to be worked out. In addition, to have cases coming from the presbytery PJC’s reviewed twice as appeals, once by the synod PJC and again possibly by the GAPJC, I think helps crystallize the thinking of the final GAPJC decision which can stand as Constitutional interpretation for the denomination.
The other group of functions the synods have is in the area of mission and ministry. In reviewing what our synod does it struck me that it was a point of collaboration or catalysis for the really big stuff and the really small stuff. The former are ministry projects that are large enough that they cross presbytery boundaries and having a central point of contact has been helpful. It is clear from coalitions that have developed on their own that synod involvement is by no means required. But a case could be made that having the synod as a point of contact makes them more efficient. (And I can think of a couple of people who might argue that getting the synod involved would make them less efficient.)
Maybe the more important function is working with ministries that are small, a few members from churches scattered throughout the synod. No church or presbytery has enough involvement to sustain it, but across the whole synod there are enough individuals that they can gather in a meaningful and vital way. A similar function that I have seen is in matching experience to needs across presbytery lines. It provides a place for connecting knowledgeable people to more distant points where they can be helpful. Again, neither of these activities requires the synod — the connections for ministry could be made across presbytery lines without the existence of the synod. But the hope is that the synod could make the connection more efficient.
Finally, in our connectional system I wonder if we can feel connectional if the governing bodies immediately jump from the presbytery to the General Assembly. I commented on this a little while back when I asked if the PC(USA) is too big. In that post my thinking was not specifically that a synod was needed to foster a feeling and understanding of connectionalism on a regional level, but a synod could serve that purpose.
The question that is behind this and must be answered is whether these functions, if they do continue, must be done by a “governing body.” Could they be done by other affiliated entities? Under our theory of church government records review and judicial process needs to be conducted by a governing body. But this could be satisfied by a change to the constitution that would allow ecclesiastical functions to shift from synods to GA to be conducted by regional commissions that are administered by the Office of the General Assembly. This would approximate the synod system while reducing administrative levels and creating cost savings with economies of scale. And while we presently understand there to be one court per governing body this cold be structured and viewed as one court with different branches.
Ministry and mission on the synod level is not as closely tied in our polity to being conducted by a governing body so it could be shifted in a number of ways including back to the presbyteries, up to GAC, or to networks, collaborations, or coalitions of presbyteries. The problem is that without oversight or facilitation will the mission be done or die on the vine? The flip side is that it would put pressure for the fulfilling of G-9.0402b:
b. The administration of mission should be performed by the governing body that can most effectively and efficiently accomplish it at the level of jurisdiction nearest the congregation.
This is partly just a though exercise in how the system could be stream-lined if that is what it needs financially, administratively, or practically. At the present time the GA has chosen not to make changes to the system. The question that I can not answer at this point is whether for the other 15 synods this is what will need to happen. For the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii it is not something that is required at this time. But the thinking is necessary, because going forward even five years there could be the need for radical restructuring in multiple synods, possibly including mine.
So where does that leave me? After two years of participating in consultations, visioning and redesign of our synod I have become convinced that synods can play an important part in our connectional system. By no means does this mean they are indispensable — I am also convinced that given the apparent realities of the future in a decade the PC(USA) middle governing body structure will look different than today. It will be seen how radically different the structure looks and that different structure may or may not include synods.
My personal journey with my synod has taken many twists and turns, both in my thinking and my activity. As I outline above, I have revised my thinking somewhat and think that there is a place for synods at the present time, although there will have to be some serious evaluation in the near future for some of the synods and the denomination as a whole. And this thinking and activity on my part will continue: The redesign work I helped with created a radically reorganized ministry unit which I was then asked to chair and “get off the ground” in 2008. One of the implications of this service is that in 2009 it means that I will serve the synod as the Moderator, a job I am truly looking forward to. So my “long strange trip” continues.
As a programming note, don’t expect much more about my synod Moderatorial work here. As usual, if polity items arise or I want to revisit the nature and necessity of synods, that will appear here. But to help facilitate the communication within the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii I will also have a moderators blog — Everything in Moderation. In a sense, this blog will continue in chronos time w
hile the other will focus on the kairos time of the Moderatorial year. The journey of faith continues and it will probably be as interesting as the journey that got me here.