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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

We Are a “Presbytery”
March 8, 2012

Well, of course we are a presbytery – our name says so, and so it must be. If you look up “Pittsburgh Presbytery” on Google, you will be directed to our office’s website, and given our office’s precise GPS coordinates. Following these identifiers, we might say that ten years ago Pittsburgh Presbytery sat in the shadow of Allegheny General Hospital, but now it stands watch over Heinz Field. Well, sort of. Apparently “presbytery” is a moving target.

This week the Presbyterian Mission Yearbook profiled Pittsburgh Presbytery – which it identified as a body of 37,100 members in 147 congregations and 4 new church developments. There was no particular physical or web address offered at all, though it did name the people who work at 901 Allegheny Avenue.

According to our Book of Order, a presbytery is both “the council serving as a corporate expression of the church within a certain district” and “all the congregations and teaching elders within that district.” (G-3.0301) The Bible uses the term only once, when Timothy is urged not to neglect the gift that was given him by the “laying on of hands of the presbytery” (1 Timothy 4:14, KJV – NIV and NRSV use the term “elders” instead).

If a church is having trouble, “calling in the presbytery” feels like summoning police intervention. We identify “presbytery” as people from command central muscling in to exert authority. If someone has a beef about their pastor, they “call the presbytery” – meaning me, or someone else on staff – to set their pastor straight.

All of these accounts of “presbytery” are partly right, and point to the single reality that “presbytery” is a web of relationships by which God binds us together in fellowship and mission. Not just any set of relationships a presbytery doth make; they must be substantial relationships for mutual equipping, encouragement, and admonition, to empower joint proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ. I have a relationship with a group of friends from a church I once served; we have almost daily email contact. We are Christians who learn much from each other, but we are not a presbytery – we cannot join in gospel proclamation when we live 400 miles apart, and there is little we can do to equip, encourage, and admonish one another in discharging our ministry. Presbytery is more than “just” having friends who offer personal support.

The core of being presbytery is that God gathers us. Hebrews 10:24-25 identifies our gathering as the place where we “provoke one another to love and good deeds, … encouraging one another” in proclaiming the coming of the Lord. Provoking, encouraging, and equipping are not just private transactions; they take place in community. 1 Timothy 4 shows ministry being raised up by the gathered leaders, not by individual impartation. We see this pattern repeatedly in the early church, where assembled church leaders commissioned people to proclaim the Gospel.

The presbytery is the field in which the Spirit works to equip, encourage, and admonish us through one another, so that we may engage Christ’s mission fruitfully to the glory of God. To try to do this in isolation from each other is to cut ourselves off from the gifts the Spirit gives us by placing us in this beautifully diverse, multi-gifted community known as Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Those conducting our recent mission study have asked searchingly how well we are living up to our identity as a presbytery. To the extent we fall short of living in this way of rich mutual encouragement and admonition fostered in regular gathering together, our proclamation of the Gospel bears less fruit than it ought. We proclaim the riches of a Savior who reconciles us to God and to one another, yet embody another word by going it alone.

The core of the mission study team burden is this – what must we do for us truly to be what we are? We confess that we have neglected to gather together – for lots of understandable reasons. But we are a presbytery! Even if each of our congregations is humming along nicely, we have failed to be who we are called to be if our congregations and their leaders are disconnected from each other. We may be even a collection of congregations with many signs of vitality, but if we are not a presbytery, our proclamation of the Gospel will be less effective than God intends it to be.

And so our mission study team is setting a new mission plan before us, in which the cultivation of robust, life-giving relationships between congregations and their leaders is our first order of business, for the sake of Jesus Christ. This will be the laser focus of presbytery staff and its core committees – to develop Pittsburgh Presbytery as a rich relational web, to be true to our identity as a presbytery, and thus be fully equipped in the Spirit to declare and display the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Walking together with you,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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