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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Why Presbytery?
June 13, 2013

Last month our office convened a group of fifteen pastors who have recently received new calls within our bounds, for what we call “new clergy orientation” to the life and work of Pittsburgh Presbytery. In addition to the wonderful array of gifts made newly available to us, this gathering underscored for me the changing nature of pastoral ministry in our place and time – every one of these newly-engaged pastors had been called to temporary, specialized, or at-large service. Not a single one was being “installed” as a pastor. According to our Book of Order, a congregation must have a clerk of session, but a pastor is optional. Session is required only to assure that the ministry of Word and Sacrament is made available to the congregation somehow. Calling a temporary pastor rather than an installed pastor assures a congregation that those essential duties are covered, but keeps options open for the congregation because the contract is for no more than a year. It’s not about saving money – temporary pastors are subject to the same minimum terms of call as installed pastors. Rather, it is designed to maximize flexibility.

Just as the shape of congregational leadership is changing, so is the shape of presbytery work. Some presbyteries have long been composed of congregations far distant from each other, such as the presbytery of Nevada, which numbers 25 congregations across its 150,000 square miles (all of Nevada plus a significant chunk of California). Our presbytery has approximately one church per 5 square miles, while Nevada has one church per 6,000 square miles. What kind of meaningful difference can a presbytery make at such great distances? Presbyteries have even more of a stretch in the new denomination known as The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). A congregation from one of our adjacent presbyteries was recently dismissed to ECO, and I saw that congregation’s letter of welcome from the ECO presbytery Moderator – from Palm City, Florida!

One of our smaller presbyteries has dismissed enough congregations that it no longer has the minimum number of ten required to be a presbytery. Several of our presbyteries, including Nevada, no longer have an executive, and a few presbyteries are sharing staff – two pairs of presbyteries have recently tried using a single executive to cover both presbyteries.

All of these shifts naturally lead us to ask – what’s a presbytery for in the first place? Why not have congregations operate independently? The short answer is that we believe it necessary that we visibly embody the organic unity of the whole church as the Body of Christ. Presbytery is the visible regional embodiment of the whole Church’s covenantal unity in Jesus Christ. Christian congregations are not independent clubs, affinity groups, or businesses.

According to the Book of Order, presbytery has two necessary functions: 1. Governance of the ministries of churches and pastors within its bounds; and 2. Guidance for their witness to the work of God in the world. (G-3.0301) Like congregations, presbyteries are constitutionally required to have a clerk, who role is to assure that the first of these two functions is properly maintained. But also like congregations, presbyteries have no such requirement for other staff (such as an executive), whose responsibility is to assure that the second of these two functions is fulfilled. Wisely, most presbyteries call staff to help with guiding their congregations and pastors in their witness to the Gospel. But as economic strains increasingly bear down on presbyteries, many of those “optional” staff positions are being lost.

The Book of Order specifies further that presbytery’s role of guidance includes that it “shall keep before [its congregations and ministers] the marks of the Church (F-1.0302), the notes by which Presbyterian and Reformed communities have identified themselves through history (F-1.0303), and the six Great Ends of the Church (F-1.0304).”

I used this weekly letter to unpack the marks of the Church (February through March 2010), and then covered the Great Ends of the Church later that year (September through December). (You can find those series named “No Commas” and “Why the Church?” in our archives.) So it is high time that I investigate with you the “notes” of the Reformed churches, which I plan to do in the upcoming weeks. But I note that it is our job not merely to go over these topics once, but to “keep before us” these signposts of the church’s identity, character, and witness. More than anything else, that is what I try to do in this space, week in and week out. Thanks for sticking with me on this ongoing journey!

Seeking the church’s health with you,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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