A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
September 17, 2015
Earlier this year, our presbytery’s Executive Committee conducted a thorough five-year review of presbytery’s leadership and activities. Many key stakeholders from around the presbytery were asked to respond to a series of questions about the effectiveness of the presbytery in general, and of specific employees and programs in particular. The majority of feedback was highly positive, indicating substantial broad appreciation for presbytery staff and programs.
However, a few comments indicated some uncertainty about presbytery’s specific mission, priorities, and strategies. I took those concerns with me into my sabbatical, committed to giving them extended prayerful reflection. I quickly became convinced that before we explore the particular challenges facing us in Pittsburgh Presbytery, we need to get a better handle on the underlying broader question: Why do we have such a thing as “presbytery” anyway? We might also ask “Why Presbyterian?” but we’ll save that for another time. For now, let us address the question of why we have presbyteries, as a background for better understanding precisely what God is calling us to accomplish as Pittsburgh Presbytery.
So…why presbytery? One of the answers is obvious – to assist congregations and their leaders in complying with the order set forth in our Constitution, and to verify their compliance. That has been the most abiding single purpose of presbyteries across the span of Presbyterian history.
But there has often been more, depending on presbyteries’ size and available resources. They have sometimes invested heavily in training pastors and other church leaders for their ministry. They have often led their congregations in mobilizing and resourcing shared mission work locally and abroad. Sometimes they have functioned as centers for spiritual renewal for their members, often supporting camps and conference centers for that purpose. Sometimes they have nurtured and organized public advocacy for social justice. They have often provided resources to congregations to enable them to flourish in their worship, discipleship, and outreach endeavors. They have been centers of accountability, where congregations and their leaders have been expected to show how their work has advanced the cause of the Gospel.
These beneficial functions of presbytery rise and fall as resources wax and wane. Most presbyteries across the PCUSA have seen their available resources for such ministry dwindle significantly over the past forty years, and Pittsburgh is no exception. Our capacity to serve as a mission and resource center for presbytery congregations has declined sharply over this period, as our staff has been reduced by nearly two-thirds. Nearly all congregations in our denomination, including those in Pittsburgh, have redirected much that they had once contributed to presbyteries, choosing instead to enlarge their own staffs and programs, and to give directly rather than through presbytery to Christian mission work.
So, to bring the question into clearer focus: “Why Presbytery” in a day when resources for presbytery operations are significantly curtailed? Is constitutional compliance the extent of what we can do anymore, or is there still some further calling for presbytery life and work?
In coming weeks, I will contend that presbytery fulfills an essential function in the church’s mission. I will argue that presbytery plays a critical role in fulfilling the church’s mission as given by Jesus, practiced by the apostolic community, and understood in the Reformed doctrine of the church. Presbytery is not just an extra, optional accessory for congregations in fulfilling our Lord’s mission for the church.
To get this discussion rolling, I invite us to recall the “Great Ends of the Church” as Presbyterians have historically understood them (Book of Order F-1.0304):
Proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind
Shelter, nurture, and fellowship of God’s people
Maintenance of divine worship
Preservation of the truth
Promotion of social righteousness
Public exhibition of the kingdom of God
Here’s the initial question: In which of these does presbytery (or a similar regional partnership of congregations) play a critical role? Later, we will consider the question that necessarily follows: How we can optimally organize and staff for fulfilling these roles most fruitfully, given our current resource limitations?
Your partner in Christ’s mission,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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