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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

What’s in a Name?
May 12, 2016

May is the month on our annual prayer calendar that we have designated for praying for presbytery leaders. By “presbytery” we mean the regional expression of the church that comprises a group of congregations and their leaders, joined in a covenant of shared ministry in Jesus’ name for the healing of the world.

“Presbyterian” is rooted in the Greek word for “elder,” and means literally “governed by elders.” It is something like what secular politics would call representative government, with the important qualification that Presbyterian elders are charged to make decisions according to their own prayerful discernment, rather than simply representing the opinions of the body that elected or commissioned them.

We have a particular theological emphasis rooted in the Reformation that we call “the Reformed tradition.” But the name “Presbyterian” refers not to a set of doctrinal claims per se, but to a set of governance practices that embody our doctrine. Because of our theology, we believe that the church is best ruled by a group of elders duly ordained for that purpose. Elders are chosen prayerfully by the people they serve, to do this work on the basis of their authentic faith and practical wisdom.

Any congregation that is governed by elected elders may rightly claim to be “Presbyterian.” But in our understanding, being “Presbyterian” is about more than how a particular congregation is governed. It includes, more expansively, elders working together to govern the life and mission of a group of congregations. Congregations operate inter-dependently for Presbyterians. When one suffers, others support them. They work together to discern whom God may be calling to serve as pastors in their congregations. They share responsibility for the property as well as of the ministry in their member congregations.

The apostolic writings portray a church in which congregations were intimately engaged in caring for one another. The sharing of resources within congregations (Acts 4:32) was also expressed between congregations, as they supported one another in times of need. (Acts 11:27-30; 2 Corinthians 8-9) When Paul wrote to a particular congregation, he asked that the letter be read to other congregations as well. (Colossians 4:16) When matters of controversy arose, decisions were made by elders representing the larger church, and were then transmitted to multiple congregations. (Acts 15-16)

What makes us “Presbyterian” is not just our doctrine, or how our individual congregations are governed. We are truly “Presbyterian” when we embrace the shared ministry of congregations under the leadership of, and accountable to, a regional council of representative elders.

The vitality of our Gospel witness is about more than the sum of our congregations’ particular ministries. It is determined and demonstrated by how we do ministry in Jesus’ name together as congregations and congregational leaders. We cannot authentically claim to be “Presbyterian” if we are isolated from our sister congregations. Independent congregational ownership of our ministries and assets is unthinkable for those who are truly “Presbyterian.”

When we pray for presbytery leaders, we are praying for those whose mission is to keep congregations and ministries working together in the mission of Jesus to the world. They may be called as staff, or elected as members of presbytery committees for a limited time. Either way, their mission is the same.

Especially as Pentecost approaches, let us pray that our own presbytery leaders, as well as leaders of other presbyteries, might be granted an outpouring of the Spirit to motivate and equip congregations to work together in proclaiming the Gospel in word and in deed, to the glory of God. As Presbyterians, we believe that working together multiplies our fruitfulness in the Gospel. May that good fruit be abundantly evident among us as we work together in spreading the Good News of God’s love revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus!

Yours in shared ministry,


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

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