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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

What’s A Presbytery For?
May 26, 2016

This is the last in our series on praying for presbytery leaders, which is our May prayer focus.

I was recently with our synod’s presbytery executives, discussing new presbytery leadership models that are emerging within our bounds. Our synod comprises sixteen presbyteries covering Pennsylvania, most of West Virginia, and a little bit of eastern Ohio. Only nine of the sixteen currently have a full-time presbytery executive, and two of those will soon retire and likely not be replaced by another full-time executive. This mirrors the church nationally, in which fewer than half of our presbyteries have a full-time executive leader.

This represents a shift not only in what sort of leadership we can afford, but also in what we need. Beneath that lies an even more rudimentary question: What is a presbytery really for? Do we even need presbyteries at all, and if so, what is their essential purpose?

Many denominations have no presbyteries at all. They are governed top down from central offices, or bottom up by majority votes of each congregation. Presbyterians believe that church leadership at its best requires the communal discernment of wise elders leading the church together in shaping its life and mission. This happens both within congregations, as the session leads the congregation, and between congregations, as leaders of congregations collaborate as a “presbytery” in determining how their congregations together can be most effective in their witness to the Gospel. While this is not the only way, Presbyterians believe that this is the most effective way to frame the church for witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

This is the purpose of presbytery in a nutshell – to equip congregations and their leaders to witness together most effectively to the Gospel in their region. Presbyteries function for congregations jointly in the same way that sessions function for congregations individually. In both cases, we take our cue from the pattern of Jesus and the apostles, who always did ministry together rather than separately.

Just as some congregations function effectively in Gospel ministry without the presence of a full-time called and installed pastor, some presbyteries can be effective without the guidance of a full-time executive. Larger congregations need leaders who devote their full time and energy to motivate, equip, and guide them for Christian ministry; the same is true for larger presbyteries. But for smaller presbyteries, leadership “from within” is sufficient to meet the need.

Through most of our history, most presbyteries were small and had no professional staff. Elders and pastors from congregations met together (in some cases weekly, in some cases a week at a time) to consider together how they could encourage and equip each other to proclaim the Gospel effectively. Only a very few large presbyteries (ours among them) had a professional staff to guide presbytery in fulfilling its mission.

Alas, things got more than a little confused when the church adopted a new model for the “ideal presbytery” some fifty years ago. Presbytery lines were redrawn so that each presbytery was large enough to support a full-time executive. The rule of thumb was that each presbytery needed at least 10,000 members for this to be possible. This led us to cut the number of presbyteries in half. Presbyterians increasingly identified “presbytery” as the central executive office that shaped and regulated the mission of its member congregations.

As church membership has declined from its high-water mark 50 years ago, fewer and fewer presbyteries have retained sufficient critical mass to sustain an executive office of this sort. As of 2014, only one-third of our presbyteries counted more than 10,000 members. This has forced us to reconsider the purpose of a presbytery. Is it to provide administrative and missional control of its congregations and pastors, or is it to mobilize them to be most effective in proclaiming the Gospel?

I am grateful that Pittsburgh Presbytery has sufficient resources to maintain a robust executive office. But I am always mindful that our staff’s calling is not to assure that we continue to have jobs, or to guarantee conformity of all pastors and congregations to the core values of our “brand.”

What is any presbytery – particularly our own presbytery – for? It serves many important purposes, but first and foremost it is to inspire and equip congregations to work together in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the glory of God. When we pray for presbytery leaders, we pray that above all they may be filled with the Spirit to do exactly this.

For the sake of the Gospel,

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

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