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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Whither Pittsburgh Presbytery?
September 1, 2016

The September focus in our prayer calendar is on “the future of our life together as a presbytery.” While there is much on our horizon that is new, any consideration of our future needs to begin with an account our past. Coincidentally, I have had several conversations recently about how things were with our presbytery in earlier generations.

One of those threads began when I recently received a first class letter addressed to a predecessor of mine from decades ago. Wanting to learn more about him, I did what every child knows to do – I Googled him, which took me to lots of interesting old newspaper articles, among other things. One of the articles reported that due to something that had happened nationally in our denomination, 56 of our congregations had determined to withhold their per capita. In another article, he reported that some of our presbytery mission projects had to be curtailed because of a drop-off in benevolent giving to our shared mission. In yet another there was a report of a congregation that was seeking to leave our denomination because of theological differences.

As Yogi Berra would say, it felt like I was experiencing déjà vu all over again. The players and issues today may be different, but the struggles feel eerily similar.

Yet I believe there are signs of wonderful new possibilities on the horizon. We are fewer in number than we were back then, yet our giving has remained constant. Back then, congregations made presbytery a larger part of their budget than they do today; today, they invest more directly in the mission work to which they feel called. Back then, a large presbytery office and staff made it seem that “presbytery” was synonymous with “home office.” Today, the presbytery office budget is a fraction of what it was back then. Our staff is leaner. And with that shrinkage of central operations has come an opportunity to become more like our early Reformation forebears, for whom “presbytery” was a description of congregations and their leaders sharing worship, learning, ministry, and mission together. (More on that in the weeks ahead.)

My journey into our past also included a recent discovery of Trustees minutes from the late 1800s, all in elegant handwriting. I learned that presbytery meetings were two-day quarterly affairs. Imagine, eight days all together every year! Trustees met often to conduct detailed reviews of each congregation’s property, membership, and financial records.

While our face time with each other today is only a fraction of what it was back then, we are enjoying a burst of communications that permit us to be present to each other day to day like never before. Presbytery is now posting regularly on Facebook and Twitter  – “like” us or “follow” us there, please! Congregations, pastors, elders, deacons, and members are able to stay abreast of one another’s lives and ministries like never before.

Our first priority as a presbytery staff is now to connect our members, rather than to regulate them. The long tradition of gathering as a full presbytery in a single place to do a boatload of business may be waning, but in its place there are branch activities, pastor colleague groups, and shared mission projects. There is a rising movement toward shared ministry in which congregations that may be too small to sustain programs and pastors on their own share them together. For much of our history, congregations that could no longer be self-sustaining were summarily shuttered by presbytery; now we realize that small community churches can be vitally engaged in their neighborhoods in ways that larger regional congregations cannot. So why not find new ways to enable them to continue doing their mission, through sharing ministries and resources with each other?

Our future will continue the movement from centralized regulative institutions to collegial networks of discipleship and mission. We will find new strength and purpose as we encounter the power of the Holy Spirit that is released when we work together rather than separately, all working by one Spirit together for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7)

As a covenant community of congregations bearing witness to Jesus as Lord, the best lies ahead, not behind us. The form of “presbytery” as an institution may be changing, but the power of congregations working together in proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed is flourishing, something highlighted in our presbytery mission statement. More brightly than ever, our presbytery can be a city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14) in a city of hills, demonstrating to a fragmented and fractured society the reconciling power of the Gospel. Bound together in love that refuses to quit on each other, we show a better way to a world that seeks refuge in fragmentation. We are living witnesses to the Crucified One who breaks down the dividing walls of hostility, making us one with each other as we are made one with him. (Ephesians 2:14-18)

This divine work of reconciliation is both now and not yet; fully realized and utterly aspirational; complete and in progress; cosmic and microcosmic; communal and personal; public and parochial. Our big question is whether and how we will embrace and display this finished work of Jesus.

Yours in Him,

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

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