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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Presbytery 101, Part I
September 8, 2016

With our prayer calendar this month focused on praying for the welfare and future of our presbytery, it is timely that we consider the history and purpose of “presbytery” over the four centuries since the Reformed movement was birthed in central Europe.

What we now call “presbytery” was birthed as an alternative model for church governance in a world where churches had long been governed hierarchically by bishops, and where alternative Christian communities were self-governed. The Reformers believed that congregations ought to be governed instead by a regional council of elders working closely together to determine what is most needful for congregations to thrive, and for the church’s mission to be effectively accomplished. They saw this model as most like the practice of the earliest Christian church.

I have never been part of a hierarchical denomination, but I was ordained into a community church that was self-governing. There was no real accountability beyond the congregational level, so when a serious dispute arose among the elders about the direction in which the Lord was leading it, the only resolution was to split the congregation. In the process, many members became soured on Christianity altogether. In the aftermath, as I considered where the Lord may be calling me to ministry for the long haul, I was drawn to the accountability, responsibility, and flexibility that Presbyterian governance affords.

Reformed churches have embodied the presbytery model in many forms. Sometimes presbyteries have met regularly and often; at other times, infrequently or only as needed. In some times and places, meetings have gone just an hour or two; elsewhere, meetings have lasted as long as a week, more “camp meeting” than “business meeting.” Sometimes presbyteries have had no offices or staff, with all governance exercised corporately by pastors and elders from member congregations; at other times, presbyteries have developed robust mission centers employing multiple professional staff. Their names have varied from “presbytery” to “classis” to “conference” to “synod” to “company of pastors.”

The early Reformers knew that if the life and ministry of the church were not dictated by the hierarchy of bishops, another mechanism would need to assure that congregations and pastors work together accountably in discerning God’s direction for the church in ministering to the saints and reaching out to the world. In its earliest forms, the Reformed “presbytery” was a community of congregational leaders in a small geographic region (small enough that they could regularly meet without the benefit of trains and automobiles) that gathered regularly for this purpose. This gathering functioned as the “corporate bishop” for the region’s churches.

Under John Calvin’s leadership, Geneva’s “Venerable Company of Pastors” met each Friday to worship, study, and consider the ministry needs of member congregations. In its early years, it comprised just eight parishes and thirteen minister members. Meetings began with worship, then moved to a period of theological study, with each lesson led in rotation by minister members presenting a biblical exegesis study for peer review. This was followed by consideration of the ministry needs in their region, and examination of ministers for calls to and their labors in member parishes. Sustained attention to their ministry together as a covenant community of congregations was as important to them as their ministry within their particular congregations.

“Presbytery” looks very different in our place and time, yet it embodies the same conviction that we can better discern God’s calling to the church together than we can separately. Congregations and pastors do not determine their ministry trajectories independently, but rely on each other for encouragement and admonition, as the Holy Spirit works to give us what we need through each other. The interdependence and mutual upbuilding of the many members of Christ’s body, so beautifully expressed in 1 Corinthians 12, is not just a model for how particular congregations work individually; it is also a rich description of the interdependence of congregations and pastors in receiving the guidance and gifting of the Holy Spirit.

How we work together changes from place to place and time to time. That we work together as congregations and pastors, rather than in isolation from, or in competition with, or in opposition to each other, is critical to hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church today.

God has given us by the Spirit all we need to fulfill our Lord’s Great Commission. “Presbytery” is where we nurture those gifts for the sake of the world into which Jesus sends us.

Yours in Christ’s mission,

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

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