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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Presbytery 101, Part II
September 15, 2016

In last week’s letter, I offered a bird’s-eye view of the history of “presbytery” in the life of Reformed churches, focusing especially on how the earliest Reformers shaped relationships between congregations and pastors in a region. While “presbytery” has taken many forms in various times and places, it has functioned with a consistent purpose: that congregations and their leaders are fully equipped and motivated for fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ in their communities.

Presbyterians have come to understand that mission in very specific terms: 1. Proclaiming the Gospel. 2. Worshiping God rightly. 3. Caring for the saints. 4. Preserving the truth. 5. Pursuing social justice. 6. Exhibiting God’s reign. Presbytery’s fundamental charter is to assure that its pastors and congregations are fulfilling this particular mission vision diligently and effectively.

This is why presbytery cares about who is called to serve as pastor of a particular congregation. Will this pastor help this congregation effectively to accomplish this mission? Does the pastor demonstrate a sense of call to lead this congregation in answering our Lord’s calling? Presbytery gets most closely involved with congregations when they are seeking new pastoral leadership, to help them find the best leadership possible for ministry that fulfills our shared understanding of the church’s core mission. This positive role also includes a negative corollary – presbytery must sometimes say “no” to candidates who do not demonstrate an inclination or capacity to advance the congregation’s ability to fulfill the Presbyterian understanding of Christ’s mission.
Presbytery is thus a critical partner in determining Christ’s calling for each congregation, with regard to both the shape of its particular mission, and the pastoral leadership it needs to help it toward that end. Discerning God’s call is a responsibility shared between a congregation, its pastor, and the larger church (i.e., presbytery).

My own sense of call to ministry in the Presbyterian Church was confirmed first by my sponsoring session, and then by the larger church through presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM). CPM guided me through the process of demonstrating my fitness for this calling, finally certifying me ready to seek a call. My home church wanted to call me to an installed pastoral position they were prepared to create for me. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to be ordained without having to move, and I loved my congregation, so I was “all in.” But CPM stepped in to mess things up for us – they wanted both the congregation and me to broaden our search horizons. If God was indeed calling us to work together, they said that would be confirmed; but perhaps God had something else in store for us, if only we would open our hearts, eyes, and ears. To my great surprise, I discovered that God WAS leading me to a new form and place of ministry. Were it not for presbytery stepping in to help redirect me, I would not be where I am today.

The New Testament is replete with redirection stories. Sometimes it happens sovereignly and individually, as it did with Saul on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:1-19) But other times it is the church leadership, acting together, that redirects a particular individual or congregation. Together, church leaders redirected congregations that had excluded uncircumcised Gentiles from their fellowship. (Acts 15) Together, church leaders commissioned particular individuals for new ministries. (Acts 13:1-3)

In sixteenth-century Geneva, the weekly gathering of pastors and elders (the first form of “presbytery”) determined prayerfully which changes, if any, needed to be made in the pastoral leadership of member congregations. They believed that congregations sometimes needed new leaders with new gifts to help them engage Christ’s mission more faithfully and fruitfully. In so doing, they were following the pattern of the apostles, who often shifted from one place of ministry to another, as needs required. In Paul’s understanding, this makes perfect sense: One plants, another waters, God gives the increase. (1 Corinthians 3:5-8)

Sometimes presbytery’s primary task is to encourage member congregations and pastors to stay the course. And sometimes it is to prod them toward a new, more fruitful path. In all of this, presbytery is called to assist congregations and pastors to find the most faithful and fruitful way to fulfill the call of our Lord.

Yours in answering Christ’s call,

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

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