Like a massive ocean-liner on a vast sea, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Middle Governing Body Commission began the long slow turn from gathering data from the church to formulating recommendations for the mission and function of presbyteries and synods in a rapidly changing church and world.

The centrality of congregations for the mission and ministry of the denomination, the critical role of effective lay and clergy leadership, and the need for flexibility in the form and function of governing bodies appear to be the central themes the commission will pursue.

Meeting in this maritime city May 31-June 2, the 21-member commission ― created by the 219th General Assembly last summer ― continued to plow through the waves of data it has collected during its first year. The commission has conducted scores of face-to-face consultations around the church and made online surveys available to every Presbyterian in collaboration with the PC(USA)’s Research Services office.

And with its ultimate port-of-call approaching ― next summer’s 220th General Assembly, where it is scheduled to make its final report after just two more scheduled meetings ― commission members turned their attention to distilling several “operating assumptions” that will undergird the report.

The group hopes to have a rough draft of that report to consider at its early October meeting in Indianapolis.

It achieved consensus on a number of assumptions, reflecting what it has heard in what has perhaps been the most extensive churchwide consultation process since Presbyterian reunion in 1983:

  • Congregations are the basic but insufficient ― the PC(USA) is a connectional, not Congregationalist church ― forms of mission and ministry and the denomination is only as healthy and effective as its congregations;
  • “One size doesn’t fit all” when it comes to the form and function of middle governing bodies. “People determine the shape, form and structure of ministry based on their local context ― population and geography,” said commission member the Rev. Sam Roberson, executive presbyter for Charlotte Presbytery;
  • Healthy, effective leadership is key and all governing bodies of the church must enable, promote and serve healthy leaders. Moreover, said Robert Hay Jr., an elder in Greater Atlanta Presbytery, “There is real and shared spiritual leadership between ruling elders and teaching elders that must be reclaimed”;
  • Middle governing body structures must also allow for strategic and generative/adaptive thinking, not just fiduciary “business-as-usual” considerations, constructively engage the multi-cultural realities of the church and world, be economically feasible, and, said the Rev. John Vest of Chicago Presbytery, “serve the mission of God and not ourselves or our institutions.”

While part of the commission’s mandate is to “develop models that reflect the roles of middle governing bodies in our polity and the changing context of our witness in the United States and their relationships with other governing bodies,” one church executive raised a note of caution about that task.

“The language of coming up with models makes me nervous,” the Rev. Steve Yamaguchi, executive for Los Ranchos Presbytery, told the commission. “(Model-building) can mislead people and create false hopes,” he said, “when what we need is to learn how to learn, becoming more adaptive rather than relying on technical/structural fixes.”

The church cannot “manage our way out of our problems,” Yamaguchi continued. “Life is unmanageable and we need a saving, redeeming God to make things right for us. Corporate, regulatory models have run their course. What we need are new mental models.”

Learning new ways of being the church that are non-regulatory means cultivating and nurturing new leadership, Yamaguchi insisted. “Young people get it that we have to be more generative and adaptive and less regulatory,” he said, “but they have trouble believing the presbytery is serious about engaging in them. It takes time to cultivate new leadership.”

In his presbytery, Yamaguchi said, “We’re trying to make space to experiment, to be willing to fail, learn and move on.”  The hardest thing, he continued, “is learning how to learn. In moments of crisis, he said, “you will not rise to the occasion, you will default to your training, so training becomes very important.”

The Rev. Nancy Kahaian, interim executive for the Synod of Mid-America, agreed. “I’d like us to be unapologetically insistent on quality leadership in the church,” she said, voicing theme that recurred over and over again during the commission’s meeting.

Kahaian described the “chaordic context” of the contemporary church ― a combination of chaos and order. “To function in this context we must acknowledge the complexity,” she said. “When things are simple, solutions seem possible. Complexity requires continual evaluation and re-framing.”

The “five Cs” of traditional middle governing bodies’ care for church leaders are still valid, Kahaian said: chaplaincy ― accompaniment; clinics ― how-to sessions; consulting ― working with leaders to determine “this is what needs to be done”; coaching ― coming alongside and asking the right questions so answers can be found; and communities of learning ― peer groups in which the group becomes the coach and hold each other accountable for their responses.

But in “chaordic contexts,” she said, strategic and adaptive thinking take on paramount importance. “The role of middle governing bodies, and of church leaders everywhere,” she said, “is to motivate and inspire, align people with the vision, and keep people moving in the right direction, despite the obstacles. You cannot plan and budget your way out of this.”

“It’s a challenge to help people learn how to learn,” Yamaguchi said, “to do something different and not just follow the rules and apply the models but to learn how to learn and as leaders to train other  leaders how to learn.”

Recalling how his daughter learned to dance ballet, Yamaguchi said, “Counting the dance steps is not dancing. Whatever models we use, it’s going to take loving care to help people through the steps to familiarity.”