For as long as most Presbyterians can remember, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has discussed and debated the value and necessity of synods in the church’s governance system.
At its March 14-16 meeting here, the latest group to try to untie this Gordian knot ― the second Mid-Council Commission (MCC-2) ― weighed several options and determined it is not yet ready to make a recommendation to the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) in 2014. The group will vote on its recommendation ― whatever it is ― at its September 9-11 meeting here.
The first Mid-Council Commission, which worked on the issue for two years, recommended to the last General Assembly in 2012 that synods be eliminated as ecclesial bodies in the church’s system of governance.
Instead, the Assembly referred the recommendation (actually four related recommendations) to MCC-2 with instructions to “further discuss, refine and bring to the 221st General Assembly recommendations that consider the composition and organization of the mid-councils (synods and presbyteries) in ways that reinvigorate their capacity to support missional congregations and advance the ecclesial nature and character of those presbyteries within the unity of the church.”
In other words: whither synods?
A sub-group of MCC-2, led by former Advisory Committee on the Constitution member Jim Wilson of Scioto Valley Presbytery, who is currently a member of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), has done most of the work needed to propose to the Assembly that synods be eliminated as ecclesiastical bodies, in line with the recommendations of MCC-1.
But MCC-2 members are ― not now anyway ― ready to make that decision and spent the bulk of their meeting discussing various alternatives to the outright elimination of synods. “We are more than connectional ― we are covenantal,” said the Rev. Landon Whitsitt, an MCC-2 member who is a former GA vice-moderator and is synod executiveand stated clerk for the Synod of Mid-America. “What can we talk about that enhances our covenantal nature as Presbyterians, that will feed and foster the intimacy and accountability we need?”
An MCC-2 sub-group chaired by Whitsitt identified seven options, ranging from the elimination of synods to the status quo (16 synods, which have varying degrees of activity) to what Whitsitt admitted was a “radical” realignment of the 173 presbyteries that would also eliminate synods.
The full commission discussed the “benefits” and “barriers” of each model and in a straw poll conducted near the end of the meeting seemingly narrowed their choices to two ― the original proposal from MCC-1 to eliminate synods or a proposal that would reduce the current number of synods from 16 to about five and establish processes and time-lines for the synods to “repurpose” themselves.
In the straw poll, the “fewer synods” model received nearly twice as many votes as the “eliminate synods” option.
“I believe our first task is to do no harm,” said the Rev. Eileen Lindner of Palisades Presbytery, a representative of COGA on MCC-2. “The straw poll reflects that task, but on the other hand there seems to be so that this may look like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Another COGA representative on MCC-2, the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop of New Hope Presbytery, said the “fewer synods” approach “creates some space for renewal, eases financial pressures and reduces anxiety and the potential for more pain.”
Wilson said, “Synods have same challenge as small churches ― change and adapt or die. They have the choice to find a way to be a meaningful part of the ecclesial structure of the church.”
Jane Smith of Riverside Presbytery, who is a holdover member of MCC-2 from MCC-1, said the “fewer synods” model “invites presbyteries to step up. If presbyteries are the heart of our system, we need to start doing stuff in a different way.”
Whitsitt said such innovation is already happening, citing the “Heartland Partnership” between the synods of Mid-America, Lakes and Prairies and Lincoln Trails. “We’ve been talking for about a year and, with our presbyteries, have identified four things we believe we’re called to do regionally: developing a heartland ecclesiology, addressing food issues, reconciliation, and supporting practical theological education. I believe the opportunities for renewal are great in the fewer synods model.”
The Rev. Jill Hudson, coordinator for mid-councils for the Office of the General Assembly, confirmed Whitsitt’s assessment. “What Landon describes is what has been happening throughout the church over the last 10 years,” she said. “The Heartland Partnership is only the first concrete model we’ve seen. There’s a lot of ferment out there.”
But Hudson also said the state of current synods is “a mixed bag.” The Synod of Alaska-Northwest, for instance, “doesn’t want to do anything having to do with synods,” she said. The Synod of Southern California and Hawaii “is only doing Permanent Judicial Commission work,” she added.
Other synods are in serious conversations about their future role and ministry, Hudson noted, specifically mentioning the synods of the Northeast, Living Waters and South Atlantic.