The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Mid-Council Commission voted tonight (Sept. 10) to recommend to next summer’s 221st General Assembly that the number of regional synods be reduced from 16 to “no more than eight” and that the existing synods and 173 presbyteries be assigned to determine “the most prudent boundary changes” to accomplish the reduction.

The vote was unanimous.

The commission was created by the 2012 General Assembly to revisit a proposal by a previous Mid-Council Commission that synods be eliminated as an “ecclesiastical entity” of the PC(USA).

Over the past year, the commission reached its remarkable consensus that “eliminating synods … at the present time would add complexity to the governance structure of the PC(USA) rather than simplify it.”

After the vote, commission member Eileen Lindner of Palisades Presbytery said she hoped the commission “can create a trail of bread crumbs that tells the 221st General Assembly how we got to this place.”

She suggested that the commission’s report should start with the values that led it to its recommendations. Some of those values, she said, are:

  • A recognition of the pervasiveness of change in the church;
  • Mutual accountability, which Lindner said “is not lip-service but our polity and our heritage as Presbyterians”; and
  • The unique role of synods in identifying and developing leaders, particularly young people and racial ethnic Presbyterians.

Synods have been on the ecclesiastical chopping block several times. “One of the things I struggle with in talking about synods is ‘to what end’” said Jane Smith of Riverside Presbytery, who has served on both Mid-Council Commissions. “If we are going to continue synods, we have to be aggressive about what they’re responsible for for the benefit of their presbyteries and the whole church ― right now it’s not clear and in a connectional church it shouldn’t be that way.”

The commission continued to frame a recommendation to create a General Assembly-level entity ― Landon Whitsitt of Heartland Presbytery and synod executive for the Synod of Mid-America called for a Permanent Committee on Synod Review “continually to strengthen and nurture the synods of the church concerning their identity, purpose, structure and strategies” ― to maintain mutual accountability between the Assembly and its synods.

Though financial stresses throughout the denomination have certainly been a factor in the General Assembly’s deliberations on the future of synods, the commission agreed that its decision is not a stewardship issue but rather an opportunity to bring new life to the PC(USA).

The mandate for existing synods and the presbyteries to collaborate in setting the reduced synods’ boundaries appeared key to several commissioners’ support for the proposal.

“Those closest to those synods ― their current leadership and the leadership of the presbyteries within them ― are the ones best equipped to discern the best parameters for combining these councils and resetting their boundaries,” a sub-group report that will become the framework for the commission’s final report to the General Assembly says.

“This proposed process for realignment is consistent with the significant shift in the PC(USA) away from denominational control toward more local control,” the paper says, “by in the first instance placing such decision-making in the hands of the presbyteries and synods.

“Further,” it continues, “such a process will encourage and require presbyteries to examine carefully their own connections with the synod they will be a part of, and the parameters of that synod’s role.”

In approving the “fewer, larger synods” model, the commission also recognized the practical necessity of maintaining some level of governance between the General Assembly and its presbyteries.

“While the PC(USA) is certainly smaller than it once was,” the sub-group paper says, “it remains too large to simply eliminate any intermediate level of accountability between the General Assembly and the 173 presbyteries … The General Assembly and its commissions and committees simply do not have the ability to engage in meaningful oversight over 173 presbyteries.”

In approving its recommendation, the commission rejected an alternative ― dubbed “minimum function synods” ― that would also have reduced the number of synods to eight but would have been far more restrictive, barring synods from hiring staff or initiating any programmatic ministry. They would have been reduced to administrative and judicial duties only.

The commission will complete its work at a Jan. 13-15 meeting here. It’s final report to the General Assembly is due Feb. 14.