Governing Bodies and The Future of the Connectional Church…

The Next Church: Governing Bodies / The Future of the Connectional Church [i]

John Wilkinson, Third Presbyterian Church , Rochester NY

Presented on July 2, 2010 (Meeting at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, prior to the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.))

I grew up in this country, by which I mean I grew up in Big Ten country, in Ohio. (Not Minnesota) Growing up, and well into my adulthood, the Big Ten meant what it said it meant, that is, ten schools comprising an academic and athletic conference, with the emphasis on “Ten.” There are now, oddly, eleven schools in the Big Ten, with the addition of Penn State several years back. And soon, in another seismic shift, the Big Ten will have not ten, not eleven, but twelve schools, with the addition of the University of Nebraska – Nebraska – in a year or so.

So if 10 really equals 12, then certainly by corollary, we can expect equal if not greater seismic shifts, more profound evolutions, in the ways churches do what they do, globally, in this country, in the Presbyterian world, in the world of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and in this momentary example, in the ways that governing bodies think about and live into a new sense of mission and vision and calling.

You might think that governing bodies – once called “courts” in the southern church, “judicatories” in the northern church, to be called “councils” if the Form of Government report passes – you might think that governing bodies could not hold a candle to mission, formation, vocation, in terms of enthusiasm and possibility. You might be wrong. I realize that this conversation about governing bodies, in light of ones about the mission of the church and vocation and formation and leadership, may not be for everyone. But it must be for some of us.

We are fully committed to the future of the Presbyterian form of church in the United States, undergirded by the extraordinary Reformed ecclesiology that we have received as a gift. Some typologies would use the label “traditionalist,” others “loyalist.”  Regardless of labels, I believe that the portion of the conversation about what’s “next” that centers on governing bodies – or stated differently – how our historic commitments to a connectional church will help us live into a faithful future – is crucial and vital and central.

Phyllis Tickle’s historical analysis in The Great Emergence is sweeping and perhaps a bit neat and tidy, but her grasp of current cultural and ecclesiological issues is compelling. She argues that we are at the tail end of a 500 year historical era, the Great Reformation, and at the beginning of a new area, the Great Emergence. The epochal change in Christianity that she identifies means that “(The) organized expression of Christianity which up until (now) has been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of (its) former self…” (From this change) two new creatures (emerge) where once there had been only one…(what happens is the) birthing of a brand-new expression of faith and praxis, but the church also gains a grand refurbishment of the older one.” (Page 17)

We sense intuitively that that is happening. Included in that intuition is of course the reality of our numerical decline. Gradye Parsons reported this week the loss of 63,000 Presbyterians this past year, a decrease of 3%.

But it’s deeper than that.  Tickle concludes her work by saying that “we will need to readjust ourselves to accommodate the stresses of such massive changes in the church and culture…” (Page 162) That, in a sense, is why we are here. And it’s why I want to make the case for taking governing bodies – and particularly our presbyteries and our General Assembly – seriously.

Sessions are important – all this talk about leadership and vocation and mission will play itself out primarily in congregational settings, as localism is a distinctive mark of what’s next. Synods are another matter, but not today. But presbyteries are the lifeblood of who we are. And General Assembly, both in its gathered form in a biennial meeting and its corporate form, sometimes called “Louisville,” is the beast we hate to love, and love to hate. Those are worth talking about.

What’s next, what’s emerging, the church we can see from here, must be a connectional church. Not because it’s cool, or easy, or because we’ve always done it that way. But because it is biblical – the body of Christ and all that – and because when the trappings are stripped away and the fundamentals of our tradition remain, it’s a pretty good way to do things.

Collaborative partnerships are not just good ways to run institutions, but they can be faithful and effective and transformative. Left to our own purely local devices, we could not carry the tradition very well, or bear its hallmarks. Left to our own purely local devices, the new “ecosystem” needed to sustain all of this could never come into being, let alone be sustained.

But we must be clever and discerning and humble. And we must be clear. This is not about preserving an old model, propping up an institution that no longer meets needs. If congregations once existed to serve presbyteries, and presbyteries once existed to serve the GA, the reverse is now the case. That’s a reality – a demographic, financial, cultural, reality. No longer programming machines, no longer drivers of mission, and perhaps no longer particularly effective gate keepers.

And yet we are baptized and called into a body that is more than local. So now what? What’s next? If, in fact, some form of connected council is a good way, a faithful way, a Presbyterian way, to be church, without turning connectionalism itself into an idol, an end in itself, what will that look like and how can we provide leadership to help get us there?

Let me say a few words about presbyteries, then a little bit about the assembly.

The American Presbyterian experience began with presbyteries, small, local bodies whose primary roles included theological discourse, the exercise of discipline and the establishment of congregations. Only in recent generations, as we embraced larger and larger regions and rode the heady wave of growth, did presbyteries become programming agencies. No mas. The era of presbyteries as centers of activity is fast concluding. Some presbyteries know this, and are adapting. Others are holding on, in the face of dwindling members and dollars. In so doing, some are creeping deeper into dysfunction or blame, which is fully understandable.

I believe that the “next” conversation is not about fixing dysfunction or saving presbyteries per se. It is, rather, about envisioning the kind of presbytery needed for the next church and providing leadership for it. The tasks are not programmatic. Rather than managing to decline, presbyteries will need to support struggling congregations in new ways, as well as support currently viable ones so they don’t go down that slippery slope. Along with smart support for congregations of all sizes, they will need to support leaders of all types – full time, part time, CLP’s.

In his paper called “The Travail of the Presbytery,” Joe Small writes that “Ordination and mission have joined order and discipline as major responsibilities of modern presbyteries, but sustained theological work and mutual encouragement are no longer central…”

The Theological Task Force report, about which I am not unbiased, was really an expression of an old ecclesiology for a new day – a presbytery-centric polity that would make a difference in the quality and nature of our relationships.

What would it look like, I wonder, if presbyteries consciously shed the tasks of regulation and management and programming to recover the tasks of theology and mutual encouragement and visioning? What would it look like to ask the questions about what structures, what permissions, what collaborations are necessary to shape us?  What would it look like for presbyteries to plant, foster, renew, and encourage congregations that are pursuing “The Great Ends of the Church?” and to support, discipline, counsel, and pray for the leaders of these congregations?

As we’ve considered this, we’ve surmised that structures would be leaner, fewer committees, less staff. Different kinds of meetings. Some presbyteries are doing this already. Some aren’t. We’ve also learned that no one is connecting the dots in a bigger picture. This lack of comprehensive approach is a problem.

Which leads us to the General Assembly. Two pieces of legislation are in front of the commissioners here in the Twin Cities that speak to this – neither seem critical on the surface, but both address these core matters. The call for a Middle Governing Body Commission recognizes the shifts that are happening and seeks to be responsive in a nimble way. The “new” Form of Government, called, perhaps tellingly, “new FOG,” is about more than rearranging the deck chairs, more than another denominational restructuring to stave off decline.[ii]

I am reminded of the story of the Disciples of Christ, one of the few American-born denominational families. Birthed in the robust days of early 1800’s revivalism, the Disciples were anti-institutional, anti-clerical, anti- much of what we associate with denominations. And yet ordained leaders emerged, a seminary, denominational structure.

It’s what we do – we gather and organize, so the real question is how we do it faithfully, for such a time as this. “New occasions” do “teach new duties,” so we are called to discern what those occasions are and what our duties become.

For governing bodies, we ask questions about “re-traditioning,” to use Diana Butler Bass’s word, about “re-furbishing,” to use Phyllis Tickle’s. We ask what about our form of connectionalism still matters, and is worth renewing, and why, and to what end. In a new ecclesiology that values relationships, experiences, mission, we ask how a presbytery or even “Louisville” can help give that birth.

We are facing massively complex issues, and we cannot face them alone. How can a collaborative community help us address our numerical reality in non-defensive way? Or our ability to “read” and engage the culture?

As a child I learned a song: “my very educated mother just served us nine pizza-pies.” It was the song I was taught to memorize the names of the nine planets. Except that now there are eight. Goodbye Pluto. A new song is needed. But it will still include planets. And it will still need to be taught.

Because we believe that God is sovereign of the world and the church, with Christ as its head, we should not be surprised to be where we are. And we should not whine nor wring our hands.

The church reformed and always being reformed. That’s still worth believing. We are where we are and should not expect to be someplace else. How will we summon up the best of our gifts, the best of our traditions, including the ancient vision of church councils as a manifestation of the body of Christ, so that we can serve God faithfully and joyfully for such a time as this…whatever is next?


  • Presuming a renewed/ “next” ecclesiology matters, what is missing, what is needed, etc.?
  • How do we focus?
  • What can we do?
  • How do we move ahead?

[i] Thanks to my “next” colleagues and friends Shannon Johnson Kershner, Joe Clifford, Pen Perry, and Scott Black Johnston for some generative thinking and discussion that helped in the formation of this conversation piece.

[ii] Both proposals – Middle Governing Body Commission and new Form of Government – were approved by this General Assembly; the new Form of Government will now be before the presbyteries for a vote.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Debra Avery on August 25, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I am so glad to hear this articulation of thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for a while now. If we think about the church from a physiologicial view – the connective tissue of a body is meant to sustain, support, strengthen the parts that do the bulk of the heavy lifting. To be sure, a bicep is nothing without the bicep tendon that connects it to the skeleton. But if there is no bicep, no clavicle, the tendon is pretty flimsy and, in fact, pointless. If MGBs and GA could see themselves as the connective tissue, this part of the Body of Christ could do so much more than survive. (It’s a flawed metaphor, to be sure! I’m a pastor and really didn’t study much anatomy at seminary!!) Thanks!


  2. Roger Nishioka spoke at the SYnod School in Iowa about how we are moving from a “page” world to a “screen” world, and the page people, like us, are not happy about it because we are good at it. The changes coming are moving much faster than this conversation is. There is much in the church, in all of it, that will not stand up to scrutiny, and the speed of analysis will be hauling in the left line while we cruise along at th speed limit. We will need to cut a lot of baggage loose before we are up to speed.


    • I could probably just walk down the hall to share these comments except that they may be of interest to others.

      In John Wilkinson’s piece he cites “connected council”[s] as hopeful new forms of faithfulness. In Rochester he is already leading one, the council of Urban Presbyterians Together, the group of 10 urban Presbyterian congregations in Rochester.

      I am on my way to Kenya in a week to participate in a new international council being called by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. It will be a gathering of ALL of the mission parnters the PCEA has in the Reformed family from around the world. One of the parnters is tne Kenya Mission Network of the PC(U.S.A.), a council of some 70 presbyteries and congregations who have partnerships (Tim Hart Anderson’s concern also) with the Kenyans. There is a real sense in which the Next Church is already forming.

      Rod Frohman
      Assoc Pastor for Church in Society
      Third Presbyterian Church
      Rochester NY


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