Why Have Presbytery Meetings?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
September 12, 2019


Our presbytery meets next week, at Crestfield Camp and Conference Center, at 10:00 a.m. on September 19. Why should anyone bother to drive an hour north of the city for a meeting that occupies an entire workday? What difference will it make for anyone who takes the trouble to do so?

Some attend presbytery meetings out of sheer duty. We ask every minister member who joins our presbytery to promise to show up at presbytery meetings if at all possible. Alas, it’s a promise ordinarily-dutiful pastors easily forget.

Some pastors welcome the presbytery meeting as an opportunity to join friends in worship without bearing any leadership responsibilities. Some even report finding the worship inspiring!

The benefit I hear most often reported by attendees is the renewal of fellowship with colleagues in ministry. We encourage and sharpen each other in our pursuit of our shared vocation. The singular power of colleague gatherings to strengthen us in ministry has been well documented by researchers. Notably, the Lilly Endowment published a study of the results generated by its “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence” grant program, and the dominant discovery was that the single most effective way to promote pastoral excellence is for pastors to gather together.i What’s true for pastors is also true for ruling elders.ii

From the first days of the Reformation, Presbyterians have gathered regularly across congregational lines to worship, learn, discern, and mobilize for mission. We believe that the work of the Gospel is far too important to leave it up to each congregation and each pastor to figure it out and stay energized on their own. We need each other. Presbyterians know this deep down in their bones.

Our Book of Order mandates that presbyteries meet at least twice a year. It doesn’t direct how those meetings should be ordered, only that presbyteries follow their own rules about how they conduct their meetings. Its only rule is that any deliberations are to comply with both the Book of Order and Robert’s Rules of Order.

It seems odd for the Book of Order to require presbytery meetings, but to say little about what they must contain.iii Apparently, we Presbyterians believe in meeting for meeting’s sake! We remember the apostolic warning against “…neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)

And there it is – the primary benefit of attending a presbytery meeting is the mutual encouragement we receive simply by engaging each other as colleagues with the same vocation who work in different localities. However, a word of caution is in order – for first-timers and those without a well-developed friendship circle, it can be painful to watch others enjoying their friends while they sit alone. So if you see someone alone, invite them into your circle.

When we gather at Crestfield, and the weather is favorable, many of our number sit outdoors, enjoying the beauty of the setting and the joy of conversation while listening to the meeting’s proceedings on loudspeakers. I love to see ministers and elders renewing friendships, sharing joys and concerns, being family, even if it means they aren’t sitting silently and orderly in the main meeting room. We also enjoy fellowship over the lunch table and at the Lord’s Table.

When congregations meet, it is a gathering of people who show up voluntarily because they like this particular church. They like its preaching, or music, or programs, or location, or mission work, or perhaps something else. They gather because they share tastes and values and convictions with others who form that particular congregation.

When a presbytery meets, the homogeneity of a voluntary gathering disappears. We gather with pastors and elders of congregations that are very different from our own. And precisely here, gathered with people different from us, the church truly displays the reconciling power of the Gospel. This gathering of people who are very different except that they confess the same Lord and Savior is a public manifestation that the Gospel of reconciliation through Jesus really works. The unity of Christ’s body is manifest in the variety of its members, not their uniformity.

Hoping to see you at the presbytery meeting,

i So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013)
ii I know of no similar studies about ruling elders, but I have observed ruling elders being energized by gathering with elders from other congregations to get to know each other, learn from each other, and lean on each other.
iii Of course, the Book of Order mandates that some actions must be done by presbytery vote, such as receiving and dismissing minister members. By contrast, it tightly regulates the content of official congregational meetings.
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