Back to Basics: What are the responsibilities of a Presbytery?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, June 8, 2023

Back to Basics:
Reflections on Presbytery Life and Ministry in 2023 and Beyond.
Part 2: What are the responsibilities of a Presbytery?

Introduction: As part of the on-going leadership transition process, Pittsburgh Presbytery completed the Landscape study through Holy Cow Consulting.    Pittsburgh Presbytery landed in what is referred to as the recovery quadrant, where respondents reported both their excitement about the work of the Presbytery, as well as their satisfaction with the Presbytery are low.  Michelle Snyder, a church consultant who has done extensive work with Holy Cow consulting, said a “back to basics” approach is needed for recovery quadrant organizations.  This series will look at some of the “basics” of the Presbytery. 

In last week’s newsletter, I talked about the who of Presbytery – who comprises the Presbytery.  This week, I will attempt to answer the age-old question: What exactly is a Presbytery good for?

According to the Book of Order:

“The presbytery is responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love, and witness.

 Here we discover the two-fold purpose of “the Presbytery.”  1) The governance of the church 2) Assisting and supporting the witness of its congregations.  And at one level, this two-fold focus of a Presbytery’s ministry is refreshingly simple.  Govern and Assist/Support.  That’s it.  And it sounds so nice and straightforward, doesn’t it?  The truth is that both of these responsibilities of the Presbytery are more complex, intertwined, and challenging than they seem on the surface.

Governance isn’t something people are always – or in some cases – ever very fond of.  As any of us on staff can attest, along with many of you who have served in leadership roles within the Presbytery know, the governing side of Presbytery isn’t always popular.  But, governance is necessary.  Our rules, as cumbersome and onerous as we sometimes make them out to be, ensure order within the church and provide guide rails for our ministries.  And as much as sometimes the Presbytery’s governing function frustrates and makes people angry, it also serves the critical function of protecting people and ensuring fairness within our system.  Finally, the Presbytery’s governance function safeguards against the worst temptations that people, even good church people, can face.

On the surface, the other responsibility of a Presbytery, assisting and supporting, would seem more popular.  And as someone who has done this work for seven years, I can tell you that this part of my job is some of the most fulfilling work that I get to do.  Personally, it’s in this lane that sometimes I sit back and think, “Wow, I get paid to do this!”   For example, one of my favorite things is working with PNCs as they search for a new pastor for their congregation.  The PNC orientation, where I walk them through the step-by-step process for calling a pastor, always energizes and excites me.  And usually, the feedback we receive from PNCs regarding our support and assistance is primarily positive.  But, even in the lane of assisting and supporting, challenges can emerge.  The advice or insight offered by commission members or staff isn’t welcome.  People sometimes wish we could just “give them a Pastor” and grow increasingly frustrated when we don’t do that.  Or, when the feedback from a reference check is less than favorable, representatives from Presbytery are accused of trying to undermine the work of the PNC.

While on the surface, these two functions of governance and assist/support seem distinct, the truth is that they end up being very connected and intertwined in many cases.  For example, in the Presbytery’s work with PNCs, we both offer advice and resources for interviews as well as enforce requirements regarding equal employment practices.  We receive phone calls from PNC chairs looking for advice on how to handle a situation while at the same time reminding them that they cannot call a pastor without COM approving the individual.  In our work with CPM, we both seek to support and encourage those working through the ordination process while at the same time reminding them of the time deadlines and requirements they must meet.

Please don’t hear any of this as a complaint.  Being a part of the ongoing ministry of the Presbytery is one I find both challenging and incredibly rewarding, and both are very much part of the role.  And, often, the engagement of our staff and commission members is well received and appreciated – just not always.  But all this begs another question: What’s the goal?  What is the objective or vision for the Presbytery’s ministry?  Put another way, why does the Presbytery do what it does?  In next week’s article, I’ll talk more about the “guiding principles” of a Presbytery, but this week’s section gives us one of those guiding principles: “so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love, and witness.”  Ultimately, the work of the Presbytery – its staff, commissions, ministry teams, and members should be directed toward the flourishing of our congregations in the ministries to which God has called them.  As a staff member who has done this work for almost seven years, I will be the first to admit we are far from perfect in accomplishing that goal, but it remains a goal we should always strive for.

During my second year of seminary, I met with my CPM.  The meeting was, well, interesting.  Things got off on the wrong foot when they asked me what I was learning in seminary, and I replied, “Well, mainly that sleep is optional.”  Intended as a funny light-hearted joke, the comment nearly earned me an assignment to read a book on the importance of self-care.  They had a tough time reconciling my sense of call to ordained ministry with my passion for youth ministry, and my statement of faith struck some of them as “too conservative for the PC(USA).”  Finally, we discovered we had had a colossal miscommunication about what I needed to complete before moving to candidacy, which resulted in them telling me I’d be on hold for at least five months.  Those of you who know me can imagine my response, and for those who don’t, I’ll be blunt: It wasn’t pretty.  I had done exactly what I thought they told me to do, and now, because of “their” poor communication, I would be delayed in my process.  In hindsight, I can see that I was also responsible for the miscommunication, but at the moment, I was just plain mad.  But, once I calmed down, I realized that this delay would just that – a delay.  No one on my CPM was purposely trying to trip me up or give me bad advice.  They were faithful people, doing the best they could with the knowledge they had to walk alongside me on my journey toward ordination.  After all, they were my people – and I was one of them.  No, I didn’t agree with everything they said and pushed back on some of their advice for me, but I knew that as a covenant community, we were committed to one another.  They wanted to see me flourish, even if I didn’t always appreciate how they tried to do that.

Now that I am on the other side of those conversations with Inquirers and Candidates, sometimes sharing news that isn’t going to be received well or sitting down with a Session where I know hard things need to be said and that I’ll hear hard things about my work with them, or when the time has come to walk alongside a pastor through a challenging and difficult good-bye, I am drawn back to my experience going through the ordination process.  It wasn’t always easy, sometimes people got really mad, but at the end of the day they were my people – and I was one of them.  As a Presbytery, we must always keep before us the goal of seeing our congregations flourish as communities of faith, hope, love, and witness, acknowledging that it won’t always be easy, mistakes will be made, and sometimes people will get really mad.  But we belong to one another – we are one another’s people – bound together by the covenant of grace sealed on that first Easter morning.  Thanks be to God.


This entry was posted in Letters from the General Minister and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.