Back to Basics Part 3: What are the values and goals of the Presbytery?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, June 22, 2023

Back to Basics:
Reflections on Presbytery Life and Ministry in 2023 and Beyond
Part 3: What are the values and goals of the Presbytery?

Introduction: As part of the ongoing 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. 

Perhaps, if you’re old enough, you remember AAA TripTiks.  My mother used to go pick up her TripTik before our annual spring break trip to someplace warmer than Rochester, NY (which, if we’re honest, is a pretty low bar for a vacation spot).  For those of you too young to know what I am talking about, a TripTik was the equivalent of a paper GPS.  It gave turn-by-turn directions in a paper format that you could use to navigate a road trip.  It was, to be sure, far easier than trying to read a map in the car.  Even as recently as the mid-2000s, I was still printing off trip TripTiks before leaving on a mission trip.   GPS devices weren’t ubiquitous, and smartphones were still the territory of hard-core tech geeks, so paper was handy.  It never needed to be charged, it didn’t lose signal, and by and large, if you read it right, it would get you to where you were trying to go.

After all, if you’re trying to get someplace, it’s good to know where you’re trying to get and how you will get there.

Just as drivers need to know where they’re going, organizations need to have some sense of where they are headed and what they’re trying to accomplish.  This is just as true for a Presbytery as it is for any organization, and today I am going to reflect on the directions given for a Presbytery from the Book of Order.

But first, a brief review of my first two installments in this series:

  • Who/What is a Presbytery? A Presbytery is a hybrid organization comprised of other organizations (congregations) and individuals (ministers) within a given district.
  • What are the responsibilities of a Presbytery? A Presbytery is responsible for the governance of the church and for assisting and supporting the ministry of its congregations.

The Book of Order uses the phrase “shall keep before it”, which is an interesting phrase.  Here’s the full text: “As it leads and guides the witness of its congregations, the presbytery shall keep before it the marks of the Church (F-1.0302), the notes by which Presbyterian and Reformed communities have identified themselves through history (F-1.0303) and the six Great Ends of the Church (F-1.0304).”  What exactly does the phrase “keep before it” mean?  On the one hand, you could say these are the “goals” of a Presbytery, but I don’t think that’s quite it.  The marks, notes, and great ends aren’t really goals.  I think the Book of Order could say, “The Presbytery shall strive, in all things, to uphold the values articulated by…”  and the meaning would be pretty close (and perhaps clearer).

The word value has a lot of different meanings, but in this sense, a value is an ideal or principle that we strive to uphold.  The unique aspect of values is that there is something timeless about them.  In contrast to goals or strategy, which are inherently time and context-bound, true values are true regardless of the circumstances.  Part of what makes values so important for the church is that we are constantly striving to balance upholding that which we have received from those who have gone before and adapting to the ever-changing context that we find ourselves.  Values, in my mind, are the key to doing that.  Determine what is important, regardless of context, and then discern how to uphold that value in the present context.

So, what are these values that we’re to keep before us?

The “Marks” of the Church (F-1.0302) are those principles that are considered universally held by the Church catholic.  (I’ve included a brief quote describing each of these marks)

  1. The Unity of the Church – “The church is one because it belongs to its one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
  2. The Holiness of the Church – “The holiness of the church comes from Christ who sets it apart to bear witness to his life, and not from the purity of its doctrine or the righteousness of its actions.”
  3. The Catholicity of the Church – “In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God overcomes our alienation and repairs our division.”
  4. The Apostolicity of the Church – “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God sends the Church into the world to share the gospel of God’s redemption of all things and people.

These four statements illustrate a simple yet critical statement: The work of the church, and therefore the work of a Presbytery, must be rooted in the work and ongoing work through the spirit of Jesus, the risen Christ.  The mission and commission given to the church is rooted in the continuing mission and ministry of Jesus, rooted in the establishing and sending of the church in John 20 and Acts 2.

The Presbyterian and Reformed “Notes” (F-1.0303) are presented in two forms.  One is the historic three-fold definition of church – that the true church is present wherever the Word of God is rightly preached, the Sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is uprightly ministered.  Those same three notes are also expressed in a more contemporary form:

… the Church is faithful to the mission of Christ as it: Proclaims and hears the Word of God… Administers and receives the Sacraments… and Nurtures a covenant community of disciples of Christ.”  The “notes” here highlight the areas of emphasis within Reformed theology of what it means to be the church.  This is not to say that non-reformed churches don’t have a value for these as well, but rather that over time a particular value for these has emerged, in our mind, through the spirit-led work of the church being reformed and always reforming as key indicators of the church.

Finally, the six Great Ends of the Church define what it means to do ministry in the world and carry out God’s mission.  In other words, what are faithful responses to God’s call?

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
the maintenance of divine worship;
the preservation of the truth;
the promotion of social righteousness; and
the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

While much can and has been said about each of these ends, I’ve come to appreciate the diversity of expressions that constitute faithful ministry in the world.  As Christians in the Reformed tradition, we do not believe that the church has a singular purpose but see the mission and ministry as multi-faceted and diverse in its expression.

If my math is right, these comprise a list of 13 values the church should constantly have before it as it seeks to discern God’s calling.  And it should be noted that the heading of the section of the Book of Order where these values come from is “The Calling of the Church.”  It must be noted that there is no distinction between the values of our local congregations and those ascribed to a Presbytery.  This, in my mind, makes sense.  While the Presbytery is not the same as a congregation, a Presbytery is an extension of its congregations and ministers and, therefore, shares in a common mission as defined by these lists of values.

I need to point out that shared values do not prevent conflict within a community.  Just because two people agree on what is important doesn’t mean they’ll agree on a plan of action.  But shared values provide an essential starting point for conversation and discernment, and that is essential not only for congregations, for Presbyteries as well.

One of my all-time favorite sermon series I ever participated in was a six-week series on the Great Ends of the Church that Ted Martin and I preached when I was at Hampton Presbyterian Church.  To give full credit, it was Ted’s idea and one that I was initially skeptical of but, in the end, found to be incredibly helpful, not only in my ministry but in how I viewed the ministry of the greater church.  The six great ends have become embedded into my mind as helpful guideposts for the work we are called to, reflecting the diversity of the church’s expression and a singular foundation in the past, present, and future work of Jesus Christ.

As we continue in this season of transition, it is my hope and prayer that we “keep before us” these timeless values we’re received as we discern how God is calling us to live and minister in the ever-shifting landscape we find ourselves in.


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