Back to Basics Part 4: Personal Reflections on the work of “the Presbytery”
Acting Head of Staff
Back to Basics:
Reflections on Presbytery Life and Ministry in 2023 and Beyond
Part 4: Personal Reflections on the work of “the Presbytery”
Over the last month, I’ve written three installments in this series:
Week 1: What is the Presbytery?
Week 2: What are the responsibilities of the Presbytery?
Week 3: What are the values and goals of the Presbytery?
I’ve stuck closely to the Book of Order’s definitions and directives in the three prior installments. For this final installment, I wanted to share a few of my reflections on the work of the Presbytery. I’m coming up on seven years of service on the Presbytery staff, and have been a member of the Presbytery for almost 17 years. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on “the Presbytery”.
- “The Presbytery” is a complicated phrase with many nuanced definitions, and the exact definition depends entirely on the person talking and the situation they’re referring to. For me, the Presbytery can be defined in two ways – who we are (the community) and the means by which we do our work (commissions/committees, staff, ministry teams, and the Presbytery body). Or, to put it differently, there is the “who” of the Presbytery and the “what” of the Presbytery. In this next section, when I use the phrase “The Presbytery,” I am referring to the “what” of the Presbytery – the means by which we do our work rather than the community. And, to be ever clearer, my use of the word “the Presbytery” is not another way of saying “the Presbytery staff.” While members of the Presbytery staff are heavily involved in much of what I will describe below, we work in concert with those who serve on the various groups within the Presbytery body to carry out the responsibilities of the Presbytery.
- At our best, the work of the Presbytery strengthens churches and their leaders for the ministry God has called them to and provides opportunities that would otherwise be impossible for any one church. Whether these be training events that draw leaders from different congregations to learn about topics of shared interest or cooperative mission, ministry, and advocacy endeavors, through the work of the Presbytery, opportunities are created that would not otherwise exist.
- In the same way, at our best, we support congregations and leaders through the most challenging seasons in their ministry. Speaking personally, when my father passed away in April of 2021, I was truly encouraged and strengthened by the many calls, texts, and e-mails I received from fellow members of the Presbytery. Similarly, I’ve had the privilege of walking with leaders and congregations through some of their most challenging times. While often challenging, these seasons have been some of the most fulfilling of my time on staff.
- The Presbytery seldom gets involved when everything is going smoothly. We, in particular through COM and our disciplinary system, get engaged when the situation is serious enough to warrant outside engagement. In other words, sometimes someone calls me just to talk and update me on how their church is doing, but that is the exception rather than the rule, which leads to my next point…
- Much of what the Presbytery does, no one ever knows about. When the most challenging situations emerge for our Pastors and congregations, we put hours into working toward a solution that is never documented in any official way – or, if it is, it’s merely one line that no one notices in the reports to Presbytery.
- Sometimes, what the Presbytery does (or doesn’t do) makes people upset/disappointed/mad/etc. – and often, that blame is rightly placed. I’ll be the first to say it: I’ve given bad advice to pastors in our Presbytery and sessions. It was never willful, but I’ve been wrong. In a more general sense, some of the decisions that have been made by various groups within the Presbytery, and even the Presbytery body as a whole, have been very popular with some of our members and very unpopular with other members. That is to be expected. After all, tough situations often require tough decisions, and when tough decisions are made, some people are bound to be pleased with them, and others are disappointed.
- Sometimes, the Presbytery gets blamed for things we did not do (or cannot do) – which also comes with the territory. Ask any staff member, past or present, and they can tell you about a time that they’ve (or the Presbytery as a whole) been blamed for something they did not do – or not doing something they couldn’t do. I referenced in an earlier installment the frustration directed our way when we don’t “send a pastor” to a struggling congregation or the insistence that the measured increases in our minimum terms of call were the root cause of a congregation’s demise. Or, the protests when we “let” a pastor leave a given congregation – despite our polity permitting pastors the freedom to pursue pastoral positions. I’ve come to call this the “blame bin” function of the Presbytery. Sometimes, when people are mad, they need someone to be mad at, and the Presbytery is an easy and perfect target, even if, by all objective measures, the Presbytery involvement was according to policy. And, if I’m honest, I’ve come to appreciate this function of the Presbytery.
- Last but not least, in reference to #6 and #7, disagreement and conflict will always be part of the life of a Presbytery. As much as it pains me to say it (because conflict makes me very uncomfortable), the presence of conflict is not necessarily an unhealthy sign. Just like any congregation, there will always be disagreements within the life of a Presbytery. The goal and challenge should be to work through those conflicts in a spirit of mutual respect while retaining our focus on the core responsibilities and values set before us.
In some ways, this article may seem an odd way to end this series on “back to basics.” My goal in sharing this with you is to help you gain some personal insight into the work of the Presbytery. In my time on staff, I’ve come to appreciate the nuanced complexity that often comes with this work, balancing the concerns of different groups and individuals while striving to be faithful to God’s call. As we progress through this transition, I hope and pray that we remain committed to the core responsibilities of a Presbytery while remaining open to how God is moving in our midst and calling us to be the church in the place and time in which we find ourselves.