Back to Basics: What is the Presbytery?
Acting Head of Staff
Back to Basics:
Reflections on Presbytery Life and Ministry in 2023 and Beyond
Part 1: What is the 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.
The word “Presbytery” is an interesting one, and it’s been my observation, having been connected to Presbytery life for over 25 years (I attended my first Presbytery meeting in 1997 when I was in high school), that the definition of Presbytery is multi-faceted. I’ve learned that when someone says, “Well, the Presbytery should…” or “The Presbytery didn’t…” or “We have Presbytery this week” or “I’m glad to be in the Presbytery,” people are all using the same word but using it in very different ways. In fact, when someone says “the Presbytery,” I’ve learned to instantly ask myself this question: How are they using the word Presbytery?
Part of the reason for this complicated word is the definition of the word itself. The Book of Order defines “the Presbytery” as: “the council serving as a corporate expression of the church within a certain district and is composed of all the congregations and ministers of the Word and Sacrament within that district.”
Right away, what jumps out at me is this: “the Presbytery” is defined as a combination of both individuals (ministers) and organizations (the congregations) within a defined geographical area. That is peculiar, isn’t it? After all, most organizations are comprised of either people or organizations. Our congregations are comprised of individuals and Synods and the General Assembly are comprised of Presbyteries. But Presbyteries are a hybrid, composed of individuals (ministers) and congregations. Within our polity, those who attend Presbytery meetings or participate in committees and ministry teams do so by virtue of their membership within a member congregation of the Presbytery. It’s also worth noting that it’s at this point where the core value of parity between ruling and teaching elders in our decision-making is articulated.
Two things really jump out to me here. The Book of Order’s definition of Presbytery illustrates what I call the “we” definition of Presbytery. You’ll hear this definition when people say things like “We are the Presbytery, ” “We have a Presbytery meeting this week, ” or “I am part of Pittsburgh Presbytery.” In one sense, the Presbytery is the collective community comprised of every minister member, and every member of our congregations together make up Pittsburgh Presbytery. The second thing is the phrase “corporate expression of the church.” Presbyteries, by their very nature, are an expression of the church, distinct from local expressions of the church (a congregation) but inextricably comprised by and connected to the church’s ongoing work in the world in response to the call of God.
I remember the first “Presbytery” event I ever attended. It was in the fall of 1997, at the offices of Genesee Valley Presbytery, for a Presbytery Youth Council meeting. I remember sitting in that room with a half-dozen other teens from local congregations and a few adult advisors, thinking, “These are my people.” I had interacted with some of the church kids from local fundamentalist congregations and catholic parishes in our community at school. While I had similarities with both groups, they weren’t my people. But the people in that room, the people I connected with through the Presbytery, they were my people! Through my work with the Presbytery, I’d go on to serve as a delegate to the Synod Youth Council and eventually the General Assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate. And along the way, I learned that the Presbytery was very much a place where I fit, I belong, where I could call home.
For many years, my father was active in the life of my home Presbytery. He served on CPM, served a couple of investigating committees, as well as an administrative commission. Once he and my mom retired, we’d sometimes ask him why he kept going to Presbytery. After all, he had been involved for years, and no one would blame him if he wanted to take a step back and not try and schedule their travel around Presbytery commitments. He never had much of an answer except something vague about “enjoying it.” In 2012-13, my father underwent three brain surgeries in 7 weeks. Despite that, he recovered and could return to his role as a ruling elder commissioner to Presbytery. It was customary at the time to open the meeting with the sharing of joys and concerns. When someone mentioned that my father, Bob Wallace, was in attendance at the meeting, he received a standing ovation. Keep in mind that he didn’t tell us that; we had to find it out from someone else. But that story illustrates why my dad kept going to Presbytery – they were his people. In addition to his home church, he had found a group of people with whom he felt a connection and who loved and supported him. And thank God for that.
In one sense, Presbytery is home for us. It’s our family. Complete with disagreements, history, and rivalries that come with any family. But, chances are if you’re reading this article, you’re probably one of my people – and I am probably one of yours. Not because we’ve chosen to be, but rather because we’ve been called to be, to be part of the corporate expression of the church, and not for our sake, but for the sake of God’s work in the world.