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This is all part of what sociologists have called “creeping congregationalism” (we are all Baptists now?) which has affected all church polities in the western world. I would still argue that one of the greatest strengths the Presbyterian Church has to help it adapt to our very challenging and complex context is our presbytery structure. However, I would suggest, that the way it is operating currently is not serving us well.
There are three aspects I would like to focus on:
1. The first is the loss of the collegiality and support that the smaller presbyteries used to provide. For me coming in from a Baptist context – and I know for many others who came in from similar contexts – this is one of the elements I valued the most. You were not out there battling all the issues on your own, feeling overwhelmed. Since the larger presbyteries have been established this has largely vanished, and many of our ministers, especially those in more rural and scattered contexts, feel isolated with no one to share the journey and challenges with.
ARTICLE I am not arguing that the larger presbyteries were not a necessary change. Clearly they were in the interests of efficiency, good management and polity, especially when some presbyteries had only one or two ordained ministers. However these issues have been dealt with by an executive, rather than the regular gathering of the presbytery, which has meant that many ministers do not meet regularly with other ministers and elders outside of their own local context.
Many, like me, found the business part of presbytery a chore, however we attended because it kept us connected with our colleagues in ministry. Often networking opportunities that events provide are more important than the event itself. One of our interns who went into a rural parish found in doing some research on its history, that in a previous era the thing that ministers enjoyed the most about presbytery meetings was the train trip there and back.
Collegiality, support and networking is the heart of what Presbyterianism is about and this has been largely lost. I know many would argue ministers should organise themselves and in Dunedin, monthly resourcing mission events have been held. However, these do not seem to provide the widespread regular gatherings that the older presbyteries did. We cannot go back to what once was, but I believe it is essential to find other ways of providing collegiality and mutual support.
O ne of the greatest strengths the Presbyterian church has... is our Presbytery structure.
2. We are handicapped by a lack of resources to provide what parishes need from presbyteries.
When on his first visit, Alan Roxburgh was asked to reflect on what he observed about the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, he said one of the major challenges was that we were trying to run presbyteries with volunteers. At one of our recent block courses a number of interns felt presbyteries should be doing more to support ministers in their parishes. I raised the question of who in the presbytery should be doing more. “It is mainly busy ministers” I said, “like you will be next year, trying to squeeze something more in to their overworked schedules”. As the number of ordained ministers in full-time ministry continues to decline, this will become an even greater challenge.
We need skilled people with the time and ability to work with many of our parishes who will simply fade away if they just continue doing what they are doing now. Such people need to serve on commissions and do parish and ministry reviews that actually lead to some worthwhile changes and outcomes, rather than just meeting a regulatory requirement. But time equals money, and most parishes are reluctant to let their minister spend too much time on wider church responsibilities without some money coming in to allow them to employ someone else to take up the slack. Others who are not full-time, or lay people who have many good skills, are often trying to put together an income with several different bits of work, and need to get some financial return for what they do. So the priority is to do what pays the bills.
So most of our presbyteries have very few people who do the work of presbytery as part of their employment.
I mentioned the Baptists as having largely dismantled the connectional structures they had;
this was part of my alienation that led to my looking elsewhere for a church home. I have recently had considerably more involvement with the Baptist Church by speaking at some leaders’ seminars. I have found they have redeveloped connectional structures in new ways.
The Northern Baptist Association, for example, has six employees – a mission leader, an administrator, two children and family ministry coaches and two youth ministry regional ARTICLE consultants – all of whom have teams working with them. So my argument here is that until we put more resources (that is money which creates people resources) into the life of the presbyteries, they will not be able to serve our parishes in the ways many so desperately need.
3. Finally I do not believe that our inherited system of interim moderators is working well.
Many of our parishes are either marginal in terms of being able to sustain ministry, let alone engage in mission, and many others are well into the final stages of dying if they continue as they are. Such parishes need people with skills to help them transition: some into living out their life and mission in new and different ways that will lead to renewal; others to move into relationships, partnerships and mergers with other parishes; others to be brought to a graceful end. Instead they end up with interim moderators. Many of these are retired ministers (and having just become eligible for that I need to tread carefully here!) who do not really have the knowledge or skills, or often even the energy, to assist them in this difficult process. The other option is busy ministers who only have the time to do the job minimally rather than attend to those complex issues. So instead they both simply manage what is happening, ensuring that what has been done continues, and the parish continues to drift down the slope towards its end.
Some other church traditions have put resources into training and developing transition ministers.
One way forward for the Presbyterian Church may be to see interim moderating in these kind of parishes (as opposed to those where an interim moderator is required until a new minister is found) as a particular ministry for which people who seem to have the right skills and aptitudes could be trained. Preaching and the way worship is led are also critical components in helping churches transition, and so the ability to do this would need to be part of the role. I should point out at this stage (before a flurry of letters or emails are directed at me) that I am not against using retired ministers per se. Some would be excellent in situations where change and transition is needed, but in many cases they do need to participate in training and resourcing to help develop skills and insights that would facilitate the process.
W e were trying to run Presbyteries by volunteers.
Finally I hope that this piece does provoke discussion rather than mere reaction. I have tried to put down on paper, still in raw form, some thoughts that have been growing over the past couple of years, as I have observed and in some cases engaged with the difficult situation many of our churches are in. I hope the discussion is one which might lead to better options than those I have suggested, rather than reaction which simply wants to maintain the status quo, which I fear will simply hasten and reinforce the decline we have been experiencing.
I [Steve] didn’t offer to lead the transition team, or accept the subsequent Central Presbytery convener’s role for our new mega-presbytery because I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread! I accepted that General Assembly had agreed to this re-structuring and I wanted to get involved to help make this change as well as we could.
The presbytery’s primary function is to facilitate and resource the life, worship, spiritual nurture and mission of the congregations for which it has responsibility. (BOO 8.3) The initiative for presbytery reform is the desire to be more effective and innovative in facilitating and resourcing congregational life and mission within our region.
Presbytery Central was inaugurated in May 2013. The participating presbyteries are GisborneHawke’s Bay, Manawatu-Wanganui, Taranaki and Wairarapa and are committed to working together under a Memorandum of Understanding. Wellington Presbytery had been part of the initial conversations but declined to join together in May 2013. Earlier this year they voted “in principle” to join us.
Our structure is built around a coordinating team, regional moderators, task groups, Central Gatherings and clusters. The coordinating team is led by a convener rather than a moderator and comprises an elected representative from each contributing presbytery, four permanent task group conveners, plus the administrator. The regional moderators are dedicated to pastoral care and ceremonial roles within their regions and do not have any role in business matters or leading meetings.
This focusing of the regional moderators’ roles on the pastoral care of ministers and conducting ordinations, inductions, celebrations and closures, met with ready approval and some willing volunteers. The administrator has been employed for 20 hours per week and the convener for 10 hours per week.
As with most change there have been difficulties, many of which stem from the reduced decisionmaking responsibilities at the regional level on matters of “management”. Helping people understand that any regional decision-making needs to move towards the more vital governance role of ensuring a “mission-focussed” approach is taking time. Understandably there is still some resistance to a smaller team of people making the “business” decisions.
Regions now need to establish clusters to continue relationships and networking. This is proving elusive for many as it appears it was most often the “business” of Presbytery that drew people together. Now new missional and fellowship reasons for meeting need to be identified, requiring that people become proactive. In the busy-ness of life this can be difficult. Developing clusters around common interests, either locally or presbytery-wide, or between a number of parishes for mutual support and learning, is our next major challenge.
Communication is another challenge across such a vast area. The establishment of a website, email lists and a weekly e-newsletter from the administrator to presbytery members, have all helped to keep one another informed about people movements, activities and other news.
Congregations may be finding the change both positive and frustrating. The new decision-making processes (predominantly electronic) mean that there is no need to wait for presbytery meetings for decisions to be made or ratified. A downside to this is that the decision-making process is based less on relationship and more on “law” (read Book of Order and Church Property Trustees Policy).
Questions of mission will challenge congregational thinking especially in regards to building projects.
Full presbytery meetings within Presbytery Central are in the form of Central Gatherings, held twice per year. These gatherings are for local church leaders and people and are designed to be primarily resourcing and relational, not business oriented. These have been very well appreciated and attended, with a very good representation across the parishes of our presbytery.
ARTICLE Being an official meeting of Central Presbytery means presbytery commissioners are required to attend. So far, no business matters have been decided at any of the four gatherings to date.
The main business item discussed so far was about the presbytery employing a youth ministry resourcing person. This was an information meeting to be followed up by regional meetings within the former presbyteries.
These Saturday gatherings have been preceded by a Ministers’ gathering on the Friday afternoon which have been a mixture of missional and ministry input, collegial time and engaging with national staff and other out-of-presbytery leaders who have come to participate in the Saturday gathering. I am glad to say that these Ministers’ Gatherings have been very well attended and appreciated.
Throughout the presbytery, congregations have been taking calculated risks to engage in mission to their local community. This may be in the form of upgrading buildings so that church premises are able to provide a greater array of ministries and facilities. A few congregations have risked putting funds into a youth or children’s/family worker, choosing to invest in people for God’s mission. Congregations taking risks are finding that although change does bring with it a certain amount of conflict it also brings some very heart-warming surprises and new life.
And perhaps this is the message in a time of continuous change: God seeks a people of faith, risk stretches our faith in God and each other, and we are pleasantly surprised when we find God works through our deliberate risk-taking for his mission.
Presbytery Reform – the ‘Southern’ Experience Anne Thomson, Southern Presbytery A s a brand new first-time-ever presbytery member six years ago, I was asked to be on the task group discussing the reform of presbyteries south of the Waitaki. At our first meeting two metaphors informed our understanding of what we were being asked to do.
The first came from Southland: reform of presbyteries as tailing – “You cut off the lamb’s tail in one go rather than repeating the pain by cutting it off a bit at a time”. From the very first meeting it was clear that this was a process to be undertaken once, rather than bit by bit – if the aim was a single presbytery south of the Waitaki, we would go straight for that.