Part 14 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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Two years ago, in the aftermath of the debacle of the 2006 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, I wrote a blog series on the topic: What’s Good About Denominations? In this series I listed several benefits of denominations, including:
• Denominations establish hospitals and schools.
• Denominations plant churches.
• Denominations provide accountability for churches and church leaders.
• Denominations provide guidance for congregational worship.
• Denominations provide a context for submission.
Since I wrote this series, I experienced some of the rich benefits of being part of denomination. It came as I was considering a new call to Laity Lodge, and then as I made my transition from being Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church to Senior Director of Laity Lodge. The benefits to which I’m referring came in the form of personal wisdom and support from members of Los Ranchos Presbytery in Southern California. I was in a covenant group with several other pastors from this presbytery, and they were a great help to me as I wrestled with God’s will for my life. Moreover, Steve Yamaguchi, the Executive Presbyter of Los Ranchos helped me as I sought to discern God’s call, and then offered valuable wisdom as I finished up my tenure at Irvine Presbyterian. Steve helped me avoid many of the traps that snare pastors on their way out of a church, even as he helped me do many things to ensure that my leaving the church would be a positive experience both for me and for the church.
The fact that Irvine Presbyterian Church is part of a denomination has also helped that church thrive after my departure. The presbytery helped the church secure the services of an outstanding interim pastor. It has also encouraged the church in its extensive mission study, a precursor to calling a new pastor. The corporate wisdom offered by the presbytery can be a tremendous help to a church in transition. This sort of thing would not be as readily available to an independent church.
So, one of the things that’s good about denominations is that they help churches, or at least that should be the case. In my experience, sometimes denominations and denominational officials get it backwards. They see the work of the denomination as primary, with churches providing support for the denominational mission. To be sure, there are certain denominational efforts that are worthy of help from individual churches. But denominations and denominational bodies (presbyteries, synods, judicatories, assemblies, councils, etc.) exist primarily to help churches. Mostly, they exist to help churches do their mission more effectively and faithfully.
Los Ranchos Presbytery got this right. The presbytery saw its primary purpose as supporting churches in their mission. Everything else was secondary. Here are the Vision and Mission statements of the Presbytery:
Presbytery of Los Ranchos VISION Statement
Responding to a rapidly changing and complex cultural environment, the Presbytery will empower our congregations:
• To experience spiritual renewal,
• To grow in their passion for Jesus Christ,
• To become missional churches within their local communities, and
• To join in Christ’s mission throughout the world.
Presbytery of Los Ranchos MISSION Statement:
The Presbytery works in partnership with local congregations, the primary agents of ministry and evangelism, empowering them to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ by:
• Encouraging congregations to make disciples who are sent,
• Nurturing reconciliation, communication, cooperation and connectionalism,
• Supporting congregations in development, revitalization and mission as together, we prayerfully receive empowerment from the Holy Spirit, instruction from the Scriptures and guidance from the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order.
Notice in the Vision Statement that the Presbytery “empowers” congregations. Congregational health and mission is the point. Similarly, in the Mission Statement, the presbytery “works in partnership with local congregations, the primary agents of ministry and evangelism, empower them to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ.” There you have it. The churches are primary; the Presbytery is secondary. Its mission is to support the primary mission of the churches.
If the main value of a denomination is to support and encourage the mission of individual churches, then this gives us a way to evaluate a denomination’s job performance: Is the denomination actually helping its churches to do their mission better? How? Such things should be demonstrable, even measurable. Moreover, if a denomination exists primarily to undergird the mission of its churches, then this would allow individual churches to evaluate the usefulness of their denominational connection. Every denominational church might ask: Is our involvement in our denomination supporting and strengthening our mission? If I had been asked this question when I was Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, my answer would have been: “Yes, through our partnership with our Presbytery.” What we received from our denomination as a whole, apart from our Book of Confessions and Book of Order, was rather minimal. But we were richly blessed to be part of Los Ranchos Presbytery.
Of course one might object that I haven’t really offered a rationale for denominations so much as for regional bodies of churches united in faith and mission. That’s true, to an extent. If the Presbytery of Los Ranchos were to separate from the PCUSA, the Presbytery would still be able to do its basic mission. Yet, the Presbytery draws wisdom and guidance from the larger denomination of which it is a part, especially through the creeds, confessions, and established church order. And there are some denominational missions that exceed the scope of a regional body (such as starting seminaries). Still, I sometimes wonder if national (or international) denominations will, before too long, be eclipsed by smaller, local bodies.
What does all of this mean for the PCUSA? I’ll offer a few thoughts in my next post in this series.