In September 2006 I was travelling around Germany on holiday while General Assembly was being held in Auckland. While in Wittenberg I received an email to ask if I would be on the Presbytery Reform Task Group which had just been agreed to at Assembly. Well, I had always been a fan of Presbytery and was a somewhat reluctant starter. But Assembly had for many years been talking of such a move and so our work began.
The idea of reforming Presbyteries did not just get plucked out of the air in order to give a task group something to do! For quite some time many Presbyteries had been struggling to do all the tasks and requirements expected of them. Many ministers and lay people were getting discouraged and frustrated sitting through business meetings dealing with complex issues, and also the mundane, and with always the same old voices speaking into the debates. There were many who felt disengaged and many had the view that we needed to be spending our time more creatively – being resourced and encouraged in ministry. As one of my colleagues said the fact that many of the Presbyteries weren’t working well was an ‘inconvenient truth’.
It is true to say that the work of the Task Group got a lot of flak and elicited much feedback, so it was something of a surprise when the proposal to reform our Presbyteries was agreed to unanimously at the 2008 General Assembly. Obviously there was a mood for change and a feeling that God was leading us in a new direction.
Our new format of Presbyteries may not be perfect but there are many things that are working well. Each geographical area has had the opportunity to form itself in a way they feel will work for their context. It is very helpful to have a wider pool of people to draw from when there are difficulties experienced in a parish. One such parish told its Presbytery that they would never have been able to deal with their difficulty within their previous Presbytery structure. It did not have the capacity or the expertise, and they were ‘too close’ to be objective.
Decision-making through email works very well in many situations. There are other times that Presbytery Council will form groups to go and speak to parishes, or individuals and that is effective and appreciated. There are opportunities for different groups to come and speak with Council. There is the discretion to work out the best way of dealing with different situations.
Some ministers lament not getting together more regularly for business meetings. They feel that it was on the floor of Presbytery that they found collegiality; that it was in the cut and thrust of debate they learnt to live alongside others with divergent views. However others are very pleased that they do not have to sit through such meetings as they found them abrasive and depressing. The resource groups instead gather for inspiration and resourcing. Some of these resource groups work better than others, but they are opportunities to gather, to learn, to encourage each other. And there are many informal groups around as well where people meet from time to time to support each other, share resources and so on. We need to be creative in forming such networks.
Was it cost effective to have large groups of people sitting around for hours doing complex as well as mundane business? Yes we have paid people to be executive officers for the Presbyteries, and thank goodness for that – getting ministers and lay people in parishes to do a lot of extra work on top of what they already do is not so cost effective.
I do think ministers and elders need to take responsibility to be involved in their Presbytery. Go to the resource group meetings. Attend ordination and induction services. Get involved on committees/work groups. Help grow the collegiality. Be pro-active. We live in a changing world and we can’t just lament the fact that ‘things aren’t the way they used to be’. It is up to us all to contribute to having effective and visionary Presbyteries. It is up to us to help make this new thing work.