Challenges and changes in the way we work together
by George B. Thompson Jr. | Presbyterians Today
LOUISVILLE – In the northeast corner of the country, the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse made a dramatic decision. It reduced presbytery staff to just one person and got rid of its office space. Today, Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery has no building. The office is a laptop, and its number rings to a cell phone in Steve Plank’s pocket. As the lone presbytery employee, Plank has the dual job title of stated clerk/communicator. He works with a volunteer leadership team of 15 elected positions and four ex-officio members.
Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery’s story is not as unique as one might think. The membership decline in mainline churches often means that a presbytery or synod with a centralized office, staff, and programming is no longer financially sustainable.
Presbyteries and synods are asking: How do we Presbyterians live and function together to express our deepest convictions about being church? They are discovering that some old methods like building in-person relationships are still necessary to strengthen the body of Christ. But new tools like cell phones, video conferencing, and social media are changing the way the work of the church gets done.
“Every mid council is in some form of transition,” says Sue Krummel, director of mid council relations in the Office of the General Assembly. “The business-styled model of presbyteries and synods is becoming a thing of the past.”
The Cayuga-Syracuse mission statement is: Equipping our churches to fulfill the Great Commission. With no program staff or building, this might appear to be an unrealistic goal. However, the lack of building space means that people are connecting in coffee shops and churches rather than in central offices.
“I’ve gone to churches on the outskirts of the presbytery. When I get there, they say that nobody from presbytery has ever been in the building,” Plank says. “Presbytery is not a place; it’s all of us. We at Cayuga-Syracuse are learning to live into this cultural shift in thinking.”
Plank says he is learning to be as mobile and adaptable as the rest of society—a challenge that still faces many churches.
In addition to creating a virtual office, six months ago Cayuga-Syracuse took another innovative step as it pulled $350,000 of the money it had in reserve and divided it equally among the presbytery’s 38 congregations.
“This action let them know that we believe the churches are the best determiners of fulfilling the Great Commission,” Plank says.
Some churches are still trying to discern what to do with the money. Responses range from purchasing an industrial-quality refrigerator and freezer for the local food pantry to giving the money to smaller, more needy churches in the presbytery to creating programs.
“I make contact and build bridges,” Plank says. He hopes these bridges will strengthen relationships, build networks, and stimulate new ideas for ministry. Plank encourages the people of the presbytery to take responsibility for being the presbytery.
“I’m so honored to work with a group that is willing to throw caution to the wind and try something new,” he says.
Other presbyteries are also innovating in the face of adversity. When they lost a big chunk of their funding, members of the Presbytery of Boise realized that dramatic cuts were necessary. Boise Presbytery consists of just 14 congregations—sparsely spread out across the rugged landscape of southwest Idaho. As the money dwindled, it became clear that the presbytery would have to cut back to two part-time positions: one for a stated clerk and one for the executive presbyter.
But something surprising happened when the jobs were cut. Attendance at presbytery meetings actually went up.
“The presbytery members realized, ‘We are it; we can’t depend on an executive,’” explains former Stated Clerk Ruth Hicks. When the executive presbyter position recently became vacant again, the Presbytery of Boise had to decide what to do next.
“In our neck of the woods, we try to be creative,” Hicks says. As in Cayuga-Syracuse, the changes have been significant. The presbytery doesn’t have a building of its own. It rents a room in First Presbyterian Church of Boise to store its records. The stated clerk and presbytery executive work part-time from their homes. The presbytery council has been eliminated and the work given to committees. Without a building, committees are free to choose their own meeting spaces, usually one of the churches in the presbytery.
Boise, like many presbyteries, innovated by necessity, not by choice. But the change is strengthening the ties between people rather than offices.
“If we had enough money, not much would have changed,” says current Stated Clerk Dick Green. “But we don’t want to be in survival mode; we want to do ministry. We are doing things differently and creatively and wondering, ‘What new life will come out of all this?’”
Synods rethink how to network
Not all mid councils are facing hard times. The Synod of Mid-America is renewing its focus on the six presbyteries and 430 congregations in its bounds. But the synod is looking forward to expansion at a time when many others are scaling back.
That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy. After the financial crash of 2008 the synod underwent what Executive and Stated Clerk Landon Whitsitt calls a time of disruption and downsizing. It cut staff, discontinued the newspaper, and sold its office, setting aside the proceeds for later use.
However, the dramatic cuts meant the synod was free to create something new and to connect people and churches with new tools and ideas. Today, the synod houses a studio to produce videos for its Theocademy, a video curriculum available to churches to use for officer training, confirmation classes, and new members. It also hosts Selah, a Sabbath retreat for pastors, and offers innovation grants to further creative ministry projects.
As the synod innovates, James Gale, associate executive for presbytery support, says his job has been evolving.
“I sense that I am making it up and learning as I go along,” Gale says. Like many synod executives, he is charting new territory in new times.
Top on the list of Gale’s job priorities is to build relationships with the presbyteries. He attends at least one meeting of each of the six presbyteries each year, building networks and fostering organic relationships.
This year, the synod is connecting groups throughout the synod around common interests, like “emergent” churches, small/rural churches, and so on. Mid-America also is developing its own digital mission yearbook of congregations, to connect their stories and to develop a forum for exchanging ideas.
What impresses Gale the most about the presbyteries in Mid-America is their untapped creativity as they try new things.
“We help get it started and then get out of the way,” Gale says.
The synod is excited about what is happening. To the Synod of Mid-America, the phrase “reformed and always being reformed” means taking risks and embracing a fearless spirit while diligently reviewing its finances. The synod is helping to build community, to make presbytery life be more connectional, and to strengthen the networks that empower the people of God to do ministry.
George B. Thompson Jr. is one of the missional transformation coaches for the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina.
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