Tod Bolsinger, Ph.D.
Teaching Elder, San Clemente Presbyterian Church
Moderator, Middle Governing Body Commission
In the opening to the Institutes, Calvin writes of the “knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves” as like “rivulets” that lead to the “spring” of wisdom. In a similar way, I see different rivulets or streams that come from the common wellspring of the wisdom of our Reformed theology and governance by elders. To be sure, Presbyterians have always been a diverse lot. We have several different Presbyterian denominations, we have some pretty different theological themes even within the denominations, and we have different WAYS of being Presbyterian, even within our own PCUSA denomination.
One of the presentations we heard as the Middle Governing Body Commission was about the different theological and historical traditions that made up the earliest American Presbyterian Church (English, Scots-Irish). Interestingly, as I go around the church listening to folks talk about what Presbytery and Presbyterian means to them, I pick up (at least) three different “mental models” that align roughly with different “streams” that make up the PCUSA today, even though we are a long way from those early American roots.
When we talk about being “Presbyterian” what do we mean by “Presbytery”? What do we mean by a “denomination”? And what is the “church” (or even “Church”)?
(Warning: Generalization alert! The following is my wide, sweeping, generalization of how I experience a number of conversations around the PCUSA today. Your mileage may vary.)
Mostly the conversation divides between the two streams that existed as different denominations prior to Reunion in 1983.
The Northern Stream is what I call the Institutional Movement Stream. In this stream, the denomination is both an Institution and a Movement. It is a large, educated, influential, culture-shaping movement where our leaders stand toe-to-toe with ecumenical, national and cultural leaders and engage in big ideas about important topics. It’s an intellectual and academic movement; a “halls of power” movement and the big ideas of the movement are lived out in the local “precincts” called congregations. It is the movement of Princeton and McCormick and Pittsburgh and the old New York City office. It is about Declarations to nations and corporations, and Pastoral Letters to national and ecumenical leaders. It is held together by grand concepts, academic debate and democratic processes. In the Northern Stream pastors talk about being a classmate with the Stated Clerk, about the number of Moderators of the past they know personally, how General Assembly is a big messy act of faithful democratic discernment and the Presbytery is a mini-congress where we come together mostly to debate and vote. Diversity of opinion is the coin of the realm and institutional and movement unity amidst the “precinct” diversity is the sign of the robust health of the Stream.
The Southern Stream is what I call the Presbytery Centered Stream. In this stream, the Presbytery--NOT the denomination-- is central. This stream used to (literally!) be the “old boys club.” And the relationships are thick and the history is deep. The Presbytery is all about the relationships that have been built over the years and the friendships that have been formed, even forged, in the midst of ministry crisis and especially in the face of deep disagreement. The Presbytery meeting is where elders of all kinds gather to examine candidates to see who gets in the conversation or not and what the theological nature of the fellowship will be. And once in, no matter how diverse we may be, you are really in. In this stream, people talk about how “all the decisions used to be made on the front porch of Montreat.” That women and ethnic minorities were eventually allowed access, not because the rules changed the club, but because as elders came to become friends with those excluded, they realized in a very Peter and Cornelius kind of way that they had the Spirit and the gifts, too (and so, “WE” changed the rules, they would say) This stream is where people talk about debating theology and disagreeing deeply with one another during a meeting, and then going out to dinner to drink and smoke and laugh and cry together. It’s where they tell stories of two pastors who opposed each other on every vote and every theological issue, but linked arm and arm to march for racial integration and preached at each other’s installation services. Where General Assemblies are mostly referred to by the conversations and restaurants and late night bull sessions and prayers sessions more than the motions on the floor. It’s the stream of Montreat and Union and Louisville. In this stream the “Denomination” is really the “Constitution.” And, if this stream had its way, that’s all it would be, really.
But standing outside of, but still influenced by the North and South Streams is a third stream: The Western Stream. It’s what I call the Denomination as Brand Stream. It’s the stream of entrepreneurs and frontiers. It is a stream that is made up of both Northerners and Southerners who left home and wanted to get some “space” but also of long-term Westerners who didn’t start as Presbyterians at all. In the Western Stream, local iconic and innovative congregations and notable preachers are more important than seminaries or camps and conferences. It’s the Stream of Hollywood Pres, and University Pres, and Berkeley Pres. And the “Pres” part was the brand that proudly indicated to others that we were more educated, more socially involved, more inclusive, more open-minded and more Reformed than our other evangelical and even fundamentalist neighbors. The Pastors in this stream are those who went to places like Fuller Seminary and argued with Arminian friends about Calvin and infant baptism, the beauty of the “Great Ends of the Church” and the opening “theological” chapters of the (now former) Book of Order. In this stream, the DENOMINATION as BRAND was most important. Our relationships are more with our friends from seminary, many of whom decided to go with other “brands.” They are both competitors and colleagues and we care more about the “Industry” than we do about the “Company.” (Sheesh, we may find ourselves working in their brand someday, too, y’know?) Churches are like local coffee shops who decided to become “Starbucks” and now the managers just hope the “Corporate Office” doesn’t do anything to make the customers mad. For the Western Stream, the Presbytery is the “Regional Brand Manager” and mostly where franchisees go, when they need permission from “Corporate” to do something new. It’s where they pay their dues, check in with the higher ups and get the latest on what “Corporate” is doing or not doing that may help (or most likely hinder) our local operation. And mostly, local franchisees are worried these days that “they” (the corporate types) are making decisions that are hurting the brand and making our local work that much harder. (To be sure there are some from the Southern Stream and many from the Northern Stream in the West, but they were more transplants, than that which flowed from the West itself.)
Those who know me, know that I am squarely out of the Western Stream. But even that stream has been mingled with others so much that it can’t be clearly delineated. Most of our “iconic” pastors in the West themselves came out of the Northern Stream, and so most of the discussions have been a “North vs. West” approach to polity (Which “Movement”? “The Institution as Brand” and which regulations will we use to enforce our vision of the movement, institution and brand.) Indeed, both North and South started churches in the west so there is even within some presbyteries two vastly different mental models of what Presbytery should be at the same time.
When I took on this role as the MGB Moderator I found that the way people talked about “MGBs” was really different depending upon which stream they came from.
- For those out of the North, MGBs are about expressing in a smaller way the unity amidst the diversity of a strong unified, democratic, institutional movement. Presbyteries are the GA in miniature. Synods are another force for shaping the movement.
- For those out of the South, MGBs are about relationships, sharing in local ministry and making decisions about what is best for “our” churches. Presbyteries are about the Members (mostly clergy!) and how they keep each other accountable and connected. Synods are about connecting in relationships for mission in an even broader way.
- For those out of the West, MGBs are about managing the brand. Both about the way that the Corporate office manages the local “franchise” holders and the way the local entrepreneurs “manage up” to help Corporate make decisions that will help those “in the field” and “on the ground.” Synods are another source of resources for serving the congregations.
One more important point that has been triggered for me by reading a history of All-Black Governing Bodies provided to our MGB Commission by Molly Casteel and the Committee on Representation leadership: Even within those three streams, there are myriads of other streams, mostly those “voices long silenced” who have been systemically ignored or overlooked. Influencing and shaping, often in the midst of great resistance those three larger streams have been these persistent “rivulets” feeding the other streams in vital and necessary ways. There is a rich history of Korean Presbyteries, Native American Presbyteries and especially historically African-American churches and governing bodies that offer still other ways of “being church”. Could these rivulets, long-neglected by most, be yet another stream back to the spring that nourishes our way of being followers of Jesus in the world?
Let me offer a few thoughts for consideration:
- Considering our mental models raises awareness of the limitations of every mental model. In short, no “mental model” is the spring itself. It is just one of the many rivulets that ran down particular terrain and watered a particular landscape. It wasn’t until I learned--for the very first time, I might add—of the different theological streams that made up the early American Presbyterianism and of the historically All-Black Middle Governing Bodies, and listened to a few of my colleagues talk about their personal experiences of Presbytery meetings and General Assemblies, that I began to look with fresh eyes at my own “Western” Perspective and begin to see its limitations—and also what it has to offer in a changing social and cultural landscape.
- If we acknowledge that even within our Presbyterian tradition there has always been very different ways of “being Presbyterian”, we should give up any “one size fits all” or “one stream is the right stream” approach to “being a Presbytery” or “doing Synods”. With broad constitutional parameters that keep us clearly within a larger theological and covenantal consensus, we can allow different Presbyteries to shape and be shaped by the vast diversity of approaches. With the passage of Nfog, we are now firmly and unapologetically “missional” in theological and constitutional conviction. If we allow mission--and not history or geography--to be our organizing principle, we now have a breadth of streams and approaches that we can draw from, learn from and adapt broadly for structuring our Presbyteries missionally.
- With the passage of 10-A and NFog, we have all become more “Southern.” A number of my friends from the Southern stream have said to me about the most recently passed constitutional amendments: “You know, this is the way we did it before Reunion.” And frankly, I think this is a good thing. Being Presbyterian should be more about being in PRESBYTERIES than either an institution or a brand (and 10-A and Nfog point us back in that direction). Local discernment, people in relationships making ordination decisions, less “top-down” institutional or brand directives, more room to make missional adjustments NOT as isolated congregations, but as “missional churches in covenant communities”. The Presbytery is the center of our structure and churches (in mutual accountability as the Presbytery) can together discern their membership, their shared missional endeavors, their “branding” efforts, their institutional make up, their core values and their particular expression of the greater Church. This “council” work of shared relationships, mutual accountability, discernment and support for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ will take on distinctly different “flavors” but any constitutional changes should insure the broadest possible flexibility within some clear theological and constitutional parameters.
- By acknowledging the legitimacy and effectiveness of these streams, can we allow ourselves to muse about the possibility of more streams from one common spring? Could there be even more ways of being Presbyterian than we have thus far considered? Shouldn’t we be open to a myriad of ways to be the church that flows from the same source of theology and governance? Shouldn’t the sheer numbers of ways of being historically Presbyterian inspire more creativity? Perhaps we can conceive of a number of streams that can go into the dry spiritual climes of our day in unique way.
- Even as we start wading back up-stream to the spring, it allows us to ask: What are the unique attributes of the water? In other words, what are the characteristic we share that come from the spring itself? For me, what has become most important as I go about this process of looking at Middle Councils is not the “streams”, but the spring. I care less about arguing over which stream should be “the model” and am more committed than ever to the true wellspring of ecclesiological convictions that gave me waters to swim in and carried me far in my journey of faith:
Robust Reformed theology
Governance of shared leadership by elders (both ruling and teaching),
Constitutional unity that is both serious and subservient to the truly sacred text of the Scriptures.
- Every stream has been shaped by the Christendom landscape that is clearly behind us. In the same way that a stream “flows” in relationship to its terrain, most of us haven’t really considered the degree to which our stream was shaped by Christendom assumptions. So many of the ways we organize ourselves (Christianity as a “power” that could sit at the table with other “powers” as an equal; Churches as the center of society and communal life; Pastors as respected leaders in a larger community; denominations themselves as brokers of influence; congregant loyalty to our institution or brand) are no longer true. Every stream is suffering the grief of loss and facing the challenge of discovering new ways of flowing into a completely different landscape. Even more, in a post-Christendom world where Christians are not and will likely never again be the dominant voice, all three streams have a LOT to learn from our sisters and brothers with a deep history of being marginalized. The history of All-Black Governing Bodies that I am reading should become required MISSIONAL reading for the whole church, in this regard.
As I read conversations online, talk with church members and leaders about all the changes about and work with our Commission to fulfill our charge “to develop models that reflect the roles of middle governing bodies in our polity and the changing context of our witness in the United States” I sense that very often we are simply talking past each other as we speak out of different streams with different assumptions. Most of us have just been “carried along” and now find ourselves way down stream in a really different place and aren’t sure how to find our way back to a familiar landscape. This disorientation leads to a yearning for the past and a clinging to the raft. But, perhaps with self-reflection will become new ways of seeing and new ways of bringing the water of life to a parched world. What would it look like, for the spring that flowed into the world for centuries --with its power from the Spirit and the wisdom and witness from the Scriptures—coursed in new streams today?
Questions to Consider
(With thanks to Christine Chakoian, a pastor from a different stream than my own, who provided both the idea of discussion and the framing of the questions.)
- Which stream or streams do you see yourself in or coming from? Which stream has influenced you the most and why?
- What are the essential elements of each stream?
- What are the essential elements that flow from the ‘spring’ itself? What are the unique attributes of our tradition and witness that have been common in every stream and should be not be overlooked?