Tuesday, September 1, 2015

General Assembly or General Synod?

Why not go to a delegated assembly with regionally based synods?

I have only been in the PCA for nine months or so, but I have already heard repeated calls to move away from an annual assembly to a semi-annual delegated synod.  This call is usually accompanied with a suggestion that the “gaps” left by going away from the annual assembly be filled with regionally based synods comprised of a group of presbyteries in close geographic proximity.  I will refer to these ideas, together, as the “synodical alternative.”  Various rationales have been offered for such an alternate structure, many of which I am sympathetic towards, but I’d like to make the case for why this move would be net negative rather than net positive for our denomination.

The impetus for the synodical alternative.

Perhaps the foremost argument in favor of the synodical alternative is the cost of the current assembly.  The burden of this cost falls particularly painfully on smaller congregations who have smaller budgets and smaller staffs and are less able to absorb the travel, lodging, food, and registration costs of sending their TE’s and RE’s to participate in the assembly.  This can leave these smaller congregations feeling less connected with the denomination as a whole and somewhat voiceless at the Assembly level.  These are legitimate concerns.  Even congregations that have more resources or staff may find the cost of the General Assembly to be troublesome, particularly so if the congregation wishes to regularly send Ruling Elders (RE's) to attend. 

Another argument in favor of the synodical alternative is that the large number of commissioners at the General Assembly precludes the average attender from really feeling as though they are involved in shaping the tone and tenor of the events.  Certain delegates speak often and freely at the microphones, but most never venture out of their seats.  The convention center has a sort of corporate feel with vendors and reports, statements, and other business.  The question is asked, "couldn’t we make this feel more like Acts and less like the yearly shareholders meeting of a Fortune 500 company?   The solution of a delegated assembly is offered, "Let's make it smaller, more user friendly, and less corporate."  I’m less sympathetic towards this argument than the previous one, perhaps because though I understand the weaknesses of the current system I believe they are preferable to those that would present themselves if we were to make a change to the synodical alternative.

Why the synodical alternative is not the answer.
Added Bureaucracy

A synodical alternative will only add infrastructure and cost to the PCA.  Adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to any organization necessitates finding people to facilitate it, staff it, and lead it.  This requires space, time, energy, and money that was previously unnecessary.  Coming recently from a reformed denomination that utilized a structure which included a regional synod, I can tell you that these things are not free or necessarily efficient.  One of the strengths of the PCA is its grassroots nature.  The more layers of separation you put between the local church and the highest assemblies and courts of the denomination, the less you will benefit from the grassroots nature of the PCA.  The irony here is that though the rationale for adding a synodical level to the PCA is to decrease the corporate feel and increase the voice of the average delegate, the result may very well be to further marginalize the average elder by frequently removing him from the highest bodies of the denomination.
If a driving rationale for moving to a synodical system is to reduce the financial burden on smaller congregations, it does not make sense to add levels of bureaucracy which they will not want to, or be able to, fund.  Perhaps we are desiring a synodical system because it will bring the bureaucracy closer to home rather than a desire for real efficiency.  I enjoy attending the quarterly meetings of the Chicago Metro Presbytery, but don’t feel any need to add a regional synod of the Midwest meeting to my calendar.

Though these things concern me, of greater concern to me is the unexpected politicizing of a synodical alternative that will occur. 

Politicizing the Process
Consider the following scenarios:

The General Assembly becomes a delegated General Synod where each presbytery is permitted to send a minimum of 4 TE’s and 4 RE’s with an additional TE and RE for each 1,000 members over 2,000 in the presbytery to a maximum of 8 additional TE and RE delegates. 

Makes sense, right?  But what if there are 14 presbyteries that have 1,000 members each while another presbytery has 14,000 members?  Those 14 presbyteries will send a total of 112 delegates, while the large presbytery will send only 16.  Even if there was no limit on the maximum number of additional delegates sent, the larger presbytery would only send 32 delegates.  Inevitably there becomes a political advantage in keeping presbyteries small.  This leads to a system where certain types of congregations from certain geographic regions become overrepresented, while the mainstream of the denomination becomes underrepresented.  This can lead to the unnecessary and inefficient formation of additional presbyteries because of perceived political advantages, etc.

Presbytery A chooses its delegates on a rotational basis.  The delegates of one opinion attend as often as the delegates with a different understanding, etc.  Presbytery B’s leadership chooses its delegates leading to the same men from the same perspective attending each synod. 

Let’s say an issue arises in the denomination.  To avoid confusing the issue with any sort of real scenario we’ll say the issue is whether we can serve communion with Coke and Hamburgers instead of bread and wine.  The issue arises to the General Synod and will be voted on.  While Presbytery A is generally opposed to the practice of Coke and Hamburgers, of its eight delegates five of them are in favor of the practice.  Presbytery B is generally in favor of the practice and its leadership decides that this position should be represented by all eight of the presbytery’s delegates at the General Synod.  So, when the votes are taken those 16 delegates vote 13-3 in favor of the practice of Coke and Hamburgers for communion.  That result is not indicative of the actual mind of the elders throughout in those presbyteries, but the result of two different methods of selecting delegates.

Additionally in this scenario you have the issue of trying to determine who gets to go to the synods  from each presbytery.  Who decides who gets to go?  The are inevitable complaints that come from one group or another feeling as though they are underrepresented or oppressed by whatever decision is made. This too leads to a diminishing of the grassroots nature of the PCA, detracts from the connectedness of each elder to the decision making bodies of the denomination, and creates added opportunities for distrust.   

Combine the two above scenarios. 

14 presbyteries of 1,000 members each have leadership who determine delegates to the synod.  Those delegates will represent the position of those presbyteries that it be permissible to use Coke and Hamburgers for communion.  All 112 delegates of the 14 presbyteries will support the practice of Coke and Hamburgers.  Another presbytery of 14,000 members assigns its delegates on a schedule each year.  Even though the vast majority of the congregations in the 14,000 member presbytery are repulsed by the idea of Coke and Hamburgers for communion, their delegates just so happen to be split on the issue 16-16.  Therefore the final vote is recorded as 128-16.  This appears like a landslide!  But in reality, the mind of the people represented by those delegates was evenly split.  The decision to permit the use of Coke and Hamburger was not made by the people or elders of the denomination, it was made by the decision to have 14 smaller presbyteries and the decisions in those presbyteries concerning how delegates would be chosen.


While the details of these scenarios are silly, the truth it points to is very serious.  In the denomination I came from this was precisely the sort of thing that took place on issues of great significance.  I sympathize with smaller congregations that struggle financially and applaud the effort to reduce the cost for those congregations, perhaps we can envision ways to increase this support. I cannot, however, embrace any move to a synodical alternative until there is a proposal in place to ensure that we are not merely adding layers of bureaucracy for the sake of bringing the bureaucrats closer to home.  More pressingly, I dread the day that I re-enter the sort of hyper politicized environment that I left behind. I want to be sure that we are not entering into a situation where the grassroots nature of the PCA is sacrificed on the altar of convenience. 
I love the PCA.  I felt that General Assembly this past Summer was a breath of fresh air and I want to see us united and thriving.  The current system is not perfect, but it’s better than the synodical alternative.