Non-Geographic Presbyteries & the Issue of Diversity

Rev. John Vest, a member of the Mid Council Commission, recently wrote a blog stating his views about non-geographic presbyteries: “After much conversation and reflection, I changed my mind and embraced the concept of non-geographic presbyteries as a potentially energizing and catalyzing change to our existing way of being Presbyterian, which I do not think is working.” At this upcoming 220th General Assembly, the Mid Council Commission will be giving their report. He also says in his blog, “When it comes to non-geographic presbyteries, the criticism I most often hear—especially from my progressive friends—is that allowing non-geographic presbyteries will put an end to diversity within the PC(USA).” For the record, I am not for non-geographic presbyteries, but my reason is not because “it will put an end to diversity within the PC(USA).” My reasons are it overlooks the root of our problems within this denomination and within our presbyteries.

I am not convinced that by separating into presbyteries according to our theological likeness will solve the disfunction that many feel in their presbyteries. Our problems aren’t our theological differences. Our problems are systemic. Take non-geographic Korean-language presbyteries. One of the core reasons for forming them was that Korean churches did not feel supported by their geographic presbyteries and therefore it affected their ministries and their mission. During this experiment time of forming non-geographic Korean-language presbyteries, they still have just the same problems as if they stayed within their own presbytery and in some ways even more because the resources for supporting congregations still aren’t there. If anyone has “benefitted” from these non-geographic presbyteries it has been the denomination as a whole because the pressure to deal with how we support our racial ethnic congregations has waned. There is no inner pressure or prodding from within to push the denomination to look at some of the systemic racist ways we are in relationship with each other. What we can say is “Look, we care and hear the needs of our racial ethnic sisters and brothers. We gave them there own presbytery.” Instead, what we should be compelled to do is really look at the root of the problems of why racial ethnic congregations aren’t supported and how these issues aren’t addressed on the denominational level.

I am also not convinced that forming non-geographic presbyteries will be “a season of experimentation.” Non-geographic Korean-language presbyteries were supposed to be “a season of experimentation.” What I would like to know is when and who are evaluating whether forming these presbyteries “solved” or even remotely rectified some of the reasons for forming them. The answer is that these non-geographic presbyteries are permanent – not because they are working but because the denomination – that is mostly white – hasn’t figured out how to engage our racial ethnic congregations without it seeming like “the white” people are trying to suppress “the other.” I see the same thing happening in how we handle theological diversity. We are so busy tiptoeing around each other. I believe non-geographic presbyteries won’t end diversity in PC(USA) because let’s face it, we aren’t that diverse. I believe it continues to feed the illusion that as a denomination as a whole we are making substantive changes for the better.

There is no doubt that many feel their presbytery is dysfunctional. Until a year ago, I was in one of the presbyteries that was considered most dysfunctional. But we’ve come a long way baby. And now we can say full-heartedly that “We aren’t the suckiest!” If anyone knew anything about the Presbytery of San Francisco, we were the most divisive – most of our votes would pass by a 7 vote margin. In fact, the only time something overwhelmingly passed was when everyone shot down a motion to gather in small groups to discuss a contentious issue. Nothing screams “dysfunctional” more than voting to not talk to each other. We had a habit of hand-holding and coddling our racial ethnic and immigrant congregations without scrutiny because we didn’t know how else to support them. We ignored the needs of our smaller congregations to the point where I’m not sure some will make it. We built co-dependent relationships with our larger congregations, especially as the presbytery’s financial resources started to decline. We had been without an installed Executive Presbyter for seven years. And when new minister members would transfer into our presbytery we would greet and initiate them by grilling them ruthlessly on the floor and then leaving them to fend for themselves.

But I want to take a moment to brag a bit about my presbytery. For the past few years, we have made structural changes to the way our committees and leadership council meet. We have redesigned staff to better fit the mission and vision and the needs of the presbytery. We have been blessed with leaders and chairs that have brought innovation and the commitment to restructure how those committees function. We have reshaped our budget and investments as well as our financial philosophy. We have supported local pastors and congregations to connect and network with each other through projects like “Urban Legacy” that was a grassroots movement to address the urgent needs of small congregations. We are beginning to bring in resources like New Beginnings Assessments for congregations that are wondering “What’s next?” And most recently, we have completely uprooted how we do presbytery meetings, where most of our “business” is spent on getting to know each other, gathering around topics we are passionate about, networking and partnering in ministry, and worshipping and praying together.

Across the theological divide, I have heard positive words that people are noticing a change in my presbytery – one that is authentic and real versus one that just addresses the symptoms. We still have a long way to go, but if we continue down this path, I have much hope for this presbytery. But it took looking in the mirror and admitting where we have gone wrong. We have some hard decisions to make in the near future. Some of it involves our racial ethnic congregations that have gotten into a situation where it may be too late to “save” them. But instead of handling it like we did in the past, we have built the relationships of trust where we can work with them to make some hard decisions instead of overlooking them.

Non-geographic presbyteries sound good. They seem like a creative experimental solution. But in the end, I think it will make it difficult for us as Presbyterians to address the root and heart of how this denomination deals with diversity – which is we don’t. Theological diversity is the flavor of the day, but what about age diversity. Since I was a teen, we have been questioning how to get more young people involved in the church and now I’m almost 39 and we are still asking that.

Being on a General Assembly committee myself that will also have recommendations going before the 220th General Assembly, I appreciate the hard work and thought that the Mid Council Commission has done. I also sympathize with how difficult it is to have that work scrutinized. It is also what I love about this denomination as well – that we can share a diverse view of opinions in order to discern where God is leading us to faithfully follow.

6 thoughts on “Non-Geographic Presbyteries & the Issue of Diversity

  1. Being from the same Presbytery I affirm Theresa’s perspective. But I’d also say that I think John misstates the issue that progressives have, “that allowing non-geographic presbyteries will put an end to diversity within the PC(USA).” I don’t believe that we look to presbytery to get our “diversity-needs” met. It’s just that when we have diversity (theological, ethnic, cultural) we are called upon to engage, however difficult it may be, authentically and respectfully, but not run away from it. Non-geographic presbyteries are a way for us to run away from that engagement and that’s not healthy.

  2. I am also on the MCC commission. I was one of the most outspoken people against non-geo’s at the first meeting where we addressed the issue, but then ended up whole-heartedly voting for the recommendation. For me, I share nearly all of your observations/concerns/etc, but then I realized that those are very pessimistic and too focused on looking back. Basically, things aren’t getting better, indeed they are getting worse. And while we can have rhetoric of addressing the more systemic problems, we aren’t and I don’t really see that happening on a large scale in the years to come. (Of course, there are some incredible examples in single regions and presbyteries, ours certainly toward the top!)

    So, to me, this report (taken as a whole because there is SO MUCH MORE than just the non-geo issue) is a way of dreaming, of trying new things, of simply being pro-active. Is it perfect? No. But it is something new. I think it offers the chance to be creative and think about the denomination in a different way rather than being so concerned about preserving the broken institution we have now until we have a perfect solution.

    Certainly there are groups that could use this opportunity to silo themselves with other like-minded churches, but there is also the potential that new connections with increased opportunity for community and ministries could be established. I think we have to embrace the hopefulness of change rather than be scared of what that change could bring.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts – appreciate your perspective. And keep up the faithful work within the presbytery. My presby had used a novel format ( I tweeted you about it last night) but is moving away from it – and that makes me sad. community bldg will suffer, I fear.

  4. Thanks for this response, Theresa. I totally agree with you that we have a major systemic issue, which is why I think we need to try some radically different things. Minor tweaks to a broken system and goodwill will not get us out of the mess we are in.

    More to the point of your response, I really don’t think that the ghettoizing of Korean Americans into language based presbyteries (or any other racial or language based presbytery) is a fair comparison to the kinds of non-geographic presbyteries envisioned in the MCC recommendations. I agree that what our denomination as a whole (and many of our presbyteries and synods in particular) has done with respect to these presbyteries is wrong. I agree that Korean-language presbyteries have enabled us to avoid figuring out how to be a more multicultural church. But these are cases of allowing non-geographic presbyteries to further marginalize already marginalized groups within our church. This is not at all what the MCC recommendations intend.

    With all respect to my Asian American friends from whom I’ve repeatedly heard this comparison, I do not think it is helpful to invoke this divisive issue about which many people are very passionate in order to argue against what the MCC recommendations are trying to do. These are categorically different uses of the concept of non-geographic presbyteries.

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