We are connected.

Alas, in my 45 years in our Presbyterian Church, congregations and their pastors have shown themselves to be more congregational than presbyterian in their polity. To further confuse us, there are members of Presbyterian congregations have harbored desires for a priest, to mediate between God and the people, and to bless and comfort and maybe heal people. Some would like the independence to hire and fire pastors.

Teaching elders too often like that priestly role, or at least to rule. Are they superior to ruling elders? No, but in every presbytery I have heard ruling elders describe the presbytery as “the ministers’ union.”

Are ruling elders ministers, too? Yes. The difference is functional.

Ruling elders are given the responsibilities of managing the life of the congregation, variously understood. Reinhold Niebuhr taught that pastors (our teaching elders functioning as congregational leaders) ought to be theologians-in-residence. I think that in our time this would mean not to tell people what is true and right doctrine, but to teach the traditions and teach people how to think theologically for themselves. Individualism seems to accompany congregationalism.

Many of our problems today are the result of these diversions from Presbyterian ideals. Congregational behavior and priestly or authoritarian dreams result in competition among teaching elders rather than collaboration. This was my conclusion when I helped to create an urban ministry coalition in Trenton NJ as my D.Min. project in the 1980’s. We could create and raise money for housing, homeless, and hunger ministries, but no one would surrender personal turf or advantage to achieve larger, common goals for a common good.

Where two or three teaching and ruling elders gather, there is the presbytery, or at least representatives of the larger church. That is how we get things done, and how we correct errant teaching elders and sessions. The rule should be that presbyteries allow no pastor to abuse a congregation and no congregation to abuse a pastor.

Being good at these things brings about trust.

Presbyteries are needed both to restrain evil and encourage virtue. Such things are hard enough, but as I began my ministry in 1972, the denomination adopted a corporate model requiring executive staffs. To fund this we adopted a PBE, or Planning, Budgeting, and Evaluation process, along with geographically larger synods and presbyteries.

This immense change was adopted at the same time that membership decline became visible, bringing us to our current situation. We live now with well-established myths about the importance of organization development, planning, goals and objectives, assessments, and vision statements –  which may or may not further the gospel.

I experience a lot of tension in church groups reflecting anxiety about the present and future of the church. In my D.Min. program of organizational development I learned that Bonhoeffer said that what is needed is for the gospel to be in the church. So I tend to think that no matter what is going on in and around the church, we should discuss the teachings of Jesus, face to face. Everything begins there.

This is the 2nd in a series of 3 blogs on “American Presbyterianism.” The additional blog posts in the series are:
Blog 1 – The Chickens and Eggs of American Presbyterianism
Blog 3 – Presbytery Meeting Payoffs

Dennis MaherDennis is retired and lives in Lake Luzerne with his wife, Carol, also a retired PCUSA teaching elder. Dennis was pastor of two congregations in MN and one in NJ. He was Associate Executive for Stewardship, Mission, and Communications for Chicago Presbytery 1986-1993, Associate for Professional Development for the denomination 1994-1997, and Executive and Stated Clerk of Great Rivers Presbytery (west central Illinois) 1998-2001. He worked as Assistant Director of the Jesus Seminar, and was interim pastor in Wisconsin, Long Island, and Albany. He is busy now playing sax and writing his memoir of faith, past and present.

About Albany Presbytery Communications

Albany Presbytery strives to provide relevant information using a variety of communication channels including our website, email, paper mailings, social media, and in-person meetings. Please let us know of any erroneous information you may find. If you have information to share, we would be happy to connect with you. You can contact us via email here.

The purpose of the Albany Presbytery Blog is to share information, tell stories, and promote the mission and ministry of the presbytery, synod and beyond. While the breadth of this medium is intentionally broad, it is not a platform for opinion pieces related to business coming before the presbytery unless designed as part of an initiative to provide a diversity of viewpoints at the direction of the presbytery. Exceptions to this policy may be brought to the presbytery officers who will determine appropriateness of submissions.