A Friend on the Road Ahead: Working with Presbytery
This year, 2017, our two congregations will continue on our road toward merger. It is my hope and expectation that at Easter of 2018 (April 1) we will have a grand celebration of our new unified church.
Celebrating with us at that time, I trust, will be many representatives of other Presbyterian churches on Long Island. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, joined together with us as members of the Presbytery of Long Island. As we move down our road this year, the Presbytery will become a more visible and important partner for us. It is important that we have a clear understanding of the role of Presbytery in our congregational life.
The Presbyterian Church in the USA is a part of the worldwide fellowship of Reformed churches. This means we are theological and ecclesiological descendants of the church that John Calvin founded in Geneva, Switzerland in the 16th century. Our more immediate spiritual ancestors were the people of the Church of Scotland. Reformed theology leads quite naturally to democratic governance. Instead of relying on bishops and priests to make decisions for us, we govern ourselves. All authority among Presbyterians is derived from church members who elect their ruling elders and their teaching elders (pastors).
In order to maintain a unity of purpose and practice and to organize missions and educational institutions, the Presbyterian Church maintains regional and national councils. Thus, our two congregations are members of the Presbytery of Long Island, the Synod of the Northeast, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.
The Presbytery of Long Island has 55 local congregations within it. There are 67 lay commissioners who represent these congregations when Presbytery meets, which is about five times a year. (There are a few large congregations who are allowed to send more than one person to Presbytery, and that is why there are more commissioners than congregations.) There are also over 100 clergy serving or retired who are eligible to attend and vote at Presbytery meetings. Some of these clergy are living outside the area or are not interested in being active, so the number actually present at any given meeting of Presbytery is much lower.
Presbytery maintains a number of committees. Arguably, the most important of these are the Committee on Ministry which oversees business related to our clergy, and the Board of Trustees, which is responsible for matters involving finance and real estate.
Our two congregations are represented in the Presbytery of Long Island by our clergy (currently, that’s me) and lay persons (one for Levittown and one for Massapequa) who are elected by their respective sessions. At the present time, Maria Studer represents Levittown Church with Marilyn Rodahan as alternate. Massapequa Church does not have a designated commissioner but seeks volunteers from meeting to meeting.
Our congregations contribute funds to help keep Presbytery and the Synod and General Assembly operating. We most often get involved with Presbytery when we are choosing pastoral leadership. This is because Presbytery is responsible for vetting and approving all clergy working in our congregations. Presbytery also plays an important role when disputes arise between clergy and their congregants.
Presbytery is also involved in the stewardship of real property owned by congregations. Any sale or long-term lease of a manse or a church building must be approved by Presbytery. This is to insure that these large assets are not wasted or stolen and that the proceeds from sales or leases are used to sustain and/or grow Presbyterian congregations and mission. If a congregation remains active, it will almost certainly keep the proceeds of the sale of its real estate for its own use, although Presbytery may impose certain restrictions on how the funds are used.
I have observed over the years that congregations frequently find themselves at odds with Presbytery or one of its committees. It is easy to get into the mentality that Presbytery is some kind of outside force that is invading our business and messing up our plans. It certainly is true that at times the need for Presbytery approval of an action leads to annoying delays. However, if we remember that Presbytery is a body made up of people who have been democratically selected both to be leaders of their congregations and voting reps at Presbytery, then maybe we can overcome our unhappiness. We are all in the Presbyterian boat together, and we need to respect those who we have been chosen to lead us at all levels of governance and administration. If you think democracy is distressing, just consider the alternatives!
If we get better acquainted with Presbytery and its officers, I am sure we will find it will be a supportive ally in our efforts to re-organize and to create a new church and a revitalized ministry.