Last month, I gave a quick and rushed overview of what makes us Presbyterian. Many people attend, join, and serve in a Presbyterian church and wonder about our governing structure. Who do we go to when we have a question? Who is in charge? What is a committee? What is this group of churches we hear referenced to as a presbytery? What is per capita and what does it matter to General Assembly? Great questions! I have many of them as well.
We have an organizational structure as a church. I’ll review our three main books and then write specifically about some of the questions I listed above. We believe in the Holy Scriptures as the inspired word of God. We use the word “holy” not to imply that the Bible is some book we can’t access or write in or have fall apart when we’ve used it so much. Instead holy means that God, God’s love for humanity, God’s presence in our world, and God’s salvation plan through Jesus is found in those pages. We used the word inspired as a reminder that while we believe God acts and speaks through scripture; time, people, images we’re not familiar with, editors, and even us today are making interpretations and theologically reflecting on words to show that God is still speaking. As the reformers believed, we follow in the footsteps of the idea that we are reformed and always reforming according to the word of God.
Second, we use our Book of Confessions. This book is a collection of statements about faith throughout history where groups of people have come together to state “this is what faith in Jesus” looks like right now. When we recite the Apostle’s Creed, we are stating some powerful claims about God, Jesus, and the church. We can sometimes take that for granted, but when we speak or think about the Apostle’s Creed (one of now 11 confessions in the book) we are witnessing to how the church at one time, and continues today to think about our faith. These statements of faith give us insight into the nature of God and how over time other faithful Christians have expressed what it means to be a disciple.
Lastly, we use our Book of Order. In its simplest use, the Book of Order outlines our structure. However, there are four sections (F, G, W, D) and each one is distinctive and instructive. The first section tells us about the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity. This is a short, but powerful section on our core beliefs and sets the tone for the rest of the book. The second section outlines Form of Government. This is the section describing a session, a presbytery, a synod, General Assembly, how we function, ordination standards, and many more practical parts of governing a denomination. Then we have the Directory of Worship. This is a great section where we have all the structure and guidance for our worship service. This is where the pastor is given five tasks that are his or hers alone. For our context, I get to pick the scripture, preach the sermon, offer prayers, pick the music, and choose the art for worship. Pretty exciting! Lastly, we have the (dreaded) Rules of Discipline section. I use the adjective dreaded because this is a long section with a ton of legal words (that are necessary) outlining what to do when conflict arises in the church.
Our desire to order means that our leadership of the local church is done by our session comprised of our serving elders. We are connected to other Presbyterian Churches by sending delegates to a larger meeting called a Presbytery. Delegates are selected by the reported number of members in a congregation to help balance out pastors. Technically, I am not a member of our church, but of our presbytery. Hence, as a pastor, I serve our congregation, but like membership in a church, I use my gifts and talents at the presbytery level. The next level up is a group of presbyteries called a synod. Lastly, we have General Assembly. General Assembly is where representatives from each Presbytery (usually two pastor and two elder members) gather to conduct the business of the denomination. We meet biennially and I served as a commissioner in 2014. Our next General Assembly will meet in 2018 in St. Louis.
As we are always reforming, General Assembly can change the Book of Order and set ministry and mission goals for the larger denomination. A motion is generated by a church or presbytery and after being endorsed by a presbytery, heads to General Assembly. This motion goes before a committee; if it passes the committee, it goes to the floor of General Assembly, and is voted on by the group. If that motion passes, then it still needs to be approved by 50% of the presbyteries before that change is added to the Book of Order. Recently, there has been much debate and some controversy over issues like divestment, ordination standards, marriage, and how our money is spent for mission and new church development.
This leads us back to two final points. We govern and work in committees. Yes, committee work is slow at times and a struggle. Yet we believe that through the sharing of voices, gifts, prayer, listening, and taking in the big picture informed by scripture and our confessions, committees (and in turn sessions, presbyteries, synods, and General Assembly) make good decisions. This is where questions about ministry and mission go: committees. Our committees also generate motions for session action to help guide our congregation. If after a decision is made and does not work, then we can readdress the motion or decision at another meeting as we do not believe councils or committees are infallible. We are human, seeking to follow the Spirit, and that takes work. We here at First Everett need members who will serve on committees helping us to make solid ministry and mission decisions. I believe we are better when we are together, even when we disagree because we trust that in the process, we will all gain by learning and following God.
Finally, every year we talk about per capita. Per capita is the fancy term we use to raise money to support the larger denomination. A portion of our per capita helps our presbytery (we have a great presbytery!), synod, and General Assembly function and work. We pay our per capita and budget it into our operating costs every year. We also ask that people give directly to per capita (then we just pass it through) to help cover what we pay. In 2017, our per capita total is $14,728.56 ($47.82/per member). To date, we’ve paid our total (quarterly) and had $2,887.56 directed toward per capita. As we set the budget for 2018, we know that our per capita will roughly stay the same. We will budget for it and seek direct income to help offset the cost through general giving. If you’d like to give to per capita, then I invite you to do so. However, we view this as an operating cost that helps our denomination beyond our walls.
Again, that’s a lot, but I hope some of this helps you when I or others talk from the pulpit about serving or our denomination. If you have questions, then please ask me. I hope that you continue to have a great year and we’ll see you in worship!