What do you enjoy most about being a Presbyterian? (That might be an interesting question to ask your session.) In a previous call I met with several leadership teams in presbyteries and synods across the country. There would often come a time in our discussions when it would become clear to me that I was assuming that they had a deep history as Presbyterians. That assumption was not true. For instance, with one leadership team that was planning about the transition after their long-time executive left, there were 11 of us in the room. When I asked how many of them were lifelong Presbyterians, only one other person and I raised our hands. I realized I needed to back way up from where I was to be sure that we were all talking the same language about theology and polity.
I started with drawing the chart I used to use with confirmation classes. First there was Jesus, then there was the early church, then there was the Roman Catholic Church (in this simplified version of church history, the only church there was for a while.) Then came the Reformation and three basic types of communions developed. One is an Episcopal system—there is a bishop. (Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist.) Then there is the congregational system where decisions are made by the whole congregation. Then there is the Reformed tradition in between these two. We still have a “bishop” but the bishop for us is a group of people who are ordained and who meet together as the presbytery. The way this is evident in a local congregation is that the session makes almost all of the decisions about the way the church operates. The pastor has a few decisions that are her or his own—whether or not to perform a wedding, what hymns to sing, the content of the sermon and prayers. The congregation has a few decisions about budget, leadership, etc. But otherwise the session—a group of people who have been called by the voice of the congregation and ordained to special service in the church—makes the rest of the decisions. There is a system of checks and balances with oversight of the work of a local church by the presbytery, of the presbytery by the synod, and ultimately of all of us by the General Assembly. Notice that there is never a single human being exercising oversight and care. We work together in our tradition to do the things that a single person might do in another tradition.
After I went through this little simplified explanation, I asked the people who were not “cradle” Presbyterians what attracted them to us. Why did they join a Presbyterian church? I thought I might hear things like, “My friends go there,” or “the choir is excellent,” or “the preacher makes me think.” Instead what I heard is that they were attracted to the way we make decisions; we would say they were attracted to our polity. Interesting. All of them had come from other Christian groups. They found it refreshing that, because of our theology, we listen for the voice of God through the voice of a group of people gathered for that purpose.
So, back to my initial question. What do you like best about being a Presbyterian? I love babies being baptized, I like excellent music, I want a sermon to make me think about things in a new way—you can find those in Presbyterian churches but not exclusively there. One of the things that you will not see in many other places, though, is really my favorite. That is the laying on of hands when someone is ordained as an elder or deacon or minister. When the moderator calls all of us forward who have previously had hands laid on us, it is amazing to see all of the people come forward. In some churches, the pews are almost empty. I like the symbolism of passing on this ministry from one to next, all the way back to the first followers of Jesus. We do not do this ministry alone. Many went before us and many will come after us. All of those people whose hands were on our shoulders or on the shoulders of those in front of them will support us in our ministry. I have been in a couple of those crowds lately and as they gently sway with each person’s breathing and shuffling of feet, I am reminded that this ministry is a living thing. What a wonderful reminder that in our quest to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ we are part of a living, breathing church.
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Presbytery of Chicago