How a Presbytery Is Born

by Zachary Groff | January 11, 2023

The attention garnered by proposed amendments to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has spotlighted a particularly interesting data point concerning the denomination as it enters its 50th year of existence: the PCA is comprised of 88 presbyteries. How did this come about?

When the PCA began in 1973, she was made up of 41,232 members (including 196 pastors) in 260 congregations distributed across 16 presbyteries. As of the 49th General Assembly held in 2022, the PCA boasted 378,389 members (including 5,159 pastors) in 1,593 congregations and 318 mission works distributed across 88 presbyteries. I take it for granted that most – if not all – of my readers can give an account for how members, pastors, and even congregations are “born.” But how are presbyteries born? What principles govern the formation of new presbyteries?

Unsurprisingly, the creation of a new presbytery is no small matter. There are many details that need to come together for a new presbytery to come into existence. As the PCA grew over time, it became necessary for the General Assembly to articulate certain principles and guidelines for drawing up presbytery boundaries, forming new presbyteries, and dividing existing presbyteries.

12 Guidelines for Presbytery Boundaries

At the 16th General Assembly held in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1988, the denomination formally adopted twelve non-binding guidelines for drawing presbytery boundaries.[1] They are as follows:

  1. A presbytery should have a radius of 2.5 hours maximum driving distance.
  2. A presbytery should have a minimum of 10 churches.
  3. A presbytery should have a total communicant membership of at least 1000.
  4. Presbytery boundaries should not partition metropolitan areas (more on this later).
  5. A presbytery should have regional cohesiveness.
  6. A presbytery should have at least three churches each having a membership of at least 125 communicant members.
  7. Presbytery boundaries should be such that its member churches have the potential for shared ministries.
  8. Presbytery boundaries should be such that its member churches have a common commitment to the region within the boundaries and sense their shared responsibility to cover the region with the gospel.
  9. When a presbytery reaches 30 churches, it should consider whether subdivision would lead to more effective ministry.
  10. A presbytery should limit its boundaries to that geographic area for which it is able to take meaningful responsibility for evangelism and church development.[2]
  11. We acknowledge the existence of language presbyteries.
  12. We recognize the “ideal” nature of guidelines such as these and understand that several existing presbyteries do not presently meet all of them.

Notice that while some of these guidelines are concrete and fairly straightforward (items 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and 11), others involve more difficult-to-define concepts and organizational principles (items 7, 8, and 10). Thus, the 26th General Assembly held in St. Louis, Missouri in 1998 added the following cautionary advice:

“Presbyteries should take care that they do not divide prematurely, causing one or more of the resulting presbyteries to lack the resources necessary for their future growth. On the other hand, a presbytery may become so large that it cannot give adequate attention to the needs of the churches and ministers within its own membership, and may find even its efforts at church planting and other growth in ministry difficult…. Special care should be taken to ensure that the division of a presbytery is not made in haste or without adequate consideration of the needs of all parties involved. Therefore, at the very earliest stages of discussion of a possible division, those initiating the discussion: (a) should take care to ensure that all churches and teaching elders (including missionaries and other out of bounds members) who will possibly be affected are fully informed of the discussion as early as possible; (b) should communicate with the stated clerk of the presbytery, who in turn should communicate with the entire presbytery, (c) should be encouraged to contact General Assembly Mission to North America and the General Assembly Stated Clerk very early in the process as well, for any assistance they may be able to offer in making a smooth transition and in giving advice that may be helpful to the planning process, and (d) should target the first meeting of a presbytery in the summer or fall of the year so that they may be able to fully participate in the nominating process of General Assembly without undue delay.”[3]

Further, two of the guidelines (items 4 and 5) first published at the 16th General Assembly seem to set the stage for potential contradiction. For example, might there be a situation in which a locale conceived of by some observers to be a “metropolitan area” might also lack a strong sense “regional cohesiveness” in the estimation of residents, thus suggesting the desirability of dividing the former to produce two presbyteries that possess the latter? The 41st General Assembly held in beautiful Greenville, South Carolina in 2013 put forward a creative solution to this very scenario.

The Edge City Concept

In response to two overtures requesting further specification regarding the formation of new presbyteries, the Mission to North America Permanent Committee produced a document entitled Guidelines for Forming New Presbyteries through the Division or Multiplication of Existing Presbyteries, which is included in the Minutes of the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America as Attachment 6 in Appendix G.[4]

While this document does not exactly replicate previous guidelines (i.e., those published at the 16th and 26th Assemblies), it does build upon the original guidelines by adding more detailed counsel to assist the Assembly in its duties found in the Book of Church Order (BCO), 14.6.e: “To erect new Presbyteries, and unite and divide those which were erected with their consent.” The counsel of the 41st General Assembly acknowledges that the process of presbytery-formation is to be initiated at the presbytery level and must refer primarily to chapter 13 of the BCO, which describes the composition and duties of presbyteries.

However, the 41st General Assembly tackles the thorny issue of what to do when presbytery boundaries unavoidably partition “metropolitan areas” by introducing the “Edge City” concept. The circumstances that might commend such a partition vary from one situation to the next. For example, a large rural county may have an important natural or topographical feature that serves as a functional boundary within its civil boundaries. A suburb between two “metropolitan areas” may have a meaningful traffic artery that serves as a functional boundary for local residents who generally keep to one side or the other in their daily life and affairs. Large cities and sprawling metropolises have notable “neighborhood identities” that often eclipse city-wide attachments.

When one of these features might serve as a convenient boundary marker for the formation of a new presbytery while also partitioning a metropolitan area, the Edge City concept serves to promote collaboration in fostering church planting opportunities within the boundaries of each new presbytery. The idea behind the Edge City concept is “that cooperation across Presbytery boundaries will be necessary in planting churches, since opportunities for planting by one congregation may cross into the bounds of the other Presbytery.”[5]

The solution is the formation of some kind of formal or informal network of relationships for church planting. Such a network would be equipped to marshal and deploy resources (finances, expertise, and manpower) across presbytery boundaries for the good of church planting in the region/area as a whole. In some areas, this looks like a church-planting network, such as the Mid-South Church Planting Network which coordinates PCA church-planting efforts in Mississippi, Arkansas, west Tennessee, and southeast Louisiana. In other areas, such collaboration is achieved through the appointment of an experienced church planter who advises multiple presbyteries. One example of this kind of arrangement is seen in the ministerial career of TE Bruce Finn in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, who for over 13 years worked as a Church Planting Coordinator with five presbyteries in the Delaware Valley.

For an example of creative and well-reasoned presbytery boundary-drawing through the middle of a municipality (Chester County, Pennsylvania, to be exact) refer to Overture 2 in the Minutes of the 27th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, found on page 105. Beyond this instance, there are a number of other good examples of how presbyteries have composed overtures for the formation of new presbyteries. One of the best is Overture 4 to the 43rd General Assembly,[6] by which Palmetto Presbytery in South Carolina divided into three presbyteries.

For a template containing language that would be appropriate for an overture to divide or multiply an existing presbytery in the formation of a new presbytery, click here. This template is not an authorized production of any presbytery or denomination, but does imitate historical examples and refer to the principles outlined above. For more information about the formation of new presbyteries, consult the Minutes of previous General Assemblies or contact the Stated Clerk’s Office.

[1] Minutes of the 16th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, pp. 143f.; see also Minutes of the 26th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, pp. 181f.

[2] See Recommendation 8 of the Report of the Committee of Commissioners on Mission to North America in the Minutes of the 12th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, p. 150 for the initial articulation of this principle.

[3] Minutes of the 26th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, p. 180f.

[4] Minutes of the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, pp. 286-288.

[5] Ibid., p. 287.

[6] Minutes of the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, pp. 602-604.

Zachary Groff is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Woodruff, SC.