How to Keep 390,319 Sheep in Green Pastures

By Zachery Byrd | July 27, 2023

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Is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) a “Big House,” or a “Big Tent?” How about a third option? The PCA a “Big Flock!” In its 50-year history the PCA has enjoyed numerical growth nearly every year, so much so that the 50th General Assembly reported 390,319[1] members in her care. The last year marked another year of growth in terms of ministers, members, and money. With growth comes an important question – how do we, as elders, effectively shepherd a large denomination?

Growing pains have forced us to ask this question, haven’t they? When I was a young licentiate, the repeated refrain was to “trust your committees.” However, the last three years have seen a marked shift from that reigning advice. In 2021, an outcry by a Committee of Concerned MTW Missionaries prompted Overture 14, asking the 48th General Assembly to deem a change that opened “leadership positions with authority over MTW church planting and church development ministry to unordained men and women” as out of order. This move limited the authority of that Permanent Committee.

Likewise, this year saw both the addition of Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) 4-21.d and discussions of the new RUF Affiliation Agreement. The Agreement has prompted many questions from multiple presbyteries over everything from the originating source of calls to the place of appeals. The Agreement’s FAQ admitted that the document proposed “substantial change” to current arrangements; however, the RUF Permanent Committee did not bring this matter before the Committee of Commissioners. As at the 48th Assembly (over MTW’s proposed policy change), the 50th General Assembly’s action restrained the authority of a Permanent Committee.

What prompted these two occasions of Assembly intervention? The short answer is growth. Looking forward, we must begin to ask how our polity establishes guardrails for the Assembly and her Permanent Committees to properly manage growth in the PCA. What are those guardrails? I propose that our polity gives us three guardrails.

Our First Guardrail

First, authority properly resides within church courts. Authority is a key issue in how an organization operates. American Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) once quoted the great Princetonian Samuel Miller (1769-1850) to the effect: “Each individual church is under the watch and care of its appropriate judicatory; and the whole body, by a system of review and control, is bound together as one homogeneous community.”[2] Review and control requires authority, and authority has a limited supply. I tend to think of authority as pie. There is only so much pie to go around. We cannot simply make pieces appear out of thin air. Any authority given to a Permanent Committee is taken from the authority already entrusted to the church courts. The question then becomes: how much authority can a church court relinquish before she has too little left to adjudicate her own affairs?

If the General Assembly allows a Permanent Committee to make substantial changes without first presenting the proposal to the appropriate Committee of Commissioners, the General Assembly effectively relinquishes authority. Or, for instance, if presbyteries allow calls to come from those same Committees, their oversight effectively lacks any authority, any real bite. In this case, the presbytery’s authority over a minister has been relinquished. Authority given away is a challenge to get back. Economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) once said, “There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.”[3] Or to return to our previous illustration, how much pie can a church court give away before she goes hungry?

Our Second Guardrail

This drives us to our second guardrail: Permanent Committees are committees, not commissions. As elders in the PCA committed to the authority of Scripture, we understand that words are important. How we define “commission” and “committee” has titanic implications for how effectively we conduct business. Book of Church Order (BCO) 15-1 states: “A commission differs from an ordinary committee in that while a committee is appointed to examine, consider and report, a commission is authorized to deliberate upon and conclude the business referred to it.” A committee has no authority to act, but only examines what is committed to them; a commission receives authority from the court to act upon the particular mission entrusted to it.[4] If we lack clarity on these definitions, the PCA’s administration of her affairs will be as clear as mud.

Much of the debate at the 50th General Assembly turned upon this point. During our discussion on Overture 12, one Teaching Elder stated:

They are asking us to assign this matter to a commission. We have just spent this meeting debating whether our Agencies and Committees through their elected boards can actually affect policy changes; but now, we are going to assign a challenging ethical question to a small body of men to speak on behalf of the Assembly.”

Can you spot the confusion? The General Assembly is within her proper bounds to authorize a commission for this specific task;[5] however, an elected board cannot authorize a Permanent Committee or Agency to effect policy changes. BCO 14-1.7 clearly states: “The Assembly’s committees are to serve and not to direct any Church judicatories. They are not to establish policy, but rather execute the policy established by the General Assembly.” Without clarity in our definitions, we cannot take definitive steps forward.

In many ways, we have allowed our Permanent Committees to act as commissions. On the one hand, some of this confusion comes from the size of the task entrusted to our Permanent Committees. The sheer volume of decision-making they are required to prosecute on any given day is astonishing, and many decisions fail to rise to the level of a material change.[6] But to be honest, have we defined what a material change is?

As someone remodeling an old home, what I consider a material change and what my wife considers to be such are drastically different. To move forward effectively, we settled on a common definition of such changes. For our Permanent Committees to better function as committees, we owe them clarity on this issue. But on the other hand, they have excelled in leadership, developed trust, and gained a level of moral authority. This speaks to their effectiveness in years past; however, moral authority has limits. When I worked at Lowe’s Home Improvement, there was an older gentleman who was not a supervisor nor possessed any legal authority; but when he spoke, we listened. Why? He possessed a great amount of moral authority. He was a man of integrity and faithfulness, so we followed him. However, he knew – and we know – that moral authority is necessarily subordinate to legal or constitutional authority for effective organizational and social functioning. As much as the leaders of our Permanent Committees have done an excellent job, they remain committees, not commissions. The Assembly ought to esteem and seriously consider the policy recommendations of our committees without surrendering the function of policy-making.

Our Third Guardrail

This leads us to our third and final guardrail: using our authority to shepherd our Permanent Committees. While authority properly resides within church courts, and while Permanent Committees execute the policies crafted by church courts, these issues are never separated from the mission of the church. We must never lose sight that these polity questions are tethered to the church’s objective of “perfecting and gathering the elect” (WCF 25.3). Our Permanent Committees are arms of our denomination for that purpose. If they are the arms of our denomination, we must use our authority to care for them as if they are part of our body. What does that look like?

As a small-church country pastor, I like to visit (a lot). Whether a visit is eating fried green tomatoes with an old, widowed farmer, listening to his frustrations over the lack of ability to go and do, or catching a game of disc golf with a young man to discuss issues of conscience, these are the normal patterns of life for one entrusted with the authority to shepherd. These informal visits shape the formal changes to my pastoral ministry. The fact is that there is a broken heart in every pew. Our people labor under many heavy burdens – parents crying over wayward children, a widower asking God why his wife had to suffer, strangers adjusting to a new town, young teenagers feeling the pressures of an increasingly hostile world. If I visited these people only once a year, just to give them a pat on the back or wag my finger for their poor church attendance, that would be a misuse of my authority and a hindrance to my ministry. Quite frankly, I would be flying blind in the pulpit if I failed to regularly visit those in the pew.

In the same way, our Permanent Committees labor under a time of expansive growth which brings heavy demands and heavier disappointments. For example, what we heard frequently at General Assembly was that RUF’s new Affiliation Agreement is needed to make their policy match their practice. What we heard from MTW in 2021 was that they had addressed a growing need. We might ask, “Why the disparity between the two? Why didn’t we know?” Before someone says, “They didn’t tell us,” we must first wrestle with the fact that we did not ask. A failure to communicate will always lead to a failure in shepherding. We cannot expect our Permanent Committees to prosper year after year if we fail to follow-up throughout the year. Whether this takes the shape of informal channels such as phone calls and letters or more formal channels such as invitations to our presbytery meetings, we must use our authority to care for them well.

The greatest guardrail entrusted to us is the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). We cannot allow the demands of growth to deter us from a proper use of our authority, from striving to maintain this bond of peace. The question thus becomes: how can we use our authority shepherd our Permanent Committees and develop the mutual trust and support required for us to be more effective in our mission? How can we make General Assembly less of a surprise and more of a continuing conversation? Our Permanent Committees are not independent bodies, they are arms of our denomination vitally connected and receiving their strength from the body as a whole. As this body continues to grow, our arms must be arms, and our body must be a body: clearly defined, vitally connected, and working together.

Zachery Byrd is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of both Bethesda Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Edwards, MS and Raymond Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Raymond, MS.

[1]Editor’s Note: This figure is almost certainly a conservative one in that many congregations do not report their statistics on an annual basis.

[2] James Henley Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. IV (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 148.

[3] Fred Shapiro, ed., The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 293.

[4]Editor’s Note: The distinction between committees and commissions is a frequent question posed to licentiates and/or ordinands in Presbytery committee and floor exams.

[5]Editor’s Note: The discussion in-question was over the publication of pious advice regarding an extraordinary case of public import (i.e., the matter of pharmaceutical/hormonal and surgical interventions affecting the development of human physiology in the name of so-called “gender-affirming care”).

[6]Editor’s Note: This is why some are referred to as “Program Committees.”

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