A Covenant People
Two stories. Both true, neither in Los Ranchos:
In one, a large suburban church showed hospitality to the remote rural congregations along its travel corridor. Many of those small congregations were the only mainline option in town. The communities needed them, but they could not sustain themselves alone. So the large congregation gave them financial support.
And it gave them something more: homes away from home for church members coming in to shop or just escape the isolation. The large suburban church could have seen itself as enough on its own. But it saw its ministry as not only serving the people in its neighborhood, or even its city. It saw itself as caring for the wider region. And to avoid showing off its generosity, the church ran the ministry through the presbytery office.
In the second story, a small group of pastors leveraged their power to benefit their immediate area. Even from the beginning the project didn’t pencil out. A few objected, but the pastors were effective storytellers and pitch-men. The project eventually failed, bringing the presbytery to the edge of bankruptcy. Only through the intervention of outsiders did the presbytery recover.
In both places, large suburban churches used their influence. In one, it was for the good of the whole and expanded the Gospel’s reach. In the other, it sought the interest of the few and damaged the overall witness.
Most of us believe that economic disparity is a problem in our world. We see wealthy people using their resources to accumulate more wealth rather than helping the weak, and we want the Church to be different.
That’s what makes a presbytery so valuable. The churches of Los Ranchos, taken as a whole, reflect the entire range of human experience—rich and poor, large and small, of various languages and ethnicities and political leanings. A presbytery helps believers in one place care for believers in another—people who are often very different from themselves.
We see the pattern for such partnership in the twelve tribes of Israel. When they entered the promised land, even those tribes whose portion was east of the Jordan crossed over to help the others claim their land (see Joshua chapters 1 and 24). No one settled until everyone could settle. God had bound them together for a common good.
So it is in Los Ranchos. The beach churches and the hill churches need each other. You may live in South OC, but by the call of God you are bound together with Presbyterians in LA County.
When a presbytery is at its best, congregations come together to work for each other’s benefit. The presbytery’s structures and systems facilitate that common work. And local congregations do not settle into their own lives until all have triumphed—together.
This perspective has implications for how we handle our finances. It leaves no room for pork-barreling or shouldering one’s way to the trough. For people of means to use those means to obtain more may be the way of our society. But especially when it comes at cost to one’s fellow believers, it opposes of the Way of Christ (see Luke 12:48; I Cor. 11:20-22). If we don’t live differently from the world, we have lost our witness (see Mt. 5:13).
Instead, our relationships should look like the kind Paul exhorted the Corinthians to have with the Macedonians:
“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,”
“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Cor. 8:13-15)
In the coming economic challenges, this conviction will matter more than ever. Some of our churches, and their members, may flourish in the stock market. Some people will remain out of work or lose the jobs they have. But the one with material wealth may be spiritually weak and the one in poverty may be rich toward God (see Luke 12:21). Each needs the other.
Yes, a presbytery is a bureaucracy. And yes, it is a non-profit corporation.
But more foundationally, it is a covenant between the PC(USA) congregations in a region, a covenant to distribute resources and energy throughout the region’s churches to promote the Great Ends of the Church (Book of Order, F-1.0304). If we are faithful to that covenant, those who have much will live into God’s expectations, and those in need will benefit in a Christlike way.
Somewhere along the Way—