Who Wants Change?

by | Oct 2, 2018 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

When change is necessary, Presbyterians often already have the means. The real question is whether we have the will.

Take as an example the challenge of including more young voices1 in our decision making. We already have a way to do this. As soon as a congregation has received a young person as a member, that congregation could elect the person as an elder.

A Co-Moderator’s Story

One of this year’s General Assembly Co-Moderators has such a story. Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri was elected as a Ruling Elder in her congregation when she was nineteen. Now in her forties, she has served in a wide range of leadership in the PC(USA), first in Puerto Rico, then in Florida, and now on the national stage.

Cintrón-Olivieri’s story shows an organic way to bring forward younger voices. We can elect them in the congregations, engage them in the presbyteries, and then commission them to national service—without any change in procedures.

Institutional Solutions

Of course, the Church often prefers institutional solutions. At General Assembly in June, a commissioner’s resolution came forward to grant advisory delegates vote for the future election of GA Moderators. GA referred the item to the Office of the General Assembly for a recommendation in 2020.

The proposed change has its appeal. Even if our reasons are strictly self-serving, we know the benefit of hearing diverse voices and granting outsiders real influence. And only the greatest curmudgeons do not long for their church to engage younger believers more fully.

But granting plenary vote to advisory delegates would require undoing three foundational principles of Presbyterian leadership. These exist at a deep place within the Presbyterian Church, far below the carven ruts of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Foundational Principles

First, we are a church “governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders” (F-3.0202).

Second, these people are elected by the bodies they will serve (F-3.0107). They commit themselves publicly to carrying out that service under the authority of Christ as revealed in Scripture and understood in the Confessions (W-4.0404).

Third, those who govern do so “by vote, following opportunity for discussion and discernment, and a majority shall govern” (F-3.0205).

Ordained officers, elected by their constituent bodies, sometimes commissioned to service on higher councils, who govern by voting. This is what it means to be Presbyterian.2

Granting advisory delegates the vote, then, would require redefining at least one of the three foundational principles. We would have to rethink who leads the church, how we choose them, or how they lead.

Losing a Special Standing

Further, if we grant the vote to advisory delegates, their status as advisors would cease. They would become commissioners. Would losing their special standing for the sake of entering the regular pool of potential commissioners give the average young Presbyterian a better experience? I’m not convinced.

And what of the participatory learning that YAADs and TSADs3 particularly enjoy? Their presence benefits us, yes. But it also benefits them. The YAAD and TSAD programs introduce young adults and theological students to the Assembly long before they would otherwise see it. Through the programs we interpret the workings of the national church to them and prepare them to engage more effectively in the future.

A Better Solution

How, then, to bring young adults into greater participation at all levels of the Church? Simple. Follow the path of those who ordained Cintrón-Olivieri. Find those who are already manifesting serious discipleship in community, and elect them to leadership.

If we prepare them for leadership sooner…
if we refuse to market to them as consumers or condescend to them as unprepared…
if we welcome them into our ministries and release our tight grip on control…
if we learn to follow those who follow us…

…then the next generation of church leaders will emerge before we know it.

We already have the power to reshape the conversation. The question is only whether we have the will.


[1] I am deliberately leaving undefined what “young” means here. The practical definition will vary from congregation to congregation.

[2] Yes, we follow Christ. We are children of the Western Church and the Protestant Reformation. And we take our theological cues from John Calvin. All of these aspects of church life shape our way of being Christians. But these three things distinguish us from other Reformed, Protestant, Western Christians.

[3] Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) and Theological Student Advisory Delegates (TSADs). General Assembly also welcomes EADs (Ecumenical Advisory Delegates) and MADs (Missionary Advisory Delegates), though in fewer numbers than the first two groups.