There comes a time when a pastor started with a burst of energy reach a plateau — calcified in habits, schedules, expectations, and ministry; churches that will continue to decline without a strong dose of revitalization.

In recent years it’s dawned on several PCA pastors that what’s true of the local church is also true of the regional church — the presbytery. Three pastors in particular — Jason Dorsey, Ray Cortese, and Bruce O’Neil — have seen such decay firsthand, and decided to do something about it. At the 2014 General Assembly, these men shared much of what they had learned; they talked about warning signs, the purpose of presbytery, participation, and the attitudes of those who are there.

Recently Larry Hoop, editor of Reasoning Together, spoke to these men, hoping to learn more about what it takes to cultivate a thriving presbytery.

Warning Signs

It begins with the tone of the meeting. “If presbytery meetings seem lifeless, contentious, or purposeless, it’s time to think about revitalization,” says Ray Cortese. Ask men to define why they’re meeting. Or after the meeting, ask them if they accomplished their goals. If they give you that befuddled look, the presbytery needs to be invigorated. More to the point, if the meeting fails to advance the mission Christ gave the church, then, he says, we need to rethink what we’re  doing.

The underlying problem, says Bruce O’Neil, is a fundamental disagreement about the purpose of presbytery. Some see the presbytery as a credentialing body, which means its primary purpose is to act as a theological gatekeeper. Others see it as disciplinary body, so the mood is always litigious. These narrow views aren’t especially inviting O’Neil says. Credentialing and discipline are essential, but if this is what presbytery is primarily about, then says O’Neil, it’s no wonder people don’t want to be part of it.

Steps to Renewal

There are a number of things a presbytery can do. First, says O’Neil, presbytery members need to settle the question of purpose. “It’s a long and hard conversation about who are we and why are we here,” he says. And while a clear answer is vital, unanimity isn’t necessary. “We don’t have to have total agreement to move forward,” says O’Neil, “but we do have to have a majority understanding of who we are.”

It’s important, too, to paint a more beautiful picture, says Cortese. So many men have adopted a strictly judicial vision of presbytery; they see it primarily as a referee between warring parties. Others see it as a sentinel — here for no reason other than to block liberalism and protect the church’s purity. They’ve never envisioned anything different, says Cortese. If we showed them a more holistic picture, we might have a more vibrant organization.

Painting the Picture

So what would that picture look like?

In Central Indiana Presbytery it looks like a “band of brothers” says Jason Dorsey. That’s how these men see themselves; that’s their self-portrait. Such a vision “strikes a chord in the hearts of people who are hurting in ministry,” Dorsey adds, “men who are lonely and frustrated.”

Another part of the Central Indiana picture is ministry to one another’s families. The pastors’ wives gather during the meeting, Dorsey explains; afterward husbands and wives go out to dinner together. That way, they all enjoy “a deeper solidarity in the ministry.”

A Church, not just a Court

When a presbytery sees itself more as a church, O’Neil says, it will experience a sense of shared life. And that actually helps the presbytery in its work as a court. “If you want to reduce conflict or handle disagreement better, you need to have relationships.”

Cortese agrees that a good presbytery should look like a healthy local church. “Most people in ministry like the local church,” he says, “but [they] don’t like presbytery.”

So how do we make presbytery more like the local church?

Worship is a major component. “In the local church, Cortese says, worship is usually well planned, intentional, and rich. Talented and gifted people are upfront and leading. But at presbytery, worship is often thrown together at the last minute —intentionally kept short and perfunctory. Real worship, he says, has a deeply renewing effect on a presbytery.

Presbyteries would also be better off by adopting the local church’s model of community. At the local church, Cortese points out, “you cheer for each other, you cry together, you eat with each other, and you do life together.” Presbyteries would be healthier if they shared that kind of community.

Find a Way that Works

There’s no one right answer or approach. In O’Neil’s Chesapeake Presbytery, a group of change agents “… stood up on the floor one day and said, “This isn’t working.” They persuaded other members that the presbytery was broken, “both relationally and structurally.” And then, as a group, they began to think through the presbytery’s identity and mission. Through that process, they were able to bring healthy structural change.

In Central Florida, Cortese and others surveyed a broad spectrum of people: What did they like and dislike? Were they satisfied or unsatisfied? What would they change? What would they improve? What was perfect just the way it was?

The group identified the recurring themes, and then outlined a handful of specific recommendations. They took their ideas to likely opponents, and asked if they’d be willing to try something new — just on a trial basis. Then they asked presbytery to suspend its rules for one year and implement the suggested changes.

When the year had passed, the changes were overwhelmingly approved.

Dealing with Fear

But people in the PCA are wary. It was key, Cortese says, to present the changes as temporary — to let everybody know that anything permanent would have to be approved at the end of the trial. That paved the way for much needed change.

It’s as if we have this inborn fear, Dorsey suggests, that change is the first step down the slope of moral or theological decline. And it seems to Ray Cortese that “fear is the besetting sin coursing under the PCA.” That’s why change is the enemy to so many within our ranks.

There’s another group that inhibits change. O’Neil calls them the “comfortable middle,” who, he says, has made peace with the status quo. When you’re willing to settle for what you’ve got — no matter how bad or wrong it is — there’s nothing to sap more time; nothing — or no one — to demand still more effort. Life’s just easier that way. But, when you’re centered on a mission there are costs, O’Neil says. A lot of men avoid change because it requires them to do something.

And then there’s idolatry. “My need to build a reputation, to validate myself before God and people is going to be achieved by the accomplishments of the local church not the regional church,” Cortese says. So that’s where we’re going to invest; we need the Gospel to set us free from that.

Unbelief is another barrier. If we don’t see Christ at work in the local church, we don’t really expect to see Him at presbytery,” Cortese says. When that’s the case, there’s not a lot of anticipation, nor much evidence of hope.

Still, Dorsey insists that a life giving dynamic can exist between the local church and presbytery. “In a healthy presbytery, church vitality teams are working with local congregations, breathing life into them,” he says. Cortese agrees, adding that, “Many elders have never been in a ministry that’s really alive.” For them, he says, presbytery can be a clinic. It can be this place where worship, communion, relationships — even the way business is handled —provides a paradigm for the local church.”

Fighting for Presbytery

We’re responsible for our presbyteries and their cultures, Dorsey says. Each elder needs the mindset that the presbytery — its health and vitality — are worth fighting for. We have to come to grips with the truth that we’ve entered a covenant relationship with the other men in presbytery. “We take vows to that effect” Dorsey says, “but when the rubber meets the road, are we really committed to each other? Will we fight for our presbytery?”

You can start by praying for God to give the presbytery a bigger vision, and for Him to give you a bigger vision as well,” O’Neil suggests. Then start talking with other pastors — especially leaders. “You might get a great hearing from those guys as you share your own hopes and dreams.”

It helps to be humble and teachable, Dorsey adds, but we also need to be courageous. “Once you have commitment and resolve, it’s important to act, and to trust that God will teach us and correct us as we fight for God’s glory in our presbyteries.”