Who We Are As Presbyterians (cont'd)
Over the past few centuries, the Presbyterian expression of the Christian faith has evolved. Disagreements have led to church splits (like over slavery in the mid 1850's) resulting in about a dozen different Presbyterian denominations in the USA. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) numbers about 1.6 million members in about 10,000 congregations. The average membership of those congregations is 170. Our SBPC membership is about 1300.
In Presbyterian circles, we believe God speaks to the people who then listen to God as they elect their leaders: pastors, elders and deacons. Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders (Pastors), form Session, which is responsible for discerning and overseeing the ministries and priorities of the whole congregation. Deacons, under the authority of Session, serve in more specific ways to provide care for the congregation. Being an elder or deacon is a high calling. Although ordained for life, each elder and deacon actively serves a three-year term on Session or the Board of Deacons (this prevents a dynastic concentration of power). You might find it interesting that as a pastor, I have only one vote on Session, and our moderator, Pastor Mike McClenahan, votes only in the case of a tie (which I have never seen!). This was part of Calvin's obsession with parity and equality in leadership. He didn't want parish popes!
We, as Presbyterians, are also tied into a larger family where checks and balances and encouragements are built in. We think we can do more good for God when we collaborate! The thirty plus Presbyterian congregations in San Diego band together in what's called a presbytery, specifically the Presbytery of San Diego. There are about 170 presbyteries in the USA. A presbytery is composed of all the pastors in the area plus an equal number of elders appointed by Sessions. Did you know that I can't be a member of SBPC? My wife is, but I'm not. Pastors are members of presbytery. Once again, that is Calvin's way of reducing the power of pastors on the congregational scene. The presbytery examines and ordains pastors and holds us accountable for Godly behavior. The presbytery also helps congregations in various ways. For instance, when a congregation gets into troubled times, friends from presbytery come alongside and help resolve issues.
All of the presbyteries across the nation come together in what's called General Assembly (GA). At this level, we as a national church cooperate in international mission, curriculum development, new church development, and a host of other larger concerns. Every two years, presbyteries elect, according to their membership size, commissioners who participate in a five day General Assembly meeting where issues of importance are debated and decided. The GA is the highest "court" in our church. If a controversy is not settled satisfactorily at the presbytery level, then the matter can be appealed to GA. Although we value our Presbyterian history dating back many centuries, it is the aim of SBPC to always be reforming; we want to seek God for the new thing He wants to do in our day. Why? Because the never-changing Gospel must be allowed to show its relevance to an ever-changing world. Many futurists are seeing a significant change in the way denominations operate these days, with more emphasis given to natural networks of fellowship and ministry developing between congregations across denominational lines. More and more, I find Christian less and less identified with denominations. We love and serve Christ together with little notice of our labels.
Our presbytery has developed a unifying document that reflects the essential tenets of the reformed faith. It's called "What We Believe."