What I learned from my Presbytery Internship

One of the projects my EP and internship supervisor asked me to complete as my year-long internship comes to a close was a reflection on what I have learned. It encapsulates a lot of what we’ve talked about during our travels, actually. But she wanted to be able to share it with the Council and others as a way of helping them see the presbytery and its work through a fresh set of eyes.

I must confess that very few people understood why I would want to do an internship at the Presbytery office. Those who “got it” tended to be the sort of polity nerd that I am – truly captivated by the way that our denomination values the complex organism that is the Body of Christ from individual to congregation to denomination on out to the church universal. I have sensed that the work of congregational ministry is only part of my calling, so I wanted to get a first-hand look at what happens (and doesn’t happen) at middle levels of denominational work.

Goals for my Internship

  1. Observe how the work of the presbytery is accomplished via a combination of staff and congregational leaders
  2. Better understand the connectional nature of the church
  3. Gain exposure to a variety of churches and pastors, identifying contexts about which I might want learn

Key Insights Gained

About the Connectional Nature of the Church

Based on conversations overheard and initiated, the individualistic nature of our culture that we seek to resist in a Reformed understanding of salvation, spiritual gifts and local ecclesiology is equally damaging to the health of a connectional denomination. For the same reasons we baptize children into a community, we gather churches into presbytery communities.

Issues such as theological differences, distance, negative experience (personal or corporate), economic or other difficulties, transitions and even the prevailing congregationalist culture can and do erode the connections at the presbytery level. We can add to this the distrust that congregations may develop toward the General Assembly and the tendency to see the presbytery as part of “Them” and not “us.”

However, the time seems ripe for conversations that can reframe an understanding of presbytery through the witness of congregations’ experience of relationships in Central Florida Presbytery.

The data collected for the Council’s review of its priorities and goals points to a desire for support in key areas, particularly from smaller to mid-sized churches. Providing high quality training as a direct result of our relationships and ministry together reminds elected leaders of the value of supporting the presbytery with human, financial or other resources. Finding new ways to provide training, share best practices and foster communication among elders and ministers will help foster connections among elected elders beyond those participating in the ongoing Acts 16:5 initiative.

The COM retreat revealed a desire among committee members to assist member congregations and pastors in developing healthy relationships. This committee probably has the greatest opportunity to be ambassadors for the Presbytery, as it works to connecting with churches regularly, not only at times of crisis and pastoral transitions. Triennial visits are an opportunity for the session and pastor to be share strengths and areas of concern, but they also offer the COM opportunities to remind churches about resources that can support their efforts to spread the Good News and build disciples.

Pastoral vs Administrative Skills

It has been interesting to observe committee meetings with an eye toward how ministers and elders interact. Time and again, I saw that we do indeed have a polity of equals- there is mutual respect for the work of committee members, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or type of ordained ministry.

Because committees are essentially microcosms of interpersonal issues in the broader culture, it is not surprising that the need to provide administrative support is actually balanced by a need for support of a more spiritual nature. Elders and ministers who work together over time develop a sense of community. They begin to share those things that weigh on their hearts and for which they covet prayers and support- sometimes without intentions to do so. The ministry that occurs in committees can be significant and profound.

What “Roles” are important at the Presbytery level?

Not positions, per se, but roles that exist and need to be owned somewhere within the structure of the leadership of the presbytery as a whole and within committees. These can – and in some cases should- be shared.

Communicator – someone thinking about the flow of communication and how to assure that information is going out from Presbytery and is being gathered from members for future sharing. Someone who consistently asks the questions “Who else needs to know?” and “What’s the best way to tell them?”

Imagineer/Strategist – someone who listens across several committees, meetings and/or groups, identifies common themes and makes connections, who surveys the horizon beyond the presbytery for new ways of doing and being church and works with the communicator to get the word out.

Historian – someone who remembers what has come before, more to avoid repeating than to hearken back.

Pastor – someone who can assure that pastors are OK, and that if they are not OK that they have a safe place to share why. Who also assures that churches are healthy and that elders have a safe place to share why they are/are not.

So, why should someone consider an internship at a presbytery office?

  • There are aspects of congregational ministry that you are just not likely to run into during confines of a traditional internship – from a contentious congregational meeting to the death of a pastor. But when you expand your scope to 70+ congregations at various stages of the life cycle of a church, you can see a lot.
  • The opportunity to observe multiple committees doing the work of the larger church.
  • Exposure to ministers and elders from a variety of contexts
  • Opportunity to worship in many different buildings, worship styles and congregations
  • The reminder that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t the way everybody else has always done it – or – one church’s sacred cow may be another church’s barbecue
  • The opportunity to meet men and women who are passionate about the work God has called them to do in support of the larger church.
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