This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Future of Stated Clerks.

            Under the old Presbyterian Form of Government it was often the job of the presbytery Stated Clerk to interpret, uphold, and clarify its detailed rules.  In this role, the Stated Clerk had to be able to give balanced advice uncontrolled by whatever the agenda might have been of the presbytery or its entities, like the Executive Presbyter, or the Committee on Ministry, or the Presbytery Council.
            Now, however, the new Form of Government, emphasizes flexibility and permission giving.  This means that there is less daylight between what the Book will permit, and what a presbytery decides it wants to do.  In the new Book, more authority and responsibility is given to local councils (presbyteries and sessions) to organize themselves and undertake actions according to their sense of their own mission in their specific situation.  This means that the Book of Order has a more general and less immediate influence on our daily work, while we will be more directly governed by the details of the administrative manual of the local presbytery.  Thus we see that the role of anyone charged with mediating between the Book of Order and the presbytery is greatly diminished.
            As a Stated Clerk I see the need quickly to rethink and retool for this new way of operating.  For we clerks do have skills and expertise that presbyteries will require as they reorganize for mission in new ways.  But we have to see ourselves less as “canon lawyers” and more as functional and critical enablers of mission.
            For one thing, we carry the institutional memory of the body.  While it may no longer be expressed in terms of detailed legislation to be enforced, where we have been as an institution is still relevant to the decisions we are making today.  This is true even if our awareness of our past tells us more about what not to do and what didn’t work, or at least won’t work today.  Having this longitudinal scope is essential if a presbytery is going to avoid some mistakes of the past.  The Stated Clerk is the one person in the structure of a presbytery who has this awareness and access to this data.    
            Stated Clerks and session clerks, are, in a sense, storytellers.  We keep the story of the body.  We maintain the coding which constitutes the presbytery’s identity, it’s “dna,” if you will.  On one level, this story is written in the Minutes of the presbytery.  But on another level, presbyteries have what we might call an “oral tradition:” the collection of anecdotes, memories, habits, and even legends of the council.  Stated Clerks, especially those who have been around a while, are the ones most likely to have access to this awareness and insight.  We maintain and integrate both the written and oral history of the body, making it available to inform the body’s current witness.
            Stated Clerks also have extensive knowledge about organizational structures and relationships.  This means we give cogent and sometimes pointed advice about the promise and the consequences of particular arrangements and decisions.  Instead of saying, “The Book says you can’t do that,” now we can say, “That might work, but here are the pitfalls and liabilities of such a course of action; and here are some examples of where that sort of thing worked well and how they did it.”  Now we have to have the presence of mind and communication ability to say the presbytery should determine its actions, not just because of what the Book and its history of interpretation says, though that information is important to have.  We have more importantly to ask the questions concerning the degree to which a course of action is effective, efficient, fair, authentic, biblical, or faithful.
            In other words, the role of the Stated Clerk is quickly evolving into one that has more to do with assisting a presbytery in turning its vision into actual structures, procedures, and practices that work.  We are moving from being referees to being advocates for best practices.  In addition to interpreting the streamlined Book of Order, we will be more about interpreting, organizing, and structuring the mission of the presbytery.
            Over the past few decades presbyteries have evolved a staffing pattern that normally includes two professional leadership figures in our presbyteries: the Stated Clerk (usually part-time, but who may serve for many years) and the Executive (usually full-time, but who doesn’t always last that long in any one place).  Under the new Form of Government (and, unfortunately, prodded by diminishing finances) many presbyteries are combining these jobs.  But merely folding the responsibilities of the Stated Clerk into the job description of the Executive will not be successful.  This approach does not take the Stated Clerk role seriously.  Rather, it thinks of the clerk as a mainly secretarial, bureaucratic position.  Still worse, some Executives seem to think they are removing an obstacle to progress when they assume/eliminate the Stated Clerk’s job.
            Leaving aside the question as to whether many Executives have any clue about progress, Stated Clerks have in the recent past served as obstacles to initiatives that went against the old Form of Government.  We are still called to serve as obstacles to initiatives that violate the spirit of our polity or the Scriptures, or are just plain dumb.  But more important is the emerging positive role of the Stated Clerk.  He/she is the figure in the presbytery best equipped to oversee organizational development and transformation.
            In a more general sense, this role remains faithful to the Stated Clerk’s calling to interpret the Constitution.  It’s just that now the Constitution, at least the Form of Government section of it, is different.  The old Form of Government was often interpreted in a regulatory manner.  But now, to interpret this Form of Government faithfully will have to do with helping a presbytery discern and organize itself for mission.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your attention to the importance of corporate memory.
As an interim pastor, I am finding fewer and fewer churches that have effective story - carriers/tellers. For so long, the Roberts Rules kind of minutes and annual reports didn't give meaning or color to the decisions, dismal failures, shining joys, uncertainty or state of the body. Recording only motions that passed leaves a minimalist archive.

It is a different world for Stated Clerks - moving from what do the rules say to what will honor God, build up the body of Christ, and get the job done.

What you are describing is a first step in an evolving job description. It may not be the same in five or ten years. And as you hint, it may not last til then, even when there is good and important work to be done.

Hmmm... As the function of the Stated Clerk has been constitutionally mandated and therefore included in the expenses that comprise the Per Capita, will the cost of clerks be pulled from per capita funding in the future? That would be the death knell.

But we live with faith and trust into the risk that is future!

Kathy Keener-Han

A Seed said...

Paul, I think you should send this on to Outlook for publication and further dissemination.