The Rev. Philip C. Brown, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Milwaukee since 1996, has been elected to lead Presbyterians in a six-state Midwestern area that includes Wisconsin as executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He starts in Bloomington, Minn., April 1. A presbytery's geographic area is similar to that of a synod or a diocese in Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Catholic and Episcopal traditions. But there are no bishops. A presbytery, through its ministers and congregations, is considered a corporate bishop. At the synod level, Brown will oversee 16 presbyteries. A third-generation Presbyterian minister, he took five with Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Heinen.
Q. What is the synod's role?
A. We look inward at what we can do to help equip and train our presbyteries and congregations for the work that they are doing, and outward at what we can do to serve the mission needs of our geography. We have covenant relationships in seven colleges, Carroll College being one. We partner with eight retirement homes. We fund or partially fund campus ministries over six states, including UWM, UW-Madison and others in Wisconsin.
Q. Your challenges? Governance is changing. After 2004, the national General Assembly meets every other year instead of annually for the first time since 1789.
A. The primary task is to help the synod focus its resources more clearly on its 16 presbyteries. There's a lot of questioning in the Presbyterian Church, "Is a synod necessary any longer?" In the Midwest, synods tend to have a more positive reputation. They have more effectively served presbyteries. Frankly, a challenge for me is to discover in light of the church today and declining membership and a variety of things, what is the realistic role of the synod.
Q. What about declining membership?
A. We think it's abating nationally, but from year to year we get surprised. In the last 20 years, our denomination has lost 22% of its members. That has added to the number of very small congregations - 45% of our 11,100 congregations are under 100 members. The loss is not due to the tough issues that we seem to thrive on. Members just become inactive rather than move to more conservative or more liberal churches. Some like to think we are losing members to churches more "faithful to the Bible." That's not the case.
Q. Speaking of tough issues, the Milwaukee Presbytery helped lead two failed attempts in recent years to delete a requirement from the Book of Order that candidates for ordination be "faithful in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chaste in singleness."
A. Probably since 1978, the primary issue that has been a very difficult topic for us is the ordination of gays and lesbians as officers in the church or as ministers of word and sacrament. That issue is not as front and center in the synod as in presbyteries. And that's because a synod does not determine membership standards. I think various groups who have worked on these issues have determined that, right now, the denomination is tired on all sides of the issue. A peace, unity and purity committee charged with bringing in some new, fresh approach is to make recommendations in 2006.
Q. Your thoughts?
A. Our denomination is one that has celebrated diversity in its history. But right now there's a trend toward purity, with a small group wanting to define purity, meaning what is right belief. I believe our faith and practice are strengthened in diversity; that God is bigger, not smaller, more inclusive rather than exclusive. As Presbyterians, we've always been diverse, and we've always fought about it. Our constitution is very insistent on discovering unity in the midst of our diversity, not in the midst of our sameness. Our discovering unity in Jesus Christ makes a vital witness to the world.