What is unique about the Presbyterian Church is that we are a ‘church of courts’. The word Presbyterian finds its root in the Ancient Greek word, Presbyteros meaning elders. The Presbyterian Church in Canada is made up of and governed by elders. The Minister is referred to as the Teaching Elder while the “leadership team” called a Session is made up of Ruling Elders elected and ordained by the congregation to serve as spiritual leaders of the local congregation.
Each congregation has a Session made up of the Minister and a number of Ruling Elders. Each congregation has a Representative Elder and an Alternate (if the Representative is unable to attend) who attend the Presbytery. Presbytery is the next highest court and is made up of Representative Elders and Ministers from a fixed geographical region. Essentially the Presbytery serves to oversee and provide pastoral oversight to the congregations and their ministers. Interestingly enough, ministers are accountable to the Presbytery not the local congregation. In fact, Presbyteries are the court who determine (approve) if a minister can be ‘hired’ by a local congregation.
Synods are the name of the next level of court within The Presbyterian Church in Canada. They often have resource staff who serve the congregations within a much larger regional area – sometimes as expansive as an entire Province. Synods also have oversight of our Church Camps. Representatives from the Presbytery (ministers and ruling elders) meet as the Synod once a year.
And finally, The Presbyterian Church in Canada meets as a General Assembly annually. One sixth of the membership of our Presbyteries – ministers and ruling elders – are commissioned to attend General Assembly. This is the highest court of the denomination and is where we make decisions about what we stand for, what we believe, and how we govern ourselves effectively.
The informal motto of The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s Governance structure is not far off the foundational motto of Canada – Peace, Order and Good Government… ours is that all things should be conducted ‘decently and in good order.’