Is The PC (USA) Like The NCAA?

Last week I wondered if presbyteries are families. Today I’m asking if the PC (USA) is like the NCAA.

The question comes from Clark Cowden, the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of San Diego. He writes on his blog:

We already have 16 synods and 173 presbyteries. Just as each congregation has its own unique identity, each presbytery has its own unique identity. What happens when a congregation realizes its identity does not match up well with the presbytery it is in? What happens if it discovers that its DNA actually matches up a lot better with the DNA of a different presbytery? Can we allow our churches to change conferences within the denomination like they do in college athletics? Can we allow new presbyteries, new synods, new fellowships, and new networks to be created to advance the Kingdom of God? In our church history, we have allowed for different orders within a denomination (Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits). Is it time for the PCUSA to explore something similar?

[[sidenote: I attempted to comment on this post when I first read it weeks ago, but my comment never appeared.]]

In another post, Clark answers his own question:

The PC(USA) is becoming more like the NCAA, which has 32 different conferences for major college athletics. The Pac 10 has different rules than the Mountain West Conference. The Western Athletic Conference is different from the Big 10. What other churches and other presbyteries do around the country, will be more like what other conferences do in college athletics. We are not responsible for what others do. We are only accountable for what we do.

Athletic conferences in the NCAA have always served as the organizing entity for local schools. And as much as the Big 10 and the ACC make of their “tradition,” conferences have always been flexible; which schools play in which conferences has always been negotiable. In that sense, the PC (USA) is like the NCAA. Churches have switched presbyteries since there have been presbyteries, normally for geographic considerations.

But that’s about as far as it goes.

In the era of cable television, which colleges play in which conferences is about one thing: TV revenue (There’s no such thing as “DNA” when it comes to a school or a conference. That image is an abstraction that serves to distance those wishing to realign from the local consequences of their actions).

College sports are good TV (College football is one of the most profitable broadcast products in the country). The South Eastern Conference (SEC), to take only one example, has multi-billion dollar television contracts with both ESPN and CBS. Individual schools in that conference received roughly $17.3 million from those agreements in 2010. Obviously, it pays to be in the SEC. The Big 12 conference recently inked a deal with the Fox Sports Media Group for broadcast rights to its teams’ games. Yet other conferences like the Big 10 have launched their own cable networks, which are usually collaborations with established networks like ESPN and Fox.

Given this landscape, colleges realign with conferences from which they stand to make a bigger share of TV revenue, and conferences lure valuable schools to their conferences that will drive bigger audiences to their networks, allowing them to charge higher rates to advertisers.

When a college leaves one conference for another, the new conference–and its executive–stand to gain significantly.  The impact on the conference that’s left depends largely on the size of the school leaving. Basically, when a large school with a nationally-recognized sports programs leaves its current conference, it devalues the conference.  When Nebraska left the Big 12 last spring, that conference nearly collapsed as the remaining big programs (Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M) feverishly looked for greener pastures in which to play. In the end, the smaller budget schools in the conference had to guarantee some $20 million in revenue to the big schools to keep them, even though that likely would mean cutting their own (smaller) budgets.

I don’t have much sympathy for the complaint that this money-grabbing by conferences, schools, and networks devalues college athletics; sports and advertising-driven television broadcasting exist in symbiotic relationship. I have no naivete about that. Colleges aren’t bound to one another in conferences by “tradition” or anything else beyond financial reality.

But the analogy between the NCAA and a church denomination is fundamentally flawed. Clark Cowden perceives realignment in college athletics to be about DNA. It’s clearly not (unless you measure DNA in dollars). Likewise, realignment of congregations within the PC (USA) into different presbyteries will have more than “genetic” consequences. Some presbyteries will face insolvency as a result. People will lose their jobs. Churches may close.

Those scenarios don’t amount to a reason to maintain the status quo at all costs. Some things may very well have to change, and change is always difficult. But everyone involved with these conversations–presbytery executives, pastors, elders–needs to deal with the facts and to not fly away into metaphors, especially ones as misled as this.