Today I spent a considerable amount of time reviewing the minutes of three presbyteries in preparation for General Assembly. To the uninitiated it might seem as exciting as watching paint dry but let me assure that it is an important part of being Presbyterian. We believe in the connectional nature of the church: that pastors, elders and congregations are mutually accountable to one another. This is something that congregational churches lack because such churches, by definition, are autonomous: any denominational motion or resolution is nothing more than pious advice and non-binding.
The process actually began earlier this spring as all 75 presbyteries were required to send a copy of their 2007 minutes to the national offices in Atlanta. Those minutes were then sent out to people like me who have experience in reviewing them. Ideally, all 75 sets of presbytery minutes will have had a first reading completed by the time our committee convenes (there are about 40 people from all across the country serving on this committee. Each presbytery can only send one representative and he is not allowed to review his presbytery's minutes.). Then a second reading takes place with a completely different reader. Both sets of notes are then compiled into one report for each presbytery by a recording clerk. Then each report of all 75 presbyteries is reviewed by the committee as a whole. Once this process is completed then a report is sent to the floor of General Assembly for approval.
Another part of this process is that each individual presbytery is also notified as to the committee's findings. "Exceptions of Form" are relatively minor things and require no further action. "Exceptions of Substance" are more serious and require a formal response from the presbytery to be reviewed at next year's General Assembly. Of the minutes I reviewed I found several exceptions of substance. Most notable were instances of receiving a minister into a presbytery without actually conducting a transfer exam: in one case the man was coming from another denomination and the presbytery conducted the wrong sort of transfer exam (they acted as if he was already a member of the PCA).
For those unfamiliar with Presbyterianism a similar process occurs at the local level: each and every church has its minutes reviewed annually by members of the presbytery. Again, this isn't a lot of fun but it is necessary. It ensures proper compliance to denominational standards but it also ensures that the rights of the individual church members are not trampled.
To my friends in congregational churches I can only wish that your church records would be reviewed in the light of day by independent sets of eyes. Maybe you would rest a little easier knowing that your churches' records are being audited by others outside the local body.