Here’s some of what was talked about during the council’s meeting March 25-27.
Washington Office review. A study group continues to consider the future of the PC(USA)’s Washington office, an office that’s been in transition since its former long-time director, Elenora Giddings Ivory, left in 2007 to take a position with the World Council of Churches.
Questions under consideration include what the staffing and funding should be for the Washington office. It now is down to only two staff members and “their work is daunting,” said council member Roger Gench of Washington, D.C., giving an update on the work of the study group.
“Many people don’t even know the national office exists,” Gench said. And of those who do, some are very supportive, and others “disagree very much with where the national office has been and is going.” Some perceive a liberal bias in how the office has interpreted General Assembly policy, Gench said; for others, “they simply disagree with General Assembly policy.”
The study group, led by Eileen Lindner, who is connectional presbyter of Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey, started its work in early March. Among the questions it’s considering, according to Gench:
• What’s the role of the PC(USA) in “speaking the truth to power” — or speaking the truth to the church itself?
• In an interfaith world, how can Presbyterians or other mainline denominations get to the table of political power?
• And if they do, who will actually listen to what they have to say?
Ghost Ranch. The council is considering setting up a study group to decide whether to incorporate the Ghost Ranch Conference Center as a separate entity independent of the church. The proposal is that a committee would study the idea and report back to the council at its meeting in September. Ghost Ranch will present a more detailed business plan at that time.
The PC(USA) currently owns Ghost Ranch, which has property in Abiquiu, N.M., and in Santa Fe. The Abiquiu property was given to the denomination in 1955 by Arthur Pack, the publisher of Ranger Rick and Nature magazines, and his wife, Phoebe. The denomination is being asked to give — rather than sell — the property to an independently incorporated entity and perhaps to help with transitional financing to get the new entity up-and-running.
Debra Hepler, executive director of Ghost Ranch since April 2008, and Bill Ireland, a lawyer and a member of its governing board, explained that incorporating separately would avoid duplication of administrative services and improve their ability to raise funds from donors. Of about 140 camp and conference centers in the PC(USA), the denomination owns only two directly, Ireland said – Ghost Ranch and the Stony Point Center outside New York City. The Ghost Ranch board is committed to maintaining the natural beauty of the property and to maintaining its connection with the church, Hepler said.
But some donors, for example, some connected with interfaith dialogue programs at the center involving Christians, Jews and Sikhs, want to support the programming but “don’t want to give to the Presbyterians,” Hepler told the council’s Evangelism Committee. Ghost Ranch has diverse programming, she said — offering everything from training for interim pastors to fly-fishing — and wants to capitalize on the passions of potential donors, such as those drawn by the center’s nationally-regarded museum of discoveries from dinosaur-era archeological digs.
The biggest risk, Ireland said, is that “we’re taking responsibility for seeing that Ghost Ranch is a financial success. … We’re going to need to be able to stand on our own two feet … .”
Council member Martin Lifer of South Carolina raised questions about the center’s continuing connection with the Presbyterian church. Is it wise, he wondered, for the denomination to basically give away “a virtually priceless piece of property”? And what would happen, he asked, if donors wanted Ghost Ranch to switch to a more secular emphasis — for example, to focus on the legacy of renowned artist Georgia O’Keefe, who lived in the area?
“That’s obviously not what we want to do,” Ireland said. But he and Hepler stressed that all Ghost Ranch is asking for now is that a group be set up to study the idea of incorporating separately — and the council would hear another report based on that committee’s work in September.
Closed meetings. The council voted March 27 to change its policy regarding closed meetings to allow it to exclude “corresponding members” from such discussions.
One impact of that is that members of advisory and advocacy committees involving social justice issues can be excluded from closed meetings at which budgets and staff reductions are discussed – and that provoked protests from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.
“Budgets are justice statements,” said Bill Gray of the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, arguing that the General Assembly has given these groups the responsibility of holding the PC(USA) accountable on these issues.
But that view did not prevail. So under the new policy the council adopted March 27, corresponding members would be excluded from the meetings unless the council invites them to participate in the proceedings – as it did later that same day, in discussions on the layoffs for the PC(USA)’s national staff resulting from a nearly $10 million shortfall in the 2009 budget.
On March 24, the executive committee voted to amend the proposal – to allow at-large members selected because they have particular expertise, such as in financial matters — to attend the closed sessions.
Council vice-chair Michael Kruse of Kansas City said he understands that the new policy may feel like exclusion to some, “but there are other considerations involved . . . The intent is not to exclude,” but to give the council a tool to use if it needs to have discussions on sensitive matters.
There could be the potential “where an issue emerges where we are in conflict, possibly even legal conflict,” and without the policy change the council would not be able to exclude from the discussion the party involved in the conflict, “if they have the right to be at every meeting,” Kruse said.
Not mentioned in the council’s discussion were the differences it has had with the Presbyterian Foundation over investments — differences that bubbled over very publicly last year and still are creating currents of tension. A Foundation representative also is among the 14 corresponding members of the council — which means that if the General Assembly Council and the Foundation got into a legal dispute, the Foundation representative now could be excluded from a council’s closed-door discussion.
In a brief interview, Kruse said “this is not targeted at the Foundation,” but is an effort to correct “an overreaction” from two years ago, when the council adopted the policy allowing corresponding members to stay in closed-door discussions.
Racial ethnic schools. Some of the racial-ethnic schools that historically have received funding from the PC(USA) continue to have financial difficulties. Some, such as Mary Holmes College, already have closed. The council voted March 27 to stop providing funding this spring from the Christmas Joy offering to Sheldon Jackson College in Alaska, because the school has no students. It suspended operations in 2007, said Rhashell Hunter, the PC(USA)’s director of racial ethnic and women’s ministries.
So the money the PC(USA) is sending from the Christmas Joy offering to Sheldon Jackson is going to pay salaries, Hunter said.
“They do not meet the criteria” of assisting racial ethnic students, said council member Mary Lynn Walters of Arizona. “We have to be true to the donors of Christmas Joy.”
The council voted to stop providing funds from the Christmas Joy offering to Sheldon Jackson as of May 2009, and that no additional money be sent until/if Sheldon Jackson enrolls students and presents a strategic plan for continued operation and an audit of its finances.
Sheldon Jackson had been slated to receive more than $153,000 from the Christmas Joy offering in 2009, but so far has received only one quarterly payment, of about $38,000.