Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says response to his “Call to the Church” for reform has been “overwhelming,” even though not all Presbyterians agree it’s practical and details still need to be worked out
Since issuing the call at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting Sept. 23, Rada said he’s heard from groups from across the PC(USA) – ranging from the Committee on Theological Education to leadership of NEXT Church to advocacy groups – expressing interest and wanting to become part of the conversation.
“I’ve been delighted,” Rada said in an interview with the Outlook. “And it’s been from all ends of the theological spectrum, from all church sizes, from middle adjudicatory people to staff at the national office to local pastors. All are saying, ‘We have to do something to get our ship moving in a direction where we can trust and grow and move forward as a denomination.’ ”
Here are some more details regarding Rada’s proposal and what happens next.
Research Services. In late October, the PC(USA)’s Research Services will invite Presbyterians to participate in a survey regarding the identity, mission and focus of the denomination. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) has initiated what’s being called a “churchwide consultation,” and will share a summary of the results with the 2016 General Assembly, Rada said. The intent is “to engage the whole denomination in a conversation about what the church is called to be and do, what it means to be a connectional church, and what is our shared identity,” the invitation to participate states.
Rada said COGA has responsibility for framing what happens at the General Assembly, so “the only way we can make change officially is through action of the General Assembly.” So COGA will take leadership for the consultation, he said, adding that “I know there are some people who don’t feel that’s the right way to go.” He’s encouraging Presbyterians to “step out in faith that we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. To some extent, the board is on its own trajectory to shape a mission budget for the denomination for 2017 and 2018 – a budget the board is expected to vote on in April 2016 and present to the General Assembly in June.
At its September meeting, the board voted to “embrace the churchwide listening effort,” but also is conducting its own “multi-level listening plan” with the help of Research Services. That will involve feedback sessions with constituent focus groups plus an electronic survey, board member Wendy Tajima explained at the meeting.
Among the core questions being considered:
- What does it mean to be a connectional church?
- Why does the church need national offices?
- What are the critical issues facing our culture, and how has the Presbyterian Mission Agency been helpful to PC(USA) congregations in addressing those issues?
- How does the mission agency help congregations do ministry they cannot do themselves?
Rada said the board must proceed with shaping the 2017 and 2018 budgets, but “what I’m calling for may mean that the General Assembly may alter” the budgets the board votes on in April. Board members “are aware of the fact that there may be changes down the road, but they are also aware of their responsibility” to draft a new PC(USA) mission budget.
“It’s my impression that the Mission Agency Board is accepting my call as a priority,” Rada said. “They’re going to continue to move forward, but want to do so in very close communication. …We are not conflicting.”
Commissioners’ meetings. Rada has proposed holding regional meetings of General Assembly commissioners in early 2016 – although he acknowledges that details of how that might happen – including how much it would cost and where the money would come from – have not been worked out. Rada said he’s heard from some seminaries, church conference centers and presbytery executives that “we would love to host, and believe it’s important.”
Who pays for it and how much would it cost? “You’ve got a moderator who’s doing things that the moderator is not charged to do,” Rada said. “I didn’t think it could wait … I will be asking these organizations if they will help” financially.
Skepticism. Rada said some Presbyterians are questioning whether his proposal is feasible, affordable or whether it really will bring the kind of change the denomination needs. “There is skepticism across the church about what I said, as to the timing” and about whether he’s being “mighty optimistic,” Rada acknowledged. People are asking, “Is this real? Is this possible? To be very candid, I don’t know.”
His response: “If we believe it’s important enough, it can” happen. “If God wants this to happen, then God will find a way to make this happen.”
Rada also said: “I’m extraordinarily grateful for the affirmation of what I’ve said” and reports hearing responses from around the world. “Our mission co-workers read the report … I’ve heard from missionaries all over the world saying ‘thank you, thank you, we’re so grateful this is being explored.’ ”
If Presbyterians are unhappy with what he’s proposed, “I want people to talk about it,” Rada said. “I believe firmly that unless we express our discontent … then it festers inside of us. That’s as unhealthy for the church just as it is for our human relationships. Whenever we disagree with someone, if we don’t discuss it with them, then it’s potentially going to grow into something that is disastrous.”
Rada said he’s not asking everyone to necessarily agree with his “Call to the Church” but “let’s find how we can lovingly disagree … and find ways to be a family nonetheless, and love each other, and recognize that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that’s the most important thing for all of us.”
New leadership. Rada said he’s heard some pushback regarding the appointment of Tony De La Rosa as interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, following Linda Valentine’s resignation last summer. While people praise De La Rosa’s professional skills – he’s a Yale-educated lawyer and ruling elder with experience in interim ministry – Rada said some question whether the PC(USA) should have selected a married gay man as its leader at a time when the denomination still has internal divisions over the question of same-sex marriage.
“There are varying opinions as to whether that appointment was a good thing for the church at this time,” Rada said. “There are people who find this to be a step beyond where they find themselves.”
In a question-and-answer interview conducted by the Presbyterian News Service, De La Rosa wrote by email that in his professional work with the PC(USA) in both New York and Seattle, “I have been blessed with nothing but respect and courtesy from those who might be otherwise discomfited by my service. The exceptions have been exceedingly few. Based on my experience, the PC(USA) today can serve as a demonstration to the country and to the world how people of faith can disagree and remain sisters and brothers in Christ, an exemplar sorely needed in the face of extremism and tumult over issues of public policy and social witness.”
Trust. Rada said “I do have a concern” about whether Presbyterians are willing to support the PC(USA) financially if they have questions about where the denomination is going and how the money is being spent. He stresses, however, that “we must continue to support our church while we’re going through the process of redefining our church.”
The difficulties in fundraising were one reason he issued his “Call to the Church” now, Rada said – following a conversation with a group considering how to raise more money for PC(USA) World Mission, to avoid having to reduce the number of mission co-workers the denomination has deployed.
Those leaders were saying, “we are willing to ask people for money and have been asking people for money, but until some things are straightened out people are saying they’re real wary or unwilling to support,” Rada said. “So I’m hoping my call might be seen as the first step toward the fact that we’re willing to make some changes. … If we don’t, I think we’re on a collision course. It could be disastrous financially.”
Possible merger. One subject under discussion: should the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency merge? How wedded are Presbyterians to the current structure?
“I don’t hear that people are,” Rada said. “I hear people saying we are ready to see what kind of structure can serve us in the era in which we live today, and that (current) structure was formed 30 years ago and is no longer valid. I hear a lot more of that.”
His immediate focus, however, is not on the pros and cons of structural merger. “I hope we would stop that conversation right now” about a possible merger of the entities, Rada said, “and determine theologically and ecclesiologically who we are and who we want to be, and then form the structure. Because to merge existing agencies is just another way to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
A question he wants to explore is: “Are those components the ones we that need … or are there other way to carry out those roles that would be even more effective?”
Budget cuts. At the same time these conversations are happening, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board will be making hard decisions about what ministries the denomination can afford to fund and what it cannot. That’s a conversation that needs to happen, Rada said – and is part of why the board is initiating a listening process as well.
“Folks, we’re going to have to give up some things that we love,” Rada said. “We are not the size (the denomination used to be) and we don’t have the resources. We’re going to have to give them up in terms of at least doing them the way we’ve been doing them. It may be that if we’re creative” – that if funds aren’t available support a mission people view as critical – that “we may look at all kinds of other alternatives that we’ve never thought about before, like partnering with other denominations or other nonprofits, or looking at ways we can work more closely with foundations” or other entities to do work cooperatively.
“I think that’s where we are as a church,” Rada said. “I think there are other answers to the questions than the way we’ve been answering them. And that if we are using the extraordinary creativity and genius and resources that Presbyterians have, we can figure it out.”