The Office of the General Assembly – which, after a staff reduction in 2013, is still trying to do much of the same work with fewer employees – should strengthen its long-range planning and develop a three- to five-year plan.
The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly might look for ways to “prioritize the staffing and resourcing” of the Mid Council Relations office, considering that so many mid councils in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are downsizing or restructuring, and consequently presbyteries and congregations are leaning more heavily on the denomination’s national staff.
And the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) should consider “strategic realignment” with other General Assembly agencies on services they could potentially share, such as financial management, funds development and communications. OGA should particularly consider “potential programmatic synergies” around immigration and ecumenical and interfaith relations.
Those are among the recommendations going to the 2016 General Assembly from the Committee to Review the Office of the General Assembly – part of a regular, periodic review process of the six PC(USA) agencies. The report will go to the assembly’s “The Way Forward” committee, which will be considering a range of proposals for how a smaller denomination can more efficiently and cost-effectively do its work – including proposals to merge OGA with the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).
The report also states that it concurs with a recommendation from the PMA review committee regarding a possible merger of OGA and PMA. “Our committee makes no comment on the advisability of merger, but commends to the church the merits of a deliberate and thoughtful conversation on the subject,” the report states. “At the beginning of this report are recommendations for this assembly and that we hope will be helpful in the work of a task force considering the future structure of our denomination at the national level.”
The review committee, led by its moderator, teaching elder Cliff Lyda of Elmhurst, Illinois, met twice in 2015 – in Dallas in March and in Louisville in October. It “uniformly found that staff members in the Office of the General Assembly are deeply committed to Jesus Christ and to the work of the church,” the report states. It cited a “positive spirit” and “healthy collegiality” among the OGA staff, commending a “skilled, diverse and dedicated” team.
But it cited two major concerns – both a result of diminished resources within the PC(USA) and the declining amount of per capita funding available to support OGA’s work.
“The first stems from the OGA undertaking a significant reorganization and restructure in 2013, impacting nearly every aspect of the agency,” and reducing the OGA staff by about 30 percent, the report states.
“Elimination of positions, shifting of full-time positions to part-time, consolidation of responsibilities as a result of restructure, deployment of staff outside of Louisville, and reduction or elimination of support staff create a larger work load for a smaller staff. There seems to be no clear sense of how responsibilities can be prioritized with reduced personnel and resources. These factors have a potentially negative impact on morale and the health and wellness of staff members.”
The report later refers to the impending change of leadership at the OGA, with the General Assembly scheduled to elect a new stated clerk in June, as Gradye Parsons, who has served two four-year terms, has decided to not to seek another term in order to move to Tennessee with his wife, Kathy, to be near family.
“With the advent of a new Stated Clerk and a new Executive Director for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, there is a feeling of anxiety among the OGA staff,” the report states. “There is widespread call in the church for merger of the agencies, but we have observed a desire among staff for stability and clarity. It seems to be a painful time for both the OGA and the PMA to keep their heads above water while others make decisions around them.”
The second concern involves changes in mid council structures in the PC(USA).
“As mid council staffs are reduced or eliminated entirely, increasing amounts of OGA staff time are spent doing the resourcing that presbyteries and synods previously have done,” the report states. “With the challenge of departing congregations and an increasing percentage of mid council leadership with little or no experience, communication that once proceeded along a relatively stable network of presbyteries and synods now relies more on OGA staff itself.”
The review committee was responsible for reviewing OGA on the criteria of church-relatedness; policies and program effectiveness; and collaboration.
In evaluations from key constituencies of the OGA, Parsons received “excellent reviews” and the staff was considered to be “dedicated and knowledgeable,” the report states. There were some concerns, however, that “the staff is spread too thin” to do much constitutional interpretation, and that changes in mid councils are affecting the OGA staff’s ability to respond in a timely way to requests.
“There are a substantial number of new executives and clerks in our presbyteries, and a significant number of presbyteries have no executive staff,” the report states. “The OGA staff is now doing much of the constitutional interpretation required by the mid-level bodies. OGA staff would like to be more proactive, but there is not sufficient time for this.”
The report referred to a “crushing workload and nearly impossible expectations” for the OGA staff, and the “significant staff hours committed to working with congregations and presbyteries in discernment and dismissal processes,” as evangelical congregations leave the PC(USA) for more conservative denominations.
Policies and program effectiveness
The review committee found OGA to be well managed, but “severely understaffed. The 30 percent reduction in staffing in the spring of 2013 due to budget concerns does not appear to have been accompanied by a similar reduction in required job duties and responsibilities. It appears that some job responsibilities might benefit from a more comprehensive review of what is essential and what is not to address the overall OGA mission and vision. This review should be part of a three-to-five year strategic planning effort to be sure that OGA can realistically address its mission and vision with the resources at its disposal from the per capita budget.”
The committee found that OGA “appears to manage its ongoing operating budget in a very fiscally responsible manner.”
OGA has shown improvement in collaboration with other General Assembly agencies over the past six years, the report states, although sometimes General Assembly directives “have discouraged, rather than encouraged, equalitarian collaboration.”
It also cites some other areas where interagency collaboration could still be improved.
And the report stresses the need for long-term planning once a new stated clerk is named – saying that because of the upheaval caused by downsizing and reorganization, establishing a three to five year-plan “could assist the OGA in realistically addressing its mission and vision” within the limits of the resources it has available.
The review committee’s full report can be found here.