LOUISVILLE – So what’s the best way to bring change to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s denominational structure?
That’s a question coming to the General Assembly in June – and an issue with which the Presbyterian Mission Agency board is wrestling this week at its April 27-29 meeting. The short version is this: The board is trying to decide how to respond to recommendations from the Committee to Review the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which released a strongly-worded report in January and is making recommendations that the assembly’s The Way Forward committee will consider.
The board won’t vote on its response until April 28. But a discussion of the issue April 27 revealed some potential agreement among board members that the PC(USA) needs to consider making changes in its structure – but some real differences in views of how to get there.
Should the General Assembly move ahead with an all-agency review of the PC(USA)’s six agencies? Or should the focus move instead to discussion of a possible merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA)?
What’s the best way to move forward to bring real reform?
The PC(USA) structure that exists now was created when resources were plentiful – but now is a hindrance when money is tight and “cohesion is critical,” said Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions. Rather than being a discussion that’s premature, “it’s almost too late.”
The review committee is making recommendations to the assembly – and it’s to those specific recommendations the board is drafting its response. Of particular interest: the committee’s recommendation that the General Assembly delay the all-agency review that’s scheduled for 2016 (a review of the effectiveness of the six denominational entities in implementing the directives of the assembly) – and instead create a committee to explore the possibility of merging OGA and PMA.
A longer rationale section of the committee’s report describes concerns about the stressful organizational culture within PMA, a lack of coordination with other PC(USA) entities and a lack of a clear strategic direction at PMA.
The proposed response presented by a Presbyterian Mission Agency board work team addresses only the recommendations – not the rationale of the report – and advocates for sticking with the all-agency review rather than convening a committee created explicitly to explore a possible OGA-PMA merger. It contends that proposals for merging OGA and PMA coming to this assembly (including the review committee recommendations and overtures related to merger) are “premature and unduly narrow in scope.”
The proposed response states that conducting the all-agency review would “reveal a range of possible approaches to restructuring or for more collaboration and sharing of resources.” Setting up a committee to consider an OGA-PMA merger “prematurely forecloses the benefits of a wider, more careful analysis.”
Focusing specifically on the possibility of an OGA-PMA merger is “at odds with our own sense of how the denomination practices discernment” and is “too narrow,” Ramsay said. If a structural change is needed, “we want to do it right the first time.”
If an all-agency review is conducted, then each of the six agencies (OGA, PMA, the Presbyterian Foundation, the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation) would have a representative at the table, along with four General Assembly commissioners and four at-large members, Ramsay said.
That approach would involve the “connectional wisdom” of the church, she said.
The review committee skipped a step of the protocol it was supposed to follow, Ramsay said – by not forwarding its findings to PMA leaders for their response.
A Feb. 16 addendum to the review committee’s report to the assembly states, “the committee apologizes for neglecting to provide an advance copy of our report to the PMA Executive Board and Interim Director as requested in our charge. This was regrettably (and simply) an oversight on our part.”
The addendum states that the PMA staff provided information regarding several specific circumstances (involving the Youth Triennium audit and agency communication strategy) in which “situations have been resolved” and changes implemented.
Marsha Anson, who also served on the team drafting the board’s proposed response, told the board’s executive committee that she didn’t think the review committee’s failure to send its finding to the PMA leaders was intentional. “I think it was totally an accident,” Anson said, although missing that opportunity may have led to some “misconceptions.”
Ramsay said: “We absolutely affirm there are problems to deal with” at PMA. “That’s important. I do think on the other hand there were problems that were exaggerated” because part of the protocol wasn’t followed. The review committee did its work at a “difficult moment” for PMA, she said, and the review committee’s report might lead some to “imagine more serious difficulties than exist.”
Anson also said “the conclusion they came to” – to recommend skipping the scheduled all-agency review in favor of a discussion of possibly merging OGA and PMA – “seemed odd to me,” because it’s not clear how a potential merger might address the concerns the review committee cited.
She said an all-agency review would be a horizontal look at the denomination’s structure, not a vertical look inside particular agencies.
“We need to have a big discussion on what the church needs from the national structure,” Anson said. The question is: “What does the church need from us, and how do we serve them?”
The board’s discussion April 27 revealed real differences in views on what’s the best way to go.
Some said the PC(USA) can’t afford to move slowly – that there is momentum in the church that these questions need to be addressed now. Marilyn Gamm, the board’s chair and a mid council executive from California, said she hasn’t decided whether she thinks an OGA-PMA merger is the right way to go.
But waiting another two years to talk about the idea of merger, while an all-agency review proceeds, would not acknowledge the momentum at the grassroots that the time is right to discuss this now, Gamm said.
“The rest of the world moves far more rapidly than this,” she said. “The wider church has a right to expect a more nimble national church as well.”
Landon Whitsitt, a synod executive, said it’s not fair or accurate to present the review committee as the only entity raising the need for a discussion about a possible merger. The conversation is “long overdue,” he said, about whether the ecclesial and mission arms of the church should continue to be separated. If the board resists the idea of discussing whether an OGA-PMA merger is feasible, that will be seen as “recalcitrant,” Whitsitt said.
Ken Godshall, a pastor from Kentucky who is expected to become the new board chair this summer, said he supports the proposal for an all-agency review – contending that the review committee has not made the case that the problems it identified at PMA would be solved by an OGA-PMA merger.
“To me, this is pretty simple,” said board member Melinda Sanders. Talking about a possible merger without giving the other PC(USA) agencies a seat at the table in those discussions “is just wrong. I don’t believe they don’t want to be at the table.”
Spencer, however, provided a written comment stating that “we at the Board of Pensions deeply object” to the proposed board response to the review committee recommendation on merger. His correspondence also refers to objections from the Presbyterian Publishing Company. “Before voting on this matter, we believe the entire PMA Board should understand the opposition of its sister agencies to this proposal,” the comment states.
In remarks to the board April 27, Spencer said he sees direct links between PMA’s institutional culture and a series of recent controversies involving a Special Offerings marketing campaign criticized as being racist; an ethics investigation involving some employees in the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program; and an audit which found that the 2013 Youth Triennium had exceeded its budget by $600,000.
OGA and PMA share the same balance sheet, yet operate sometimes as though they are separate entities – such as when OGA outsourced its information technology needs rather than using PMA services, he said.
Jo Stewart, the board’s vice chair, said she supports the proposal that’s being presented to the board – arguing that an all-agency review could start with “a hypothesis” that merger between OGA and PMA might benefit the larger church.
“I believe there are other opportunities we will miss if we go into this review in a very narrow way,” Stewart said. “So let’s have a robust all-agency review where nothing is off the table.”