DALLAS (Outlook) – What does it mean to cast a vision for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
Is it a motto? A report to the 2018 General Assembly? A way of saying to the church – and the world outside the church – “this is who we say we are”?
The 2016 General Assembly breathed the denomination’s 2020 Vision Team into life, instructing it to develop a “guiding statement” for the PC(USA) and to come up with a plan for implementing that statement.
“I’m excited,” said team co-moderator Bernie Coffee of Texas, a ruling elder who serves as moderator of the Synod of the Sun. “A little bit nervous. I feel like I just got in the car and I’m going for a ride, but I don’t know where we’re going to go.”
The team held its first meeting Feb. 11-12 at a hotel near the Dallas airport – its 15 members discussing in part who to listen to and what questions to ask; how to relate to other groups considering the structure and future of the PC(USA); and how in the Bible God has cast a vision – sometimes calling on people who were caught by surprise at what God wanted from them.
There’s also the struggle of claiming an identity in a country where many are skeptical or disparaging of organized religion; when the PC(USA) is much older and more white than the world around it; and in a country of incredible political polarization – when the question of what Christians stand for and what people of faith are called to do and be is daily, contentiously in the news.
One point of conversation, for example, was the need to listen to people in three concentric circles – those who are part of the church; those who are adjacent – having one foot inside the denomination and one foot outside (such as new worshipping communities); and those who are beyond the borders – outside the PC(USA) altogether.
The church can learn a lot from people “who are not currently in the bubble,” said Karen Sapio, a teaching elder from San Gabriel Presbytery.
In the process of listening, “we will hear uncomfortable things,” said Michael Fagans, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of San Joaquin, who works on a campaign in his California community against human trafficking. “While we’re doing this, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is rounding up folks and shipping them out of the country. If the church is not there, we are failing.” If the church doesn’t talk to those on the margins as it seeks to define its vision, “we will be doing ourselves a great disservice.”
During initial introductions, team members shared a bit of their personal and professional backgrounds – with the group ranging from college student Rebecca Snedeker-Meier, whose parents are both PC(USA) ministers and who grew up steeped in PC(USA) culture, to those who grew up in other denominations.
The group also is noticeably younger and more diverse than many Presbyterian gatherings. Nine of the 15 are age 35 and younger (including co-moderator Lisa Juica Perkins); nine also are people of color.
That’s not the norm in most Presbyterian circles. “I’m 60 years old, and when I go to a presbytery meeting, I’m the young person,” Coffee said. Jerrod Lowry, an African-American pastor from Sandy, Utah, said his presbytery was meeting that same weekend – and his absence meant that presbytery gathering would be 99 percent white.
The co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, chose the members of the 2020 Vision Team and serve as ex-officio members. Because of scheduling conflicts, neither could attend this meeting, although Anderson called into the session Feb. 11 – a phone was passed around so she could see the faces of each person in the room and they could see her – to say “I’m praying with you and for you.”
Team members listed qualities they wanted included in their covenant for working together. Among them: honesty, respect, not letting disagreements become so passionate they stifle debate, and remembering, as Sabrina Slater (who is from the Presbytery of Inland Northwest and who participated in the meeting via phone) put it, to “live into the tension and breathe.”
Fagans suggested the idea of “Yes and …” (taken from the world of improvisational comedy) – of taking what one person says or suggests and adding to it.
“Be ever mindful that this is Christ’s church,” said DèAnn Cunningham, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Charlotte. “That we don’t have the answers, that we must be attentive to the Holy Spirit.”
History and process
The team spent some time talking about the General Assembly’s intent in creating the 2020 Vision Team, and how it relates to other groups currently at work – including the Way Forward Commission, which is considering the structure and function of General Assembly entities and will hold its third meeting in Atlanta March 6-7, and the All Agency Review Committee, which is looking at the interaction of the six PC(USA) agencies and will hold its first meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, Feb. 21-23.
Justin Botejue, a young adult advisory delegate to the 2016 General Assembly and a recent graduate of Whitworth College, served on the assembly’s Way Forward Committee. The committee dealt with a flood of overtures – and suggested creating both the Way Forward Commission and the 2020 Vision Team as vehicles for doing more intensive work, Botejue said.
Josh Andrzejewski, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of the James, also served on that assembly committee. Part of the difficulty was “we had to be practical and imaginative at the same time,” he said. So the committee created both the Way Forward Commission and the 2020 Vision Team.
“We’re Presbyterians, so we dreamed of a committee,” Andrzejewski said.
There also was discussion of the vision team’s timeline. The 2016 assembly instructed it to report in 2018 – saying the team is to “develop recommendations that shall be the only business for the Assembly Committee on The Way Forward to review” at the 2018 assembly (the exception being overtures that are submitted relating directly to the vision team’s report).
The assembly’s action doesn’t make explicit the vision team’s timeline – Perkins acknowledged there’s some ambiguity, although she told the task force it’s her interpretation that the task force will continue to work until 2020.
The assembly’s action states that the team is to “develop a guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation with all deliberate speed. The process of developing such a guiding statement will help us to name and claim our denominational identity as we seek to follow the Spirit into the future.”
The action also states that “the intention is that there will be a new vision for the denomination” by the General Assembly in 2020.
While the moderators of the Way Forward Commission, 2020 Vision Team and All Agency Review are in communication and attempting to work collaboratively, there is some overlap in what they’re discussing and a bit of tension, Perkins acknowledged, especially around the question of what should come first. The Way Forward Commission is wondering “how they’re going to do their work without a vision. … How do they restructure when they don’t know where we’re going?” Perkins said.
Andrzejewski said the committee discussed the idea of the Way Forward Commission patching some of the holes on the denomination’s leaky ship so the vision team “can get our rudder set.”
Some also asked whether other groups in the past also have worked to create some aspect of vision for the denomination – such as a commitment made in 1998 to increase the denomination’s racial ethnic membership to 20 percent by 2010, which did not happen – the PC(USA) still is about 92 percent white. “Have we done these vision things before, and if so, what were they?” Lowry asked. “And how did we do with them?” – after all the work invested, what happened to those goals and reports?
Debbie Foster, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of the Foothills – a South Carolina presbytery which sent a series of overtures to the 2016 General Assembly for reforming the church – encouraged the vision team to think imaginatively, not so much of structure.
“As Western thinkers, our default is ‘tell us what our end is’ ” – what’s the result, she said. “We can be experimental with this,” imaginative rather than focused on detail and structure. Listen, assess, develop a vision, and then “we can wave a magic wand,” Foster said.
Another instruction from the assembly was that the vision team “conduct targeted listening exercises with various constituencies throughout the PC(USA) in an effort to discern where the Spirit is leading the church in the future.” That could include (but isn’t limited to) talking with congregations, presbyteries, synods and seminaries – and the vision team also wants to reach out to groups ranging from college students to Presbyterian affinity groups to the “nones and dones.”
There was a sense that listening efforts so far haven’t been thorough enough – including a report from Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, to the 2016 assembly, and the “When We Gather At the Table” report – a portrait of views of in the church which drew responses from more than 3,400 Presbyterians.
Several people of color said they didn’t see themselves reflected much in the reports. “I didn’t see myself in that,” Coffee said of the “When We Gather” report. Don Lee, from Eastern Korean American Presbytery, said “I almost stopped reading” when he saw how few Asian-Americans’ views were represented.
Some Presbyterians didn’t feel that Rada’s report represented broadly enough views in the church. Botejue said his congregation in eastern Washington has stayed in the PC(USA) mainly for financial reasons, but feels very little connection to the denomination. “Although we want to be inclusive,” some read reports like these and feel they aren’t welcome at the table, or their voices aren’t included, he said.
And some on the team stressed the importance of hearing those who aren’t in the church – with questions such as “what should the role of the Christian community be in the world?” and, compared to that, “how do we act?”
The vision team also made tentative plans for its next face-to-face meetings – most likely at Big Tent July 6-8 and at the fall polity conference in October, both in St. Louis.