LOUISVILLE (Outlook) – Three groups, all at work now pondering the structure and future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). The likelihood of their stumbling into one another is real.
That’s part of what the All Agency Review Committee, holding its first meeting Feb. 21-23 in Louisville, is trying to get its arms around. What does the General Assembly intend for it to do – and what’s the responsibility of the other two groups (the Way Forward Commission and the 2020 Vision Team)?
J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), told the review committee Feb. 22 that he’s been asked to provide a formal interpretation of what the 2016 General Assembly did when authorizing those groups to commence work.
That interpretive question – seeking clarity – is a sign of some of the confusion and perhaps differing understandings surrounding the question of what each of these groups is expected and empowered to do. Some of that reflects concern about where and how the work of these groups might overlap.
And there’s also a sense that significant change may be in the wind for the PC(USA) – and the jostling to influence what happens has begun.
Among the possible points of overlap: potential discussion of a possible merger between the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). Also: How might the six agencies collaborate better – and should there even be six agencies?
Nelson declined to tell a reporter who had made the request for interpretation – but said it did not come from any of the three groups directly involved in the work: the 2020 Vision Team; the Way Forward Commission; or the All Agency Review Committee.
The uncertainty about how those three groups relate to one another is clearly shared by Deborah Block, moderator of the All Agency Review Committee.
The Way Forward Commission held its first meeting in December. Some of the issues the commission has already started to explore are matters that Block thought “were on our page of the ledger,” she told Nelson.
“My view is that all of this has come out of the relative confusion and chaos the denomination has faced,” Nelson said – concerns about finances, responsibilities, layoffs and more.
“All at one time, the word ‘enough’ has come across the church. And everybody says ‘enough, this is it’ ” – something has to change. The assembly’s response is “kind of a mishmash of trying to fix something” without precise clarity of who is to do what.
What’s the task?
The All Agency Review Committee is part of a denomination-wide process of review initiated by the General Assembly in 2008. This involves a six-year cycle (from 2010 to 2016) of in-depth reviews of each of the PC(USA)’s six agencies – the Office of the General Assembly; Presbyterian Mission Agency; Board of Pensions; Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program; Presbyterian Publishing Corporation; and Presbyterian Foundation – with the reviews done two at a time in two-year cycles.
Then, from 2016 to 2018, an All Agency Review is conducted – not to reopen the individual agency reviews, the committee discussed, but to look at things from a “whole church” perspective of what’s working well, and what’s not.
In the last All Agency Review, which reported to the General Assembly in 2010, the committee doing the work looked at redundancies and areas of collaboration for the six General Assembly agencies. Another question then: who should be the “one voice” of the denomination, speaking on behalf of the PC(USA).
The 2016 General Assembly appointed the members of the new All Agency Review Committee, but did not provide detailed directions for this new review.
The 2016 assembly also created the two other groups, instructing:
- The Way Forward Commission to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly agencies of the PC(USA). That vision shall take into account the ministries of PMA and OGA, but shall not be bound by the current configuration of those ministries, except where mandated by the church’s Constitution”; and
- The 2020 Vision Team to set a new vision for the denomination by 2020, a guiding statement that “will help us to name and claim our denominational identity as we seek to follow the Spirit into the future.”
What’s perhaps less clear are the parameters of the All Agency Review Committee – and whether the three groups should somehow work collaboratively or independently.
There is language in the General Assembly mandate, for example, that the Way Forward Commission “is to engage/contract a qualified, examination team that may include some or all of the All Agency Review team, with the requisite skills and abilities to assess institutional performance, both internally among the agencies and externally as they interface with the congregations. This examination team is charged with conducting a comprehensive, detailed analysis that will provide clearly detailed, measurable recommendations for improvements to the commission for implementation by the agencies.”
It’s not been determined yet how that will proceed.
With all three groups working at the same time, “it’s inevitable that we’re going to overlap,” said review committee member James Tse, a ruling elder from Woodhaven, New York.
“Does it make sense for these three processes to be three processes?” asked Block, a teaching elder from Milwaukee. “We have limited resources, short time frames, huge tasks. I am very much back to the question of redundant work here.”
As part of this initial meeting, the All Agency Review Committee heard presentations from representatives of each of the six agencies, and had conversations by phone with the leadership of the other two groups.
Lisa Juica Perkins, a teaching elder from Texas who is co-moderator of the 2020 Vision Team, told the review committee Dec. 21 that the vision team’s work does not involve restructuring, but developing a vision statement that could be used for marketing by the PC(USA) – telling what the denomination stands for – and then helping Presbyterians live into that statement.
The review committee had a telephone conversation Feb. 22 with Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York who serves as moderator of the Way Forward Commission. Hostetter said the commission, which has the power to act without getting approval from the General Assembly, has “a very broad-brush mandate” coming from “perceived or real concerns that as a denomination, perhaps the structures we put in place back in the early 80s may need rethinking.”
The idea of potentially overlapping work caused some discomfort. Review committee members discussed, for example, whether articulating a vision for the PC(USA) should logically come before considerations of structure.
“We have to know where we’re going,” Nelson said.
“We are challenged to be a church of purpose.” As he travels around the church, Nelson said, “what I’m hearing is we’re a church of Grandma’s stained glass windows. And that’s not going to be the lifeline of our future.”
Role of review committee
The lack of any specific instruction to the review committee from the 2016 assembly could potentially could mean freedom – that the committee could essentially decide for itself which issues are most important to address. Block said, regarding the points of focus of the 2010 report, “We can use these, we can adapt these, we can ditch them.”
There also was a sense that the All Agency Review Committee members don’t want to invest their hard work and time if their role is constricted by the other two groups.
“I’m not interested in playing second fiddle to the Way Forward Commission,” said Dave Davis, a teaching elder from Princeton, New Jersey.
Committee members also explored the idea, however, that they might not worry so much about what the other groups are recommending – and might find some breathing room in giving up that concern.
“Why don’t we just do what we think our job is,” regardless of what the other groups decide to do, said Debra Avery, a teaching elder from Oakland, California.
“There are worse things than the General Assembly being presented with two options” on the same subject, said Jim Wilson, a ruling elder from Columbus, Ohio.
Among ideas the committee members discussed as possible areas to explore:
- How does the General Assembly relate to the work of the six PC(USA) agencies?
- Where are there places in the PC(USA) that present structural blocks and inequities for women and people of color?
- Does the six-agency model still work well for a changing church? What are the implications of having six agencies for fund raising, for common services services, for real estate?
- What’s the relationship between the six agencies and mid councils? “As a church, we have increasingly pushed the responsibilities of mid councils into our national agencies and are spending a huge amount of our resources supporting mid councils that are not fully functioning,” said Wilson.
- How can the committee ground its recommendations in a theological foundation? As committee member Claire Rhodes, a ruling elder from Hot Springs, Arkansas, put it: “What does all this have to do with Jesus Christ?”