The Way Forward Commission didn’t take definitive action during a conference call meeting Feb. 7 – but it is beginning to shape some of the themes of the issues it wants to probe more deeply.
For example, the Quick Fix subgroup reported back on conversations its members have had with leaders from the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board since the commission first met in New York in December.
“We get the sense that the board is acutely aware of some of the concerns that the church as a whole has, and they are taking some steps” to make improvements, said commission member Eliana Maxim, a mid council executive from Seattle. “What we don’t see is any real transformative work happening at a deeper level with any kind of vision.”
A proposal to restructure the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board – reducing its size by more than half – emphasizes “form over function,” said Maxim, who led the Presbyterian Mission Agency Review Committee, which in January 2016 released a report raising significant concerns regarding the agency.
“There hasn’t been any real deep conversation about the function of the board and the identity of the agency which still in many ways sees itself as a corporate entity,” Maxim said.
Representatives of the Single Issues subgroup spoke with representatives of a number of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) agencies, including the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation, the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.
All are performing well, but are missing a “sense of urgency” about what a changing church needs or how they could collaborate better, said Samuel Bonner, a ruling elder and bank examiner from New Jersey. Individually the agencies are doing a good job – but they need to shift perspective to considering how, collaboratively, they can be tools to help the church do ministry better, Bonner said.
Leaders of those agencies are that aware the PC(USA) exists in a rapidly changing environment, but “they’re struggling a little bit with what to do about that,” said teaching elder Cliff Lyda. The denomination’s agencies are “built on a model of church that has either passed away or is rapidly passing away. … Ten years from now, where will we be?”
The 2016 General Assembly created the Way Forward Commission to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly entities of the PC(USA).”
This was the commission’s second meeting and its first by conference call. The commission’s 12 members gathered first in New York on Dec. 12-13, with its moderator, teaching elder Mark Hostetter of New York, encouraging them to be bold.
The commission has the power both to recommend changes and to act without waiting for approval from the next assembly.
The Way Forward Commission is one of three groups doing comprehensive thinking about the work of the national church and its structures. The other two are:
- The 2020 Vision Team, which the 2016 General Assembly also created, and which will have its first meeting Feb. 11-12 in Dallas. It’s being asked 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.”
- The All Agency Review Committee, which will review the interactions of the PC(USA)’s six agencies and is a part of the denomination’s regular review process. That group will hold its first meeting in Louisville Feb. 21-23.
The Way Forward Commission will next meet in Atlanta March 6-7, and between now and then has a list of things it wants to get done.
Presbyterian Mission Agency
A subgroup from the commission will continue conversations with leaders from the agency and its board. Among the matters commission members said they want to explore are these.
Function of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. Hostetter said the board’s leadership has made it clear they’re open to discussion about a proposal to reduce the size of the board – it’s not a “take it or leave it kind of proposal,” Hostetter said. But some commission members said a discussion about the function of the board should be part of any discussion about the board’s structure or form.
Dual identity. The board has a dual function – serving “both a corporate role and a mission role,” said Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina and former vice chair of that board. In at least one point in the denomination’s past, those roles were separate, she said – but that presented challenges too. Commission members said they want to explore the implications of that dual role – what’s working, what’s not, what possibilities for realignment might exist. “Do those dual voices have to be conjoined in a single body?” asked teaching elder Eileen Lindner from New Jersey.
Creative systemic thinking. When changes are being made, they often don’t go far enough, Maxim said. For example, the Presbyterian Mission Agency review committee recommended bringing in an outside consultant to conduct comprehensive cultural humility training, but instead, the staff has been invited to participate in an optional book discussion of Debby Irving’s “Waking Up White.”
While that’s a good idea, “it does not address the systemic issues that were identified,” or what training will be provided for those who opt not to participate, Maxim said. For those who don’t partake, how are they being involved in conversations about race and privilege?
Too often, the changes being proposed aren’t holistic or creative or comprehensive enough, commission members said. “The mission agency seems to be operating in more of a corporate type culture,” said ruling elder Mathew Eardley from Idaho, as opposed to really embracing what it means to be a Reformed church.
Affirmations and process
The commission expects to present at its March meeting a document tentatively called “Affirmation of Approach,” which will lay out for the church some of the commission’s assumptions and values in doing its work, and its criteria for evaluating what action to take.
That would be a way of the commission introducing itself to the PC(USA) and trying to answer the question “what were those people thinking?” Lindner said. It might be seen as an “insight into us” – what the commission is trying to achieve – rather than a “directive from us” about what the broader church must do, Hostetter said.
The commission also recognizes that “our end result has not been revealed to us,” ruling elder Julie Cox of South Carolina said – that, as Hostetter put it, “discernment is continuing.”
Another document the commission will consider in March lays out a process map – including timelines for the group’s work, from now until the commission’s final report is due in February 2018. That process map includes three components:
- Cultural shift. Establishing and communicating the values and working style of the national church – what is expected within and among the six agencies and other representative committees and groups of the General Assembly.
- Short-term structural or organizational changes.
- A comprehensive review of the national structure with recommendations for the way forward. Among the pieces of that comprehensive review: understanding what’s currently in place; identifying alternative approaches – including emerging needs and trends; and developing a proposed model for the future structure of the PC(USA), in conversation with the Vision 2020 team and the All Agency Review Committee.
The commission is seeking input from the broader church – inviting comments from around the church, with a deadline of Feb. 28. Commission members said they specifically want to hear from representatives of mid councils and congregations, along with leaders of Presbyterian seminaries and colleges. So far, about 75 people have submitted comments, Hostetter said – but the commission will intentionally seek input from more people in the next few weeks.
Another theme of the commission’s discussion was this: how to hear the voices of a full range of Presbyterians.
As the proposal is being discussed about reducing the size of the board, for example, what work has been done about “listening to the outside voices and voices that don’t normally get heard?” Maxim asked – a question reflected in the response of two groups who have criticizing the proposed restructuring for diminishing the voice given to advocacy groups.
Many of those involved with new worshipping communities are people of color and immigrants – they are the growing base of the Presbyterian church, but not necessarily in positions of power, Maxim said.
Patty Rarumangkay, a rulling elder from Maryland, said she made two presentations on the commission’s work (at her congregation and to an immigrant ministry network group) and “everybody seemed kind of hesitant” to express their views to the commission. Among Asian immigrants, “a lot of them are really shy” about speaking up in that way, so “we have to be creative” in finding ways to listen, Rarumangkay said.
“The people who aren’t speaking up, they have a lot to say, actually,” she said.
Sara Dingman, a teaching elder and mid council leader from Indiana, said if she had a magic wand, “I would wave it and find out who has not been coopted … and I would go there” to listen.
Dingman said she wasn’t implying that people don’t tell the truth, but she longs to find someone “who is not so vested in what is currently that he or she or they can offer a picture that we can’t see, because we’re so invested in what is. … It’s not about truth, it’s about perspective.”