Members of the Way Forward Commission are beginning to turn their thoughts to what sort of changes the commission might recommend for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – not discussing any specifics yet, but considering whether the commission might be ready to start moving in that direction when it meets next at McCormick Theological Seminary May 15-17.
Commission members agreed to think in the next few weeks about what Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York and the commission’s moderator, described as “common elements” they would want included in a denominational structure based on the research they have done so far; the feedback they’ve received about what Presbyterians at the grass roots want; and their theological sense of what a church is called to be.
Commission member Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina, put it this way: commission members should consider, in very broad terms, “if nothing existed today, what would you build?”
The commission met via video conference call April 18, discussing both its progress so far and next steps. Here are some highlights.
LIMITS TO THE COMMISSION’S POWER
The commission met for about 40 minutes in closed session with J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, giving as the reason for closing the meeting a discussion of personnel matters. When the meeting resumed again in open session, Hostetter said Nelson earlier had provided a written advisory opinion to a question asking him to clarify the commission’s powers.
In that opinion, Nelson wrote that the action of the 2016 General Assembly creating the commission “did limit the powers of the Commission” so that “recommendations for any missional and structural changes will be brought to the 223rd General Assembly” in 2018. (Read the full Advisory Opinion.)
Nelson’s opinion also states that recommendations from the commission involving “any amendments, replacement or setting aside of the Standing Rules of the General Assembly or the Book of Order necessary to accomplish its vision” would need approval from the 2018 General Assembly as well.
So “there is an edge to our power,” Hostetter said – meaning a limit to what the commission can do on its own.
The commission’s report to the 2018 General Assembly is due to the Office of the General Assembly by Feb. 16, 2018 — 120 days before that assembly begins meeting in St. Louis.
Nelson also apparently spoke of the importance of the commission grounding its work theologically – a theme that resurfaced periodically through the commission’s nearly three-hour discussion.
Commission members gave updates on work that’s been underway since their last meeting March 5-7 at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Some of that was procedural – but the conversation also revealed some emerging issues that likely will continue to be a focus of the commission’s attention.
Cooperation between agencies. There’s already discussion underway in several places about issues involving cooperation between the PC(USA)’s six agencies – for example, about possible ways to consolidate publishing efforts now divided between the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation; about ways to streamline and coordinate communication efforts in the PC(USA); and how to manage shared services such as accounting, information technology and more.
Sam Bonner, a ruling elder and bank examiner from New Jersey, reported back on the work of a subcommittee that has been meeting with four PC(USA) agencies – the Presbyterian Foundation, the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program (PILP), the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and the Presbyterian Foundation. Bonner said leaders of the agencies were asked:
- What do you see as the future of the agency and of the church?
- What improvements or changes did the last review of the agency suggest be done, and what has happened as a result?
- What process does the agency have for listening to and responding to the concerns of mid councils?
- What is your agency doing to break down the silos that sometimes separate the PC(USA)’s six agencies?
Some increased coordination already is evident, Bonner said. A task force has been set up to consider how the denomination’s publishing endeavors might be consolidated, and the Foundation and PILP are discussing ways they can work with congregations that are getting smaller and trying to figure out what to do with the property they own.
The leadership of these agencies have been “very responsive,” said commission member Patty Rarumangkay, a ruling elder from National Capital Presbytery. The subcommittee is pushing them to set up processes for communicating with the church at the local level that are sustainable and bold, she said.
But these discussions sometimes raise questions of their own, commission members indicated.
For example, both the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) met in Puerto Rico in March. During one session, a subgroup met to discuss coordination between the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). In that discussion, “the tension in the room and the inability to move forward” to meet that goal seemed clear, said Eliana Maxim, a commission member and presbytery executive from Seattle who also serves on COGA.
A subcommittee from the commission plans to meet soon – probably within the next week or so – with representatives from the All Agency Review Committee, Hostetter said. Part of that conversation may involve the question of whether (and how) the commission might play a role in encouraging those OGA-PMA conversations, and trying to base them in a shared theology.
Other considerations include:
- Whether the leadership involved in such conversations is lead by the staff, or also includes representatives of the boards governing those agencies;
- How broad the discussion of shared services should be framed. Should it focus more on how well the current system is working, or (for example) on whether some services should be performed across the board for all the six agencies?
COGA’s leadership has voiced reluctance to become involved in the discussions regarding publishing and communications, said Tom Hay, OGA’s director of operations. One reason: The 2016 General Assembly created the Way Forward Commission to address the possibility of restructuring, and “we don’t want to do anything to undermine the assembly” by getting involved in conversations at other levels on potentially overlapping matters, Hay said.
There’s also concern because the task forces on publishing and communications were created without OGA’s involvement, and “it doesn’t feel like it’s a collaborative conversation,” he said. COGA is concerned that whatever those task forces might decide to do could conflict with what the Way Forward Commission might want to recommend – that they potentially could become “competing conversations.”
Maxim said that truly collaborative conversations in the church need to include a sense of shared ecclesial identity – a sense of common language and purpose. Instead, she senses almost “a desperation” to get some of these tasks accomplished “before the commission can get to it.”
Commission member Eileen Lindner, a teaching elder from New Jersey, said one question is whether the discussions about shared services, communications and publishing could lead to an argument being made at the 2018 assembly that “we’ve just made these changes, and we need to give them time” to work before the commission recommends any other approaches.
Hostetter said the commission might be able to play a role in getting those involved to think together about a common identity – to “till the soil, set the theological tone” as Nelson suggested.
“We have a historically good, open, fertile place right now where we can do that,” Bonner said. The hope is to “get us all as one” theologically, before beginning difficult and intricate conversations about publishing, communications or shared services.
“This is all about putting Jesus first,” Maxim said – about reminding all involved that their identity is rooted in Christ, she said. “I am cognizant there is deep historical pain there, and it needs to be dealt with,” Maxim said, so perhaps the commission could be part of that healing work.
Diversity. Another subgroup from the commission is continuing work on identifying diverse voices within the PC(USA) with which the commission wants to be in conversation. And Hostetter said the Governance Task Force of the PMAB is continuing its discussions with the denomination’s advocacy and advisory groups about the implications of a proposal to change the size and structure of the board.
The larger question the commission might consider has to do with the roles the advocacy and advisory groups play in the church (recognizing they were created years ago) and “how is the diversity of our denomination heard and represented and felt,” Hostetter said.
Structural alternatives. This subgroup, whose work is ongoing, is looking at lessons that might be learned from other denominations or nonprofits. Julie Cox, a ruling elder from New Harmony Presbytery, said she’s looked at the websites for the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Disciples of Christ, and “was very impressed” by the clarity and ease of finding information on those websites, “and very frustrated by the comparison” with the PC(USA)’s online presence.
With the other denominations, “you didn’t have to know the right terms to Google it or search it,” Cox said.
Cliff Lyda, a teaching elder from St. Augustine Presbytery, said the Lutheran website makes it clear “they know who their leaders are – and we don’t.” Because the PC(USA) has six agencies, which are considered equal, it’s not apparent from the outside that the stated clerk’s voice rings more loudly on public policy than does the leader, for example, of PILP, Lyda said.
“Who leads the Presbyterian Church?” he asked. “Or, to put it more graphically, where does the buck stop?” With two years between General Assemblies, “who’s minding the store in between?”
Desire for change. Several commission members reported back on a feedback session they held in connection with the NEXT Church national gathering in Kansas City March 13-15. Close to 50 people attended – including mid council leaders, teaching elders and seminary students – and the resounding message to the commission was “be bold, don’t wait, do something bold and transformative,” said commission member Sara Dingman, a synod leader from Indiana.
At the local level, Presbyterians are learning to think and do ministry in new ways, said Maxim, who also was present for the NEXT conversation. But people said that at the national level, “the denomination has been doing too much bandaging for too long. We’re just limping along.”
Hay said people told the commission that “whatever you do, make it a vibrant, responsive, quick organization.”
The commission members also talked about what work they need to do before their May meeting in Chicago – and, at Hostetter’s urging, began discussing whether they might be ready then to start thinking about what recommendations to shape.
There is in the PC(USA) “excitement and some anxiety” about what the commission might do, Hostetter said.
Bonner said his sense is that “we haven’t dug deep enough” yet to begin forming recommendations, and that “we need to not make ourselves into a silo,” but to look at God’s presence and spirit.
Rarumangkay used the analogy of reorganizing a dresser drawer – that in order to figure out how things need to fit together, the commission needs to pull everything out, organize it and put it back in a way that makes sense.
And Maxim urged the commission to think in large, broad strokes – to focus not on the details, but also consider the idea that maybe “the chest of drawers is no longer suitable.”
“How do you know that?” Bonner asked. “How do you know that this chest of drawers isn’t right?”
“It’s not functioning,” Maxim replied.
“How do you know that?” he asked. Maxim said she discerned that from her work as moderator of the PMA Review Committee – from the recommendations the review committee made and the way that PMA responded.
Stewart said a group of commissioners met for lunch after the March meeting – and came up with the idea that commissioners might do some homework before the May meeting – including reviewing research, reading the first section of the Book of Order, talking to people and praying – and then come with some ideas of what they’d suggest building if nothing already existed.
Lindner said that could include discussion of questions such as who are the clients of the national church? What does leadership look like? What cultural changes are important to consider? Think “with very broad strokes,” Lindner said, “and see what emerges from that.”
Nelson talked to the commission about the forces of preservation, destruction and creation, Dingman said. “If we start at zero,” at least in brainstorming, “this might be a way for us to get at creation.”