CHICAGO – Jan Edmiston, co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, encouraged of the Way Forward Commission to focus on mission and to do the work of transformation, as the commission opened its meeting in Chicago May 16.
Edmiston said the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “exists to transform the world for God in the name of Jesus Christ” – that was the motto of the last congregation she served in northern Virginia.
Edmiston said that as Presbyterians, “we’ve got to be humble, and we’ve got to focus on mission above everything else. That is what inspires people. … We have an enormous capacity for good, a capacity for transformation. … We could change this country if we used all the resources we have” – money, smart people and faith.
“You’ve been charged with being bold and being brave, and that’s what I hope you’ll do,” Edmiston told the commission.
The commission is holding its third face-to-face meeting May 16-17 at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, although the commission members also meet monthly by conference call. The Chicago meeting comes at a time when the commission is trying to formulate a clearer sense of direction, its 12 members well aware that they face a deadline of Feb. 16, 2018 for completing their report to the 2018 General Assembly – but not wanting to rush into specifics of recommendations before having a chance to dream about a better way for the PC(USA) to be a church.
The commission will spend part of its time May 16 in discernment – with commission members reporting back the results of informal conversations they’ve had when they’ve asked Presbyterians to describe what sort of structure for they would envision for the denomination of the future if nothing existed today, and with commission members offering their own ideas for what they might potentially create from the ground up.
Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York and the commission’s moderator, described that discernment process as a time of brainstorming and thinking out loud about possibilities for a future structure of PC(USA) – but not for making specific proposals on which the commission will vote.
“This is an unusual meeting,” Hostetter said – more about exploring ideas rather than refining a proposal for an up-or-down vote. “This is a time for free association, free thinking, dreaming if you will, imagining a world that is very different.”
Edmiston spoke of some of the current realities as well – of the importance of Presbyterians relating to a diverse, multi-faith world and a desire that the national structure be less regulatory and more relational.
“I think there is fear in our denomination,” Edmiston said. For example, she said that everywhere she goes, people ask her what the commission is up to, wanting to know what it might recommend. And as a denomination that’s about 91 percent white, “we are missing out on our richness that is more expansive” in a diverse world.
With the denomination’s six agencies, “I see overlap,” she said. Among the national staff, “I think people are very removed,” with a sense that “we are in the know. … There’s anxiety there, but there’s anxiety everywhere in the world.”
Commission members asked the co-moderator what guidance she would give them in their work considering a possible structure for the denomination. “We are the PC(USA) – we have the capacity to change everything,” she said. “So your job is to figure out what structure gives permission for people to do that and make it as easy as possible for people to do that and have the tools they need.”
Edmiston was asked what kind of witness the PC(USA) can have in a politically divided world – with a president of the United States, Donald Trump, who calls himself a Presbyterian.
Presbyterians have always had a range of political views, and “we have a lot of Presbyterians who voted for Mr. Trump,” Edmiston said. The PC(USA) has an active office in Washington and a new stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, with a prophetic voice, but no direct access to the president.
“It’s a tricky thing,” as “we can’t assume that everyone agrees” politically with the denomination’s public positions, Edmiston said.
Hostetter spoke the commission’s attempts to coordinate its work with the 2020 Vision Team and the All Agency Review Committee, which met May 1-2 in Denver and is attempting to draft a “mission directive” including a statement describing the ethos or vision of the PC(USA). Hostetter said the three groups are trying to “model the vision we both have of acting as one body in Christ.”