LOUISVILLE – As the Way Forward Commission tries to find its own path in bringing change to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a complicated world is spinning around it.
During morning worship at Way Forward’s meeting Sept. 19 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, commission members prayed for those threatened by hurricanes now churning fresh destruction and those trying to rebuild their lives and homes from the storms that have already passed through.
Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly, said more and more Presbyterians are asking J. Herbert Nelson, the denomination’s stated clerk, whether the PC(USA) should pull out of its plans to hold the 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis. “That’s a conversation we need to have,” Hay said – and is likely to come up as the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly meets in Louisville Sept. 19-21.
More than 120 people have been arrested in St. Louis in several nights of protests following the Sept. 15 acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer charged with murder after shooting a black man, Lamar Smith, five times in 2011. The NAACP has issued a travel warning raising concerns about the safety of African-Americans traveling to Missouri, and the General Assembly Meeting Service has responded to that warning.
The PC(USA) has a series of meetings for mid council leaders scheduled for downtown St. Louis from Oct. 13-17, and the All Agency Review Committee is to meet there Oct. 9-10. The General Assembly is set to meet in St. Louis June 16-23, 2018 – with contracts for those gatherings long-since signed.
So the Way Forward’s assignment to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly entities of the PC(USA)” continues in a broader context – both in the church and the world.
The commission is getting close to making fundamental decisions – including about whether it will work to make targeted, significant change from within the current system, which seems to be the focus of many of the actions it’s taken so far, or to “blow things up,” to use a phrase that’s surfaced from time to time. It’s already decided, jointly with the All Agency Review Committee, not to recommend merging the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
The commission is trying to make decisions of what to recommend or do under its own power at the same time others in the church are making change as well – for example, the vote expected on Sept. 21 regarding a proposal to reduce the size and configuration of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
While the Way Forward Commission meets in public session, it’s clear that a lot happens behind the scenes. Between meetings, commission members share drafts of documents and do significant work in subcommittees. Commission representatives meet or converse with Presbyterians across the church – including discussions with mid council leaders and with dozens of national staff members, the results of which were shared in a closed session Sept. 18, due to what commission moderator Mark Hostetter called “the sensitivity and the candor” of those conversations.
The commission uses what it calls non-business time – including opening dinners before each meeting – to talk among themselves and share ideas away from the public scrutiny of the news media.
In short: There are a lot of moving pieces, at a lot of levels and places, both evident in public view and behind the scenes. In time, the Way Forward Commission will present its recommendations, whatever they turn out to be, to the PC(USA) – and what happens then is anyone’s guess.
Before the commission adjourned its meeting Sept. 19, it discussed a number of possibilities and ideas.
Audit group. Sam Bonner, an elder from New Jersey, floated the idea of creating some sort of watchdog or audit group with responsibility for tracking whether the instructions or directives of the General Assembly actually get followed.
The current system is that the agency or group to which the assembly refers that instruction is to report back to a subsequent assembly its response to that referral. Unless somebody flags it at the next assembly, generally “it’s just accepted,” Hay said.
PC(USA) spokesperson. The commission is also interested in having the PC(USA) speak clearly with one voice in the public sphere – and is raising questions about who in the denomination should have that role, what the formal responsibilities currently are of the stated clerk, and whether more clarification of that role is needed.
“The Book of Order is very terse about the role of the stated clerk,” Hay said, although more detail is given in the job description (which the General Assembly was not asked to approve) and in other documents.
In recent years, the practice has evolved of having some public statements signed by the stated clerk, the executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the General Assembly moderator or co-moderators – meaning three or four names attached to those statements, in part to avoid disagreement among them, Hay said.
The commission has raised up a desire to have the denomination speak with one, clear voice – most likely that of the stated clerk. When other denominations speak, “it’s worldwide, instantaneous,” Bonner said. “I think we need a voice.”
Whether the broader world or Presbyterians themselves will listen to that voice (or to what the commission ultimately recommends) is another matter.
“Let’s not be naïve,” said Adan Mairena, a minister from Philadelphia, in speaking of Nelson, the current stated clerk “He’s an African-American male who’s an activist.” What some Presbyterians would prefer is “let’s not rock the boat.”
Here is the schedule of the Way Forward Commission’s remaining meetings:
- October 24: Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern.
- November 29: Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern.
- Jan. 17-19: In-person meeting in Seattle (First Presbyterian Church).
- March 1: Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern.
- April 17: Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern.
- May 22: Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern.