The Way Forward Commission is moving closer to proposing specific recommendations to the 2018 General Assembly – and in the process is conducting high-level conversations with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders from all six of the denomination’s agencies.
Those conversations – and there are a lot of them in progress – are probing what changes and initiatives the Way Forward Commission might recommend or bring to life on everything from how the PC(USA) manages its donor database to proposing a national denominational strategy around racism and inclusivity.
The commission plans to relate its specific recommendations or actions to themes it has identified – for example, in its mid-term report – so that “this doesn’t just come across as a rearranging of things” (the restructuring of a corporation) but as a strategy for how the PC(USA) should function as a church, said Mark Hostetter, a minister from New York who serves as the commission’s moderator.
The commission also wants to find a way to deal with the question of “what comes after us?” – in other words, to suggest that the 2018 General Assembly create a follow-up mechanism for ensuring that what the commission says should be done actually happens.
During a three-hour conference call Oct. 24, commission members provided updates on the work being done in a series of work groups it has created – some of them jointly with the All Agency Review Committee.
The commission also voted to create a new work group to work jointly with All Agency Review and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to explore creative ways to train commissioners to the 2018 General Assembly, which will be held in St. Louis June 16-23. The idea is to give those commissioners a greater understanding coming into the assembly of the work of Way Forward, All Agency Review and the 2020 Vision Team, “to help the learning curve not be so steep” once the assembly convenes, Hostetter said.
A meeting Oct. 20 included several members of the commission, the communications directors from all six agencies, executives from those agencies and representatives from their boards. And a decision was made to establish four subgroups, to look in more depth at:
- The PC(USA)’s online presence – including the ease or difficulty of finding information and using search engines on its websites, branding, logos and use of social media.
- Recipient focus – or how the denomination handles master lists of groups and data; how agencies or departments share those lists; what information goes to congregations and mid councils, “balancing inundation with relevance,” Hostetter said.
- Translation services – what resources are provided for translating PC(USA) materials into languages other than English; how it’s decided what gets translated, how quickly and what gets done first; and whether translation also needs to be done of resources from other languages into English. The question of resources for translation was a persistent topic of conversation at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s meeting held Sept. 21-23.
- Content and coordination – which includes developing a holistic strategy for a unified voice, while recognizing that there are different roles for ministry areas such as marketing, news and fundraising, and also considers the question of authority – of who speaks for the church.
A group from the commission met with representatives of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) who work with mid council leaders, during the Mid Council Leaders Gathering, held Oct. 15-17 in St. Louis.
Those agency representatives indicated “there is hope to have an integrated database by 2020” involving mid councils, said Julie Cox, a commission member and presbytery staff member from South Carolina who attended that meeting. Cox said: “An integrated database is needed sooner than 2020. That should be a priority.”
OGA and PMA are being asked to give the commission a strategic work plan involving mid council relations by mid-November, even if it’s just a first draft. And commission members have said that proposal needs to involve a “real shift in culture” and communication, said Sara Dingman, a synod executive from Indiana.
Mid council leaders have told the commission, “we don’t need experts, we need connections,” so mid council leaders can help one another, said Eliana Maxim, a mid council leader from Seattle. The idea, particularly with OGA, is that “staff persons perceive themselves as a connector, not a fountainhead,” said Eileen Linder, a pastor from New Jersey.
Tom Hay, director of assembly operations at OGA, who serves as staff support for the commission, said that “OGA is in an uncertain time right now,” with a fairly new stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, who is setting some new directions for the agency. Hay encouraged the commission to think of the changes it wants to see in mid council relations as “a big ship turn” that will take time, and “I would hope it’s the clerk that drives this transformation” rather than “quick instructions” from the commission.
Another group is looking at the role of the stated clerk. While that group is still working, Lindner said it’s looking at ways to ensure that the stated clerk is seen as the voice of the PC(USA). That includes examining:
- Changes that might be made to the Book of Order or elsewhere to strengthen the job description of the stated clerk.
- Strengthening the PC(USA)’s public voice by bringing into stronger relationship the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and the part of legal services dealing with First Amendment rights and the free expression of religion in society.
- Possible ways the denomination’s national headquarters in downtown Louisville might be used more for mission.
- Ways in which the stated clerk, in coordination with mid councils, might develop leadership training initiatives.
There may be structural considerations as well, said Cliff Lyda, a minister from Florida. “We’re not looking for a presiding bishop; we’re not looking for a CEO,” Lyda said. But “at all the tables of the church the stated clerk should have a seat, as the guardian and interpreter of the will of the church, through the General Assembly.” How can the PC(USA) organizational chart be redrawn, he asked, to make clear “that sense of voice”?
This work group is concerned, Maxim said, about a lack of a comprehensive denominational plan to address the needs of an emerging majority of people of color; a lack of collaboration with racial ethnic caucuses in the PC(USA) regarding agreements already reached; and a lack of staff coordination with those caucuses and networks.
“This is also going to be a cultural shift,” she said. “There has been a lot of silo-ing within our denomination around this kind of work.” That’s a reflection, Maxim said, “of institutional racism, that we compartmentalize some of the justice work and don’t allow people to permeate the barriers we establish, in order to be more effective.”
The work group will focus in two areas, Maxim said, working to:
- Curate and inventory work that’s already been done in the PC(USA) regarding race, racism, inclusivity and diversity. “This denomination has produced enough reports and studies and conversation papers that we could wallpaper the entire center in Louisville and still have some left over,” she said.
- Develop a national PC(USA) strategy around racism and inclusivity – with the staff, caucuses, networks and advocacy groups all involved in that conversation.
Also, work on racism and inclusivity “cannot be the work of people of color within the denomination,” Maxim said. “This is white people’s work. We need to stop asking people of color to do this work.”
A work group including the executive directors of the six agencies met by conference call Oct. 23 to discuss use of the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville, and has three more meetings planned, Hostetter said. That work will include:
- Data collection – an analysis of the PC(USA)’s facilities including operational costs, square footage, maintenance costs, subleases, parking alternatives and more.
- “As is” possibilities – including dreams for how the national office building at 100 Witherspoon Street might be used; the theology for doing so; and how to build support for those ideas.
- Alternatives – including the advantages of having multiple sites around the U.S. instead of one headquarters building.
PC(USA), A Corporation
This work group, including representatives from All Agency Review, is looking at the corporate identity that serves OGA and PMA. That “could actually rest anywhere in the structure,” or could be thought of as “a utility that others can plug into,” Lindner said. Another possible change might involve the structure of the corporation board, which currently mirrors that of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
This work group, which also includes representatives from All Agency Review, is looking at how PMA handles shared services, including things such as legal services, human resources and information technology. The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board also approved recommendations from one of its ministerial teams in September regarding changes in shared services – a plan that calls for moving towards imposing a flat rate within PMA for recovering overhead and administrative costs. .
The commission on Oct. 24 approved this recommendation:
“The Way Forward Commission will convene in November a working group that includes staff from all six Agencies to engage in conversation about comprehensive systems framework for constituent databases and data warehousing, including those that support sharing across systems as appropriate, in collaboration with working groups on communications and mid councils, and with outside resources as needed. Preliminary findings are requested no later than January 12, 2018.”
The work ahead
After some discussion, commission members decided to hold off on two other actions – to create more work groups to look at the the financial systems that PC(USA) agencies use and to consider the idea of a denomination-wide human resources strategy. Commission members decided to fold that fact-finding work – and the question of whether some functions might be outsourced – into the assignments of work groups the commission already has created.
This is complicated stuff. For example, who keeps the donor data base for the PC(USA), and who within the denomination has access to it? “All of this should go into a pool of data housed in a central warehouse” – that’s how modern data systems are structured, said Sam Bonner, a bank examiner from New Jersey. “I’m concerned that maybe they don’t know that.”
The work group is looking at “what is there, and what should be there,” said Jo Stewart, an elder from North Carolina.
Contributing to the PC(USA)’s communications and trust problems is the reality that “there is no transparency or common language” in how much of the data is collected and managed, Bonner said. “At the heart of that is a strong data warehouse,” a pool of shared information, “so cost allocation isn’t some kind of voodoo that comes out of box” or information that’s updated in one place isn’t reflected somewhere else.
The working groups will look at how constituent information is collected and recorded, whether it’s available so that all who need to access it can do so and so that “it only needs to be updated once,” Stewart said.
The commission still has much work to do – including trying to determine whether it’s trying to do too much at once, and whether it needs to prioritize its recommendations. Commission members said, however, they have been pleased at how cooperative and collaborative PC(USA) leaders have been so far.
Mathew Eardley, an elder from Idaho, said he’s seen a lot of shared consensus among PC(USA) leaders on the realities and the issues that need addressing. “People know,” he said. “So how do we tap in, empower, create opportunities, give leverage to let these ideas fly and let people do what they know needs to be done in a lot of places?”
Despite that spirit of collaboration, however, problems also persist. So “we do need to identify what the barriers are to change,” Stewart said.
The commission’s next conference call is Nov. 29, and its next face-to-face meeting will be Jan. 16-19 at First Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Its report to the General Assembly is due by Feb. 16, although Hostetter said the commission can keep working until June on actions it is empowered to take on its own, without needing assembly approval, and to encourage collaboration it thinks could benefit the PC(USA).