ST. LOUIS – What are the “perils and possibilities” ahead for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
Why does lament resonate so deeply in the PC(USA) at this time – apparently striking a deeper chord than joy?
How can the idea of openness (drawn from section F-1.0404 in the Book of Order) be used as a central theme or “mission directive” for the denomination?
These are some of the questions the All Agency Review Committee – charged with making a report to the 2018 General Assembly about the interactions of the six agencies and the “church as a whole” – discussed on the first day of its Oct. 9-10 meeting in St. Louis.
All Agency Review asked each of the six PC(USA) agencies to respond to a series of questions regarding the concept of openness – and the responses led to a robust discussion, covering everything from a proposal to increase the per capita rate to efforts to make Board of Pensions medical coverage available to those in ministry who are not serving full-time calls.
Deborah Block, a pastor from Milwaukee who serves as moderator of All Agency Review, referred to the “triplets” – the three entities the 2016 General Assembly created, all hard at work looking at the future of the PC(USA), and all needing to submit their reports to the 2018 General Assembly by Feb. 16.
A coordinating committee from All Agency Review meets regularly with a coordinating committee from the Way Forward Commission. And All Agency Review spoke by conference call at this meeting with the co-moderators of the 2020 Vision Team, Bernadette Coffee and Lisa Juica Perkins, both from Texas.
Here’s more of the discussion from the first day of the meeting.
Coffee and Perkins reported on feedback the vision team is receiving from three surveys it is using – with people inside the PC(USA), those whose work is somehow adjacent to the denomination (such as chaplains, ecumenical groups and campus ministers) and those not connected to the church (such as community activists or people who claim no religious affiliation).
So far, three major themes have surfaced in the responses, Perkins said: community, witness and justice.
The 2016 General Assembly created the 2020 Vision Team and instructed it to devise “a guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation with all deliberate speed.”
The leaders of 2020 Vision had interpreted the instructions as meaning they would report to the 2018 General Assembly, but then continue working until 2020. That is not absolutely clear, and the 2018 assembly, which will meet June 16-23 in St. Louis, “does have the ability to say that our work will not continue,” or to authorize another two years, Perkins said.
2020 Vision will meet Nov. 12-14 in Dallas – the team’s third face-to-face meeting – and will discuss results from the surveys and other conversations from around the church and what might go into its report to the assembly. That report could include not just words but images, song and art, Perkins said.
The conversations that team members have been having in churches, presbytery and synod meetings and elsewhere have included the question “What’s breaking God’s heart in your community?” (from General Assembly co-moderator Jan Edmiston) and also questions about joys, grace and gratitude, Coffee said.
What they’ve found is that “people are lamenting like crazy across the church,” Perkins said – much more so than expressing joy. What do they lament?
- “We lament that we are smaller than we ever have been,” and are unsure of the structure of the church of the future, Perkins said. There’s lament for the church we used to be, and that “we don’t know the church we are.”
- Some lament a relentless lack of resources, an environment of scarcity.
- Some lament that Presbyterians don’t do enough to work for social justice; others lament that “we have done too much.”
Some of those outside the PC(USA) are not familiar with the denomination at all, except having seen stories in the news about fighting and lawsuits, Perkins said. “They have no clue” about who Presbyterians are “and we could possibly be irrelevant to them.”
The 2020 Vision Team has also had some hard, uncomfortable discussion about “what if we do all of this and the PC(USA) still dies?” she said. There was mourning and asking, “What if that is the future? And then we sat there and celebrated ‘What do we have right now that we can thank God for?’ ” – which was quite a significant list.
Marco Grimaldo, an elder from Washington, D.C. who works for Bread for the World, encouraged 2020 Vision to pay attention to data from the Pew Research Center and elsewhere about the growing leadership of people of color in evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, which “are definitely being changed by the people of color they are welcoming in.”
Eric Beene, a pastor from Georgia, said All Agency Review has, to some extent, moved from lament – more the tone of its meeting in May in Denver – to a growing sense of openness and joy about what the church could become. Perhaps the “triplets” could find some congruence in their reports, he said, in discussing both lament and “an openness to ‘what is God doing here?’ ”
Dave Davis, a pastor from New Jersey, suggested thinking of the three groups as looking at the PC(USA) in somewhat different time frames, with All Agency Review assessing the current functioning of the six agencies and the denomination; Way Forward suggesting changes that can be accomplished now and in the next three to five years; and 2020 Vision looking ahead 10 to 30 years.
Ideas about openness
The committee spent several hours discussing responses from the six agencies to a series of questions about openness – ranging from efforts to foster community and connectedness in the PC(USA), to white privilege, to detecting the “possibilities and perils” of the current institutional structure.
One by one, representatives of the agencies presented their reports – with the responses covering a lot of ground.
Stated clerk. J. Herbert Nelson, elected as the denomination’s stated clerk in 2016, has a style that is “a lot more programmatic than we ever had before,” sort of like a pastor looking for opportunities for creative ministry, Beene said.
Per capita. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly discussed a preliminary proposal at its meeting in September for increasing the per capita rate from $7.73 per member in 2018 to $10.11 in 2019 and $10.82 in 2020. That proposed increase caused “no small amount of alarm,” but was presented because “we need to let the church know what we believe it will take us to do the job you have given us to do,” said Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk.
The Office of the General Assembly will look hard at how much it can use from reserves, and will work with mid council leaders to “tell the story effectively” about why a per capita increase is needed, Rice said. “If the church says ‘no,’ then we need to have a Plan B in place.”
Donor fatigue. A discussion about how the Presbyterian Mission Agency raises money led to consideration of whether Presbyterians are less likely to give if they’re being asked separately by the six agencies or various ministry divisions to give. “There are so many different ‘asks’ within the national denomination,” said Chris Mason, an elder and lawyer from New York. “Somebody’s going to say no to some of these things,” because they’re tired of being asked.
Presbyterian Mission Agency. The committee agreed to give the agency a little more time to revise its response to the questions, after Barry Creech, director of policy, administration and board support, said “this was difficult for us” – with the questions coming right as the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s September meeting was ending and as David Crittenden had just started as acting director after Tony De La Rosa, the interim executive director, abruptly resigned.
Grimaldo and others pushed back a bit – saying that even if Crittenden was new on the job, the agency’s leadership cabinet should have the depth of knowledge to respond to the questions. But the committee agreed to give the agency a few weeks to revise the initial response.
Board of Pensions. “We are done with decline,” the Board of Pensions said in its response. “We dare not proclaim the transforming Gospel of new life in Christ and then plan for our demise!”
How does the board demonstrate that it is open to God’s activity in the church and in the world? “We say yes” – eliminating rules and restrictions and offering a menu of choices that has drawn more who work for the church into the plan.
Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, said the board is working on reducing dues for pastors of small churches and young ministers; trying to slow future increases in medical costs; and finding ways to extend benefits to people in more ministry contexts, including commissioned ruling elders and those who don’t work in full-time or installed ministry positions. Perhaps offering a menu of choices – such as including a lower-cost, high-deductible option – is a better way to offer some services to more people than an “all or nothing” approach, Spencer said.
He also said the board has learned from its mistakes –particularly from a proposed change in the dues structure several years ago that was not well communicated and drew significant criticism. In a more recent revision, “we spent thousands of hours talking to thousands of Presbyterians on the front end,” explaining what was being considered and learning what would work and what might not, and got virtually no negative feedback, Spencer said.
Strategic planning. Spencer also raised questions about whether the PC(USA) as it’s structured now has the capacity for strategic conversations about complex issues such as a possible impending shortage of Presbyterian pastors to serve the churches. Collaborative discussions among the six agencies is “very tactical” and “I think there’s great good will,” Spencer said. “We work together on all sorts of things” and those collaborations are productive.
On strategic matters, however, involving denomination-wide matters, “it’s hard to find the right conversation partner,” Spender said. If the question is that you’ve got an ecclesiastical function, a mission function and a particular set of resources, then who’s going to set the priorities and allocate the resources? “The conversation partner for the big resource allocation question doesn’t exist.”
The detailed responses from the six agencies to the All Agency Review’s questions are full of information. They can be found here:
- Board of Pensions
- Office of the General Assembly
- Presbyterian Foundation
- Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program
- Presbyterian Mission Agency
- Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
Block reported that All Agency will not be getting two new members to replace vacancies; one vacancy is a position that became open when Mihee Kim-Kort, representing the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, resigned in August because of other responsibilities, and the other is a slot for the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program whose original appointee was unable to serve and which has never been filled.
All Agency Review had hope any new members would be named in time to attend this meeting – but that hasn’t happened, and now “it’s too late,” Block said. “We’ll forge ahead.”
The meeting will continue through Oct. 10.