The Way Forward Commission likely will ask the General Assembly to reconfigure the structure of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation, and to place responsibility for shared services within that corporation.
That revised corporate entity would be governed by a board of probably 9 to 13 people, which would include representatives of each of the PC(USA)’s six agencies, and with a president elected by that board. That corporate entity would serve as the “center of gravity” of the PC(USA) organizational structure, according to Eileen Lindner, a minister from New Jersey and one of the commission’s two vice moderators.
Currently, the PC(USA), A Corporation serves as the corporate identity for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). The board of what’s commonly referred to as the A Corporation consists of the voting members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
That’s led to a variety of concerns – including whether the Office of the General Assembly has adequate representation, and whether executing that corporate responsibility takes away from the primary mission focus of PMA.
The Way Forward Commission also is considering placing responsibility for shared services within that corporation – and possibly realigning how that work is done. As currently defined, shared services includes work ranging from building maintenance to human resources and legal services.
In developing its proposal, the commission will look at cost effectiveness and alternative delivery mechanisms – including possibly involving all six agencies in using or providing some of the shared services and whether some functions might be outsourced.
The commission presented all of those ideas – and many more – during a video conference call meeting Dec. 12. The commission took no votes, but laid out broadly some components that likely will be part of its recommendations to the 2018 General Assembly – or actions the commission will take before the assembly under its own power (those without constitutional implications).
The commission next will meet in Seattle Jan. 17-19. A writing group will meet before then, and likely will come to that meeting with a proposed first draft of a report to the 2018 General Assembly. The deadline for that report is Feb. 16.
Many of these recommendations are the result of intense behind-the-scenes efforts. The commission has formed a platoon of work teams; those teams have been meeting for months now with top officials and other representatives of the PC(USA)’s six agencies. Some of the work also is being conducted in concert with representatives of the All Agency Review Committee, with the hope those two groups may make some joint recommendations to the General Assembly when it meets in St. Louis June 16-23.
Mark Hostetter, a minister from New York who serves as the commission’s moderator, pointed out that this virtual meeting was taking place exactly one year to the day from the commission’s first meeting in New York in December 2016. Hostetter said the commission wants to be responsive to the 2016 General Assembly’s “sense of deep urgency and bold call to action.”
When the assembly created the commission, it said “with a pretty clear and a pretty strong and unified voice, this is time for change – we must change,” Lindner said.
Hostetter described the work as collaborative; Lindner said it’s focused on congregations.
As a commission, “we have been midwives to those changes,” she said. “We have not been the people delivering the baby.”
Lindner also said: “Denominations as denominations will either cease to exist, or they will refashion themselves.”
Here are more details of the reports from the commission’s many work groups.
A corporation. Most likely, few Presbyterians at the grass roots give deep thought to the PC(USA)’s corporate expressions. At the top levels of the church, however, people definitely are – including the Governance Task Force of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
Lindner said the discussion surrounding the PC(USA), A Corporation, overlaps with those regarding shared services and the culture in the denomination’s national offices in Louisville.
She said the work group began to think of the A Corporation as a utility – and took into consideration ideas expressed “very strongly” by some that in the administration of the A Corporation “in some way the back office had become the front office. Those issues and priorities began to be sensed as taking priority” over the mission focus of PMA.
Some outside of PMA raised questions about the fairness of how costs and rules and regulations were being imposed, Lindner said. The idea emerged of whether the leadership of the A Corporation should be “lifted as a burden” from PMA and be given to some sort of council where all the users had representation.
“Many of the details we have to work out,” Lindner said, “because A Corporation could rest anywhere in the organization.” She spoke of “internal confusion” and tension regarding PMA’s mission and corporate roles, and external distrust involving PMA’s control of the A Corporation and of shared services.
By changing the board membership of the A Corporation, although not its function or duties, the PC(USA)’s six agencies might be able to work more collaboratively, Lindner said. The board should be smaller (the PMA board now has 40 members, although that’s changing – the board voted in September to change its size from 40 voting members to 20).
Ideally, the A Corporation board would have 9 to 13 members, Lindner said – one from each of the six agencies, plus some at-large members the General Assembly would appoint. The board would select its own president (under the current structure, the A Corporation president is the executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency).
“This is really complex stuff,” Lindner said. (Among the outstanding questions may be this: Would PMA still need or want to have a corporation of its own?)
Jo Stewart, an elder from North Carolina and a commission member, voiced some concern about the specifics still to be determined.
“I remain concerned about those details and I remain concerned that we are adding an additional layer of complexity without a lot of gain from that additional layer of complexity,” she said – voicing skepticism that the “center of gravity” in the A Corporation “is not in effect a real center of gravity.”
Hostetter acknowledged that issues of authority and decision-making power are involved, but said, “This is not a disempowerment of PMA, but a freeing up” – an effort to allow PMA’s leadership to think more creatively and freely about mission. The commission wants to figure out how to make PMA “free to dream, free to fly,” to think of mission in new ways. “Think of the potential of PMA in a shared structure,” he said.
This comes, Lindner said, at a time of wider re-evaluation of the Christian landscape – for example, of how the PC(USA) might broaden its views of possible ecumenical partners and to consider ways that relationships that congregations are forming bring new meaning and depth to mission.
“This is the ‘why’ ” of what the commission is doing, Hostetter said. “Restructuring for the sake of restructuring doesn’t make sense.”
Deborah Block, moderator of the All Agency Review Committee and a pastor from Wisconsin, participated in the call. Many congregations have made similar changes, she said – moving from a focus on “how are we going to fix the roof?” or fund the budget to new approaches to mission. This work connects the denominational structure “to where a lot of us live.”
Shared services. For two days in October, representatives of Way Forward and All Agency Review interviewed about 35 people in OGA and PMA about the use of the PC(USA)’s national office building in downtown Louisville and about shared services, Stewart said.
From that, two work groups have been formed regarding shared services. One will look at theological questions — such as: What does it mean to provide shared services in a church environment? The other will consider more tactical issues – including cost effectiveness, alternative ways to provide shared services and possible outsourcing of some functions should shared services be managed by the A Corporation.
Communication. This is an area of “continuing collaboration” that could continue right up until the 2018 General Assembly, Hostetter said, as the commission works through problems including a lack of cohesiveness involving the six agencies’ websites and the absence of a strategic PC(USA) communications plan.
Part of the problem is that those who have responsibility for updating and maintaining the PC(USA)’s websites don’t have the authority to enact changes that are needed, said Mathew Eardley, a commission member and elder from Idaho.
“I don’t see some great juggernaut of a (joint) communications structure emerging,” Lindner said, because “the agencies have unique voices, unique callings, and unique communications needs.” But, “that said, you would never know these were related organizations unless you just happened to know it.”
The question is: “How do we get some family resemblance, some coordination in this” and some strategic planning?
Stated clerk and voice of the church. The commission is considering making recommendations regarding the role of the stated clerk – to say, for example, that the clerk would serve as a corresponding member on the boards of each of the six agencies (with the right to be included in closed sessions); and that the clerk be consulted when any of those agencies was hiring a new executive director.
Another question the commission will consider at its Seattle meeting: Should the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy be moved from PMA to the stated clerk’s office, as a way of reinforcing the PC(USA)’s voice in public policy matters? There are pros and cons to that idea, Lindner said.
Mid councils. “This is still very much in process,” Eardley said, with PMA and OGA having submitted ideas for a strategic plan for mid council relations. The idea is “to root everything we are doing” in relationships and building trust. That approach “moves them away from this top-down, ‘we are the authority’ ” concept to a more collaborative approach to seeking best practices, said Eliana Maxim, a mid council executive from Seattle and the commission’s other vice-moderator.
Funding trends. The commission may need a new work group to consider the viability of the PC(USA)’s current funding structure, now and a decade from now, and determining who should be responsible for doing that analysis, Hostetter said.
That analysis should include looking at changing funding streams, Lindner said – including an enormous shift of wealth that will occur as the baby boomers die, and the value of land and property held by Presbyterian congregations.
Diverse voices. In the PC(USA), “we do not have a comprehensive denominational strategy for inclusivity and diversity,” said Julie Cox, a commission member and mid council executive from South Carolina. The PC(USA) has a pattern of not working collaboratively on this, and “our racial ethnic and justice work has been marginalized, I’ll say pushed … or maybe shoved into particular pockets of our structure and our work.”
Cox said the commission does not want more reports. “We don’t want any more resources to be developed,” but instead an effort to inventory and curate what’s already there, and a plan made for living into those recommendations.
Another issue: translation services in the PC(USA) – both for translating resources from English into Korean and Spanish, and from other languages into English. “It can’t be this little thing on the side,” Cox said. “It can’t be a bonus thing. It can’t be optional.”
An idea to make that happen, Maxim suggested: Expand the resources available, and move translation services into the A Corporation, where all six agencies would have access.
Property. Conversations continue about how to make the PC(USA)’s national offices more welcoming and to use the space for advocacy and leadership training (perhaps by creating leadership training videos on YouTube, said Cliff Lyda, a commission member and minister from Florida).
There is also the long-term question of whether the denomination should keep the Louisville building, which is not completely being used and carries costs of deferred maintenance, Hostetter said.
Next steps. The commission also likely will address how to make sure these recommendations get implemented – perhaps by asking the assembly to create another commission or extending the terms of the commission or All Agency Review?
And what can they say about Presbyterian ethos and identity – not just as a legacy, Block said, but in a way that “fuels how we go forward and how we engage the world?”
The commission will meet next Jan. 17-19 at First Presbyterian Church in Seattle.