Presbyterian Mission Agency Board kicks off meeting with optimism, reconciliation directive

David Ezekiel (left) of Illinois and Marilyn Gamm (right), chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, participate in small-group discussions on reconciliation Sept. 17 at the board's meeting in Louisville. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)
David Ezekiel (left) of Illinois and Marilyn Gamm (right), chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, participate in small-group discussions on reconciliation Sept. 17 at the board’s meeting in Louisville. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

LOUISVILLE – With the hit song “Happy” serving as the soundtrack for one of the videos played, an upbeat, optimistic attitude about the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) permeated the presentations at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting Sept. 17.

“We are on the brink, not the brink of disaster, but the brink of vibrant and wonderful ministry,” said Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Since the General Assembly blessed the 1,001 New Worshipping Communities initiative two years ago, Presbyterians have created 270 new worshipping communities in 110 presbyteries, said Roger Dermody, the denomination’s deputy executive director for mission. Half are multi-ethnic and multicultural, he said (although he didn’t explain exactly how that’s defined). “This is happening now,” Dermody said. “This is us, the PC(USA) today, and it’s happening all over the nation and lives are being transformed…It’s amazing and exciting and something we absolutely should celebrate and praise God about.”

The Young Adult Volunteer program just commissioned its largest class ever in its 20-year history – with more than 90 new volunteers, including four from South Korea who will serve in the United States, Valentine said.

The PC(USA)’s new communications strategy will include telling inspiring stories of Presbyterians living out Jesus’ command to go make disciples in all nations, said Kathy Francis, the denomination’s director of communications. “Story-telling is a key part of our newly developed communications plan,” Francis said.

Occasionally, the upbeat mood bumped into a few of the denomination’s ongoing challenges – such as during a discussion of a General Assembly directive that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to work together with churches “in the task of reconciliation, starting with visiting each presbytery. . . . ”

Susan Davis Krummel, the PC(USA)’s new associate for Mid Council Relations, set some of the context for that engagement.

The mid council structure itself is changing, she said, with fewer Presbyterians left to provide financial support; with 28 of the 172 presbyteries now having no paid full-time staff leadership; with some presbytery executives working part-time; and with differing ideas of what reconciliation means or involves.

While the reconciliation directive came in response to the 2014 General Assembly’s votes regarding same-gender marriage (allowing the denomination’s ministers to perform same-gender marriages), some Presbyterians seem more concerned about PC(USA) actions regarding Israel and the Middle East (including divestment in three companies doing business in Israel which the assembly determined to be involved in non-peaceful activities), said board member Wendy Tajima of California.

With rumblings of distrust of the denomination’s national staff, some aren’t sure how valuable reconciliation visits might actually be, Tajima said.

Krummel acknowledged that she’s heard from some quarters that the most helpful thing might be for the national staff to “stay away.”

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board is meeting in Louisville through Sept. 19, with new members starting their service and with Marilyn Gamm, a pastor from Wisconsin, as its new chair. Here’s the agenda and reports being discussed at the meeting.