Difficulties and signs of hope: That’s what folks are talking about at the top levels of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The difficulties are many: among them, a denomination that’s losing members and running short on money. Unless something changes, projections are that the PC(USA) will essentially run out of unrestricted reserve money it can spend by 2017. In 2016, World Mission may begin recalling mission co-workers serving internationally if it can’t raise at least $925,000 this year to pay them.
Work has begun to craft the 2017-2020 mission work plan and budget – guiding documents for the Presbyterian Mission Agency – and Linda Valentine, the agency’s executive director, wrote recently that “we are trying to do too much. We need to focus on what we can do best and what the church most needs and will support.”
When the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board met April 15-17, talk turned overtly to the idea of a possible reconfiguration of the denomination’s infrastructure – including mention of the idea of merging the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly.
Two board members – Marianne Rhebergen of New Jersey and Wendy Tajima of California – introduced a motion April 17 asking the board’s executive committee “to conduct a reexamination of the mission, priorities and structure of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.” According to the motion, that would include a consultation across the church and a conversation with the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to explore the possibility of a possible merger between the mission agency and the Office of the General Assembly, the denomination’s ecclesiastical arm.
Rhebergen spoke of the need for a “radical to-the-root revisioning and restructuring of the PC(USA). In an era when we are no longer a denomination of four million members,” the board has an opportunity to lead thinking “in a moment of crisis and opportunity.”
Tajima said she hoped the executive committee could help the board to go deeper “into looking at what is essential for the national-level church to be doing” at a time when many local congregations are less connected to the denominational structure and “our resources are constrained up and down the chain.”
At the suggestion of former General Assembly moderator Neal Presa, the board ultimately voted to refer that motion to the board’s executive committee and to the strategic advisory group – the board representatives who’ll be working with Valentine and her staff to develop the 2017-2020 mission work plan – to return to the September 2015 board meeting with a recommendation for a process “to consider a church-wide conversation on the mission, priorities and structures” of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Gregory Chan, a board member from California, said he wants the entire board to be involved in the conversation, not just the executive committee. “If we don’t make some dramatic shifts, my grandchildren’s grandchildren will not see the day when this body of Christ is working and serving the world,” Chan said – the PC(USA) may not survive. Chan asked that the board’s leadership make significant time for the board to discuss these issues – “it’s imperative that we do so.”
Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, said he supported the motion to refer – but also said, “I’d like us to put this high on the priority list,” and wants the leaders of all the six Presbyterian agencies to be included in the conversations. By referring, Rada said, “I hope it wouldn’t mean we’re not going to do anything about it.”
Rada also used his moderator’s remarks to the board as a chance to summarize what he’s hearing around the church and to issue some challenges. He spoke some words of hope – telling, for example, of urban congregations where young adults are coming to church because they see the PC(USA) as “a safe place where young people can come and search for their faith identities” in “a church without walls,” where faith is put into action out in the world.
Some accuse the PC(USA) of being a denomination where people don’t believe in the authority of the Bible or accept Jesus as their savior, Rada said. “Both of those are untrue and almost blasphemous accusations about the PC(USA),” he said.
Rada also spoke of the denomination’s financial difficulties; of the need for the board to be collegial even in disagreement and to respect confidentiality; and for Presbyterians not to place unfair blame on the Presbyterian Mission Agency staff. It’s unrealistic to cut the budget repeatedly and to expect a smaller staff with fewer resources to produce the same amount of work as a larger staff once did, he said. “Many people feel we owe our staff an apology, I am told, by making them work in impossible circumstances,” Rada said. “Our staff is comprised of faithful, loving persons” who aren’t perfect, but “who are doing everything in their power to try to do it right.”
He also spoke of the need for a comprehensive communications strategy for the PC(USA), saying: “We either define ourselves or we are being defined by someone else. . . We need to take some control over our message.”
On its last day of meetings, the board also heard words on these issues:
- Reconciliation. PC(USA) stated clerk Gradye Parsons offered an appreciation of the late General Assembly moderator Syngman Rhee, who died in January, as being fearless, gracious and committed to reconciliation. Reconciliation involves the hard work of engagement, “not just shaking hands,” Parsons said.
- Cradle Presbyterians. Parsons pointed out that Rhee was not a “cradle Presbyterian,” which is “a term I wish we could let go of,” considering how many people in PC(USA) churches did not start off as Presbyterians. There’s not some kind of genetic or medical test that says, “Calvin was here!” Parsons said. “You don’t have to be a cradle Presbyterian to be a real Presbyterian. You just have to love Jesus Christ.”
- Education. Two goals have been set for the U.S. part of the PC(USA)’s “Educate a Child, Transform the World” initiative, said Eileen Lindner, a pastor who’s serving as a consultant to the project. Those are: strengthen early childhood education and reduce the dropout rate. She challenged Presbyterians: “What can you and your congregation do to help children, around the block and around the world?”