Presbyterian Mission Agency board prepares to meet in Louisville this week, proposes response to review committee

In June, the General Assembly’s The Way Forward committee will discuss what shape and form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) structure should take in a changing time. On the table: proposals to consider merging the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), plus questions of how the General Assembly should operate, and how quickly or carefully to move.

Not surprisingly, Presbyterians with a stake in the answers are beginning to weigh in on what should happen next. The discussion also comes at a time when the PMA is cutting its budget and the denominational leadership is in flux – with the assembly due to elect a new stated clerk in June, and with Tony De La Rosa serving as the PMA’s interim executive director.

At its meeting in Louisville April 27-29, The Presbyterian Mission Agency board (PMAB) will make its response to the recommendations of the Committee to Review the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which released its report in January. That report is part of the regular review cycle of the six PC(USA) agencies – and the committee had some strongly-worded findings on issues such a lack of transparency in the way PMA allocates administrative costs and what it described as a “highly stressful and sometimes even unhealthy work environment” at the PMA offices in Louisville.

A team of board members has prepared a proposed response to that report, which the full board will consider this week. The proposed response addresses only the review committee’s three formal recommendations – but not the long rationale section of the report, which outlines broader concerns about the stressful organizational culture within PMA, a lack of coordination with other PC(USA) entities and a lack of a clear strategic direction.

Also at this meeting: The board will consider a response from the Board of Pensions. The Board of Pensions has raised objections to the proposed response to the review committee recommendations – objections that raise the possibility of tensions at the General Assembly between the Presbyterian Mission Agency and other PC(USA) entities.

A response from Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, supports the review committee recommendation on merger – and is being presented as an information item for the board to consider (but not vote on). Spencer – a corresponding member of the PMAB – states that “we at the Board of Pensions deeply object” to the proposed board response to the review committee recommendation on merger.

Spencer’s correspondence also refers to objections from the Presbyterian Publishing Company. “Before voting on this matter, we believe the entire PMA Board should understand the opposition of its sister agencies to this proposal,” he wrote.

Here are more details:

On proposals to merge OGA and PMA:
The review committee has suggested delaying the all-agency review that’s scheduled for 2016 (a review of the effectiveness of the six denominational entities in implementing the directives of the General Assembly) – and instead creating a committee to explore the possible merger of OGA and PMA.

The proposed response from PMAB advocates sticking with the all-agency review rather than exploring a possible OGA-PMA merger. It contends that proposals for merging OGA and PMA coming to this assembly (including the review committee recommendations and overtures related to merger) are “premature and unduly narrow in scope.”

The response states that conducting the all-agency review would “reveal a range of possible approaches to restructuring or for more collaboration and sharing of resources.” Setting up a committee to consider an OGA-PMA merger “prematurely forecloses the benefits of a wider, more careful analysis.”

One implication of all this: Who has a seat at the table where decisions would be made?

The review committee is proposing a 15-member committee, to be appointed by three General Assembly moderators, and with “broad geographic, racial, ethnic and gender diversity.” The all-agency review group would have representatives of each of the six agencies, commissioners to recent General Assemblies (representing mid councils) and at large members.

On restructuring the Presbyterian Mission Agency board:
The review committee is recommending that the 2016 assembly authorize the creation of an eight-member committee to review the responsibilities of the board, and “provide a plan for restructuring the Board so that it can be better able to do the adaptive work necessary to provide leadership and guidance for the PMA and the church, today and into the next generation.”

The board’s proposed response states that it supports “the importance and timeliness” of the recommendation “to consider revisions to the structure, composition, and work” of the board. It also points out that the board already has created its own Governance Task Force “with a similar charge to work intensively to propose changes in the structure and size of the board, and to clarify strategies” for electing board members with helpful skills and experience.

The board is proposing interim changes through its Governance Task Force, to give attention at each of its meetings to three primary tasks:

  • Generative discernment of God’s calling;
  • Creation of ad hoc strategic teams (made up of PMA staff and board members) that would be “short term, specifically-focused work groups” addressing immediate concerns emerging from the generative discussion.
  • Using ministerial committees of the board for necessary oversight. Those committees would be: executive; mission effectiveness; finance; personnel and nominating; and audit.

Those changes, if approved by the board, would govern its work through July 2018.

Given that, the board’s response recommends that instead of the assembly acting to create its own committee to restructure the PMAB, it should “take advantage of the interim model and future work of the PMAB Task Force to respond to this recommendation. The assembly could also consider appointing several at-large members to join the PMAB Governance Task Force.”

Shared services
The review committee recommended that the assembly instruct the directors of four PC(USA) agencies – PMA, OGA, the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation – to appoint a staff committee. The work of that committee would be to explore the best ways for shared services such as accounting, building services and human resources to serve the four agencies. The committee would report back to the 2018 assembly, the recommendation states.

The board’s proposed response states that “we affirm and support the value of interagency collaboration” and support the recommendation.

Spencer – the Board of Pensions president – pointed out in his correspondence that both the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation were reviewed two years ago, and the committees conducting those reviews offered no recommendations for improvement, and listed “our ongoing collaboration with other agencies as a strength.”

Frank Spencer
Frank Spencer

Spencer cited some areas of ongoing cooperation and wrote, “future collaboration in some areas is possible. However, an all-agency review as proposed in the (PMAB) response will only delay the needed work of re-evaluating the PMA finances, governance and structure and how these relate to the OGA in particular. It ignores the urgency felt by the Review Committee.”

Spencer wrote, “I personally support the concept of reuniting the departments we call OGA and PMA under the single legal entity, PC(USA), A Corporation.”

He cited a number of concerns the review committee raised, stating, “the committee’s concerns on the issues of trust, leadership, transparency, financial efficiency, and legal disputes have not emanated from the six agency structure, but rather from inside PMA itself.”

The review committee determined that within the PMA, a “lack of transparency often contributes to a sense that there is a corresponding lack of self-understanding,” Spencer wrote. “Further obscuring the actual problems by diverting energy into a six agency review will only confuse our constituencies and further undermine our common ability to serve congregations as we collectively work to follow faithfully our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Spencer stated, “the (PMAB) response as drafted has no good outcome. Should the response be submitted as drafted and endorsed by the General Assembly, it will be over the explicit objection of PMA’s sister agencies, thus creating even higher barriers to cooperation. Should the response be submitted as drafted and be overturned, upholding the Review Committee recommendation, it will cast PMA as recalcitrant and unwilling to face the issues that the Review Committee identified.

“Therefore, we must object to the response as proposed and we strongly encourage PMA to embrace the work of the Review Committee and recommendation #1 [regarding a possible OGA-PMA merger] in full. This is the faithful and courageous choice.”

Meeting agenda
The PMAB meeting will be held April 27-29 in Louisville. Also up for consideration:

  • Approving the mission budget for 2017-2018, including staff cuts at the PMA’s national offices;
  • A report from the search committee looking for a new PMA executive director.
  • PMAB responses to a range of overtures coming to the assembly – including overtures on fossil fuel divestment and an overture calling for the PC(USA) to apologize for harms done to LGBTQ/Q people.

Here are links to the agenda and meeting papers.