The Way Forward: Assembly approves Vision Team and Administrative Commission to work toward the church of the future

Steve Aeschbacher, moderator of The Way Forward committee, presents the committee's recommendations to the General Assembly June 23.


PORTLAND, Ore. – What’s the way forward for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?

The 2016 General Assembly voted June 23 to move in two ways to try to figure that out. It decided to:

  • Create a 2020 Vision Team to develop a “guiding statement” for the PC(USA) – putting together a big-thinking team that would be asked to set a new vision for the denomination by 2020. That new guiding statement “will help us to name and claim our denominational identity as we seek to follow the Spirit into the future,” the measure states.
  • Create an administrative commission called the Way Forward Commission with the power to determine the structure and function of General Assembly agencies. That commission would “take into account the ministries” of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), “but shall not be bound by the current configuration of those ministries,” except when mandated by the PC(USA)’s constitution.

With relatively little discussion, the assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the 2020 Vision Team, approving it by a margin of 95 percent (547-27). The assembly voted 480-86 to create the administrative commission.

Steve Aeschbacher, moderator of The Way Forward committee, presents the committee's recommendations to the General Assembly June 23.
Steve Aeschbacher, moderator of The Way Forward committee, presents the committee’s recommendations to the General Assembly June 23.

In taking that approach, the assembly was responding to a sense that it needed to think in a big way about the future of the denomination – and also to act quickly to address concerns raised in recent reports of review committees for the PMA and OGA.

The committee’s leadership praised Tony De La Rosa, the PMA’s interim executive director, and the commitment and hard work of the PMA’s staff. Steve Aeschbacher, a ruling elder from Seattle and moderator of The Way Forward committee, said: “They’re doing a remarkable job, even as they’re being asked to do more with less.”

But Cynthia Jarvis, a teaching elder from Philadelphia and vice moderator of the committee, said the PMA review committee report also revealed some “systemic dysfunction” in PMA, and consequently “there is an urgency about getting on with our life together in a new way. … There are some systemic issues that cannot wait to be addressed or kicked down the road to the next assembly.”

Two young adult advisory delegates from the committee who helped present the proposal said an administrative commission “would bring about the healing, reconciliation, progress and unity that the agencies deserve and need,” in the words of Justin Botejue of Los Ranchos Presbytery. Those selected to serve on it would represent both diversity and particular skills sets, said Adam Allmer, of the Presbytery of Northern Plains.

An administrative commission has some significant powers – within its mandate, it is empowered to act without getting additional approval from the General Assembly.

The mandate for this administrative commission states that it:

  • Would engage or contract with a qualified examination team “to assess institutional performance” of the agencies, conducting “a comprehensive, detailed analysis” with measurable recommendations for improvement.
  • Shall “describe and implement a General Assembly-level staffing pattern that will accomplish its vision.”
  • Shall integrate the recommendations provided by the All Agency Review Committee, the Committee to Review the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Committee to Review the Office of the General Assembly.
  • Shall visit with and explore the best practices of other national church bodies; the best practices of corporations and nonprofits; and consult with seminary faculty and presidents, and presbytery and synod leaders.
Jan Edmiston, co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, presides over the debate June 23.
Jan Edmiston, co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, presides over the debate June 23.

The financial implication for the 2020 Vision Team: about $71,000. For the commission: about $58,720 – although Aeschbacher said that could rise to $600,000 if the commission decided to review all six agencies of the PC(USA).

When a commissioner asked whether the commission would have the power to merge OGA and PMA, Aeschbacher responded that the measure states that the commission would bring any recommendations for missional or structural changes to the 2018 General Assembly.

So “structural changes like merger probably would have to wait, but they could do other things in the interim,” Aeschbacher said.

At the same time, the 2020 Vision Team would be thinking about the big picture. Jarvis described the people who would be named to it as “15 pilgrims who will be asked to set out like Abraham and Sarah, not knowing where they are going.”

The vision team is being asked to:

  • Conduct “targeted listening exercises” with constituencies throughout the church to try to discern where the Spirit is leading the PC(USA). Those groups could include congregations, presbyteries, synods and seminaries. One question that might be discussed: “how God is calling them to respond to ‘what breaks God’s heart’ in their communities,” (that’s using language that assembly co-moderator Jan Edmiston has been encouraging Presbyterians to consider).
  • Look outside the church “to seek best practices and resources” for being relevant to changing landscapes.
  • Develop recommendations that would essentially be the only business for another The Way Forward committee to consider at the 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis. One exception: that committee also could consider overtures submitted to the 2018 assembly directly in response to the 2020 Vision Team report.

Some commissioners voiced concern about whether an administrative commission would put too much power in the hands of a dozen people. “The scope of the commission is staggering,” said Russ Kane, a teaching elder from Denver Presbytery. “I can’t imagine how 12 people are going to be put in charge of all these things.”

Others urged the assembly to move ahead. Drew Henry, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Santa Fe, said: “We can’t afford not to take action now….We were asked to act boldly.”

The committee also voted 505-35 to disapproval, with comment, a series of overtures from Foothills Presbytery, which presented ideas for reconfiguring how the assembly itself does its work. In that comment, the assembly thanked the presbyteries which submitted or concurred with the overtures “for opening the conversation, and calls on future General Assemblies to continue to explore ways of better engaging the whole church in important decisions.”

Here are more details regarding the entities the assembly voted to create.

2020 Vision Team

  • The 2020 Vision Team would have 15 members, appointed by the co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly, in consultation with the General Assembly Nominating Committee and the General Assembly Committee on Representation.
  • The committee would have at least 6 teaching elders and six ruling elders.
  • In choosing the team members, the following demographic traits would be considered: gender identity; geographic location; inclusion of people under age 40; racial/ethnic minorities; those engaged in parish and validated ministries; and theological diversity.
  • Skill sets considered when selecting the team would include strategic planning, visioning, and experience on administrative commissions.
  • The assembly’s co-moderators would serve as additional, ex-officio members of the vision team.
  • The committee would build upon the work begun in the “When We Gather at the Table” report – a summary of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly listening project – as well as the conversations that Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, conducted around the church this spring.

“We recognize that the church of the future will not look the same as it does today,” the rationale for the action states. “For this reason, we want to encourage that special attention be paid to the makeup of the committee. We hope it will include: longtime Presbyterians with an understanding of who we’ve been as well as young Presbyterians with a dream of who we can be; people with all kinds of cultural perspectives who can best represent the diverse expressions of God’s voice in the world; those who are doing ministry in a variety of settings, including the parish, validated positions, new worshipping communities, and church plants; and those who feel ‘left behind’ by the denomination.”

Among the issues the committee might consider, the proposal states, are:

  • Demographic and social change;
  • Shifts in economic power;
  • Rapid urbanization;
  • Climate change;
  • Resource scarcity; and
  • Technological breakthroughs.

Way Forward Administrative Commission
The 12-member administrative commission would be appointed by the co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly, along with the moderator and vice moderator of the 2014 General Assembly. Other requirements are that:

  • At least two of its members are to be from The Way Forward committee, “with every effort made to include a young adult advisory delegate” (one limitation: The rules require that members of administrative commissions must be either ruling elders or teaching elders, a representative of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution told the committee).
  • Both the PMA review committee and the OGA review committee would have a representative on the commission.
  • Both the Presbyterian Mission Agency board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly would have a representative on the commission.
To save time, i commissioners were asked to use silent "spirit fingers" instead oif applauding.
Commissioners were asked to use silent “spirit fingers” instead of applauding.