Board considers next steps on General Assembly actions and reviews committee report



CHICAGO – The executive committee of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, meeting in Chicago July 27-29 for its annual retreat, spent part of that time reviewing decisions of the 2016 General Assembly, and discussing what steps the board might take in response to the report of the Committee to Review the Presbyterian Mission Agency. 

General Assembly review

The executive committee considers the GA"s actions on race
The executive committee considers the GA’s actions on race

Barry Creech, director of policy, administration and board support for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), offered a review of some actions the assembly took when it met in Portland June 18-25. Of note, Creech said, were seven key matters the assembly considered involving race.

The assembly voted to add to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions the Belhar Confession, a confession which South African Christians wrote in the heat of that country’s struggle over apartheid and which speaks directly to racial justice and reconciliation.

Creed cited six other matters the assembly considered with implications for how the PC(USA) addresses racism and systemic inequalities:

  • The Churchwide Conversation on Race, Ethnicity, Racism and Ethnocentricity Report, which included directives to review organizational practices, host regional conversations on race and to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept through which colonial powers laid claim to lands;
  • On Reconciliation and Engagement in a New Civil Rights Movement, an overture which the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy presented following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and which calls for “radical reconciliation and active engagement in a new civil rights movement,” demanding that all citizens are treated with equal dignity and injustice;
  • Updates to “Fighting Racism: A Vision of the Intercultural Community,” the Churchwide Antiracism Policy;
  • An overture from the Presbytery of Baltimore – called “On the PC(USA) Continuing Its Efforts to Dismantle Racism within Our Denomination and the Larger Society.” The action the assembly approved regarding the overture calls on the PC(USA) leadership to present to the 2018 General Assembly a 6-year plan with “explicit procedures” for implementing the churchwide antiracism policy and to establish a Racism Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the PC(USA), which is “charged with conducting a churchwide listening campaign to hear the voices of peoples long silenced regarding the state of institutional racism and oppression within our church.”
  • An overture from the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, calling on the PC(USA) to take action to address the plight of the African-American male;
  • The Women of Color consultation report, which encourages efforts to develop and support leaders who are women of color.

The executive committee reviewed some General Assembly actions with financial implications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, including:

Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, encouraged the board to think creatively about how these items would be implemented. For example, he asked if one of the regional conversations on race could take place at Big Tent in St. Louis next summer, taking advantage of a gathering that would already be happening?

In addition, the assembly’s The Way Forward committee approved the creation of a 2020 Vision Committee and a Way Forward administrative commission.

The Way Forward Commission will have a representative from the PMA board, although that representative has not yet been named. Among the tasks the commission has been charged with is the establishment of a “General-Assembly level staffing pattern that will accomplish its vision.”

Members of the executive committee questioned how that task will be interpreted and how much authority the board’s representative to the commission will have on interpreting this – and other – phrases in the commission’s mandate.

PMA review follow-up

Tony De La Rosa and Ken Godshall at the executive committee meeting in Chicago
Tony De La Rosa and Ken Godshall at the executive committee meeting in Chicago

Ken Godshall, chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, and De La Rosa led a discussion of the review committee report, focusing on the report’s four secondary recommendations:

1. Develop internal educational opportunities to inform staff about the other five PC(USA) agencies to foster collaboration. Godshall and De La Rosa said they think existing avenues of interagency communication are satisfactory for PMA directors and managers. These include an annual January gathering known as “One church, one staff,” where reports from each agency are presented, and “Chairs and Chiefs,” a twice-yearly gathering of agency board chairs and chief executives, which is intended to promote cooperation and and provide a forum for discussing issues of common concern. However, they said changes may be made to enhance quarterly PMA staff meetings to include updates from other agencies on their current goals and accomplishments.

2. Implement a plan to educate all donors about how donations are allocated. Godshall and De La Rosa noted that audited general and administrative expenses and fundraising expenses are reported in PMA’s annual financial report.

“Keep in mind that these are secular measures of overall secular efficiency,” De La Rosa advised the executive committee, noting that secular and church understanding of efficiency may not be the same. As an example, he raised up the cardboard One Great Hour of Sharing banks for children. The banks are a cost of fundraising, he said, but also a resource that the church provides to teach children about stewardship, saying that the efficiency of that expense could be debated even though the church finds value in teaching stewardship to children. In sum, De La Rosa advised the committee to not easily adopt the secular understanding of efficient spending without thinking about the ecclesial methodology of “how we do things.”

In addition, Goodshall and De La Rosa announced plans for the board to create “a strategic team of elected members, corresponding members and staff to understand spending on overhead and how it should be communicated.”

Sara Lisherness explains the work of the community life team at the Presbyterian Center.
Sara Lisherness explains the work of the community life team at the Presbyterian Center.

3. Provide a chaplain for the Presbyterian Center. Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice and head of a new community life team at the Presbyterian Center, noted that chaplains had been present in the past when there were layoffs at the center, but the staff did not use them. Chip Hardwick, director of Theology, Worship and Education, agreed with the review committee’s finding that there is a need for the PMA staff to be cared for spiritually, but wondered if this recommendation was the right solution to respond to those needs.

Melinda Sanders, an executive committee member from Nashville, voiced a concern that if the board opted not hire a chaplain, “will it convey that we are not taking the concern seriously?” De La Rosa reflected concerns he has heard that it would be uncomfortable to have a chaplain within the PMA hierarchy and that many employees seek their spiritual support from their own pastors. He noted that there may be creative ways to cultivate the staff’s spiritual health.

Godshall and De La Rosa said the PMA needs “a deeper level of commitment to the spiritual needs of our (work) force that goes beyond hiring a chaplain,” and announced intentions to “pay greater attention to the spiritual health of elected and corresponding members as well as agency staff.”

4. PMA should engage in regular cultural humility training provided by outside consultants. Godshall and De La Rosa acknowledged that recent events (a controversy in 2015 involving printed materials for Special Offerings and the “Ask Me Why You Matter” campaign, which some criticized as being racially insensitive) highlighted a lack of cultural humility.

De La Rosa said that ignorance of the system is what created the problem. “The system self-corrected,” he said, but there is always a need for cultural humility.

Godshall agreed that the Special Offerings issue was a “widespread failure” – not just of one person, but of a group. He agreed that the system did eventually self-correct, but it was after the damage had already been done.

For next steps, they said the Louisville staff has the potential to help the wider church, although they acknowledged that external consultants the PC(USA) has used in the past did not know enough about PMA culture to provide effective instruction.

The short-term plan is for to provide additional training for senior staff and board members, with that work to be led by Christine Hong, who formerly worked in interfaith relations for PMA and now is an assistant professor of evangelism and worship at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Godshall and De La Rosa noted that additional progress is needed at the PC(USA) national offices in Louisville “before we can attempt a much broader denominational effort to increase cultural humility.”