NEW YORK (Outlook) This is the big picture meeting – when the 12 members of the Way Forward Commission try to get their minds and hearts around the work that lies before them.
The commission has a daunting job – the 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) created it to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly entities of the PC(USA).”
And, as a commission, the Way Forward has the power to act. Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly, told the commission how unusual that is – the only other time over the past 20 years an assembly has created a commission was the two iterations of the Mid Council Commission. Those two commissions had limited power – to change synod or presbytery boundaries when the mid councils involved requested it, Hay said.
So this is a rare initiative – and comes at a time when the PC(USA) has endured a series of budget cuts and layoffs of employees on its national staff, and when review committees of both the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency have suggested discussing the possibility of merging those agencies.
On the first day of their first meeting, the commission members dealt with logistical questions (such as when and where to meet and how should they communicate with and gather input from the denomination), as well their dreams for how they might help lead the PC(USA) into an alignment better suited to match the needs of a changing world.
“The time is right, the time is now. We don’t want to miss our shot, to quote my favorite Broadway musical,” said Sara Dingman, a mid council executive, referring to “Hamilton.”
“We should be bold,” said Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York and the commission’s moderator “We should take advantage of this kairos moment and the work of the spirit in this denomination.”
Hopes and dreams. Commission members started off by talking of their hopes and dreams for their work together – their imagination for what could happen.
Mathew Eardley, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Boise, said he starts with a sense of curiosity about what might be, and excitement about the diversity of the backgrounds and expertise of those involved in the work.
Cliff Lyda, a teaching elder who led the review committee of the Office of the General Assembly, said he’s seen a number of attempts to restructure the denomination. “The idea that we would be restructuring again is not particularly energizing,” Lyda said. He’s more excited about the idea of reformation or reinvention – “truly a new way of being church that we have not been.”
Julie Cox, a mid council executive, said, “I hope we would say yes to things that might be uncomfortable,” and no to some things that might be comfortable and familiar. “Let’s be more than ‘so what?’ ”
Adan Mairena, a new church development pastor from Philadelphia, said he hopes the commission’s work doesn’t amount to just another report written and ignored – but that “we’re intentional, focused and that we actually do something. If it pisses people off, it pisses them off.”
College student Emily Marie Williams, who served as a young adult advisory delegate at the 2016 assembly, spoke of the importance “of being loving in these decisions” – of being “bold and loving and sensible,” all at once.
Coordination. The commission spent some time discussing how it should relate to two other groups that also are discussing the future and the structure of the church – the All Agency Review Committee, which will consider the interactions of the PC(USA)’s six agencies (and which will hold its first meeting in February), and the 2020 Vision Team, which the 2016 General Assembly created, instructing that it set a new vision for the denomination by 2020.
There is bound to be some overlap in what these groups discuss – but the commission members aren’t ready yet to decide what balance between collaboration and independence to strike. Hostetter raised the possibility of a joint recommendation to the assembly from the commission and the All Agency Review committee, but commission members indicated that idea was premature.
One of the potential differences, said Eileen Lindner, a pastor from New Jersey, is that the focus of the All Agency Review committee essentially assumes there will continue to be six PC(USA) agencies. “Ours does not. … That’s a really important distinction we have to keep.”
Commission members said they would like some information as the process continues – for example, to know where the All Agency Review committee sees redundancies or duplication in the work the six agencies do; where it notices consistent areas of tension; and ideas it may have for how the agencies might share support services such as accounting or legal services.
“We really need to get down into the depths of the culture and the systems,” said Eliana Maxim, a mid council executive who led the Presbyterian Mission Agency review committee.
Although the commission was given considerable authority, it also operates in the context of a connectional church.
While the commission has the power to act, “anything we do could be overturned by the assembly” if it hasn’t already been accomplished in a way that can’t be undone, Hay said.
He also described his sense of what J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s new stated clerk, would like the commission’s work to involve.
“The word he wants us to hear is consultative,” Hay said. “The General Assembly in his mind did not create a new council in us. Empowered to do is not empowered to do unilaterally. … We are called to collaborative work. This is squishy enough that we need to be clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And humble.”
Issues. As a way of brainstorming about what issues it may want to take up, the commission spent some time making lists – of the potential for what the denomination can be and do, and some of the impediments to getting there.
The lists were long and full of complexity. Some items – a strong sense of tradition, for example – made it onto both the potential and the impediment lists. During opening worship, ruling elder Jo Stewart spoke of “building on our past, but being flexible enough for our future.”
The discussion wasn’t all about structure – but also about whose voices get heard or privileged, and whose get left out or diminished.
Patricia Rarumangkay a ruling elder from National Capital Presbytery, spoke of her discomfort at attending a national church conference and finding herself one of only two people of color in the room (and being told my one participant, “Your English is really good.”).
Both Mairena and Maxim discussed the way that race and privilege affect the distribution of resources.
While the PC(USA) has adopted the Confession of Belhar from South Africa, that’s not enough – the conversation needs to progress to “how has the church benefited from racism and white privilege?” Maxim said. For example, what benefits accrue to “a middle-aged white guy in a tall steeple church,” but not to the pastor of an immigrant fellowship?
What’s next. While some specifics still are being worked out, the commission tentatively agreed on a schedule of three additional face-to-face meetings (in March, May and September) and three conference calls. It costs roughly $12,000 to $15,000 for each in-person meeting – so the budget of $60,000 probably would stretch to holding four of those, Hostetter said.
While details still need to be determined, commission members expressed a preference if possible for meeting in Presbyterian facilities and in airport hub cities.
They decided to insist that all the work they produce be translated quickly into Spanish and Korean and possibly other languages.
The commission also voted to name Lindner and Maxim as its co-vice moderators. The first meeting included a closed session the evening of Dec. 12, to discuss property and personnel matters. The meeting continues the morning of Dec. 13, concluding by mid-day.