LOUISVILLE (Outlook) – The All Agency Review Committee is looking for a way to speak to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) about “the bigger picture”– about what the future can be like for the denomination. The committee is still trying to figure out the matrix for its responsibilities – how much is structural, how much is visionary, how it should and can relate to other groups also working to set a course for the church.
“We’re looking at the whole farm,” said Deborah Block, a teaching elder from Milwaukee who serves as the committee’s moderator.
The committee concluded its first meeting, held Feb. 21-23 in Louisville, by mapping its next steps – including setting up three work groups to discuss:
- Developing a sense of mission and vision – in other words, how to be a “guiding light” for the PC(USA);
- Identifying resources the committee will need to consult in doing its work, and groups or entities with which it wants to converse; and
- Resolving questions about the relationship between the All Agency Review Committee and two other groups – the Way Forward Commission and the 2020 Vision Team – which also are discussing the structure and function of the denomination.
J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, told the All Agency Review Committee on Feb. 22 that he’s been asked to provide an interpretation of the 2016 General Assembly’s action in creating the groups and how the work should be divided.
Part of the committee’s discussion on Feb. 23, the last day of its meeting, focused less on the nuts-and-bolts specifics, and more on broader questions.
One option being considered is proposing some sort of restructuring for the PC(USA), including a possible consolidation or merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly, and the question of whether the denomination is best served by having six agencies.
“The church has had a lot of different models over the years,” in a series of realignments, said Jim Wilson, a ruling elder and lawyer from Columbus, Ohio. “I don’t think we should limit ourselves to a merger model,” but should ask what’s most effective, and whether the structure currently in place is working well or could be improved.
Kelly Shriver, a teaching elder from Portland, Oregon, said she wants to evaluate the effectiveness of the structure in serving the church as it is – but also how it could best serve the church the PC(USA) is becoming and in what’s ahead for the future.
The committee also discussed how to measure effectiveness and the idea of “transformation” in the church world – and whether ministry can be considered effective regardless of whether congregations are growing.
Chris Mason, a lawyer and ruling elder from New York City, said Presbyterian pastors often resist the idea that growth or slumps in attendance should be used as a significant measure of effectiveness. Pastors contend their effectiveness shouldn’t be measured by declines in membership, but “what’s wrong with that?” he asked.
“My goal is folks in the pews whose hearts are transformed for Jesus,” said David Davis, a teaching elder from Princeton, New Jersey.
If more people were in the pews, Mason countered, a pastor would be more effective in achieving that.
Claire Rhodes, a commissioned ruling elder from Hot Springs, Arkansas, said she serves a small congregation and is occasionally asked at presbytery meetings whether her church is growing. Rhodes said she’s often thought to herself, “the Presbyterian church isn’t growing,” and has learned to respond: “We’re growing spiritually. … I got to resent that question. You’re using that as a marker, and not asking ‘What else do you do at the church?’ ” – about such things as how the congregation is involved in community ministry.
Block said the word “effectiveness” is “a small word, a small criteria to bring to the work of the church. … It doesn’t get me up in the morning to be effective,” but rather to be “part of the transforming power of God in the world.”
That far-ranging conversation was part of the review committee’s attempt to get its arms around the scope of its work – to create some definition for the tasks, but also not to feel too narrow or confined in what it might do.
“Is it even our calling to have a vision for the PC(USA)” in all its diversity and range?, asked Eric Beene, a teaching elder from Savannah, Georgia. “Whoever put the [biblical] canon together decided there needed to be four Gospels, not one.”
And “two creation stories, not just one,” Block responded. “There’s a certain humility in saying ‘maybe our vision is not so clear, but we have a sense of the contours.’ ”
The committee also set tentative plans for its next in-person meetings, although details still need to be worked out (such as where the meetings will take place). The dates for those meetings are:
- May 1-2, 2017.
- August 21-22, 2017.
- October 9-10, 2017.
- January 22-23, 2018.
The committee’s report to the 2018 General Assembly needs to be completed by February 16, 2018.