DENVER (Outlook) The All Agency Review Committee hopes to come to its next face-to-face meeting in August with a draft of some sort of “mission directive” – a document that would better identify what the committee interprets the scope of its work to be, and would include a statement regarding the ethos or vision of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
That’s just one part of the review committee’s ongoing work. The committee spent part of its meeting May 2 at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver working in three subcommittees – with each of them reporting back to the full review committee in the afternoon. Here are some of the issues those groups took up.
This subcommittee plans to meet by conference call May 3 with representatives of the Way Forward Commission – part of the ongoing effort to determine who’s responsible for what and to avoid conflicts or overlaps between the two groups (and also the work of the 2020 Vision Team). All three entities will report to the 2018 General Assembly, and are considering significant issues regarding the future of the PC(USA).
Part of the intent of the May 3 call is to “clarify our mutually-agreed upon parameters” for exploring the feasibility and wisdom of a possible merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly, said Deborah Block, a pastor from Milwaukee who serves as moderator of the All Agency Review Committee. In other words, who’s responsible for looking into that?
Between now and the review committee’s next face-to-face meeting, Aug. 21-22 in Louisville, the communication subcommittee also plans to reach out to the elected leadership of the six PC(USA) agencies and to a variety of other groups around the denomination – including mid council leaders and representatives of the permanent committees of the General Assembly (such as the advocacy and advisory committees) and racial ethnic caucuses.
The subcommittee hopes to ask those representatives some common questions, including:
- What is your current relationship with the PC(USA) agencies?
- What’s working and not working? What part of your work falls outside the six agencies?
- What suggestions would you have for change?
The full review committee has spent some time looking at the mission statements of the six PC(USA) agencies – and then talking about whether there’s also a need for the committee to craft a statement of mission directive for the whole denomination.
The statements from the six agencies (the Office of the General Assembly; Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA); Board of Pensions; Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program; Presbyterian Publishing Corporation; and Presbyterian Foundation) are “completely inconsistent, in that they don’t have a common thread to them,” said Chris Mason, a lawyer and ruling elder from New York. “They are all different” in length and style.
They sound like statements from “six completely different denominations,” rather than sending the message that they are part of the same group, Mason said. And there’s misunderstanding among Presbyterians about the relationships among the agencies, “like one is charge of all the others,” he said.
Those differences reflect the tendency of the six agencies to exist in separate silos, said Eric Beene, a teaching elder from Georgia. It’s “a reflection of the patterns that have gotten us to here.”
Clare Lewis, vice president for sales and marketing with the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, said that having just one mission statement for all six agencies “would be a very muddy mission statement” and “that’s not going to clearly reflect the work we do,” as agencies with distinct roles.
The All Agency Review Committee’s responsibility is to look at the whole of the church, from the national levels down to congregations, Block responded. And if the review committee deals with just the agencies, it misses the involvement of other significant groups, such as Presbyterian Women, said Claire Rhodes, a ruling elder from Arkansas.
So part of the committee’s work may involve some effort to speak a larger message to the church – what Debra Avery, a pastor from California who joined the meeting via phone, described as an “overarching thing that says where we are going and why.”
That mission directive could address the question of “what is the longing of the church?” Beene said.
He senses a longing for a relief from anxiety – “anxiety about declining numbers, declining dollars.” And “how do we have healthy agencies where people are flourishing” and doing their best work, even as resources decline?
The committee has in its discussions dipped into both Presbyterians’ longings and the denomination’s complexities. There’s a tension, for example, between having a theology of God’s abundance and the recognition that “we have declining numbers, we have less mission dollars,” said Jim Wilson, a ruling elder and lawyer from Ohio. “When we talk about abundance, are those just words, or how do we live into that?”
Some committee members suggested that the PC(USA) perhaps needs to become more intentional about what it considers most important – and what it can afford and not afford to do.
“If we’re going to be a smaller church, that’s probably OK too,” said Marco Grimaldo, a ruling elder from Washington, D.C. “Let’s think about how we’re going to be a smaller church. … Maybe we shouldn’t do everything. But what we do, we should do well.”
Mason contended that “if we focus on doing what we do well, we will not be a smaller church, we will grow.”
Mihee Kim-Kort, a teaching elder from Indiana, talked of looking at the role that stewardship can play – and how a vision for using stewardship to shape what the church potentially could be sometimes conflicts with instincts within the denomination for self-preservation.
“I have also experienced territorialism or protecting turf,” said Dave Davis, a teaching elder from New Jersey. And the sense of vulnerability “is not equal among the agencies. So the revenue crisis of PMA is not shared” by all the other agencies.
Even in a time of declining resources, Presbyterians haven’t always been willing to give something up.
One reality is that the PC(USA) agencies “are radically smaller” than they were during the last All Agency Review in 2010, and the denomination needs to model ways of fairly treating employees, Wilson said. With budget cuts and restructuring, “we are always, constantly asking fewer people to do more things,” rather than asking: “What are the most important things” for the denomination to do?
The Presbyterian Mission Agency has 80 percent of its budget coming from restricted funds, said Barry Creech, the agency’s director for policy, administration and board support. The 2016 assembly gave the agency 90 referrals to which it needs to respond. Creech said agency leaders explicitly told the 2016 assembly that if the assembly gave the agency new work, “we will have to cut another program” to get it done. “And the votes went through anyway.”
Beene said the Mission Directive subcommittee has a “daunting task,” and will focus on these sections:
- What the review committee interprets its work to be;
- A summary of the review committee’s conversations regarding the mission of the church;
- Some sort of statement regarding an ethos, vision or sense of mission for the PC(USA). In other words, “What moves us to do the work?”
- How are the agencies of the church working to adopt this ethos?
- How is the church actually doing? How is progress measured against those directives?
This subcommittee spent time fine-tuning and revising summaries regarding four of the six agencies – the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation – to reflect comments that representatives from those groups made the day before about new initiatives taken on since they were each individually reviewed.
James Tse, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of New York City, said the subcommittee also plans to share those draft reports with the elected leadership of those agencies in order to seek feedback. And Davis said that subcommittee may also add a section or preamble providing some definitions for what has become an ongoing source of conversation for both the Way Forward Commission and the All Agency Review Committee – namely, what’s sometimes described as shared services or common services (although those aren’t the same thing).
“Common services” can mean services that one agency purchases for a fee from another agency – such as the rent that the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program pay for the space they use in the denomination’s national offices in Louisville.
Creech said “shared services” actually refers to a department within the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which is responsible for work related to the agency’s corporate identity (such as legal services, human resources and accounting).
But that “shared services” phrase also has been used around the church to refer to the way the Presbyterian Mission Agency recovers administrative costs – which is a complicated system that a number of groups around the church are looking into as they try to get a better understanding of how that system works and if any changes need to be made.
That question is tied to some extent to ongoing discussions about the reality that the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency share a corporate identity – known as the Presbyterian Church A Corporation. So the Way Forward Commission may consider questions such as how the board of that corporation is structured (including who has voice on that board and who doesn’t) and whether the current arrangement makes sense or needs to be changed.
Davis said the resource subcommittee is trying to provide information that will help commissioners to the 2018 General Assembly better understand the distinctions among the six agencies and the work they do.
And Tse pointed out that “we still left the two elephants in the room” – meaning, the still-pending discussions about any potential merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly, and about what the summary reports for those agencies should say.
The All Agency Review Committee’s future meeting dates are as follows:
- June 28 conference call, 2 p.m. Eastern.
- Aug 21-22 in Louisville.
- Oct. 9-11 in St. Louis.
- Jan. 22-24, 2018 in Louisville.