CHICAGO – This was a day of thinking big – about what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) looks like now and about possibilities for change. If the Way Forward Commission could create the best denomination it could imagine, how might things be different?
For six hours on May 16, the commission’s 12 members (minus two who weren’t there, plus two denominational staff members assigned to work with the commission) took turns presenting thoughts on the denomination’s current alignment – what’s working and what’s not – and brainstorming about what potentially might happen next.
Mark Hostetter, who’s the commission’s moderator and a teaching elder from New York, stressed that this was a time of discernment – of thinking out loud, to see what big-picture themes might surface. Hostetter made it clear that the ideas thrown out should not be seen as formal recommendations or even things on which the commission might eventually take a vote. They were ideas, plain and simple, imagination set free to see what new directions and sense of inspiration might emerge.
The commission needs to “begin to dream without limitation,” Hostetter said.
Here are some possibilities that surfaced over the course of the conversation.
Commission members talked about importance of addressing the complexity of how mid councils function in the PC(USA) – wanting to learn more about concerns and needs of mid councils, and about how presbyteries and synods can be a force for vitality in working with congregations.
Mid councils come in many shapes and sizes – with some working well and others less so, and with some of the 171 presbyteries making do with no full-time paid staff, commission members said. Long-term for the denomination, “171 is probably not sustainable given the number of members we have and the finances,” said Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina.
Commission members asked questions like these: Is the role of mid councils to be experts in doing mission? To create relationships at the grass roots? How can mid councils best help congregations through grants, resources, and leadership development?
Mid councils have been a thread running through much of the commission’s discussions, said Eileen Lindner, a teaching elder from New Jersey.
“We’ve talked about mid councils a lot,” Lindner said. “We’ve talked about them as broken parts,” as conduits, as coaches. Are there too many? Are some too big? How are mid councils experimenting with being virtual presbyteries? What are the best ideas for how presbyteries and synods can work?
Leadership and voice
Commission members said the PC(USA) needs to have one clear leader who can speak with a single voice for the denomination – and that’s hard to achieve in a denomination with six agencies.
Presbyterians will say the stated clerk is the denomination’s official spokesperson, but “not according this,” said Cliff Lyda, a teaching elder from Florida, holding up an organizational chart for the PC(USA).
When the Presbyterian Mission Agency faced an ethics investigation involving four men who formerly worked with the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program, and who lost their jobs in the fallout – a situation which Lyda referred to as “the recent unpleasantness in the Presbyterian Mission Agency” – what could the stated clerk, who works in the Office of the General Assembly, do about that, he asked.
“The stated clerk is our spokesman,” he said. “Speaks to the church and speaks for the church.” But “at the highest level of the church, we do not have clearly defined lines of executive authority” – the six PC(USA) agencies are considered equal, with the stated clerk being the head of the Office of the General Assembly. “Human institutions simply do not function without leadership,” Lyda said – without clear authority, he said, “it becomes covert and incessantly, inordinately political.”
Lyda called for the commission to consider elevating the office of the stated clerk, so it’s clear that “when the buck’s got to stop, it’s going to stop there. If there’s a dumpster fire” in any of the agencies, that’s who’s ultimately responsible.
Commission members also discussed the idea of creating a focus on leadership development in the stated clerk’s office, and looking carefully at how the denomination nominates and selects leaders at the national church level.
While involving hard-working and well-intentioned people, “I really think that’s a broken system,” said Tom Hay, the director of operations in the Office of the General Assembly, speaking of the way that Presbyterians are nominated to serve at the national level. “We joke around the center that there are really 300 Presbyterians” who get called on over and over again.
Another question: What role can and should the stated clerk play in the public square – at a particularly divisive time in U.S. politics? Sometimes it seems “we’re missing our voice and we’ve got to find it again,” said Lindner.
“What’s our elevator speech?” asked Julie Cox, a ruling elder from South Carolina.
Another question commission members asked: How can social witness in the PC(USA) mean not just in speaking on behalf of Presbyterians on issues of public policy, but also training community activists?
Lessons from Megabus
In her presentation, Sara Dingman, a mid council executive from Indiana, raised the idea of the PC(USA) learning some lessons from the way Megabus operates – modeling flexibility and getting people where they need to go. For example, Megabus offers Wi-Fi on the buses and allows people to travel all over the country – “it’s just a smooth operator,” Dingman said.
So how about a move from print resources which the PC(USA) provides to a streaming center, so congregations that don’t have seminary-trained pastoral leadership can receive sermons and worship leadership on Sundays from skilled pastors and theologians, so small congregations from rural Nebraska to inner-city Detroit can access some of the pastoral leadership they need, she asked.
In Dingman’s thinking:
- The primary client in the denomination is the congregation.
- “I don’t want the PC(USA) to be a headquarters. I want it to be a vehicle for delivery.”
- Mid councils should emphasize coaching and connection.
- She doesn’t want administrative services, including the legal department and risk management, to drive the bus. “They are maintenance crews.”
- Bad behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. Those who practice a lack of transparency, working in silos, territoriality and an inability or unwillingness to recognize the client – primarily the congregations – should be kicked off the bus.
Hostetter said Megabus is flexible – changing its routes as needed.
And “there are no Megabus stations,” Hay said. “They stop on a street corner.” In the PC(USA), “what are our Greyhound bus stations that hold us back? What are the things we just don’t need that we maintain?”
Mathew Earley, a ruling elder from Idaho, brought up the idea of “post-pastor” ministry – in part, what small congregations do when they can’t afford to pay a full-time, seminary-educated pastor. He said, for example, that the Presbytery of Boise has 12 congregations, but only five that are served by installed full-time pastors.
The “post pastor” terminology has other implications as well. Many immigrant congregations will never have an installed pastor, Lindner said. In some places, larger congregations with deep pockets are exploring ways to partner with smaller ones with scarce resources.
Jan Edmiston is the co-moderator with Denise Anderson of the 2016 General Assembly; she spoke to the commission at the start of its Chicago meeting May 16 and stayed for part of its discussions. Edmiston said many people who don’t go to church have a de facto pastor or priest in their lives – a 12-step sponsor, a mentor at work, or the Ethiopian hairdresser she knew in Virginia “who was the person people went to for help.”
Dingman said “more and more people are hungry for a post-pastor world.”
Presbyterians traditionally have valued having seminary-educated pastors, and “I do value the rigor” they can bring to preaching and Biblical interpretation, said Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina.
Edmiston said she’s interested in new models of achieving that – for example, online resources that people from congregations who want to learn Hebrew and Greek can use.
And some congregations want leaders with street smarts, which doesn’t necessarily mean formal education, Edmiston said – but leaders who can connect with people in the pews who aren’t necessarily affluent or well-educated. “We have those Presbyterians too,” Edmiston said. “It’s who works with what context.”
Board of Pensions
While praising the Board of Pensions’ work, commission members also raised questions about how the board will operate in a changing context – particularly as increasing numbers of ministers are working in part-time or tent-making roles, yet still need medical and retirement benefits.
Medical coverage is an increasing concern, especially for teaching elders not serving a church full-time, Hostetter said. “How do you support those who are laboring for the church in a new context?”
Dingman said she is writing a doctoral dissertation on multi-vocational ministry, and has concluded “there will be no ministers who are not traditional without the Board of Pensions creating a path for health insurance. There will be no multi-vocational ministers without it.”
The PC(USA) doesn’t live in a vacuum, said Sam Bonner, a ruling elder from New Jersey. “The church is aging, it’s greying, it’s getting smaller,” while people in neighborhoods surrounding those churches – often black and brown people and immigrants – often are not seeing Presbyterian churches as places where they want to go. “We haven’t addressed how we can grow into this new world,” Bonner said.
The conversation ranged over a lot more territory – including these questions:
- Should the PC(USA) look at outsourcing more of its ministry – including perhaps, Hostetter suggested, even “sacred cows” such as world mission and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance? What might decentralized models of delivering mission look like – and would the resulting structure be smaller, more nimble and flexible?
- How can local pastors access the expertise of the PC(USA)’s national staff? “How do we get through the bureaucracy?” asked Adan Mairena, a minister from Philadelphia. “Are we important enough for your time?”
- What is the role of the PC(USA)’s corporate identity – and where in the denominational structure should that be housed?
- Should racial ethnic and women’s ministries be a separate entity within the Presbyterian Mission Agency – or reflected consistently and broadly in the work of all the agencies, asked Eliana Maxim a mid council executive from Seattle.
- Is having a national office for the PC(USA) an asset or a liability?
- Is there some way to establish an accountability process to monitor whether what the General Assembly instructs be done actually gets done? The General Assembly has “some ability to communicate God’s word to us,” Bonner said. “We should listen.”