The Way Forward Commission has released its mid-term report – first in English, with the intent of translating it into Korean and Spanish as soon as possible.
The three-page mid-term report is an attempt by the commission to report succinctly some significant themes it is developing, and to give the denomination a sense of its process and progress so far, including communicating with two other groups that also will report to the 2018 General Assembly, the All Agency Review Committee and the 2020 Vision Team.
While thematic, the mid-term report also gives some hints that the commission may eventually recommend structural changes for the denomination.
“We have not understood our charge to be one of finding ways to manage decline, or to tinker with existing structures in the hope of assuring institutional survival,” states the mid-term report, which the commission approved during a conference call June 27 . “Rather, encouraged by our calling through the voice of the General Assembly, the counsel of the Stated Clerk and words of admonition and encouragement from hundreds of Presbyterians, we have set a bolder course.”
The commission also voted to appoint a working group jointly with the All Agency Review Committee (which meets June 28 by conference call) to consider issues related to shared or common administrative services among the PC(USA)’s six agencies (such as legal services or human resources).
There’s been some confusion about exactly what those terms mean, and what the most significant issues are that need attention; the hope is that the joint work group will help to clarify that. The discussion could include examining how things work now and “what are the pinch points, or other ways of doing things,” said Mark Hostetter, a minister from New York who serves as moderator of the Way Forward Commission.
Jo Stewart, an elder from Charlotte, said it’s important for Way Forward and the All Agency Review Committee to fairly quickly reach agreement about the scope of that work – what exactly should be considered, and at what level of detail.
“The key conversation about shared services is the corporation,” or how the PC(USA)’s corporate identity is structured and functions, said Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly, who helps staff the commission. “Are they going to answer the key question: How does the corporation function in relationship to the church, and who supervises the corporation?”
The mid-term report lists seven areas it has identified “in need of attention and re-visioning” as the commission does the work the 2016 General Assembly assigned to it: to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly entities of the PC(USA).”
Those themes are:
- Congregational focus.
- Mission priority.
- Diversity and leadership.
- Mid council relationships.
- Functioning as “church.”
- Reconceptualized administrative support.
- Effective communication.
The description of those themes includes references to a number of concerns the commission identified during a long brainstorming session in Chicago in May, including the question of how to best partner with congregations; how to structure the corporate role of the church; who should be the public voice of the PC(USA); how the denomination can communicate more consistently and effectively; and how to develop diverse patterns of leadership patterns for “the church we are becoming,” as the draft report states.
Between now and their next meeting in August, subgroups of the commission will work on many of those areas – getting more information about what exists now and what might be done differently, and reporting back.
The commission also is seeking feedback from Presbyterians – asking what rings true to them in the themes identified in the mid-term report; what’s missing; how they’d prioritize the themes; and what advice they’d give the commission.
The mid-term report will include a link to an online survey that will be open from July 1-15 for people to offer comments.
Before its June 27 meeting, commission members shared a draft of the mid-term report with a range of Presbyterian leaders – including the current and two former stated clerks; the General Assembly co-moderators; and leaders from of the six PC(USA) agencies, in what Hostetter described as “a very wide-reaching intentional outreach.” Some suggestions and responses from those conversations were incorporated into the final document.
In general, those conversations were described as supportive of the mid-term report and encouraging of the commission’s work. There was no direct discussion of an open letter that Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, sent to the commission on June 15, expressing his concerns, or of a response from the leadership of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board to what De La Rosa had written.
Hostetter described a phone conversation with the leadership of the PMA board and with De La Rosa, held to discuss the draft report, as “very constructive” with “a lot of encouragement.”
A survey the commission opened up to mid council leaders drew 186 responses in two weeks – and 82 percent of those people said they wanted to have further conversation with the commission.
In the next month or two, commission members also intend to reach out intentionally to a variety of other groups in the PC(USA), including leaders from “tall steeple” or large congregations, women and people of color (for example, by sending representatives to meet with the caucuses of black and Latino Presbyterians and with Presbyterian Women). They want to have conversations with leaders from the Fellowship Community and NEXT Church.
And Emily Williams, a commission member from Texas who served as a young adult advisory delegate to the 2016 General Assembly, said she wants to make sure that “we’re engaging with smaller churches or more conservative churches. … I want to make sure they also have a seat at the table.”
Some commission members – aware of the time constraints and how much work remains to be done – also are eager to start discussing in the next meetings possible structural changes.
“We need to start moving from the theoretical and the esoteric” into concrete details, said Eliana Maxim, a mid council leader from Seattle. “I don’t want to leave it until the last two or three months, trying to stick these ideas we have into a structural model.”
The commission’s next two meetings are August 9, by conference call, and Sept. 18-19 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The commission’s final report to the Office of the General Assembly is due by Feb. 16, 2018.
The full text of the Way Forward Commission’s mid-term report:
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
General Assembly Way Forward Commission
June 27, 2017
I thank my God every time I remember you;
Constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,
Because of your sharing in the gospel
from the first day until now.
These words of the Epistle to the church at Philippi might well have been spoken by each of us, the members of the Way Forward Commission. Individually and corporately we hold deep and abiding affection for the faithfulness of all the members and congregations of the PC(USA).
As we have taken up our responsibilities, we have had before us the urgent calling of our church under the Lordship of Christ to proclaim the Good News in a weary world. With great joy, hope, and confidence in God’s steadfast grace, we have begun to dream of the 21st century church we see emerging.
We have not understood our charge to be one of finding ways to manage decline, or to tinker with existing structures in the hope of assuring institutional survival. Rather, encouraged by our calling through the voice of the General Assembly, the counsel of the Stated Clerk, and words of admonition and encouragement from hundreds of Presbyterians, we have set a bolder course.
We believe we are a changing church in a changing world and that our ways of work and witness must reflect the dynamism of our contemporary lives. Midway into our task we are eager to share our thoughts and progress with Presbyterians throughout the church. We covet your thoughtful reflection, feedback, and prayer for our continued effort.
For we believe “… the One who began a good work among you will
bring it to completion … in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Phil. 1:6–7)
Coordination with Agencies and Committees
We continue to gather, review, and incorporate the abundant information available from agencies and ministries throughout the church. Recognizing that we have been given a unique opportunity to reform our church for more effective service, and reflecting our desire to act as one body in Christ in common mission, the Way Forward Commission has taken the following steps:
- Affirmation of Approach. How we relate to each other within our church and the attitudes of our corporate “culture” is critical in setting the tone, approach, and common underlying values of the national church as we go about our work. The commission has issued its discernment in an “Affirmation of Approach” that can be found at http://www.pcusa.org/resource/way-forward-commission-affirmation-approach/.
- Agency Initiatives. We have established ongoing conversations with all six national agencies to mutually identify and implement recommended improvements. A summary of these initiatives is being compiled and will be released as soon as it is available.
- Coordination with All-Agency Review and 2020 Vision. We continue our work in conjunction and conversation with the two committees established by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) to examine the identity, function, and structure of our denomination for our current reality.
Major Themes Emerging
“Our primary mission as church is
to transform the world for the good in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016)
In our work of discernment, these seven areas are the first identified in need of attention and re-visioning as we think about an adaptive and effective structural change for the agencies of the General Assembly.
- Congregational Focus. With the strong conviction that the local church is the locus of ministry for the PC(USA) but “is not of itself a sufficient form of church” (Book of Order, G-1.0101) (yet congregational support is an essential priority of the national church), we believe all six agencies of the denomination are presently considering innovative ways to collaborate both with each other and with mid councils to provide local churches with adequate, contextual support that is nimble and responsive. Although this can take many forms, what is central and should be central to our denomination is to respond to the question: How can we best partner with churches in order for them to fully live into their missional call in their communities?
- Mission Priority. At the forefront of our discernment is an appreciation for the faithfulness and hard work of our national staff in our common service to Jesus Christ and the PC(USA), making a profound difference in the church and the world. In strengthening the missional aspect of that call, innovative models of mission delivery, not corporate or administrative responsibilities, should be the central, critical role of the national agencies. We believe that the Presbyterian Mission Agency especially, has been saddled for far too long with corporate responsibilities that create barriers for gifted staff and hinder their full focus on mission and coordination with congregations, mid councils, and global ecumenical partners. Recognizing the importance of these requirements as well as the stewardship obligations inherent in the funding and work of the national church, we are striving for the most transformative methods of mission engagement.
- Diversity and Leadership. While denominational demographics continue to reflect the traditional majorities of our past, the full diversity represented in our culture is central to who we are as a church. With regard to identity, mission, and growth, we must incorporate that diversity into our function and structure. We need to prepare leaders for the church we will be, and consider innovative ways of providing leadership development events, programs, and training. This includes nurturing leaders—ordained ministers, ruling elders, and commissioned ruling elders—of emerging minorities. It also includes a willingness to encourage and support alternative pastoral leadership patterns best suited to the church we are becoming.
- Mid Council Relationships. Presbyteries have been described as the linchpins of our denomination. They partner directly with congregations particularly in times of transition, redevelopment, or crisis. And yet we are witnessing a sea change in the structure, staffing, funding, and responsibilities of these councils. The role of synods is also in transition. There is a lack of resources affecting paid staff at the presbytery level and a reconfigured mid council ministry department within the Office of General Assembly. The national church must find additional tangible ways to partner with presbyteries and synods in support of congregations.
- Functioning as “Church.” The church is called to speak Gospel truth to the world today. Nonetheless, we perceive a lack of clarity in both who represents the church in public witness on behalf of the denomination and in who serves as a central voice within the denomination. The present ambiguity is not an issue about an individual but rather an issue of structure, roles, and responsibilities. We are reviewing the Stated Clerk’s responsibilities and clarification of how this office, the highest elected office required by our Book of Order, speaks on behalf of the denomination, and also examining the roles of the voices of the General Assembly Moderator(s) and various agency executives. Additionally, the lack of accountability of all parts of the church to our ecclesiastical center and the need to affirm the primacy of the church as “church” (above functions, operations, executive, support, etc.) is leading us to further examine the potential role of the Stated Clerk. We seek to strengthen this function while still maintaining our reformed polity of “shared power … exercised jointly” (Book of Order, F- 3.0208).
- Reconceptualized Administrative Support. We believe, as noted in the second theme, that there can and should be better ways to deliver corporate and administrative services that positions the functions as supportive to the missional components of the national agencies. In moving forward in our discernment, there are questions that need to be examined. For instance: What administrative services can and should be centralized across all agencies; what is the most efficient and effective way of delivering corporate and administrative services; should some functions be outsourced; and how can we make these services accountable to the end-user?
- Effective Communication. We have observed a lack of cohesion in branding, voice, and consistency among the myriad of communication channels throughout the denomination. The most obvious example is the denominational websites and their many iterations. There exists a desire for clear, user-friendly, and varied platforms, including everything from print to social media, to communicate the work the PC(USA) is doing locally and around the world.
And, now we would like to hear from you to determine if we are on the right track.
- What rings true for you in the themes we’ve identified?
- What is missing in these themes?
- We’ve presented the themes in one order, attempting some prioritization; what changes would you make? What theme or themes should take priority?
- If you could give the commission one piece of advice as we continue our work, what would it be?
You can respond to these questions and provide other comments at the following link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WFCMid-termreport. The link will be open from July 1–15, 2017.
We hope to hear from you!
In closing, we share a few verses from a poem that provided inspiration to the commission at our May meeting, and we hope it also resonates with you.
This is no time to reminisce of the past.
It is a time to reflect on the present.
This is no time to think of what could have been.
It’s a time to plan what is to be.
This is no time to be haunted by doubt.
It is a time to be uplifted by hope.
—Martin L. Yonts, “A Meditation on Life”
With great hope, we will continue to move forward. We ask for your continued prayers that we can all see the new thing God is doing.
The Way Forward Commission’s mid-term report can be found here.