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2020 Vision Team members reflect on what they’ve heard from Presbyterians at Big Tent

ST. LOUIS – After spending two days listening as Presbyterians at Big Tent offered their hopes, concerns and ideas for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the members of the 2020 Vision Team spent some time July 8 unpacking what they’d heard.

Some members of the 2020 Vision Team during a July 8 debriefing session at Big Tent (others had to leave to catch their flights). (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

The 15-member vision team has been given the task of writing a “guiding statement” for the denomination and proposing a plan for implementing that. Its deadline for finalizing its report to the 2018 General Assembly is Feb. 16, 2018, although its co-moderators believe the vision team will keep working until 2020.

Here’s some of what the vision team members gleaned from what they heard during a series of “listening sessions” at Big Tent.

New definitions. Some said the PC(USA) needs to pare down what it does, and that “we don’t need to have a vision statement that says everything to everyone,” said Joshua Narcisse, a team member and a student at Yale Divinity School. “People are not so attached to the idea of a denomination as an institutional, national church.”

Nor are they attached to the idea of church membership “as a quantifiable measure of success,” said Debbie Foster, a team member and associate stated clerk of Foothills Presbytery.

During a listening session earlier that day, Craig Howard, transitional presbytery leader of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, said the church “needs to redefine what is success and what is failure, because some small congregations with few members have vital ministries that affect the lives of many in their communities.

“Failure is a huge teacher,” said Denise Anderson, co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly. “Perhaps we need to learn to sit with what we don’t know.”

What’s positive. Team members heard some ideas of what gives people hope. Karen Sapio, a team member who’s a minister from California, wants Presbyterians to approach their work in the world as “people grounded in Scripture, committed to prayer and generosity.”

Becca Snedeker-Meier (Photo by Jodi Craiglow)

Becca Snedeker-Meier, a team member who’s a senior at the College of Wooster, said one of her favorite answers to the “what lifts God’s heart?” question that the vision team asked was the woman who answered “mothers” – the “courageous and brave mothers who fought for things,” such as mothers in Flint, Michigan, who pushed to test the lead content in the water coming to their homes and who made sure their families had safe, bottled water to drink.

A woman at the listening session told of how her congregation was open to inviting speakers from other faiths, and how “I can really feel God in that” when the congregants welcomed a Muslim speaker who came to teach them about Islam.

Another woman said people from her church drove her twice a week to get treatment for cancer, and “people fought to do it. … That’s true community.”

2020 Vision Team member Chris McCain (red shirt) listens during a discussion session July 8. (Photo by Jodi Craiglow)

Disconnection. Over and over, said team member Chris McCain, an elder from Atlanta, people spoke of a sense of disconnection in the PC(USA) – between congregations and the national church, and within presbyteries and synods. Some congregations download Christian education materials from the Methodists or Lutherans, said Bernie Coffee, an elder from Texas and the vision team’s co-moderator, because they don’t know where to find PC(USA) materials or can’t afford them.

“When I want to find something on the PC(USA)’s website, I go to Google and search it,” McCain said. When Presbyterians need something, “do you go to the church to find it? Or do you go somewhere else to find the resource you’re looking for? Maybe you’ll go back to the church. Maybe not.”

Some have felt connection within their own congregations. A pastor from Arkansas said during the listening session that for “most of my ministry, I was trying to soothe both the more conservative and more progressive members of our congregation.” Now that the dust is settling after so many departures, “I would like to see a more positive vision that all are welcome in this place,” regardless of race, economic status, sexual orientation or anything else, he said.

Say “everyone is welcome here. And really wave that banner to the world.”

How institutions work. During a July 7 listening session that attracted some leaders from the PC(USA)’s national staff, Narcisse said, some spoke of “Presbyterian duty” – and there were “very strict ideas” about a lack of commitment to the denomination about the work we’re supposed to be doing, to giving, to funding, to qualifications for serving.”

Asked what he meant by qualifications, Narcisse said some raised concerns in the listening session about “trying to check boxes” in appointing people to serve on PC(USA) groups, or considering competence or skills sets or “skin in the game.” Meaning: “We’re not just here to fill a quota.”

Salvador Gavaldá Corchado (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

So the question presented was how to balance the need for diversity with the need for competency, said team member Salvador Gavaldá Corchado, an elder who is a fellow with the Synod of Mid America.

He quickly added: “It’s a false narrative” – that competency and diversity need to be balanced – but one that emerges “when you don’t put in the energy” to search widely for those with gifts and talents to serve.

“Are you trying to say that the reason I’m chosen is that I’m a black female?” said Coffee, shaking her head in recognition and laughing.

“It’s a false narrative. It takes effort to keep looking,” to expand the pool of candidates, Foster said.

That’s also the way “we organize a system in which white men have all the power” and that focuses on structure, Narcisse said. There’s an emphasis on dollars, on specific types of contributions, and not appreciation of time, of volunteering, of sacrifice.

“What does an offering mean, what does contributing mean, what does commitment mean, when it doesn’t have to be tied to institutional dollars?”

Presbyterians who attended Big Tent shared their perspective during listening sessions (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

What’s next? The team members also spent some time in their debriefing session talking about process (where and when to meet next – which is still evolving); about their deadlines; and about whether to write a guiding statement focused at the national church or people in the pews. “Are we talking to the local church or are we talking at an abstract, GA level?” asked Gavaldá Corchado.

There’s also the question of what the 2018 General Assembly might do – whether it will authorize a budget so the 2020 Vision Team can keep working until 2020, or set some kind of a different course.

Coffee said she wants them to “write the vision so that whoever reads the vision can run with it.”