LOUISVILLE (Outlook) – The universe still seems pretty big.
The All Agency Review Committee and Way Forward Commission have made a significant joint decision: They announced Aug. 21 that they will not recommend a merger of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).
That announcement came after a two-hour closed session of the All Agency Review Committee – and with Deborah Block, the committee’s moderator and a minister from Milwaukee, saying that clarity about the structure should relieve anxiety and assist in the search for a new executive director for PMA.
Beyond that, the review committee talked about a lot of everything as it started its third face-to-face meeting – from whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should sell its headquarters building in downtown Louisville to the role of synods and whether structural changes need to be made in the denomination’s corporate entity. Even while the committee members took an afternoon break to watch the solar eclipse – with the moon covering close to 96 percent of the sun in Louisville – not much seemed blocked out of what the committee talked about.
That far-flung conversation is a sign: that the All Agency Review Committee is still trying to define the parameters of what it might recommend, and how broad or narrow that might be.
The committee is charged with considering the work of all the PC(USA)’s six agencies. However, taking a potential merger of OGA and PMA off the table does to some extent turn the possibilities for structural change to a more detailed level.
A key point of focus, for example, is the question of what’s referred to as shared or common services – areas such as human resources or accounting, which serve both PMA and OGA. A six-person “Joint Working Group on Shared Services,”
with All Agency Review and Way Forward providing three representatives apiece, is sprinting full-out to answer a series of questions about shared services.
The work group has scheduled about 30 interviews with national staff members later this week, and hopes to produce recommendations by Sept. 20, just before the next Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting (set for Sept. 21-23 in Louisville).
A related but separate question is this: How do questions involving shared services intersect with questions about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation, which is the denomination’s corporate entity serving OGA and PMA. Jim Wilson, a lawyer and ruling elder from Ohio who serves on that joint working group, said the discussion about the A Corporation is a governance issue – because the A Corporation is “the corporate entity that undergirds the ecclesiastical structure with respect to both the OGA and PMA. … It’s sort of the bridge between our ecclesiastical entity and the state.”
This is a lot of detail.
But underneath it are some fundamental questions. Among them:
- Are the cost allocations for services shared between OGA and PMA reasonable and fair?
- Are there services not currently being shared that would be less expensive to do that way?
- Who gets to make the decisions about how all of this is handled?
And while it’s sometimes not referred to explicitly, those kinds of questions also underlie the A Corporation discussion. Part of what’s at stake is who does (and does not) have a voice in the A Corporation governance – including whether OGA needs more representation. That issue has begun to bubble up in conversations related to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s Governance Task Force, which is looking at reducing the size of that board from 40 voting members to 16, and will present its revised recommendations to the board in September.
Another question, which Frank Spencer, the Board of Pensions president, has raised is who is paying attention to the overall management of the A Corporation assets, which totaled more than $520 million in net assets as of June 30 (the PMA’s operating budget is about $63 million). The discussion of A Corporation governance involves to some extent a the issue of “who’s responsible for the church’s bottom line,” said Dave Davis, a pastor from New Jersey who serves on All Agency Review.
If the All Agency Review does decide to discuss issues related to the A Corporation, “I wouldn’t want to do it under the guise of a shared services conversation,” said Chris Mason, a ruling elder and lawyer from New York who serves on All Agency Review. “I think it’s a separate question. I think it deserves separate consideration.”
On Aug. 21, All Agency Review also had a series of other conversations.
J. Herbert Nelson
The PC(USA)’s stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, spent about an hour and a half with the committee during a working lunch in which he discussed the state of the church and his hopes for what’s ahead. Nelson, as is typical when he speaks, offered both a hopeful and a challenging vision for the denomination, saying, “God has not taken holy hands off of us” and that by the power of the Holy Spirit – the spirit which is “causing solar eclipses to happen in the middle of the day,” and an entire nation to buy and put on special glasses – “we will be renewed.”
Nelson’s ideas are ambitious – including using the denomination’s national offices to model how the church can operate at the local level. He’d like the building to be used for a day care center and offices for nonprofits; for the offices to provide a training center for congregations and mid councils; and to explore the question of whether immigrants facing deportation could take sanctuary in the PC(USA) building. The national staff could “model what it means to take risk,” Nelson said.
Via a phone link, the All Agency Review Committee spoke with synod executives who were meeting in Denver – a conversation that was somewhat strained, in part because it was difficult to hear one another over the phone line, but also because the two groups seemed to be on different pages.
The synod executives described considerable variety among the 16 synods – both in structure and priorities. Several synod executives acknowledged they weren’t knowledgeable about the work of some of the PC(USA)’s six agencies (which came as a surprise to some of the review committee members), and voiced some frustration, particularly with PMA.
“There is some sense that PMA lets us know how we can serve PMA,” one synod executive said.
“I am always surprised when events are being held in my synod that I know nothing about,” another said. “There are ways we could actually work together if I knew they were coming.”
Synod leaders talked about concerns in their regions – about the need, for example, for resources to address the divide between urban and rural congregations, between large and small. “I’m hearing their level of frustration,” said Claire Rhodes, an All Agency Review member who serves as a commissioned lay pastor in Arkansas.
An idea that Block floated: sending representatives from the review committee (which is meeting in St. Louis Oct. 9-10) to meet with presbytery and synod leaders at a series of gatherings for mid council leaders, which also are being held in St. Louis Oct. 13-17.
The All Agency Review Committee will continue its meeting Aug. 22. It will likely discuss next steps for its work; what’s meant by the term “mission directives” of the PC(USA) and whether to fill a vacancy left because Mihee Kim-Kort, a minister from Indiana who was appointed to represent the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, has said other commitments preclude her from continuing to serve on the review committee.