LOUISVILLE – The Way Forward Commission began rolling through items it is considering including in the report it will submit to the 2018 General Assembly or act on before then – identifying not any precise wording, but giving some idea of the landscape it has in mind.
In the first day of its meeting Sept. 18-19 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the commission approved a series of actions focusing on issues it wants to investigate in-depth this fall – from emphasizing the centrality and importance of diversity in the church to trying to improve the institutional climate at the denomination’s national offices in Louisville.
Here’s some of what the commission did Sept. 18.
The commission wants to find a way for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to speak with a single voice, which could include developing a branding campaign for the denomination and clarifying who actually speaks for the denomination. The commission approved this action:
“The Commission commends the conversations between the communications staffs of each of the six agencies that have taken place to date regarding the coordination of communication activities, and will convene in October a group of such staff and the board leadership of their agencies together to engage in conversations in far deeper depth, specifically considering greater communications integration among agencies and translation services among other things, to formulate proposals for going forward including a timeline for implementation.”
One piece of that conversation will involve a concern commission members have expressed about the limited extent to which the PC(USA) translates documents into languages other than English, typically Korean and Spanish.
Emily Marie Williams, a commission member who’s a college student from Texas, said she’s convinced that’s a problem the denomination could and needs to fix immediately.
“There is currently no staff” to do all that translation, said Eliana Maxim, a mid council executive from Seattle. And the General Assembly has determined that translation should be done for “essential documents,” but hasn’t defined what that means.
Adan Mairena, a minister from Philadelphia, said he recently spoke with someone from a Presbyterian church who has a member in danger of being deported. Mairena tried to provide PC(USA) documents related to immigration, deportation and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but found some of what he needed was not available in Spanish.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of translation services,” Maxim said. “That’s access to power,” and a barrier to people who want to serve in leadership and advocacy. “That’s something we heard loud and clear.”
The commission is raising concerns about what Jo Stewart, an elder from Charlotte, North Carolina, described as “the culture in the building” – at the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville, where most of the staffs from the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and Office of the General Assembly (OGA) work.
The commission took this action:
“In line with concerns raised in prior reviews from All Agency Review Committee and the Commission’s midterm report, the Commission directs the PMA and OGA leadership to work with the Commission to engage an outside consultant such as an expert on institutional change theory to guide the center staff on how to formulate a healthy institutional culture. (The Commission will develop with the consultant a list of specific areas of focus.)”
The commission is aware that the Review Committee for the Presbyterian Mission Agency raised concerns in its 2016 report about the organizational culture at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which the committee described as “characterized by anxiety, distrust, and a clear lack in the areas of spiritual leadership, transparency, and cultural humility.”
Then on Sept. 13, Tony De La Rosa, the interim executive director of the PMA, resigned, following a series of closed-door meetings of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and its executive committee. The board leadership had voiced concerns about an open letter that De La Rosa wrote in June to the Way Forward Commission.
The board named Dave Crittenden as the acting PMA director, with board chair Ken Godshall saying that Crittenden is expected to serve from three to five months.
For employees at the center, that kind of abrupt change at the top inevitably spikes up the tension.
Commission representatives met with about 20 people from the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) staff – conversations that the commission discussed in a two-and-a-half hour closed session, with Mark Hostetter, the commission’s moderator, saying the commission wanted to respect “the sensitivity and the candor” of what they were told.
Eileen Linder, a minister from New Jersey, said PMA workers – most of them ministry directors – were asked, “What in the PMA structure inhibits your work, or enhances it?” Most of the responses involved not the structure, but administrative procedures “that slow down the work,” she said.
J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, has been speaking of his vision for the denomination’s headquarters building in Louisville to be used as a leadership training center and a sign of Presbyterian presence in the heart of the city. Some have also raised the question of whether the building could or should be sold – whether it could become an asset for mission in a different way for the denomination.
The commission took this action, regarding that property and the offices of the Presbyterian Foundation in southern Indiana:
“The Commission will convene in October a group including all six agencies to engage in a conversation regarding property and facilities of the church, specifically including 100 Witherspoon Street [in Louisville] and 200 East 12th Street [in Jeffersonville, Indiana], to formulate proposals for going forward, including a timeline for implementation.”
A commission subgroup has been in conversation with groups representing the diversity of voices among Presbyterians – listening to those who often feel on the outside, excluded from power.
Mairena said he spoke to immigrant pastors who want to be connected, but don’t understand the PC(USA) structure and how the system works. “Following the money came up quite a bit” in those conversations, he said – as well as a desire to understand coalition building in the PC(USA), how to write resolutions, how to gain recognition and resources for fellowships that aren’t chartered as churches.
Julie Cox, a mid council executive from South Carolina, said she’s been haunted by recognition that “we are a denomination that speaks out against gender pay inequity, and we actively participate in it.”
The commission took this action:
“The Commission working group on diverse voices will convene in October representatives from the national caucuses/networks plus leaders from PMA and OGA racial ethnic ministries, to review existing formula of agreements and strategic plans, formulate proposals to comply with these and create collaborative efforts to serve the various racial/ethnic/gender diversity in the denomination. This will include, but will not be limited to, leadership development and production of resources, and identification of all offices and personnel working on this across the agencies.”
Maxim said many people of color don’t want to be asked to serve on another group or task force discussing racial inequities in the PC(USA). The General Assembly has established protocols – such as requiring the PMA leadership team to meet at least once a year with the racial ethnic caucuses – that are not being followed, she said. “Nobody can remember the last time that happened,” she said of the required meetings.
When written covenants are not being fulfilled, “why would such communities trust again?” Lindner asked.
“You’ve got the documents,” Maxim said. “Let’s live into them. Let’s not have any more conversations about it.”
In July, the Way Forward Commission formed a joint working group with the All Agency Review Committee, to look at how the PC(USA) handles what are known as shared services – administrative or overhead costs for services such as information technology, human resources or legal services.
A ministerial team of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board has also been examining how the Presbyterian Mission Agency allocates overhead costs, and is recommending that the agency consider charging departments at a single flat rate. That report will be up for discussion at the board meeting Sept. 22.
The commission approved this action:
“The Commission working group on shared services will convene in October a group of shared services users to formulate proposals for going forward in providing support services, along with a timeline. This group will not include shared services providers.”
In other words: In that conversation, those who provide the shared services at PMA will not be at the table.
Planning further actions, recommendations
All of this is complicated, in part because other entities also are working on some of these issues (for example, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board is discussing consolidating Congregational Ministries Publishing with the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation).
Also, the commission has certain but not unlimited powers to act without needing the assembly’s approval. Nelson has written an advisory opinion stating that “recommendations for any missional and structural changes will be brought to the 223rd General Assembly” in 2018.
So some of what the commission is interested in achieving could be done not by making a recommendation to the assembly, but by acting on its own.
The formal decisions the commission made on Sept. 18 reflect only part of the breadth of what it’s considering.
For example, the commission received a “massive response” from mid council executives to its request for feedback, said Mathew Eardley, an elder from Idaho.
“Mid councils are in desperate need of support and resources,” Maxim said. And there are also so many variations among them in size, geography, staffing and more that they “need to be engaged contextually.”
The commission found, however, that no one at the PC(USA) has an accurate, up-to-date contact list of mid council leaders in the denomination. “It’s a real measure of institutional decline when you don’t have an accurate list of your constituent parts,” Lindner said.
While far from being able to list their recommendations or write a final report, the commission also worked on some early ideas of subjects they might cover and a possible structure for its report to the assembly. Among the issues on the list: shared services; the PC(USA), A Corporation, which is the denomination’s corporate identity; the centrality of diversity; mid councils; the Office of the General Assembly and role of the stated clerk; consolidation involving publishing work; overall financial review; and ongoing structural redevelopment.
The commission also discussed what its report to the 2018 General Assembly might include – the general components, not the specific recommendations. A preliminary outline for what the commission might potentially cover in its report included everything from the commission’s efforts to coordinate with the All Agency Review Committee and the 2020 Vision Team; the decision announced jointly with All Agency Review in August not to recommend a merger of OGA and PMA; and ways in which the commission might work with the 2018 General Assembly and what needs to happen to monitor compliance of its recommendations.
Hostetter also said he hopes that, as much as possible, the recommendations of the Way Forward Commission will align with those of the All Agency Review Committee.
The commission’s meeting continues Sept. 19. Hostetter will make presentations on the commission’s work and progress to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, both of which are also meeting in Louisville this week.