It’s all still in process – meeting after meeting happening across the church about the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
On Oct. 24, the Way Forward Commission met for three hours. On Oct. 27, the All Agency Review Committee took its turn (both of those meetings by conference call). While recommendations from those groups to the 2018 General Assembly have yet to emerge, the conversations give glimpses into the big issues being debated at the top levels of the church.
Presbyterian Mission Agency. The agency submitted a revision of its response to a series of questions All Agency Review posed about “openness.” The questions asked how the concept of openness (drawn from section F-1.0404 in the Book of Order) might be used as a central theme or “mission directive” for the denomination. All of the PC(USA)’s six agencies had submitted responses for the committee’s Oct. 9-10 meeting in St. Louis, but PMA had asked for a little more time to do a better job in its answers – with the deadline for the first response coming just after agency’s board concluded its meeting September 21-24 and just after David Crittenden was named as PMA’s acting director.
So All Agency Review agreed to allow PMA to send a revised response. (The full eight-page response is available here: PMA responses.) “The Mission Agency takes the Karl Barth approach to the world, with the Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other,” the PMA response states at one point. It also speaks to the tension of the PC(USA) functioning as both a church and a corporation; about the impact of being overly-dependent on restricted giving; and about the idea of having “a single focal point for our work for the next four years: structural racism and white supremacy.”
Crittenden thanked the committee “for giving us a second chance at doing this,” and said the process for doing so has “already helped us” as PMA officials work to prepare the next Mission Work Plan. He said the idea of having structural racism as a focal point still is being developed – no firm decisions have been made, although the PMA leadership cabinet has some energy around the possibility.
Having PMA so heavily dependent on restricted funding makes it harder for the denomination to be responsive to changing needs in the world, Crittenden said – saying he hopes that explaining that difficulty and being transparent about how the money is being spent might make donors more willing to give unrestricted funds.
Crittenden said PMA has a need to act both as a church and a corporation. “This is a large organization,” with mission around the world – so in a large, complex organization, “we have to know where we’re going to go.” At the same time, the board of PC(USA), A Corporation – the corporate identity for PMA and the Office of the General Assembly – opens and closes each of its meetings with prayer, and “that feels like it’s more the Holy Spirit leading,” Crittenden said.
Eric Beene, a pastor from Georgia who is a member of All Agency Review and who served on the PMA Review Committee, said he senses that tension. The PMA Review Committee found that PMA “was feeling pretty corporate in terms of hierarchy, in terms of a really rigid management structure,” Beene said. “The idea is if we’re a church, we’re inclusive, we’re welcoming, we honor everybody’s gifts.” In a corporation, “they’re in a pretty set position and a pretty firm place in a bureaucracy.”
That’s part of the tension, he said. “What are we?”
Shared services. Jim Wilson, All Agency Review’s vice moderator and a lawyer from Ohio, reported on the progress of a joint work group from All Agency Review and the Way Forward Commission regarding shared services such as legal services and information technology.
Early drafts of that work group’s findings indicate that All Agency Review and Way Forward are in substantial agreement on many issues, but may present some individual recommendations as well, Wilson said.
“We feel we don’t have the same authority as Way Forward,” which is a commission authorized to take some actions without approval of the General Assembly, said James Tse, a ruling elder from New York. Way Forward seems more focused on addressing immediate problems, while “we tend to take the longer view on a number of these issues,” Wilson said.
Wilson attended a meeting in Louisville Oct. 24 with representatives of the PC(USA)’s six agencies and Way Forward, and said it was “a very good introductory meeting,” at which recipients of shared services in the denomination talked about how to make the delivery of shared services more user-friendly and about how those services are and are not meeting the agencies’ needs.
“It was a very useful first meeting in which some space was created for good conversation about the issues,” Wilson said.
Other working groups convened by Way Forward are discussing property matters, including whether the PC(USA) should continue to have its national offices in downtown Louisville – and if so, how that property should be used and could be made more hospitable to visitors. “It’s a once-in-a-25-year kind of look, so everything is on the table,” Crittenden said.
Deborah Block, a pastor from Wisconsin who serves as moderator of the All Agency Review Committee, said “I appreciate the candor of looking at the Louisville location. … That’s a hard question to ask of people who have their homes and families in that city with the bad airport and in the wrong time zone” to be accessible to a national church.
Another group is discussing communications – including, Block said, a desire for a master list of ministers and for shared databases; the difficulty of reaching people at the grass roots with PC(USA) information; the need for more resources for translation services; and concerns about the denomination’s website “and how difficult it is to navigate and access information.”
Chris Mason, a lawyer from New York, and Kelly Shriver, a minister from Oregon, are on a joint work group with Way Forward representatives looking at PC(USA), A Corporation. “The way we have structured things right now is not the best way to do it,” Mason said. That group is looking, he said, at “big governance questions” involving the denomination – and also at the balance between “how corporate we get” and how best to do things for mission.
All these work teams continue to exchange drafts and meet and confer – aware that the Feb. 16 deadline for submitting reports to the 2018 General Assembly is just around the bend.
Way Forward will next meet Nov. 29 by conference call, and All Agency Review on Dec. 6. The 2020 Vision Team – charged with creating a “guiding statement” for the denomination by 2020 and making a plan for its implementation – will meet in-person in Dallas Nov. 12-14.