ST. LOUIS – The All Agency Review Committee is looking ahead and getting more specific about changes it might recommend – including possible changes in the rules for how a General Assembly handles business brought to it at the last minute via commissioners’ resolutions.
The committee talked at its meeting in St. Louis Oct. 10 about what changes it might recommend to the standing rules so that the six agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have a better chance to comment on business that comes to the General Assembly at the last minute – particularly commissioners’ resolutions.
The reason: Sometimes that business can have significant implications – either financially or in terms of staff time or focus – for the way the agencies do their work.
Robert’s Rules of Order does require that a member of a representative assembly have the opportunity to bring new business to that assembly, said Jim Wilson, an All Agency Review member who’s also a lawyer who has served on the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. The question is how to retain that right to bring new business, but also to have it considered in an orderly manner, he said.
Sometimes “committee members feel blindsided by these things” when they come in at the last minute, said Debra Avery, an All Agency Review member and pastor from California.
The committee discussed the obstacles to making the rules too restrictive – such as requiring commissioners to submit resolutions before the assembly begins (say a month ahead). To be considered, a commissioners’ resolution needs to be presented by at least two commissioners, from different presbyteries – so needing to make that kind of connection before an assembly begins could be a problem, said Kerry Rice, the PC(USA)’s deputy stated clerk, who is representing the Office of the General Assembly and serves as staff support to All Agency Review.
Often commissioners’ resolutions have been “things that were in the news that week,” so it makes sense they’re last-minute, said Barry Creech, director of policy, administration and board support for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, who’s attending the meeting as an agency representative.
Wilson suggested some ways that commissioners could still bring resolutions, but would give agencies a greater opportunity to comment. The rules could be changed to require that the resolutions be considered on the committee’s last day of business; or to require a public hearing; or to give an agency affected by a particular resolution the opportunity to comment or speak to the committee. Currently, agency representatives are considered corresponding members of the assembly – which means the committee moderators can call on them to speak, but aren’t required to.
Another potential concern: when a committee amends an overture or other matter of business so extensively that it offers a totally different approach than what was originally suggested – and then there is “limited opportunity [for the agencies] to address what is in effect new business,” said Wilson.
Committee members also acknowledged that a variety of groups typically work to approach commissioners at assemblies and convince them to submit resolutions. “I would never underestimate the ability of those who are trying to influence the assembly,” said Dave Davis, a pastor from New Jersey. “I remember getting talking points under my door in the middle of the night when I was a commissioner.”
Agency representatives said there have been instances when commissioners’ resolutions could impact the direction of their work. Marc Lewis, president and publisher of Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, cited one resolution that suggested that a new hymnal be entirely electronic, not in print.
“The problem was there was not enough understanding of how difficult that is,” to obtain electronic rights to music, Lewis said. “Those rights are held very tightly by large music companies. It’s a much more difficult thing” – and that’s important for the assembly to understand.
Commissioners are informed when an action being considered has financial implications – but that’s generally financial implications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency or the Office of the General Assembly, but not the other four agencies. And there’s no requirement to say when an action has financial implications for presbyteries or synods, Rice said. The 2016 General Assembly sent more than 40 mandates for action to the mid councils, “unfunded mandates, all of them,” Rice said.
“I don’t want to do anything to infringe on the right of the commissioners or, more broadly, the movement of the Spirit,” said Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions. “It’s a process question” – to make sure that agencies have the chance to respond when needed.
“I think we can be prepared for this to be a hot-button issue” if All Agency Review recommends a change in the standing rules, Wilson said. Some might say All Agency Review is trying to restrict the ability of commissioners to respond to potentially controversial matters or see it as “an attempt to manage the assembly by the agencies” – that All Agency Review will be seen as acting as a proxy for the agencies “in terms of shutting down the assembly’s discretion.”
Representatives of All Agency Review also are planning to make presentations and answer questions at gatherings of presbytery and synod leaders being held in St. Louis – the Moderators’ Conference Oct. 13-14 and Mid Council Leaders Gathering Oct. 15-17.
All Agency Review spent part of the final day of its meeting summarizing continuing questions and common themes in what it’s discussed so far.
“We should let our learnings drive our recommendations,” Wilson said. Before the committee’s next conference call Oct. 27, each member is being asked to submit a list of about 10 learnings for the group’s consideration.
“An important guiding question is ‘Who is this for?’ ” said Deborah Block, a pastor from Milwaukee who serves as the committee’s moderator. In part, that’s “what will be helpful for these agencies going forward in this new church, new world.”
Also, “a big part of the impact of this is educational,” Block said. “We’re going to teach a lot of people about some important parts of the church’s ministry.”
All Agency Review’s next face-to-face meeting will be Jan. 22-24 in Louisville. It also has conference calls scheduled for Oct. 27 and Dec. 6.