To be honest, more than a few Presbyterians are having trouble figuring out the distinctions between three groups currently doing big-picture discernment for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): the Way Forward Commission, the 2020 Vision Team and the All Agency Review Committee.
All three are facing deadlines of Feb. 16 to make recommendations to the 2018 General Assembly. So they’re hosting a blizzard of meetings — and even to those paying careful attention, the details of what they’re discussing (shared services, the role of the stated clerk, the structure of the A Corporation, mission directives, a guiding statement, and much, much more) can seem overwhelming.
With all the intricacies, it’s easy to lose track of the big picture. That includes questions such as these:
- Why now? Why do all this work now?
- How does a mainline denomination find its footing in a changing world?
- What do these conversations reveal about what’s on the hearts and minds of Presbyterians?
There are no set answers — both those knee-deep in the work and those tracking it from a distance likely have their own opinions, sometimes conflicting. When the recommendations get to General Assembly, which will meet in St. Louis June 16-23, those 538 commissioners each will arrive with their own senses of the future of the PC(USA) — and, with the flood of business brought to each assembly, likely their own forests and trees to conquer.
At the start of the year, however — with that optimistic tinge of a new beginning — it’s worth taking a moment to look past the particulars to glimpse again a sense of the bigger universe. Here’s some of what’s shining in that galaxy.
The 2016 General Assembly clearly felt it was time to do something. Presented with proposals to consider merging the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) — in other words, denominational restructuring — the assembly instead created two entities to focus on broader questions: the Way Forward Commission, empowered with the authority to take non-constitutional actions on its own, and the 2020 Vision Team.
The assembly told the Way Forward Commission to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly agencies of the PC(USA).”
The assembly instructed the Vision Team to develop a guiding statement for the denomination and “make a plan for its implementation with all deliberate speed. The process of developing such a guiding statement will help us to name and claim our denominational identity as we seek to follow the Spirit into the future.”
Some of the key ingredients here: Look forward. Act quickly. Create a vision for a changing church.
In its mid-term report, the commission spoke of the emerging 21st century church and said this: “We have not understood our charge to be one of finding ways to manage decline, or to tinker with existing structures in the hope of assuring institutional survival. Rather, encouraged by our calling through the voice of the General Assembly, the counsel of the Stated Clerk, and words of admonition and encouragement from hundreds of Presbyterians, we have set a bolder course.”
Part of the push for change came out of the work of the review committees for PMA and OGA. Those committees reported to the 2016 General Assembly and brought specific recommendations for change needed at the agencies, which increasingly are feeling the challenge of trying to do effective ministry with fewer dollars.
There also were broader efforts to discern the will and mood of the church, including:
- Conversations on the state of the church initiated by Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, which included a series of listening sessions he convened in early 2016.
- An effort by OGA in the fall of 2015 to listen to Presbyterians at the grassroots level — a listening effort involving 3,427 people and the results of which were sent to the 2016 assembly as the report “When We Gather at the Table: A PC(USA) Snapshot.”
- Discussion about the relationship between OGA and PMA and the possibility of a merger, something that the Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee announced jointly last summer they will not recommend.
Although merger is no longer on the table, there are ongoing discussions involving structural issues, including whether the PC(USA) should keep its denominational offices in Louisville and how the denomination’s corporate identity should be constituted — perhaps not unexpected, coming 25 years after the merger of the northern and southern branches of the church, and given the six-agency configuration of the denomination (with its accompanying power dynamics).
Hope and identity
A central piece of this is the recognition that, like it or not, the world around the PC(USA) is changing — as are the realities for many mid councils and congregations. Many congregations can’t afford to call a full-time pastor, so are experimenting with new forms of leadership (or closing the doors).
At the heart of those conversations is something many denominations are struggling with: In this time of declining membership and influence, what does it mean to be a national church?
The Vision Team particularly is trying to articulate, concisely yet powerfully, a sense of what it means to be Presbyterian in these new times: both what Presbyterians stand for now and what they aspire to be. In the discussions of all three entities, there’s been a continuing acknowledgement that that Presbyterians desire a sense of hope and call that is rooted in faith and resurrection, not circumscribed solely by having less money and fewer resources.
Yet for many Presbyterians, hope walks hand-in-hand with chronic anxiety about what comes next. The 2020 Vision Team discovered in its discernment that “people are lamenting like crazy across the church,” Lisa Juica Perkins, a pastor from Texas who serves as the team’s co-moderator, said during a conference call in October.
So here’s part of the balancing act: Acknowledge the anxiety. End with hope.
“We should almost embrace the darkness,” said Jerrod Lowry, a pastor from Utah and 2020 Vision Team member, during a meeting in November. “God is with us in the darkness. … Plunge into the darkness. If we do, we’ll see a new dawn, a new light.”
There are signs all around of creativity and new approaches to ministry in a changing church. NEXT Church, for example, has been holding community organizing training sessions; J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, has started the Hands and Feet initiative to connect Presbyterians with needs in the cities where the next three General Assemblies will be held (St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus).
Congregations — the places where the changing realities are often most acutely felt — are selling their buildings. The PC(USA) is encouraging innovation through its 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative — with many of those communities being started by immigrants from around the globe. Presbyterians are marching in their own communities against racism and in protest of police shootings.
In 2016, the PC(USA) added the Confession of Belhar, with its commitment to racial justice, to its Book of Confessions; now Presbyterians are looking for ways to live into those visions of equity — including by making space in leadership for young Presbyterians, LGBTQ people, women and people of color.
Aspirations are great; real change is often more difficult. For example, the PC(USA) remains more than 90 percent white. Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, presented data last fall indicating what he called “real and distinct and disturbing gender disparity” affecting women ministers.
More and more, Americans do not align themselves with organized religion — particularly young adults. Some longtime church members — for decades the stalwarts of sessions and church dinners — are drifting away. While the PC(USA) attempts to speak on policy issues, in the public square fewer are listening and the influence of the church and other institutions wanes.
NEXT Church has as the theme for its 2108 national gathering in Baltimore Feb. 26-28, “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying and Rising in a Wilderness Church.” Presbyterians — long part of an established mainline domination — are exploring more and more what it means to stand on the edges, outside the cultural center in a politically polarized country.
Things are changing inside the church as well. Over the past five years, the PC(USA) has dismissed 303 congregations representing 121,383 members to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The departure of so many conservative Presbyterians, along with the diminishing of the decades-long internal battles over whether the PC(USA) would allow non-celibate gays and lesbians to serve in ministry (yes) and whether it would allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages (also yes) has resulted in a recalibration of energy and advocacy inside the denomination.
One example: The Presbyterian Coalition, for years a political force on the evangelical side, disbanded in 2017, transferring all remaining assets to The Fellowship Community, which will hold its national conference in Atlanta Feb. 20-22 focused on “Come Together – Discipleship in a Divided Time.” The Covenant Network of Presbyterians has reduced its staff and begun to focus more on racial justice. NEXT Church has emerged as a force for discussion and innovation — a place for those working in ministry to share ideas and support, and in 2017 releasing a new confessional statement.
The theological center of the PC(USA) has shifted to the progressive side; the issues emerging at General Assembly have changed as well, with issues not focused on sexuality, such as climate change and racial justice, gaining more attention.
Another point of discussion surfaced in the 2016 OGA “Shall We Gather At The Table” report: How political or activist should the denomination be?
Specific recommendations from the three groups will be revealed by mid-February, although the Way Forward Commission intends to keep meeting until the assembly and may take action on its own between now and then.
Already bubbling up is the question of how to carry these conversations forward (and accountability for implementing changes) after the 2018 General Assembly. Will the assembly agree with the recommendations, or have other ideas? Should the 2020 Vision Team keep meeting until 2020?
What else needs to happen?