SEATTLE – What’s still to be done? What are the right words for the report?
The Way Forward Commission, meeting Jan. 17-19 at First Presbyterian Church in Seattle, spent part of its meeting Jan. 18 talking through issues it still needs to resolve as it shapes its report to the 2018 General Assembly, which will meet June 16-23 in St. Louis.
The commission held a conference call with Deborah Block, moderator of the All Agency Review Committee – All Agency Review will meet in Louisville Jan. 22-24.
The commission voted to convene in February a working group including the staff from the stewardship areas of all six Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) agencies to engage in conversations about stewardship activities, including fundraising, and to identify areas for further collaboration and cooperation.
While the Feb. 16 deadline for submitting the report to the Office of the General Assembly is fast approaching, the commission has two conference calls on the table between now and then. So the plan is not necessarily to leave Seattle with a final draft – but to sprint as close to that as possible in the time available.
The 2016 General Assembly created the commission, instructing it to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly agencies of the PC(USA).”
Here’s some of what the commission is still trying to work through.
PC(USA), A CORPORATION
The proposal is to create a nine-member board, with each of the denomination’s six agencies having one representative and with three at-large members. Each person would serve a two-year term, for a maximum of six years.
Questions still to be resolved include: What will the relationship be between the A Corporation board and the six agencies? Who will be eligible to serve – what qualifications are expected – and what can be done to make sure the board is inclusive?
The commission wants to stress the importance of the PC(USA) translating resources and documents into languages other than English – but questions remain about exactly how to do that.
How much money will it cost? Into what languages should materials be translated?
Eliana Maxim, a presbytery executive from Seattle and one of the commission’s two vice moderators, stressed the importance of translation – saying, “we need to make sure that all of our information is accessible to everyone. … Right now we can’t even provide adequate translation resources in Spanish and Korean.”
Maxim, a native of Colombia for whom English is not her first language, said the National Hispanic/Latino-a Presbyterian Caucus has identified people with leadership potential, but sometimes “these folks can’t participate” because they don’t have access to materials in Spanish.
Adan Mairena, a minster from Pennsylvania, said the PC(USA) also needs to consider the needs of immigrant communities who may not speak Spanish or Korean, but are important to the future of the church.
Samuel Bonner, a ruling elder form New Jersey, said perhaps translation services for all the agencies should be based in the A Corporation.
“We need a plan,” Maxim said. “We need a central repository of where the work is done. … A lot of it will need to be outsourced.”
Another question: With limited resources, who decides what gets translated first? How will translation resources be allocated among the agencies? What if there’s more translation that needs to be done than funds available to pay for it?
“Where are we allowing our denomination to right-size, which is to downsize, which is to produce less in any language,” asked Sara Dingman, synod executive of the Synod of Lincoln Trails. “How are we doing that?”
ROLE OF THE STATED CLERK
The commission discussed the possibility of “unintended consequences” in its efforts to strengthen the role of the stated clerk of the PC(USA), and to have that person clearly be the leader who speaks for the denomination.
Some details still need to be worked out – for example, whether the changes suggested might create some conflicts of interest.
Mark Hostetter, a minister from New York who serves as the commission’s moderator, said there already has been some pushback via social media to making the stated clerk too powerful – some say the PC(USA) does not want a bishop or pope.
The commission can stress the importance of having a strong public voice as a way of possibly bringing more people into the church, Hostetter said. To attract more people to the PC(USA), “we have to speak to the issues of the day,” he said.
The Presbytery of Newton has submitted an overture asking the General Assembly to create a team to review the financial sustainability of the PC(USA)’s current per capita funding system.
And the commission now has set up a work team to explore issues related to funding streams and financial sustainability at the national levels of the PC(USA). That work team may suggest that the assembly create a 12-person committee including mid council representation to work on this issue.
Bonner said that work would include looking at the denomination’s finances – including a comprehensive financial analysis; a detailed review of all assets; and projections of income and expenses going forward.
It also would consider financial resources available to congregations and presbyteries – including information regarding the sale or transfer of property.
STEWARDSHIP AND FUNDRAISING
The new work group focused on stewardship and fundraising which the commission decided Jan. 18 to create would convene representatives from each agency to talk about what’s happening now in the denomination, said Mathew Eardley, a ruling elder from Idaho.
What appeals for donations are going out now? For what are they soliciting money? How are donors’ gifts acknowledged? How can and do donors give for specific purposes, known as extra commitment opportunities?
That group also would consider synergies and opportunities for consolidation or mutual support of this work among the six agencies – perhaps even a common fundraising strategy, Eardley said.
Another issue: transparency. How are the funds raised used to support budget and programming in the PC(USA), and how is that information communicated?
IMPLEMENTATION AND FOLLOW-UP
Once the 2018 General Assembly concludes, the commission wants adequate follow-up to make sure things get done. That would include making sure that General Assembly actions get implemented and that continuing collaborations – for example, an effort to develop a strategic communications plan for the PC(USA) – continue to move forward.
This commission is likely to ask the General Assembly to create a new Way Forward Commission, with limited powers. The suggestion: that new commission would have 12 members – four from the current Way Forward Commission; four from the All Agency Review Committee; and four appointed by the moderator or co-moderators of the 2018 General Assembly.
The commission is working on specific recommendations involving shared services – functions that serve both the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). The commission also identified five shared services functions that offer the best possibilities for immediate collaboration and review of outsourcing opportunities – those being payroll processing; legal services; information technology; translation services; and mail and print distribution.
In discussions with staff members from OGA and PMA regarding shared services, the commission’s work group heard consistently “a lack of understanding about how to work together to solve problems” – a systemic issue, said Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina. “I heard that fairly consistently. I heard a desire to think about a way to do that from everybody” – they expressed a desire to do better, but weren’t sure how to do that.
The commission wants to remain in communication with the search committee looking for a new executive director for PMA, to make sure that committee understands the vision the commission has for the structure and function of the agencies.
There also was discussion of how institutional identity gets developed in a national church structure – including the question of whether new hires should be Presbyterian.
Rosemary Mitchell, director of mission engagement and support for PMA, serves as staff support for the commission. In certain positions, having an understanding of the Reformed tradition and the Presbyterian systems can be important, Mitchell said. “The learning curve can be very steep and can take a while for a person who doesn’t know anything about our system and tradition,” she said.
The underlying concern is not about hiring practices, but “the importance of shaping institutional identity,” said Eileen Lindner, a minister from New Jersey who is one of the commission’s co-moderators. The commission also discussed how staff development can be tool for shaping that sense of the denomination not just as a business or institution – but being theologically based, with a distinct call to mission.
EQUITY AND INCLUSION
The commission wants to convene a Diverse Voices Table, with equal representation from PMA and OGA staff, to meet regularly to review and update the work of denominational inclusion. That group would consult with caucuses and networks in the PC(USA) regarding existing agreements on equity and inclusion, including annual consultations.
The commission also wants to find ways to have a less hierarchical relationship between the national staff and mid councils – to encourage relationship-building and to model partnerships.
MID COUNCIL MINISTRIES
The commission may direct OGA to refine the open position of director of mid council ministries to make it into a deputy or associate stated clerk’s position with direct interaction with the stated clerk.
The commission also is discussing the idea of asking the General Assembly to create some kind of task force or “dream team” pilot project – involving people who believe that mid councils are naturally resourceful and creative, yet sometimes need help to thrive – to be a presence on the ground to engage with mid councils directly.
This model – which the commission still is developing, teasing out the idea – likely would be peer-based, Dingman said.
For mid councils, “the scenery is changing,” Maxim said. She wants to help foster “a more relational engagement” and to ask mid councils “how do we walk alongside you … and look ahead and anticipate some of the needs?”
That conversation should include congregational leaders (perhaps including presbytery and synod moderators), as “congregations are the ones who know if mid councils are working,” Stewart said.
ALL AGENCY REVIEW COMMITTEE
The commission also met via video conference Jan. 18 with Block, a pastor from Wisconsin who serves as moderator of the All Agency Review, to update her on the commission’s work and discuss possible joint recommendations. Way Forward and All Agency Review already have jointly agreed on one decision, announced last summer: they would not recommend a merger of OGA and PMA.
The four most likely areas for joint recommendations, Hostetter said, involve the PC(USA), A Corporation; communications; recipient focus, meaning a sharing of databases (where appropriate); and questions involving the effectiveness of the PC(USA) websites.
Block described Way Forward and All Agency Review as “co-laborers.” Another possible area of collaboration that she raised: discussing with the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly ways of educating General Assembly commissioners about these complicated recommendations before the assembly gets underway – including possibly using webinars or a format like that of TED Talks.
After the call with Block ended, the commission spent a bit of time discussing the PC(USA)’s process for reviewing the six agencies, including whether that process is effective. The agency reviews “keep us honest” – sometimes the agencies need an outside analysis about what’s working and what’s not, Maxim said.
The reviews probably need to happen more frequently, Bonner said.
WHAT ELSE TO SAY
The commission’s report also will include sections explaining the theological basis for the work it is doing; the values underlying the commission’s work; and an explanation of how the commission came to be and its process.
Since the commission held its first meeting in December 2016, “thousands of hours of conversations have been had” throughout the church, Hostetter said.
The report should “give the why of what we are doing, give the theology of what we’re doing,” he said – the idea that that the changes will produce more effective mission for congregations and the PC(USA), and is not “restructuring for restructuring’s sake.”
The report also won’t be the commission’s last word. It has conference calls scheduled right up until the start of the assembly – and the power to take some actions on its own.
The commission’s next two conference calls are scheduled for Feb. 5 and, if needed, Feb. 13, both from 5-8 p.m. Eastern Time.