SEATTLE – The Way Forward Commission began on Jan. 17 the work of outlining what it wants to include in its report to the 2018 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – not voting yet on precise language, but walking step-by-step to determine if it has reached agreement on what should be in the report. That drafting work will continue through the meeting, which ends mid-day on Jan. 19.
Over the last year, the commission has created an array of work groups, some in coordination with the All Agency Review Committee, to dig deeply into particular areas. The findings of those work groups form the backbone of the ideas the commission is discussing now.
This also is a work in progress: While the commission has a Feb. 16 deadline for submitting recommendations with constitutional implications to the General Assembly, it plans to keep meeting by conference call until the assembly meets in June – and has the power to take actions without constitutional implications on its own.
Here’s what the discussion has included so far.
The commission reached consensus (although not exact wording) on three recommendations regarding the role of the stated clerk.
First, the commission would recommend that the General Assembly amend the organization for mission (a document which is the manual for the General Assembly) to make it clear that the stated clerk speaks for the church in matters of faith and practice, unless the assembly directs otherwise. The stated clerk would offer constitutional and spiritual leadership for the denomination and would exercise pastoral authority over concerns of the church in times of crisis.
Second, the stated clerk would serve as an ex officio member of the board of all six agencies, with voice but not vote and the right to participate in closed sessions. The clerk would be consulted about any candidate before a candidate’s name is brought to an agency’s board for election as the agency’s director.
Third, the review process for the six agencies of the PC(USA) would be accountable to the stated clerk. Each review committee would report to the stated clerk, who will present the report, along with any additional recommendations from the stated clerk to the next General Assembly.
Cliff Lyda, a minister from Florida, said he wants these proposed changes to address the question of “who speaks for the denomination?” – something he thinks is not clear in the PC(USA) right now.
For example, when President Trump recently made disparaging remarks regarding Haiti and African nations — comments that many decried as racist — the Presbyterian response was disjointed, said Eliana Maxim, a minister from Seattle who serves as one of two vice moderators of the commission. People want to know “what does the PC(USA) say about this?”
PC(USA), A CORPORATION
The commission has been working with the All Agency Review Committee to propose changes to what’s commonly referred to as the A Corporation — the corporate identity for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). “It’s very complex,” said Eileen Lindner, a minister from New Jersey who also is a vice moderator of the commission. “We need a little latitude on how to get this wording sorted out.”
The changes being considered are these:
Currently, the board of the A Corporation is identical to the membership of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. The commission wants to reduce the size of that board, to likely nine members: a representative from each of the six agencies, plus three at-large members. That could include, at least for the next two years, a representative from the Way Forward Commission and from All Agency Review.
The board would be smaller (the PMA board currently has 40 voting members, although that board voted in September to reduce its size from 40 voting members to 20). And “we’re trying to make A Corporation the place where the mechanisms for getting the job done are equally available” to all six agencies, Lindner said. A Corporation should not be involved in setting policy direction, she said, but a mechanism to help the agencies accomplish what they decide they want to do.
SUSTAINABILITY OF MID COUNCILS
The commission spent some time discussing what commission moderator Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York, described as “an elephant in the room” — whether the current structure of synods and presbyteries is financially sustainable.
Lindner said she’d like the commission to consider instigating the denomination to take a closer look at this — including the issue of how much property mid councils are likely to sell in upcoming years as congregations close or merge (or leave for other denominations), and what happens with that money.
“My question is the sustainability of the denomination,” she said. “We absolutely know” that in the next five to ten years, Presbyterian entities will be selling tens of millions of dollars in property, and “many of our presbyteries don’t have policy” regarding how the proceeds will be used. Some will “use that money to create a hospice for dying churches” — but Lindner said she’d like the commission to bring to the attention of the General Assembly the issue of how the money could and perhaps should be used.
Sara Dingman, synod executive for the Synod of Lincoln Trails, pushed back on that approach.
“I think this conversation is a slippery slope” and too focused on mid council finances, Dingman said. Two consecutive commissions that the assembly created to consider the future and structure of mid councils met over the course of four years, and voted not to reduce the number of synods or change the mid council structure. “It didn’t go off the rails – the assembly spoke out,” she said.
As a synod executive, “I’m tired of synods being the scapegoat of the denomination,” Dingman said. She sees innovation at the synod level – “something new that’s springing forth,” with diversity in leadership and better questions to be asked than focusing on the sustainability of mid councils.
When the conversation starts with finances, “we lose,” Dingman said. “You just can’t mandate a leveling out. When it happens successfully, it happens at the local level” — such as when the Synod of Alaska-Northwest voted in 2013 to merge two presbyteries. “That happened with trust-building and time. Isn’t that the lesson we’ve learned? … It cannot happen from the national level.”
Tom Hay, director of assembly operations for the Office of the General Assembly, serves as staff to the commission. He said that it’s clear that over the next 20 years, there will be some major reconfiguration of presbytery boundaries. How to facilitate that discussion, “to create the place for that conversation, which I don’t think exists right now … that would be a powerful gift form this commission to the whole church,” Hay said.
MID COUNCIL RELATIONS
The commission also discussed the idea of exploring possible changes in the staff structure at OGA for mid council relations in an effort to build better relations between the national staff and mid councils. Momentum for that is coming in part from responses that mid council leaders provided to a survey the commission circulated in 2017.
Maxim said she’s interested in addressing “the disconnect between the national staff and the people on the ground.” She wants that connection to become more responsive, more relational — for the national staff to know more, for example, about innovation and partnerships and networks emerging at the mid council level.
The survey garnered more than 200 responses from mid council leaders, who expressed a “pretty pervasive” sense regarding the national staff that, as her father would have put it, “I want them to give a damn,” said Julie Cox, a mid council leader from South Carolina.
Mid council leaders appreciate that they can contact the national staff and get answers to polity questions or procedural concerns, Maxim said. But “it’s this other whole engagement piece that’s missing.”
Cox suggested that mid councils often have expertise “that could be tapped and could be connected” — expertise that doesn’t reside at the denomination’s national offices in Louisville.
At the request of the commission, the communications directors for the six PC(USA) agencies have been meeting to discuss better coordination. As a result of those conversations, three recommendations emerged:
- Direct the communications leaders of the six agencies to develop an overarching strategy for denomination-level communications.
- Contract a national-caliber branding agency to develop a PC(USA) brand strategy, flowing from the work of the 2020 Vision Team and incorporating the long-established PC(USA) seal.
- Define a clear decision-making process and reporting structure to guide the project.
Hay urged the commission to make it clear that “this does not imply a unified office of communication.”
Some commission members said they also want to bring to the assembly’s attention the idea of having a unified PC(USA) website — responding to concerns they’ve heard that the current websites are difficult to navigate. “There is hesitance from some of the agencies to unify in one website,” said Mathew Eardley, a ruling elder from Idaho who has been involved in the discussions.
But “we’ve got to stop this mishmash,” Lindner said, where Presbyterians receive print or digital communications from the denomination “where you don’t know who it’s from” — if it represents the whole church or just one particular entity.
After some discussion, the commission decided not to include these specific recommendations in its draft report to the assembly, but to present them for consideration at the Jan. 25 meeting of the chairs and chiefs of the denomination’s six PC(USA) agencies, to see if there is support for moving in this direction at the top levels of the church. “If they say this is not a priority for us, we’ve learned something really important,” Lindner said.
A part of the commission’s report to the assembly will refer to ongoing work that may not be part of the formal recommendations made by the Feb. 16 deadline — but which the commission is continuing to pursue, and could conceivably act on using its own power.
INCLUSION AND EQUITY
Currently, “the work of inclusion and equity is kind of scattered,” and with those involved in doing it in different areas often not communicating consistently, Maxim said.
A commission work group asked OGA and PMA to present a rough draft of a strategic plan involving inclusion and equity.
Some ideas emerging from that, Maxim said, include:
- Make sure that funding for the manager of diversity and reconciliation (a position currently held by Samuel Son) be extended. That position currently is funded through 2020; the idea is to continue the funding at least through 2022. That manager would be responsible for making sure that race audits area done at the six agencies and for tracking progress on issues regarding diversity and inclusion.
- A “diverse voices table” from OGA and PMA would be convened and would meet regularly — in part to be in conversation with racial ethnic caucuses and networks.
- The commission also is exploring how the PC(USA) uses translation services — with the expectation that all six agencies will regularly provide translation of material into Spanish and Korean. A piece of that: The commission may seek an estimate for the assembly of what expanded translation services will cost.
This task group, working together with a team from All Agency Review, held an extensive series of conversations with staff from OGA and PMA regarding shared services — the way the PC(USA) provides to both agencies such as human resources, information technology and legal services.
That work group considered a range of issues related to shared services — including looking at issues involving the PC(USA)’s national office building in downtown Louisville. With a series of staff downsizing in recent years, the building at 100 Witherspoon Street is not fully utilized — part of it is being rented out and part is vacant, said Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from Charlotte, North Carolina.
The conversations in recent months included these questions: What if the PC(USA) sold the building? What is the property’s value as an asset — and how can the space be used as an opportunity for mission?
There was not an appetite in those discussions, Hostetter said, for “let’s just move cities.”
Other subgroups worked on administrative issues. One that attempted to articulate a theological understanding regarding shared services and another focused on tactical matters, Stewart said.
The theological piece articulates the concept that “responsible mission includes administration and support services; they are critical to the work of the church, and the staff who perform these functions are called to use their gifts and talents to further the work of the church,” a draft report states.
The tactical group identified five shared services functions that offer the best possibilities for immediate collaboration and review of outsourcing opportunities. Those are: payroll processing; legal services; information technology; translation services; and mail and print distribution.
Other points of discussion: How much is being spent on shared services? What are the cost implications of outsourcing?
Hostetter said exploring these areas further — including the possibility of collaboration or outsourcing involving other administrative shared services areas — might be a reason to consider asking the General Assembly to authorize a second Way Forward Commission to focus on implementation and in some areas continuing the collaborative work.
Other areas he said would need follow up would include the restructuring of the A Corporation; the development of a strategic communications plan; and more.
In seeking a second Way Forward Commission, “are we becoming the disease we were created to fix?” Lindner asked — in other words, getting too deep into the weeds and details of how the PC(USA) operates, losing track of the big picture?
Lyda said his concern is the opposite. “Rising to the 30,000-foot level, who’s watching? Who’s watching the drift? Who’s watching the glacier as it moves?”
Part of the answer, Hostetter said, might be to define the mandate of any follow-up group narrowly. “It’s not just Way Forward 2 would continue with all the powers,” he said, but authorizing a group with responsibility for following up in particular, narrow areas. “You’re not creating a special prosecutor’s office that can look into anything.”
The report likely will include information on areas of continuing collaboration — such as conversations between the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program regarding the Church Loan Program.
Another: the consolidation of Congregational Ministries Publishing into the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, which the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board approved in September and which was supposed to have been accomplished by the end of 2017, but which apparently has been delayed as funding details are being worked out.
The Presbytery of Newton has submitted an overture asking the General Assembly to create team to review the financial sustainability of the PC(USA)’s current per capita funding system.
In response, the commission is creating a task force to look at funding streams more broadly for the PC(USA). That’s just getting started — but Hostetter said probably there will be more information to report during the commission’s next conference call, Feb. 5.
STRUCTURE OF THE REPORT
Near the close of its meeting Jan. 17, the commission discussed in broad terms the structure of the report it will draft to the assembly. For example, the preamble will set the theological tone, Hostetter said; another section will describe themes underlying the commission’s approach.
As the meeting continues Jan. 18, the commission will work to craft the wording for that report. The draft might not be final by the time the commission leaves Seattle, but it’s expected to get closer.