Advice & Counsel Memorandum (1)
TO: Members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board
FR: Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP)
DATE: Feb 27, 2018
CC: Way Forward Commission; Committee on the Office of the General Assembly
RE: Proposals of the Way Forward Commission (WFC) & Governance Task Force (GTF)
We appreciate the requests of several members of the PMAB for us to provide a social witness perspective on the re-structure proposals, and also appreciate the Stated Clerk’s encouraging further discussion and possible amendment of report texts through March 1. Hence we advance our A&C schedule. We have previously written the WFC (2/28/17) and the GTF (12/14/16), building on an earlier A&C to the PMAB (7/14/15). We have also written the 2020 Vision Committee (7/7/17). As PMAB members may know also, ACSWP has specifically addressed matters of hierarchy, compensation equity, down-sizing policies, imitation of non-profit and corporate boards, and overall need for leadership with vision. Thus we have been giving the matters of function and form, purpose and structure, some thought and research for some time, and therefore we share these considerations as you finalize your proposals.
Purpose of this Advice & Counsel memorandum:
- To provide Reformed theological and ethical criteria for assessing the current and future restructure proposals of the Way Forward Commission and the Governance Task Force;
- To critique these models of governance and their rationales, based on policy and history;
- To propose a significant modification of both models.
- To propose PMAB invite theologians and ethicists familiar with the history and institutional structures of the PCUSA (and other denominations, if possible) to speak at its meetings, starting this April, to deepen the board and church’s reflection on how its institutional and leadership choices affect its mission, evangelism, and witness.
Particularly at this time, the PMAB needs to model well-grounded public conversation in order to help similar deliberation occur across the church and at the General Assembly.
Marks or Principles for Guidance on the Institutional Structure of the Church
- Mission-centered: “Apostolic,” along with “Holy,” and “Catholic,” is crucial, based on the apostles being sent into the world. The church is not an end in-itself, but serves God’s ends. The Confession of 1967 notably identifies this mission as “reconciliation,” firmly joining the saving work of Jesus Christ with the calling of the church. The Brief Statement of Faith and the Belhar Confessions add dimensions to this.
- Functional: Since the church is God’s instrument, it serves theological goals, often summarized in the “Six Great Ends,” and C-67 is clear that it can take many forms. The key purposes of witness (marturion), community (koinonia), and service (diakonia) are reflected in the liturgy and life of our churches. For “functional” to also mean “adaptive” and “proactive,” theological goals need to be translated into appropriate ways of evaluating effectiveness. Institutions were made for humans, not vice-versa.
- Reformable: “the church reformed, always being reformed,” reflects the awareness that “synods and councils may err.” The answers to this fallibility at all levels or spheres of governance include “checks and balances,” two or more over-seeing leaders or power centers, transparency, and the practice of regular public review. As “broken vessels,” we seek not purity but integrity in openness to God’s transcendent power, seen through the Spirit in the love and justice of Jesus Christ.
- Accountable Leadership: Christ alone is the Head of the Church. Mt. 23:8ff is core to the Protestant ethos generally. The way of the cross of Lk 9 also speaks to what it means to for the leader to be one who serves, even to the point of sacrifice. This often translates to elections with multiple candidates presenting programs to implement goals and policies. The first accountability of any church leader is to God, and her or his power— really authority– is above all “ministerial and declarative.”2
- Serving Councils: The Acts 15 council model, along with the role of elders, is key to how all those affected by decisions are to be involved in making them. This translates to a range of democratic and representative assemblies, synods, and presbyteries, going back to Calvin’s understanding of “presbuterion” as a “college of presbyters,” and extending to the use of committees to assist debate, discernment, and deliberation. (Our traditions of beginning and ending all church gatherings with prayer show our hope for the Spirit’s presence and guidance in our midst.)
- Non-hierarchical Respect for all Callings: This may take varying shapes, with varying degrees of centralization and delegation, but the tendency is egalitarian, based in Paul’s image of the Church as a body. This is reflected in Reformed Churches around the world in a tilt toward solidarity in compensation, with pastors and staff of other councils often sharing the same salary base. The idea of the calling is basis for respecting workers’ rights, even in down-sizings and re-sizings of church organizations.
- Covenantal Relationships: God has sought relationship with humans (on behalf of all creation) from the first and scripture describes a series of covenants, to be based on mutual faithfulness. The new covenant, engraved on the heart by the action of the Holy Spirit, calls for a Thou-I/Us relationship, with our responsibility to God based in gratitude for God’s grace. The visible church seeks to reflect our enduring mutual responsibility in the more transactional contracts of economic life; the sense of membership as mutual obligation is reflected in our practice and expectation of per capita contributions.
- Trusteeship as a form of stewardship: All church resources are held in trust, including the holding of real estate and other property, which usually requires legal incorporation in appropriate jurisdictions. The concept of “mission responsibility through investment” points to duties of church stewards or trustees that expand conventional fiduciary responsibilities and are reflected in the accountability of financial instrumentalities to the General Assembly. The resources of the church should serve its mission, and the national agencies of the church should follow the policies of the General Assembly in their designated areas of competence on behalf of the whole.
- Inclusive of Diversity: Intentional action is required for the church to approach, even haltingly, the rainbow kingdom or kindom of God. This mark is an extension of our representative and democratic principles of organization, but also speaks to the being or ontology of the church, going back to the full equality in Christ of Gal. 3:28. Diversity in leadership helps reflect the wholeness of the church, as well as combat racism.
- Complementary service to congregations and other governing bodies: The Book of Order (BoO) is clear that the congregation is a necessary but not sufficient form of the church, though the BoO emphasis on function and purpose gives limited guidance (maximum freedom?) to the actual shape of agencies of mid-councils and the General Assembly. The unified or corporate nature of the church calls for the different councils to complement each other in serving all the members and in evangelism, witness, and mission to those outside our communion. While “inspiring, equipping, and connecting” congregations are important tasks for national agencies, they are not sufficient for God’s mission in the world, and not fully expressive of the covenantal relationships among councils, agencies, and congregations (which are themselves missionary bodies).
- Ecumenical Engagement: This includes cooperative relationships in inter-church councils for mission and witness (such as in the non-doctrinal Social Creed of the Churches) and the theological work of finding unity to end the scandal of division (such as in the consensus affirmations in Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, or the Joint Statement on Justification lifted up in last year’s Reformation celebrations). But it also should include planning together with “full communion partners” and others to deepen shared ministries, especially in light of cultural and demographic changes. This could include more shared worship, resourcing, and co-location of offices at every level of church organization.
- Sustainability: Ecologically faithful and financially responsible, yes, but this also must reflect the teleological horizon of prayer and hope for the future. Sheldon Sorge writes of this as a needed emphasis along with identity and faithful practice (“Why the Church?,” in Joseph D. Small, ed., Conversations with the Confessions (2003)). Ultimately no structures can guarantee institutional or even human survival, thus we are called to be creative and faithful risk-takers. “Behold, I make All Things New,” says the Spirit of the Living Christ.
Critique, first of PMAB and “A Corp” Restructure, then of the Clerk’s added powers:
In previous correspondence (March 15, 2017) ACSWP expressed concern about our denomination’s vision deficit (we believe this constitutes the central crisis of the PCUSA) and our hope that any new structure would enable the PMAB to develop a vision sufficient to the challenges and opportunities before the church. (See discussion in the Appendix). Thus:
- We agree with Way Forward Commission (WFC and before that, the Review Committee report to the 2016 GA) that, to quote our letter to Vision 2020, “In brief, the PMA may be in danger of switching the back office with the front office. In any case, the institutional support functions in the PMA have been elevated for a considerable time, and the staff hierarchy reflects those functions.”
- The WFC (and Six Agency Review) is also correct theologically in calling its solution a “utility,” an instrument to perform a particular set of functions to strengthen the mission of the church. We believe that the WFC has gone too far in this area, however, in splitting front office and back office. WFC speaks of liberating the PMA and OGA from heavy administrative burdens, but both bodies have been much larger in the past and quite functional; the need is to re-size the administrative side and to fortify a Presbyterian understanding of mission in the top layer of management. The WFC is proposing a structural and corporate-style solution to a management and leadership problem. And the proposed solution would seem to make recruiting a strong PMAB director exceedingly difficult. It also might mean a kind of visioning ungrounded in full awareness of available resources.
- From our letter to WFC: “It is important that groups entrusted with implementing the General Assembly’s vision not make the “trustee” functions (accounting, legal, etc.) more important than those of mission and church leadership. We need to put people with a primary focus on mission in charge of mission programs.” Even if the new A-Corp in the WTC proposal is a captive board of proxies from the 6 agencies, it could not help but function as a separate board of trustees, with a position in some ways above that of PMAB and OGA. The proposal separates faith logic from financial logic, fitting mission within a horizon of possibility determined primarily by fiduciary concerns, especially given the composition of the proposed new board (9 members; one each from the six agencies—four of which operate largely as independent businesses—plus three at large members for some wider representation). The WFC/All Agency proposal does not describe the scope of the shared support services (“overhead” in some cases) that would be included in the operation of the new A-Corp, but the capacity for both OGA and PMA to strategize as coherent bodies would clearly be affected. Further, the WFC proposal does not clarify what mission functions should be appropriately done by the various agencies. For example, it gives little attention to what mission roles the Foundation is performing, since its traditional funds management role has been outsourced. Could the Foundation perform some of the envisioned A Corp functions or financial services?
- It seems clear in WFC’s proposed amendment to “Section 4.15, Compensation,” that the 5:1 ratio of highest to lowest salary of the PMA (and historically observed by the OGA) would be set aside in favor of more corporate-style compensation similar to that of the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation. Thus, whatever economies might be obtained by streamlining shared services in Louisville (unneeded by those financial boards in other locations), would be lost at least in part by the market price of hiring finance and legal personnel, whose knowledge of mission and of the Presbyterian Church would again be secondary considerations. This is not new or bold thinking. We have already seen its problems.
- With regard to the Governance Task Force’s proposal to reduce the PMAB to 20 and establish a set of program and administrative committees, we continue to see the need for some “council-like” public deliberation and leadership functions, more closely coordinated with the General Assembly (as in the MRTI reports, for example). Some of the WFC recommendations regarding the Stated Clerk seem to address the current problem of unnecessary distance between the two agencies. We approve that the GTF plan was amended to include voting representatives of the Advocacy Committees, ACSWP, and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. We hope that this representation will continue even if the WFC’s proposed changes in the board’s responsibilities are approved.
- Under the GTF plan administrative and “back office” functions remain arguably as important as the mission being done, and the Governance TF proposal for structure does not seem to promise much increase in understanding of that mission. Moving to 3 (not 4) meetings would help the Board’s engagement and decision-making capability, as would refocusing the committees to align with the actual ministry units. A financial and legal sub-committee could work with the fiduciary coordinating committee we propose below. But the biggest need of the PMA is an Executive Director who is a leader as well as manager (not that rare), and has authority based in deep involvement in Presbyterian mission. The present lack of strong permanent leadership weakens the agency and stretches the capacity of its dedicated board members, who also have other jobs.
- The enhancements of the Stated Clerk’s role in the WFC proposal include some we have urged in the past, such as the Clerk returning to ex officio membership of the PMAB Executive or Coordinating Committee, and making explicit the Clerk’s consultative role with all the agencies, including in their Presidential search processes. At the same time, the WFC recommendations come close to undercutting their wise acknowledgement that the OGA and PMA should be separate agencies, keeping each other honest when necessary, with complementary leadership skill sets. The policies of the General Assembly should guide all representatives of all the agencies, including the Clerk and a PMAB Executive Director. The Clerk’s faithfulness in representing the positions of the church and maintaining the integrity of the Assembly processes are the key to his or her authority. The Clerk’s policy-based interpretive role as head of a chain of clerks going to each session should not restrict the capacity of the Clerk to be a creative leader.
Modification of Proposal: A Fiduciary Coordinating Committee with Greater Accountability in interagency coordination:
- A joint Fiduciary Coordinating Committee of the PMA and OGA could do many of the functions described in the WFC/All Agency proposals, and with a greater degree of transparency to appropriate sub-committees of the PMAB and the COGA. Such a coordinating committee would include staff from the Philadelphia office of the OGA, where financial management has been put in the Historical Society location.
- A Fiduciary Coordinating Committee could assess the shared service needs in conversation with the PILP and Westminster/John-Knox Publishing. A specific task force should be constituted to assess the rationale for maintaining partly empty buildings in Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana, where the Foundation sits.
- The Financial Sustainability Task Force recommended by the WFC could provide oversight and greater transparency for an initial period, while at the same time being supported by appropriate finance and legal staff who should already be working on the matters outlined, limiting the number of consultants necessary.
- The “On-going Commission Administrative Action” section of the WFC report contains many good and logical ideas, requiring good coordination to fairly represent agencies in activities involving their work. We acknowledge that the Way Forward Commission has the mandate to propose and oversee re-direction of any agency’s work and appreciate their deliberation with the Six Agency Review. The “Institutional Culture” recommendation clearly involves considerable intervention in the work of the PMAB and its new director, when one is found. The sketch of on-going work makes no mention, however, of theology, no mention of ecumenical work, or of research on the restructuring experiences of other denominations.
- The example of the UCC may be instructive. Our closest full communion partner has recently centralized and streamlined its structure of multiple boards and increased the understanding of covenant among its congregations. Their “Initial Advisory Commission on Structure recommended seven areas for further study; ecclesiology, coordination, ecumenicity, office of the president, funding allocation, relationship between and among conferences and national bodies, and proliferation of structures.”3 Given the PMAB’s recent decision to re-include ecumenical corresponding members (without vote), we would recommend holding conversations about our possible restructuring with the UCC’s national leadership and having one of the PMAB ecumenical corresponding members be a theologian or ethicist from that church. Simply having such corresponding members does not provide for needed ecumenical planning and deepened partnership.
- While the WFC has conducted a heroic number of conversations with individuals in the PCUSA and should be thanked for that important work, it is not clear what relation its work will or can have with the 2020 Vision Committee. ACSWP had thought that the Vision Committee might also do more theological work and could perhaps integrate that with the structural proposals WFC was making. We would recommend additional staff for the 2020 Vision Committee if needed to do this. [END]
1 The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) is authorized by the General Assembly (“Why and How the Church Makes a Social Witness,” 1993) to communicate formally by Advice & Counsel memoranda with the Assembly itself and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB). The existing PMA Manual incorporates the several functions of ACSWP including: “Identify facets of the church’s social witness that enable or obstruct effective action. Analyze, in cooperation with the General Assembly Ministries, the effectiveness of social witness in councils, institutions, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.”
2 This principle is also reflected in the resistance of Reformed churches to any control by or dependence on governments or other powers, particularly authoritarian ones; “God alone is Lord of the conscience”… and of the church the nurtures prophetic freedom through its own independence.
3 Report of the General Synod Committee on Structure…, cited in Emily Barman and Mark Chaves, “Strategy and Restructure in the United Church of Christ,” in David Roozen & James Nieman, eds. Church, Identity, and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times (2005).
PMAB’s role in convening conversations on the “ecology of Christian formation” in the PCUSA: Some Assembly Required
The word commonly translated as “church” in the New Testament is the Greek word, ekklesia. It literally means, “assembly” and refers to gatherings of believers. Often these assemblies are local communities, but Acts 15 describes an assembly in Jerusalem gathered to consider church-wide practices in light of God’s work among the Gentiles.
Presbyterians interpret this to mean that the church has numerous levels of expression: local, regional, and even global. This contrasts with episcopal polities that privilege the higher church structures and congregational polities that privilege local congregations as “the church.” The notion that the church can be assembled at different levels can overcome blind spots endemic to other polities. It can overcome the tendency of episcopal elites to lose touch with local realities as well as congregational tendencies to parochialism. Key to overcoming these blind spots is effective communication and a responsive structure.
A healthy denomination or communion communicates its decisions to local congregations. Consider how the Council in Jerusalem sent both a letter and representatives to clarify that gentile converts did not need to become circumcised, but were expected to refrain from pagan meals and sexual practices. Are General Assembly decisions adequately explained to local congregations so they own them? It may be that proposed changes in the Clerk’s role with help with this, but the role of presbyteries, often without much program capacity, is part of this picture.
Similarly, local realities are communicated to higher bodies and the higher bodies are able to respond. The Council in Jerusalem listened to Barnabas and Paul and changed church practice. How effectively do General Assembly agencies respond to the challenges and opportunities of local congregations? Is our structure responsive? We are always concerned that major ethical choices and justice campaigns do not seem to be coming to the church out of nowhere, but the PMAB has capacity to open up discussion on large topics reflecting the full range of mission activities across the church.
Regarding this last point, we have known for decades that local congregations have been lagging at making disciples. Experts blame numerous developments: a decline in Sabbath keeping, the distancing of denominational colleges, the closing of church camps, a weakening of parents’ religiosity, the economic pressures on even two-parent families in an entertainment culture, etc. Certainly seminaries and popular writers address these matters, as does some of the work by PMA offices, but we do not see the PMAB taking advantage of opportunities to convene discussions on the overall ecology of Christian formation that might guide our mission. Such conversations also might help guide and integrate the decisions of the General Assembly, deepening the whole church’s process of discernment and proactive planning. Vision should not be arbitrary, but for it to be built into the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4: 12-13), some assembly will be required.
Download the memorandum: ACSWP A&C on GTF & WFC 2 27 2018