CINCINNATI – The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted April 26 to send a set of comments to the 2018 General Assembly regarding the proposals of the Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee.
Those comments (P.002 Governance Task Force WFC AARC comment) express the board’s disagreement with the recommendations involving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation, saying the proposal lacks vision and focuses too much on technical change and suggesting that the assembly might take more time to consider all this – putting off changes to the denomination’s national structure until 2020.
So for now: This complicated, messy, periodically rancorous dispute over the A Corporation is heading straight for the 2018 General Assembly, unless some sort of compromise can be reached before the assembly convenes in June.
Several speakers at the board’s meeting in Cincinnati raised concerns about what kind of message that might send.
“Please consider how we might be an exemplary body,” to show that despite disagreements “indeed we still are the body of Christ, the family of Christ together,” said Wilson Kennedy, from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.
Board member Shannan Vance-Ocampo, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Southern New England, suggested, as she has previously, bringing in an outside mediator.
Within a few hours of approving the comments, the board voted to reconsider its action.
Marci Glass, a pastor from Idaho who made the motion to reconsider, said that “as a sign of faithfulness,” she would ask the board to reconsider its comment regarding the A Corporation recommendation. Glass said some had contended the comment on the A Corporation “included a tone of judgment perceived by some that ultimately may not be helpful,” and that parts of the comment “may be beyond our scope of concern.”
Glass said she wants to propose a revision of that comment that retains the questions the board thinks are important to pose about the A Corporation recommendation, but which does not “specifically list our opposition.” (The proposed revised comments are now available here.)
The board voted 17-10 in favor of reconsidering – with Glass’s proposed revision to be distributed overnight and the matter to be considered April 27, during the last morning of this meeting.
Before the vote, J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asked for a moment of personal privilege. At the heart of the months-long dispute over the A Corporation is “the fundamental issue of sharing power at the national church level,” Nelson said. “The question at the end of the day is ‘are we willing to do that?’ ”
Nelson pointed out that in his travels he sees a church that is hopeful, excited and struggling — but which also is “heavily disconnected” from the church at the national level. The denomination’s “real calling” is to spread the message of Jesus Christ, he said.
And Nelson raised the question of how the PC(USA) can go to St. Louis for the assembly – a community that’s confronting the realities of systemic racism and inequality, police violence, the costs and realities of poverty – and claim to want to be part of those discussions if those at the top levels of the church can’t find ways to share power themselves.
“It’s a farce to say we are coming to do something about it,” if Presbyterians at the top levels of the church can’t resolve “the fight for the equalization of power, but even more, for the ongoing respect for the whole,” Nelson said. “That’s really at the heart of the argument we are having. … Is there going to be a willingness for some to give up power in order that others may have it, and can build a community, the beloved community, at a common table, and truly share in the communion the Lord has granted us?”
Nelson asked of this dispute: “Is it really about Jesus? Or is it about something else?”
Representatives of the board’s Governance Task Force presented the comments — raising a list of concerns about the joint Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review recommendations. “We’re not sure that rushing into implementation of a particular model is in the best interest of the church,” said Conrad Rocha, the task force’s co-chair.
Under the recommendation, the A Corporation– and not the General Assembly – would delegate power to the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). “With the ability to delegate is also the ability to remove that delegation of power,” Rocha said. “That’s a critical concern and a critical issue.”
The changes Way Forward and All Agency Review are suggesting would move the denomination to a more corporate model, adding complexity and bureaucracy to a system that needs simplicity and a churchwide perspective, said Joe Morrow, a minister from Chicago who serves on the task force.
There also were continuing rumblings from the tense session the evening before.
Beverly Brewster, a corresponding member from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, spoke of a private conversation she’d had the previous night with a member of the Way Forward Commission, following a presentation that evening by representatives of Way Forward and All Agency Review.
During that April 25 session, some board members had criticized the tone of the Way Forward and All Agency Review presentation, with board member Warren Lesane, for example, saying he found the remarks “extremely insulting, as though we were the children and you were the adults.”
Brewster told the board April 26 that after that session, “I was personally berated by a member of the Way Forward Commission. It was a very personal diatribe and indictment” of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, she said, with examples given of difficulties at the agency and this conclusion reached: “You’re a mess.”
Brewster said from that she concluded “we have a serious relationship problem,” and that the board’s comments to the assembly on the proposed recommendations are necessary. “Often the solution begins with speaking the truth,” Brewster said. “This is what I experienced last night. It is an enormous red flag.”
Board member Nicholas Yoda, a minister from Ohio, said that “part of me is sick of an underlying message of the PMA board needs to get on board with everyone else, for the simple sake of unity. … I see these as comments of faithfulness,” raising “open questions” the assembly needs to consider.
Heath Rada, a board member who served as moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, said that if those remarks were made to Brewster, “it’s absolutely inappropriate and it breaks my heart.”
But Rada – who facilitated a meeting in Louisville April 8-9 trying to dig into the A Corporation differences – said he does hear from around the church enduring concerns about the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
The folks who care are probably a minority, Rada said. Many Presbyterians say, “I’ve given up, I don’t give a hoot” about the national church. “It’s my local church that matters.”
But for those who do pay attention, “there is anger and distrust of us by the church,” he said of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. “There is anger and distrust of us by the church,” with people saying, “we can’t trust you to change anything again, because you haven’t over the years when you’ve told us you were going to.”
Rada also said: “I do think the unity we’re calling for now is critical,” and to achieve that, people on both sides will have to give up something they think is important.
The map of this dispute is constantly changing – “there are lots of moving pieces,” said Jo Stewart, who serves both on the Governance Task Force and the Way Forward Commission.
Way Forward, for example, has made some changes in representation on the proposed A Corporation board and the nomination process for serving on the board – changes that have received some support for those calling for more equity and greater representation, including the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns and Presbyterian Women.
The board released a new document at this meeting (p.203 draft Deliverance compromise) called “Draft Comments to the Deliverance.” It’s a draft of possible language for amending the 1984 deliverance regarding the A Corporation – a delivery being a document the General Assembly historically has used to limit corporate power, said Melinda Sanders, co-chair of the Governance Task Force.
That new document provides three possible approaches, Sanders said. Roughly speaking, it suggests possible amendments to the deliverance to support:
- The Way Forward and All Agency Review proposal regarding the A Corporation board;
- An approach in which any entity that uses PC(USA) shared services – such as accounting or information technology – would have representation on that board;
- An approach in which the Office of the General Assembly and PMA would primarily share the responsibility.
The board did not vote on those draft comments – and it’s not clear which direction it actually prefers. The board also voted in February to ask the General Assembly for a deliverance to divide the A Corporation into two corporations — one for PMA and one for the Office of the General Assembly.
The board did make one change to the comments the Governance Task Force had proposed – eliminating a comment that questioned the wisdom of the 2018 General Assembly creating a Moving Forward Implementation Commission to serve over the next two years, as Way Forward and All Agency Review have recommended.
Glass moved to remove that comment, saying, “That’s beyond the scope of our responsibility,” and “ is micro-managing.”
Board members also voiced confusion about the distinctions between the A Corporation and shared services.
From the comments the previous night, it seems clear “there are people who think we are trying to hang on desperately to the past,” and to control shared services, Glass said. But no one on the board is saying, “let’s keep doing shared services without change. … I would love to get the heck out of shared services.”
Representatives of PC(USA) agencies and groups that use shared services said that having a good system for providing them is vital.
In any kind of structure, “it is extremely important to the agencies” that shared services be provided, to take advantage of economies of scale and efficiencies, said Jim Rissler, president and chief executive officer of the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program.
What happens next remains to be seen.
Way Forward meets again April 30.
If competing recommendations go to the assembly, commissioners may well ask, “What have you done?” Kennedy said. “How are you going to respond to that? … How are you being ambassadors of Christ?”