CINCINNATI – By a 13 to 12 vote, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted April 27 not to accept a substitute comment to the 2018 General Assembly regarding the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation.
That substitute would have still raised concerns and questions the board has regarding a joint A Corporation recommendation coming from the Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee, but struck a more conciliatory tone. That’s something the board was not willing to do.
With the proposed substitute, “what we’re doing is we’re watering it down and trying to make nice,” said Conrad Rocha, a board member from New Mexico who serves as co-chair of the board’s Governance Task Force, which recommended the original comment. “We have to be clear.”
The board had voted April 26 to approve the original comments — despite a caution from J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), to consider what kind of witness the disagreement sends about the church. At the heart of the dispute 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?’ ”
Later that day, Marci Glass, a pastor from Idaho, asked for reconsideration and proposed the substitute (p.205 suggested substitute motion for P002 rec 1), saying she is concerned about the tone of the original comment (P.002 Governance Task Force WFC AARC comment), which states that the Way Forward Commission has fallen short of its mandate from the 2016 General Assembly, and focuses not enough on vision and too much on technical change.
“This approach has been tried before and it did not work,” creating conflicts over funding and control, adding bureaucracy and additional expense, that comment states.
That comment asks the General Assembly to take the next two years to vet both the details and the vision of recommendations from the Way Forward Commission and the All Agency Review Committee, so that “a more comprehensive and sustainable recommendation can be brought to the 2020 General Assembly.”
The board has made its own A Corporation recommendation, asking the 2018 General Assembly to divide the A Corporation into two corporations – one for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and one for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly does not favor the PMA proposal.
There’s been much negotiation and back-and-forth, but no compromise.
Nothing about this is easy.
Glass told the board that “I wasn’t happy with the tone” of the original comment, which representatives of Way Forward and All Agency Review said earlier this week they found insulting. Glass said she’s concerned about “how to position ourselves at this assembly to get our questions heard” – and that parts of the comment also need to be made clearer, such as “what we mean about shared services.”
Chad Herring, a pastor from Kansas City who supported the substitute, spoke of the wisdom of approaching the assembly with a tone of “humble assertiveness.”
Other board members spoke in favor of the original comment, saying the board has serious concerns about the proposal and an obligation to make them heard.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of bringing this to the General Assembly,” said Greg Chan, a board member from California who also serves on the Governance Task Force. Some may be concerned that commissioners will be overwhelmed by the complexity of the competing A Corporation proposals, “but these are reasonable and intelligent people,” he said.
The original comment gives significant detail, and commissioners need to understand the issues “so they can make choices,” Chan said. “I get a sense that we’re all afraid it’s conflict. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think these folks can struggle with it just like we’re struggling with it. That’s my hope, that the Spirit will move these people through conflict, through love, through issues that are up front and on the table.”
Beverly Brewster, from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Concerns, said she thinks the board’s comment needs more of a theological foundation. She also said that what’s at stake in this dispute is “who will have the power and who will have control of the money.”
Brewster said she favored the original comment, because it provides valuable insights into “what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the past.”
The board did vote to add some wording that Glass had suggested (with some tweaking from Joe Morrow of Chicago) to the original comment.
That new language states:
“We cannot support this proposal in its entirety in its current form until vital questions are answered. We affirm this proposal in two respects 1) We believe that the PMA should step away from the role of providing shared services. 2) We believe that A Corporation board membership would benefit from the inclusion of additional non-PMA voices. While the PMAB has worked imperfectly in the past, we do have experience in managing the complexities of mission and administration that we hope to contribute in order to address implementation concerns and possible unanticipated consequences of this proposed structure.”
The revised language that Glass suggested was intended, she said, to raise questions the board feels important to raise regarding the A Corporation recommendation from Way Forward and All Agency Review, but to remove some of the language from the original comment that some viewed as too negative.
It began by stating, “We support this general proposal and offer these questions about the logistics of separating the PMA from the A Corp.” That language – “we support this general proposal” from Way Forward and All Agency Review – was not wording that some board members were willing to accept.
Nicholas Yoda, a board member from Ohio, said the comment needs to have “a tone of firmness,” and that overwhelmed commissioners might just read that phrase – “we support this general proposal” – and nothing more.
The debate also touched on some of the specifics of the board’s concerns.
Some A Corporation details (involving the employee issues, for example) are spelled out in proposed A Corporation bylaws, but “they can take that away in a minute,” said board member Molly Baskin, who serves on the Governance Task Force.
Melinda Sanders, the task force’s co-chair, said some of those specifics need to be written into a deliverance, through which the General Assembly would limit the powers of the A Corporation. “If it’s in the bylaws, it’s changeable,” she said.
Wendy Tajima, a board member from California who also helped craft language for the substitute, asked how much the board is willing to let fear and anxiety drive its decisions.
Sanders responded that “this is not motivated by fear and anxiety. This is motivated by the better way.”
Baskin and others contend that the details matter. The Way Forward and All Agency Review recommendation could give the A Corporation board powers that “mean they would have control of our budget, our money, our people,” Baskin said.
Representatives of Way Forward and All Agency Review have said consistently that it’s their intention that the responsibility for mission would remain with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
“I think we’re also having to decide how much we’re willing to trust the church,” Glass said.
Next up: the Way Forward Commission meets April 30 and All Agency Review May 1 to consider their comments to what the Presbyterian Mission Agency has recommended. All the groups face a May 2 deadline for submitting those comments to the assembly.
The last word has not been spoken yet.