Presbyterian leaders clarify what’s at stake in debates over restructuring

LOUISVILLE – While no blazing agreement was reached, participants in an April 8-9 conversation regarding the corporate structure of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have agreed on some next steps and clarified their sticking points and places of disagreement.

It’s possible that holding this meeting and airing the differences may lower the tension as two competing proposals regarding a reconfiguration of the PC(USA), A Corporation – which is the corporate identity for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) — head towards the General Assembly that will meet in St. Louis June 16-23. At the very least, what’s at stake in these complex discussions is coming into clearer view.

Representatives of groups that have not always been included in the conversation – including the PC(USA)’s advocacy and advisory committees and Presbyterian Women – made a clear case as to why their input is valuable and their voices should be heard.

And there’s still some possibility that ongoing conversations between the Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee (which are making a joint recommendation to the assembly) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (which disagrees with that recommendation and has submitted its own proposal) could lead to agreements on at least some details.

Cynthia Jarvis, a minister from Philadelphia who will serve as moderator of the assembly’s The Way Forward committee, attended the Louisville meeting as an observer and was invited to speak just before the meeting closed.

“I still have hope that you can come to the assembly together,” Jarvis told the participants. “I think that would be an incredible witness to the power of God’s spirit moving among us.”

Jarvis said she felt like she’d just landed on a planet where Presbyterians deeply involved in the A Corporation discussions have been spending time for months. When the assembly begins, “I’m going to have 70 people from a different galaxy” on the committee, Jarvis said. “The learning curve is unbelievable” for those commissioners.

“My prayer would be that somehow you would be able to present to us something exciting and a way forward that is not perfect for anybody involved,” but a path ahead and a way for the denomination to be “caught in the arms of God.”

Here’s some of what transpired on the planet April 9.

The background

The Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review are making a joint recommendation to the General Assembly, which includes altering the structure of the A Corporation board. The new board would have 11 members, with representation from all six PC(USA) agencies, plus the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns and the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns and three at-large members.

Joe Morrow (left) and Conrad Rocha of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board listen to the discussion.

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted Feb. 28 to send its own proposal to the assembly – asking the assembly to divide the A Corporation and create a create an independent General Assembly Mission Corporation, plus a separate corporation for the Office of the General Assembly.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly does not agree with the PMA board’s recommendation to divide the A Corporation. Currently, all the A Corporation board members are voting members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.

Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, moderated the April 8-9 discussion in Louisville, which was convened by the Governance Task Force of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and included representatives from the board; the Way Forward Commission; All Agency Review Committee; the denomination’s advocacy and advisory committees; the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA); and Presbyterian Women.

More details

 At some point, the participants began to hone in on the specifics of their disagreements – and to clarify what they are seeking.

Representatives from the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board have said PMA needs to have responsibility for corporate governance in order to do mission work. Jim Wilson, a lawyer from Ohio who is representing All Agency Review, has said repeatedly that the All Agency and Way Forward recommendation would give PMA control over its own budgets, mission priorities and personnel.

What are the powers of the A Corporation — which had more than $523 million on its balance sheet at the end of 2015? Wilson said the current deliverance from 1986 provides that:

  • The A Corporation receives and holds all real and personal property for PMA and OGA – the A Corporation is the title holder.
  • It maintains and manages all real and tangible personal property, including the denomination’s national office building in downtown Louisville.
  • It effects short-term investments.
  • It acts as disbursing agent for funds held by the corporation.
  • It provides accounting and reporting.
  • It provides financial and related services as the General Assembly directs — in effect, the “ambiguous term” shared services, Wilson said.
Jim Wilson, of the All Agency Review Committee

Chad Herring, a Presbyterian Mission Agency Board member from Kansas City, said that “details matter. The specifics matter a lot.” He said the board:

  • Wants to “affirm General Assembly oversight and control of A Corporation.” Historically that’s happened through a deliverance from the General Assembly, expressing the church’s intention. The board’s recommendation asks the 2018 assembly for a deliverance dividing the A Corporation into two corporations.
  • Prefers “an A Corporation that is close to the ecclesiastical and mission entities” – in other words, to OGA and PMA.
  • Would consider an A Corporation board with a different balance – adding representation from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA); the advocacy and advisory committees; and Presbyterian Women. Left off that list: representation from the other four PC(USA) agencies.
  • Does not want to continue to provide shared services (such as human resources or information technology) beyond the PMA.
  • Does want to retain responsibility for personnel, finance, legal services and risk management. If the assembly does not write a deliverance to create a separate PMA corporation, the board will ask the assembly to give an explicit directive to delegate these areas from the A Corporation to PMA.

Joe Morrow, a minister from Chicago who is chair-elect of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, spoke of his vision for what the board can accomplish –and his sense that the board needs to deal both with mission and finances.

There are tensions “at every level of the church, at every council,” Morrow said. “We’re constantly trying to have mission and money be in conversation with each other.”

Morrow said he wants the board to focus on changing ministry contexts, with decline but also places “where new growth and new life is,” with ministry on the margins. Morrow said he hopes the board can “stabilize things at the national level and at the agency” and to talk about what it means to do innovative ministry and what tools are needed. “I want to think expansively and creatively,” Morrow said – adding that those questions can’t be addressed unless the board considers both mission and financial realities.

Herring said there are “fundamental differences of opinion” about the wisdom of setting PMA free “to focus solely on mission.”

Conrad Rocha, co-chair of the board’s Governance Task Force, said “we have been delegated responsibility but no authority under our documents.” Part of the concern, Rocha said, is that what the A Corporation might delegate to PMA might later be taken away.

 

Conrad Rocha, co-chair of the Governance Task Force of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board

The response

For each point one side made, the other typically responded. Wilson, for example, said the fundamental notion that the A Corporation board would have broad powers that would allow it to dominate PMA “is a misconception.”

With the Way Forward and All Agency Review recommendation, “there is not a new corporation being created,” but the board is being reconfigured with a different membership to provide more expertise, accountability and transparency, Wilson said.

After listening to some of the back-and-forth, Rada said: “It sounds to me like there’s a lack of trust here.”

“It is about trust,” said Thomas Priest of the Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC), which includes five racial ethnic caucuses. “ACREC was brought in after the fact,” after proposals were shaped. “We are advisors on this, not advocates” – and ACREC has some complicity, because “we don’t advocate as much as we need to,” Priest said.

Thomas Priest, with the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns

ACREC understands that “there are more stakeholders in the game than just OGA and PMA” – including Presbyterian Women and the advocacy and advisory committees, he said. “We want to do everything fast,” but the PC(USA) needs to slow down and set an ethic of striving for quality and goodness, “not an ethic of corporate efficiency. … We are here to advocate for the church. We are not only pawns in the game.”

Kerri Allen of the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns said her initial reaction to the Way Forward-All Agency Review proposal to reconfigure the A Corporation board is that “this is a council of bishops, which is not a Presbyterian structure.” In the Reformed system, “money and policy are married, not divorced,” she said – as when the denomination’s Office of Public Witness says that “budgets are moral documents.”

Allen said she doesn’t have misconceptions about the joint proposal – the advocacy committee understands it but disagrees, and can’t support either that proposal or the one from the board.

Wilson responded that currently, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board controls the A Corporation totally – so if there’s a council of bishops, “it’s PMAB.”

The PMA budget, which the General Assembly approves, is a “very high-level document” with little detail, but the church needs transparency in financial matters, Wilson said.

The Way Forward Commission focused on the A Corporation in part because of issues involving transparency and accountability that two successive PMA reviews revealed involving personnel, legal services, risk management and financial management, said Eliana Maxim, one of the commission’s two vice-moderators.

“There are some real problems” at PMA, Maxim said. “And our mission, our expression of mission in this denomination has been hampered, severely hampered” by the divided loyalties of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board serving both as the PMA board and the A Corporation board. Review committees have raised those concerns about PMA for at least eight years, and “we’ve skirted around that,” Maxim said. “I would be remiss in not stating that.”

She said later: “What we have in place right now is dysfunction” in the way PMA handles finances. “It’s not working. We lack transparency. … We have lacked coordination.”

Having an A Corporation board with financial and accounting expertise and that the PMA board doesn’t solely control is “not a threat to the operation of the PMA, it’s a protection for the church,” Wilson said. The idea that the A Corporation board’s granting power to PMA to be in charge of mission for the denomination “is illusory makes no sense to me, in a church that is functioning in a healthy manner.”

And the idea that the A Corporation board would “somehow renege on what the General Assembly has suggested, that doesn’t make any sense to me. … If that’s kind of church we’re living in, we’ve got deeper problems than these corporate documents.”

Despite that, there were differing views as to whether a new deliverance or even an amendment to the current one would be needed to change the configuration of the A Corporation board. There were discussions of bylaws and fiduciary responsibility. The agreement: the board would consult its lawyer (again); the lawyer’s response would be given to Wilson; and the conversations would continue.

Practical matters

 There were also questions raised about specifics of the proposals – including how much they would cost (no consensus); whether shared services not provided by PMA would cost more or less (no consensus); or whether the Way Forward-All Agency Review proposal adds another layer of bureaucracy (no consensus).

Representatives of the board voiced concern about one possibility: that the new president of the A Corporation might be the PMA’s chief financial officer, which they said could cause difficulty in the reporting structure and chain of command.

“What we have in place right now is dysfunction,” Maxim said. “It’s not working. … We have lacked coordination and transparency when it comes to the CFO and the situation with finances. We can’t continue in this manner.”

Herring responded that “we’re in a time of transition,” with a search underway for a new PMA executive director, who would then hire a CFO and that both would be “responsive to these concerns.”

It was recently announced that Dave Crittenden, PMA’s acting executive director, is leaving at the end of April because of health concerns. Paul Moretti, who had been brought on as PMA’s acting director of shared services after Earline Williams resigned in late 2017, has left after serving only a few months.

More conversations

 Wilson agreed that representatives from All Agency Review will set up conversations with the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns and ACREC.

Allen, from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, has argued that All Agency Review’s report needs more theological depth and that her group was not sufficiently consulted, in part because of miscommunication.

And generally, representatives from the denomination’s advocacy and advisory groups have offered critiques of both proposals and the way they often are not consulted as measures being shaped and developed – but only asked to comment once things had come to fruition.

“We talk about the end of the story” – about dreams and hopes – but not “theologically, what needs to happen” to get there, Allen said. She spoke of an embedded theology of racism, misogyny and patriarchy in the PC(USA), and the difficulty of turning away “from this theology that has a grip on our denomination. How do we do that?”

Part of the difficulty is “we haven’t done the work of repentance,” which involves “a literal turning around,” Allen said. Presbyterians skip repentance, trying to move straight to reconciliation, she said.

Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy

Ray Roberts, representing the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), had to preach April 8 so couldn’t get to the first day of the meeting. So he was offered time April 9 to offer his thoughts on the recommendations.

Roberts said ACSWP has called for more theological focus and casting of vision from Way Forward, asking: “What is the purpose of the church?”

Among the answers: “I think the purpose of the church is to increase the love of God and neighbor,” Roberts said. “Or make more disciples. … I want to create a prophetic community of people” who can think theologically; who participate in the world as transformed people.

But the PC(USA), which is losing congregations and members, has “not been able to adapt well to a radically changing world,” Roberts said. So ACSWP is looking for a sense of vision – and also has its own idea for structural change. ACSWP is presenting the possibility of having a joint fiduciary coordinating committee that would “streamline support services,” but not change the A Corporation structure.

Wilson said parts of that idea could prove useful, but responded with several concerns. Among them: “This process cannot obscure the fundamental question of whether the PMA board is willing to give up control of the A Corporation.”

COGA

Rocha responded that “we don’t care about power – this is not about power.”

“Our perceptions differ,” Wilson answered back. The board has not been willing to give up majority control of the A Corporation, and has offered COGA only “superficial representation” if the composition of the A Corporation board changes.

Rocha said that COGA last year told the PMA board that “they didn’t want to talk to us about this” until the Way Forward recommendations were ready. “We were ready to engage. We were told no.”

Stephanie Anthony from COGA said the PMA board told COGA earlier this year that “we’ve already figured this out. … Sign on with us and take it to Way Forward. It didn’t feel like partnership.”

Stephanie Anthony, Committee on the Office of the General Assembly

COGA supports the Way Forward-All Agency Review recommendation, although it disagrees with giving the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions representation on the A Corporation board.

The concerns the PMA board has expressed “are concerns that COGA has lived through,” Anthony said, as the PMA board has had sole control of the A Corporation board for 30 years. “The idea that your ministry is decimated when you don’t have control of A Corporation – we’ve lived through that” at OGA, she said. “We think we’ve been pretty effective.”

Barbara Gaddis, moderator of COGA, said COGA “feels very strongly” that the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation should not have representation on the A Corporation board, as those agencies don’t participate in shared services. But COGA supports the idea of having an A Corporation board that’s separate from PMA, having “been under the tyranny of not having a separate board for many years.”

Wilson responded that the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation are being included on the A Corporation board because they can bring financial and accounting expertise and the agency reviews showed they were performing at high levels at the kinds of tasks the A Corporation board will be asked to do.

Presbyterian Women

 Carol Winkler, moderator of Presbyterian Women, pointed out that Presbyterian Women is the second-largest user of shared services that PMA provides, but under the proposal from Way Forward and All Agency Review is not being given representation on the A Corporation board.

While not one of the PC(USA)’s six agencies, Presbyterian Women is a “significant partner” that is often overlooked and undervalued, Winkler said.

Carol Winkler, Presbyterian Women

“I feel like Presbyterian Women continues to be discounted in this conversation” – not a PC(USA) agency, but a related corporation, “sort of the silent partner,” said Susan Jackson Dowd, the group’s executive director. Presbyterian Women got a seat on the PMA board by sending an overture to the General Assembly, she said.

The organization has contributed millions of dollars to Presbyterian mission and “we have proven ourselves over and over again,” and could provide significant financial expertise, Jackson Dowd said. “And somehow we’re not good enough to bring our skills to this (A Corporation) table?”

General Assembly Committee on Representation

 The groundswell continued. In the midst of a discussion of race audits in the PC(USA), Martha Ross-Mockaitis of the General Assembly Committee on Representation rose to her feet.

After being recognize to speak, she said the Committee on Representation is mandated in the Book of Order; reviews all six agencies; and has a report coming to the 2018 assembly examining the agencies’ records in employment and equity.

The work Presbyterian leaders in the conversation say is needed, “we are doing it. It is paid for already,” Ross-Mockaitis said. “We are part of the denomination. … But we are not at this table. We are not in your thinking.”

Next steps

 Before they left, participants articulated some next steps they plan to take, and the conversations to come.

Representatives of All Agency Review and Way Forward may speak at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting in Cincinnati April 25-27 – they’ve asked for time on the agenda, and board leaders said they’d consider it.

There is still hope, as Jarvis expressed, that perhaps some agreement can be reached before the assembly convenes.

If that doesn’t happen, Rada said, people at least had a chance to be heard.

 

 

 

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