CINCINNATI – The frustration from both sides bubbled to the surface April 25 when representatives from the Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee made a presentation to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board on recommendations coming to the 2018 General Assembly.
It’s no secret there are enduring disagreements regarding those recommendations – particularly involving what should happen with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation.
Some of that involves the details – what’s the best approach? And some involves the tension that has permeated these conversations for months – and which, so far, has led to a disagreement that both sides are sending to the 2018 General Assembly to resolve.
In their 45-minute presentation on the evening of April 25, Deborah Block, a minister from Wisconsin who serves as moderator of the All Agency Review Committee, and Eileen Lindner and Eliana Maxim, ministers who serve as vice moderators of the Way Forward Commission, pushed back on what representatives of the board’s Governance Task Force have said.
They also voiced their hope for the Presbyterian Mission Agency: that the agency can be freed from corporate responsibilities to imagine and live into what Presbyterian mission in the 21stcentury could be. “I think you have the best gig in the church” – focusing on mission, Lindner told the board.
The General Assembly told the Way Forward Commission to look at structural issues at a time when Protestant denominations “are being radically challenged by the changes in the religious landscape,” and need to radically reinvent themselves, Lindner said, “or they will cease to exist.”
While cordial, this was not a gathering with a conciliatory tone.
There are many, many differences of opinion about the details of the proposals – about control, cost, authority and potential for a reconfigured A Corporation board to interfere with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s direction.
For example, the Governance Task Force is asking the board to vote on April 26 on a set of proposed comments to the General Assembly regarding the Way Forward and All Agency Review recommendations – comments in which the Governance Task Force contends the recommendations lack vision and are too focused on technical details; are potentially too expensive; and and that the work of the Way Forward Commission “falls short” of the mandate the 2016 General Assembly gave to it.
In response, the representatives of Way Forward and All Agency Review handed to the board a written set of “preliminary thoughts” regarding those proposed comments.
“The leadership of the Way Forward Commission and the All Agency Review Committee received with deep disappointment the Governance Task Force draft comments to our reports,” that response states.
“Our disappointment arises both from the tone and content of your comment. We recognize that reasonable minds may differ on matters as important to all of us regarding the structure and function of the church. … We plead for caution both in your tone of engagement and in your accurate portrayal of the proposals.”
The response cites “a number of misrepresentations of our proposals.” And it states that attempts to preserve the status quo or that fail to resolve ongoing problems at the Presbyterian Mission Agency “are unresponsive to the clear and overwhelming directive of the 2016 General Assembly.”
The representatives also passed out a series of “frequently asked questions” prepared by the leadership of Way Forward and All Agency Review, responding to particular claims regarding their recommendations.
In it, those leaders state that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s decision to ask the General Assembly for a deliverance to divide the A Corporation into two corporations, rather than accede to the recommendation that the board’s governance be reconfigured, demonstrates that the board “has a fundamentally different view than our groups of the broad themes that have emerged from our discernment. … Proposing a new corporation for the exclusive use of the PMA would take the church in the opposite direction from what we have concluded is needed.”
The separate incorporation proposal does not free the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board to focus on mission, “but rather would perpetuate those issues of control and accountability” that a 2016 review of the agency identified.
Lindner told the board that “we’ve been talking about our hopes” for the church. “Some of what you’ve been talking about is your fear.” The church needs to find the “sweet spot” and move forward, she said.
“This is intense stuff,” Maxim said. “I can feel the tension.”
The presentation seemed to offend some Presbyterian Mission Agency Board members.
Warren Lasane, executive and stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-Atlantic, said he found both the tenor and the tone of the remarks “extremely insulting, as though we were the children and you were the adults.”
Lasane he feels a “genuine sense of call” to serve on the board, where he’s encountered generative and progressive thinking, and questioned whether the Way Forward and All Agency Review recommendations are addressing an old version of the board, not the one that presently exists.
Maxim apologized “if we have come across as insulting or in any way patronizing.” But she expressed “a significant level of frustration” in the interactions Way Forward and All Agency Review have had with the board’s Governance Task Force. “There’s been a lot of confusion, misinformation, misdirection and last-minute changing of things,” she said – as well as “frankly, some disrespect for the General Assembly that created us.”
Marci Glass, a board member and minister from Idaho, said of the board: “We know things need to change. Please don’t exchange our questions for anxiety.”
And Lindner said: “I think we have offended each other, which is really grievous.” And “we too have felt very diminished by the tone of your (proposed) comment.”
Joe Morrow, a minister from Chicago who serves on the Governance Task Force, said that “good healthy change doesn’t come by fiat,” or from the threat of a hammer, but through trust-building. “I think that process takes more time,” Morrow said – saying that he will advocate at the assembly for “more time in order to get it right.”
The proposed comments that the board is set to vote on April 26 takes that approach.
In those proposed comments, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board asks the 2018 General Assembly to take the next two years to vet both the details and the vision of recommendations from Way Forward and All Agency Review, so that “a more comprehensive and sustainable recommendation can be brought to the 2020 General Assembly.”
Is there still hope for common ground?
Vicki Garber, an ecumenical advisory member of the board from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said she sees in ecumenical work that many arrive “with a keen sense” of their differences.
Garber said she heard in the discussion “us-and-them kind of thinking. I just pray and invite the great common ‘we’ of love of our Lord.”