ST. LOUIS – With relatively little discussion and no drama, the General Assembly approved the recommendations of the Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee.
While some commissioners struggled to understand the complexity of the proposals, those who have wrangled with these issues for months – and there’s been no shortage of drama there – have said they involve issues of power, control, accountability and trust.
The changes the assembly approved June 21 by a vote of 474-47 will mean governance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation – a secular corporation the church uses to handle its business – will shift from the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board to a shared governance model. The board will now have 11 members – with representation from five of the six PC(USA) agencies, along with the Advocacy Committee on Women’s Concerns, the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee, Presbyterian Women and three at-large members.
That means the agencies that use shared administrative services in the denomination will have more of a voice in how those services are administered. Up until now, all the A Corporation board members were voting members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
The Way Forward Commission contended that its recommendation provide a way to share power more equitably. As J. Herbert Nelson, the denomination’s stated clerk, put it this week: “We can possibly restore some trust by sitting at the same table.”
There also is hope that, working together, Nelson and Diane Moffett, the new president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, can address what’s been described as a dysfunctional institutional culture, particularly within the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
“Culture eats process for breakfast,” said Shelly Wood, a minister from Whitewater Valley Presbytery. She asked: What problems involving the institutional culture were identified, and what can be done to change the culture? And “at the end of the day, how will you know you’ve achieved it?”
Cynthia Jarvis, a minister from Philadelphia who served as moderator of The Way Forward Committee at the assembly, said “that question was very much before our committee.” A June 12 administrative action taken by the Way Forward Commission identified concerns with trust and transparency, she said, and the committee responded by authorizing the hiring of a consultant (at an estimated cost of $50,000 to $70,000) to help address those issues. That provides “a balcony view of someone who was outside the system,” Jarvis said.
There’s a longing at the agencies for “healing and hope,” Jarvis said. The idea is that “as we increase the trust and love, the transparency, and be honest with one another, things will begin to work better than they do right now.”
Representatives of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board have expressed reservations about the wisdom of the changes and how things will play out in practical terms. The board had presented its own proposal to the committee – that Nelson and Moffett be given time to work out “an equitable governance model” for the A Corporation, as Conrad Rocha, co-moderator of the board’s Governance Task Force, explained it to The Way Forward Committee on June 18.
Ken Godshall, a pastor from Kentucky who serves as chair of that board, told the assembly that concerns remain – including that the Presbyterian Mission Agency will be under-represented on the reconfigured A Corporation board.
The assembly voted down a proposed amendment to change the number of at-large representatives on the reconfigured A Corporation board from three to 11.
In addition to approving the Way Forward Commission recommendations, the assembly approved the interim report of the 2020 Vision Team (by a 499-10 vote) and the recommendations of the All Agency Review Committee (by a 442-11 vote) – both with no discussion.
That sends the vision team’s draft guiding statement to the church for study and comment – a statement which says “God calls the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be Prayerful, Courageous, United, Serving, Alive” – with first letters of those words spelling out the PC(USA) acronym.
The assembly also approved a comment the committee added, which states: “We desire to hear explicit examples of what this would look like in different contexts and how to get there,” and “we would like to hear more inclusion of grace, joy and the Great Ends of the Church.” The comment also says “we encourage the 2020 Vision Team to make the guiding statement more succinct.”
One result of the All Agency Review recommendations: the six PC(USA) agencies will conduct a collaborative self-study of the per capita model and its ability to provide adequate funding “in the immediate and longer-term future and to explore alternative and creative funding resources for both.”
That’s not the only per capita study this assembly has authorized. Via the consent agenda approved June 20, the assembly approved an overture from the Presbytery of Newton stating that the assembly will appoint a team to review the denomination’s per capita funding system and to consider financial sustainability over the next 10 years. That overture asks that the team make a report of its work, along with “suggestions of potential experiments for changes “ to the funding system to the 2020 General Assembly.” Overture advocates argued that leadership for the per capita study team should come from congregations and mid councils – from the grass roots.
There’s also hope for a deeper review of the PC(USA)’s system for providing shared administrative services.
Shelli Latham, a commissioner from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta who served on the assembly’s The Way Forward Committee, explained for the assembly a comment that the committee added regarding shared services.
That comment states in part that “we believe that by engaging all agencies in determining the constitution of Shared Services and how services are administered, in a transparent and holistic process, that greater buy-in will be accomplished across the six agencies and Presbyterian Women, giving the General Assembly as a whole greater bargaining power, opportunities for cross-agency collaboration, and shared accountability.”
Jarvis said the committee hopes the changes the assembly approved will make shared services “fair, equitable and affordable for all parts of the church.”
The assembly’s action on the Way Forward recommendation also has several other impacts. It:
- Authorizes a new Moving Forward Implementation Commission with the power to “take any and all administrative actions as necessary to accomplish the Moving Forward Implementation Commission Vision,” with respect to the Way Forward Commission initiatives and the administrative supplement the commission approved June 5.
- Clarifies the role of the stated clerk. The action taken states that the stated clerk will “exercise pastoral authority over concerns of the church in times of crisis” and be its chief ecumenical officer who “speaks to and for the church in matters of faith and practice in accord with the beliefs, policies, and actions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
- Creates a Diverse Voices Table to consider issues of equity and inclusion, with representatives of the six PC(USA) agencies and Presbyterian Women.
- Consolidates translation services in one Global Resources area within the A Corporation, and states that the PC(USA) “would translate all materials going forward” and existing or historical records upon request, and translate some theological materials from other languages into English. The expectation is that the PC(USA) would hire additional translators.
- Creates a 12-person committee to conduct a financial sustainability review – analyzing national church assets and income, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2019.
Several of the concerns raised about the proposal had to do with the language used to describe the role of the stated clerk. What’s pastoral authority? What’s considered a “time of crisis?”
Sue Washburn, a minister from Redstone Presbytery, presented an amendment suggesting the stated clerk would speak on behalf of the denomination “in consultation with PC(USA) agency leaders.”
Washburn said that approach would make sure “all have a place at the table of public opinion when it comes to the PC(USA). This is not a criticism of the stated clerk,” she said. “What we have learned at the national level is we don’t always know who the next person in office is going to be.”
The assembly voted down that amendment.
The assembly also passed (504-10) a resolution, presented by the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (formerly the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns), that will prioritize translation and accessibility in the PC(USA).
It directs the six PC(USA) agencies “to be intentional and proactive in the hiring and retaining of people from Presbyterian communities in the global south and other historic Presbyterian ‘Communities of color.’ ”
It encourages all councils of the church (presbyteries, synods, sessions) to conduct their meetings “in languages common to their constituencies” and to offer simultaneous translation in those languages, as well as American Sign Language, and provide captioning services for the deaf and hard of hearing community. Documents should be sent ahead of time in the proper languages in a format accessible to people who are blind and vision impaired, the measure states.
Char McMullen, a ruling elder from Olympia Presbytery, thanked the assembly for the hearing assistance provided at this meeting, saying she couldn’t have participated without it.
Carolina Trevino, a minister from Mission Presbytery who introduced this measure for the committee, said she feels it lifts up the gifts of communities of color and those from the global south. That seemed to come “from a place not of condescension or patronizing welcome,” Trevino said, but the sense that a majority-white American church has much to learn from the contributions of people of color.