ST. LOUIS – This was like a meet-and-greet for some significant business coming before the 2018 General Assembly – an afternoon dedicated to reports from General Assembly committees and commissions, most notably the Way Forward Commission, the All Agency Review Committee and the 2020 Vision Team.
Also up: a presentation from a special committee studying Christian education in the 21stcentury.
Assembly committees will consider each of these items in more depth, reporting back recommendations to the full assembly later this week. But leaders of these groups were given time during a plenary session June 17 to introduce key ideas: no votes, no debate, just an elevator speech and a chance to say hello.
Way Forward and All Agency Review
The Way Forward Commission and the All Agency Review Committee did a joint presentation – with some reminders of how they were birthed by the 2016 General Assembly and presenting some key themes.
“In our beginning was the word from the last General Assembly to move out of the deep, to move heaven and earth if necessary, to bring order from chaos,” said Deborah Block, a moderator of the All Agency Review Committee. The previous assembly created the Way Forward Commission and the 2020 Vision Team. And the All Agency Review Committee conducted the second-ever review of all the six Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) agencies, “because it was time,” she said – the denomination’s review schedule called for it.
“And it was so. And it was all good. And it was all very complicated.”
The presentation, though, did not get too complicated – there was barely any mention, for example, of the PC(USA), A Corporation – which is expected to be the subject of much conversation in the assembly’s The Way Forward Committee.
The presenters focused on some key concepts. For example: “We believe we can undertake significant changes at responsible cost,” Block said. The committee focused on the idea of a “new openness,” taken from the Book of Order.
Mark Hostetter, moderator of the Way Forward Commission, said the commission developed four top-level goals.
- Strengthen congregations and mid councils to do the work they’ve been called to do, making the national church more nimble and responsive.
- Affirm greater denominational equity and inclusion, living into the centrality of our diversity that is at the core of who we are and what we believe.
- To offer long-desired and desperately needed changes to administrative services in a realistic and cost-effective way that will allow the critical ministries of the PC(USA) agencies the freedom to dream and create.
- Nurture collaborative, cooperative inter-agency work while grounding us all in our Presbyterian identity – so we can demonstrate that we are indeed one body in Christ.
For each goal, presenters cited a few specifics.
For example, Mathew Eardley of the commission said the websites of the six PC(USA) agencies have little or no cohesion on branding and navigation. “The truth is, people resort to using Google to find our own resources,” rather than the search function on the denomination’s websites – a remark that drew applause. The commission is encouraging collaboration among the agencies, “eschewing blind loyalty to one agency alone” and working cooperatively for the good of the whole church, Eardley said.
Commission member Julie Cox said the commission is committed to emphasizing the importance of translation services, described as “global communications,” and including live interpretation of major denominational events and the translation of documents both from English into other languages, and primary theological documents from other languages into English.
“Access to information is power, and it is essential to real engagement,” Cox said. Presbyterians, regardless of their original or dominant language, “must have equal access to resources.”
Regarding the delivery of shared services such as information technology or payroll that a number of agencies use, both All Agency Review and Way Forward determined that change is needed, said commission member Sam Bonner. Some users said the services cost too much. A working group focused on this issue concentrated on users of shared services – “what do they need?” – giving those users “a seat at the table and voice” through a proposed reconfiguration of the A Corporation board, and “giving the whole church greater transparency in the delivery of these services.”
Hostetter concluded by saying: “The way is clear. All we need to do is arise and walk,” recognizing that the current structure can’t continue. “The survival of our denomination is at stake.”
2020 Vision Team
The 2020 Vision Team is asking the assembly to approve a draft guiding statement, which states that God is calling the PC(USA) to be prayerful, courageous, united, serving and alive.
“Our faith has never been one of words only on a page,” said Bernadette Coffee, the team’s co-moderator, along with Lisa Juica Perkins. “Jesus Christ is incarnational, God with flesh,” and the Holy Spirit lives in Christian believers. “It must be incarnated and lived into.”
The team’s presentation asked Presbyterians to consider how they might live out those concepts in their own lives and congregations. Some ideas:
- Do a Bible study on each of the five words.
- Organize a five-week study: one week per word.
- Preach a sermon series on the words.
- Pick one of the words to guide a congregation for a year.
- Discuss the words in Sunday school or confirmation classes.
- Make the words the theme for a summer camp or retreat.
The team showed a video in which its members discussed how the words in the guiding statement have resonated in their lives, ending with this question: “What does it mean to you?”
Representatives of the Special Committee to Study the Reformed Perspective of Christian Education in the 21st Century presented to the assembly an overview of the committee’s recommendations – including encouraging the Presbyterian Mission Agency to focus on lifelong faith formation and intergenerational ministry.
“The language of Christian education is changing,” so the committee uses the term “faith formation,” said its moderator, Stephanie Fritz.
The focus on intergenerational ministry is significant because “we have so much to learn from one another,” said committee member Emily Chudy. Faith formation is more than teaching Bible stories, she said – “it’s about sharing the gospel and changing lives,” living into baptismal promises.
Committee member Matt Rhodes described work the committee still feels it needs to do – focusing on faith formation in small churches and congregations of color. The committee is asking this assembly to extend its term for an additional two years, to 2020, and to add three members who are people of color or who serve in congregations of color.
The committee also wants to study further the Christian educator certification process in the PC(USA). Rhodes referred to some “third rail” issues “that are not to be touched” – but which he laid out anyway.
One, some Christian educators exist in uncertain terrain outside ordained ministry but approaching it. In some places educators “form much of the heart and soul of the congregation,” functioning in many ways like associate pastors, but not performing sacraments, he said. The committee wants to explore “appropriate doors for their ministries,” while also acknowledging the limitations.
Also, Christian educators tend to work primarily in medium-sized to large congregations — most of them predominantly white, with big enough budgets to hire an educator. But the majority of Presbyterian congregations have fewer than 100 members, Rhodes said. And relatively few congregations of color have Christian educators. Rhodes said with more time, he committee wants to explore the implications of that for the future of the PC(USA).
Stated clerk report
At the start of the plenary, J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, offered his thoughts on challenges facing the denomination – saying the PC(USA) must move from an institutional culture to a movement culture, training church leaders for 21stcentury involvement.
While the Way Forward Commission is addressing structural questions in the national church, many congregations face similar questions about their future – about finances and what’s next, Nelson said.
Some have buildings that are barely maintained, he said. “People are bemoaning what the church used to look like 30 years ago. … We still worship stained glass windows because they belong to Grandma and Granddaddy,” who gave the money to install them. And that “keeps us from merging with the churches down the street, and their membership is in peril as well.”
Nelson described the shifts needed to live out a faith that recognizes contextual realities – the confluences of class, race, culture and historic privilege, calling the Presbyterians to have a “sanctified imagination.”
He told, for example, of a Hispanic pastor from North Carolina who told him recently that for her, pastoral care isn’t primarily visiting patients in the hospital. It’s sitting all day at a detention center, holding the papers of undocumented people or sometimes those who have legal status but still have been detained. She told him: “Pastoral care for me is being at that detention center with those papers, so that I can release the captives.”
During this plenary, the assembly also formally commissioned some young adult volunteers and mission-coworkers who will serve the PC(USA) around the world.