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Moving Forward Implementation Commission tackles pressing issues, broader questions

LOUISVILLE – The Moving Forward Implementation Commission is considering making an interim report to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on the progress it’s making – possibly at Big Tent in August.

Marco Grimaldo, who is co-moderator with Larryetta Ellis of the commission and a ruling elder from Washington, D.C., said the commission is thinking of exploring ways to communicate to the church “this is what moving forward means to us.”

Larryetta Ellis, a pastor from West Virginia, serves as co-moderator with Marco Grimaldo of the commission. (All photos by Leslie Scanlon)

The commission, meeting in Louisville March 25-26, is focusing both on specific tasks it’s trying to complete and also broader questions about what the General Assembly intended the commission to do.

J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), met with the commission via conference call and urged the members to “hold us accountable” for what the Way Forward Commission instructed the PC(USA) to do, and also to recognize and communicate that “there is hope in this denomination.”

The commission also spoke by video conference with Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann, co-moderators of the 2018 General Assembly. The co-moderators thanked the commission members for their service, and said they were deliberate in selecting people to serve that were diverse in age, geography, experience and race, but also in skills.

“We had very specific reasons for gathering the folks who are around the table,” Kohlmann said. Among the skills sets they were seeking, she said, were: “pastoral leaders with a pastoral heart,” strategic thinkers, detail-focused people and those with vision, “to see the hope in the future … to say ‘This is where we want to be moving forward as the PC(USA).’ ”

That’s important because “we have come through a very divisive process” in recent years, Cintrón-Olivieri said. “Wehave gone through the waters and we are on the other side.”

Asked how the commission can align its work with the vision of the co-moderators, Kolmann said she and Cintrón-Olivieri are supporting both the emphasis of the Presbyterian Mission Agency that the PC(USA) be a Matthew 25 church and the “Hands and Feet” justice initiative of the Office of the General Assembly — demonstrating “what it means to be incarnate as the body of Christ when we gather.”

Kohlmann said the board of the PC(USA), A Corporation – the corporate entity for the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency and which will meet in Louisville March 28-29 – is doing technical work, shifting how administrative services are handled, “making sure things are clear and fair. You have a role to oversee that,” she told the commission.

But the commission also needs to focus on longer-term adaptive work, Kohlmann said. “How do we move through things that have happened in the past to a place of trust and transparency?” she asked.

General Assembly co-moderators Cindy Kohlmann (left) and Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri met with the commission via video conference.

Another issue that surfaced repeatedly involved questions of financial sustainability and per capita funding— matters that a new committee created by the 2018 General Assembly will be considering in depth. That just-appointed committee met by conference call March 19 and will meet in person in Fort Worth, Texas, in May — and questions of funding have begun to permeate discussions of the Moving Forward Implementation Commission as well.

“When you leave an assembly and you’re not clear where your funding is going” – because the assembly has called for a study of per capita and financial sustainability – that’s difficult because “in the meantime here are decisions that have to be made” with funding implications, Nelson said.

He challenged commission members to think about the implications of not counting in official PC(USA) membership those in fellowships and new worshipping communities. “We have to find a way to count people who are in the denomination,” Nelson said, even if they don’t pay per capita.

Many of those in fellowships are immigrants and people of color, he said – so whether they are counted or not “is an issue of race.” Addressing this issue is “critical for the integrity of the denomination – the spiritual integrity of the denomination,” the stated clerk said.

Two representatives of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly – COGA moderator Barbara Gaddis and member Andy James – attended the meeting, in an effort to keep the communication flowing freely. “Much of your work has already been started” in other areas of the church, Gaddis told the commission. “Your job is to monitor that and make sure it happens appropriately.”

There was some conversation about how involved or hands-off the commission should be – for example, in seeking information from the Diverse Voices Table about what was learned from the race audits that the six PC(USA) agencies have conducted. “At what level do we intervene? What is our role there?” asked Eric Beene, a pastor from Georgia.

In the PC(USA), “we are in a place of tremendous transition,” said Debra Avery, a pastor from California. “We have been talking about change for a long time. … We are beginning to do some of the hard work that’s been needed for a while” to make that happen.

Debra Avery and James Tse listen as commission members catch up on their lives since the last meeting.

One of the difficulties: The 2018 General Assembly created 19 committees, commissions and task forces, which has challenged the co-moderators in making appointments to those entities that reflect the full diversity of the PC(USA). That question also rose when commission member Mathew Eardley of Idaho asked the co-moderators if they intended to appoint someone to replace Jo Stewart, a commission member who resigned earlier this month.

Because that appointment process has taken time, “we’re asking these commissions to do very heavy lifting in a very short amount of time,” Avery said.

The church might need to get comfortable with a group reporting back that “we did some good work. It’s not done yet. But it’s going in a good direction,” rather than a comprehensive final report, she said.

Work in progress

The commission also heard update on projects underway. Here’s some of that discussion.

2020 Vision TeamJackie Cummings, a ruling elder from Louisiana, is trying to arrange a conversation with the new co-moderators of the 2020 Vision Team, Sabrina Slater and Salvador Gavaldá Corchado,

Commission members continue to raise concerns about whether the draft guiding statement that the 2020 Vision Team has presented is the right way to go.  That draft statement says that “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 Vision Team met in person in February – completing some revisions to the draft guiding statement and working on ways in which Presbyterians in congregations and mid councils can interact with the statement.

Grimaldo said his biggest concern about the guiding statement is that “it doesn’t translate to Spanish. It doesn’t translate to other languages very well as an acronym. … It’s really hard to hear that when my first language and my first church are in Spanish.”

Avery said there’s “a big mixed bag” in the responses to what the vision team has proposed. Some wanted a PC(USA) motto – similar to the “God is still speaking” campaign from the United Church of Christ.

Some thought the 2020 Vision Team’s proposal, while not divisive, was too general and not compelling enough, Avery said. And “there isn’t really even consensus about what a vision is,” Beene said.

Commission member Jackie Cummings, a ruling elder from Louisiana, led a leadership training session for the commission.

Cost allocation for shared services.  Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk for the PC(USA), has been asked to step in for a time to help with the transition following the unexpected death March 12 of Mike Miller, the acting chief financial officer of the A Corporation. Miller had been working on providing information to the commission on how costs are allocated for shared administrative services.

Rice said it’s his understanding that the A Corporation team is working on a proposal for shared services, with the idea “that it will be transparent, simple, something everybody can understand. … It will be very straightforward, very clear-cut” – a system that likely would be implemented in 2021, because the General Assembly already has approved the budgets for 2019 and 2020.

Institutional culture. Periodically, the question bubbles up at the commission about what to do about a recommendation from the Way Forward Commission that a consultant be hired to address the institutional culture at the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville, particularly within the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).

“We have not said anything at all to PMA yet” on that issue, said Beene, who served on the PMA Review Committee, which raised significant concerns about agency culture. “Part of why we are here as a commission” is that the 2018 General Assembly said, “Something needs to change, and it’s your job to make it change,” Beene said.

Grimaldo said the concerns about institutional culture “really were pinned on PMA,” but there are open questions about whether structural changes within the agency might have addressed some of those concerns.

Gaddis urged the commission to pay attention to the concerns about institutional culture. “It’s also not just PMA, but more “the culture of this building,” the denomination’s national offices in downtown Louisville, she said.

“No one is at fault and no one’s right,” Gaddis said. “There’s a culture that needs to be addressed. I think some of that has changed. … But I think it probably still could be addressed some more.”