The Coordinating Committee of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted by Zoom Sept. 16 to take next steps regarding a consultants’ report calling for a reconfiguration in structure and ethos of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) — something the report said could transform the work of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the next 25 years. (The report is available here: CounterStories Consulting Report to PMAB September 2021.)
The report is presented as a way for PMA to live into its commitment of being a Matthew 25 church – with its focus on congregational vitality, dismantling systemic racism and ending systemic poverty – and to provide “a scaffolding for a vision that will guide the organization over the course of a generation,” with intentions to transform the agency’s structure, the way it allocates resources and denominational culture.
The report refers to the Matthew 25 overture that the 2016 General Assembly approved — stating that other concerns the overture raised “including addressing the climate crisis, seeking to reduce violence and demilitarize society, addressing gender justice issues, etc.” would also be ongoing concerns of PMA, and also that the agency’s commitment to transformation “should be accomplished in ways that result in anti-racist and decolonial structures, policies, and practices.”
The full board will discuss the proposed changes the consultants suggest at its Oct. 6-7 Zoom meeting. If ultimately approved, those changes could result in:
- A decentralized agency with many employees assigned to “locally situated action teams” (known as LSATs), working in “action clusters” within specific communities or regions. The commitment of these localized teams: “Moving the agency to join the margins.”
- The creation of two new offices in PMA: one focused on innovation, and another on reparations and repairing harm to communities of color.
- An attempt to move away from financing specific programs within PMA to finding, as much as possible, more flexible use of donor-restricted funds and responsiveness in using money in local contexts.
- An approach to mission that sees the PMA staff as “conveners,” working in partnership and relationship with people in local communities – Presbyterian or not – who are involved in working for equity and justice.
The restructuring recommendations are the result of a yearlong process of work with David Hooker, Allen Hilton and Kirby Broadnax of CounterStories Consulting — work for which the consultants were paid $215,000 over 18 months.
That Vision Implementation Process included several phases of work and study involving PMA board members, staff, global partners and Presbyterians from congregations and mid councils. Most recently, a 38-member group known as the Leadership Innovation Team or LIT has held a series of 17 in-depth conversations, starting in April and continuing through the summer, looking at how the PC(USA) can be a church that challenges the structures of inequity and stands with those on the margins.
The consultants’ report “is good medicine,” said Shannan Vance-Ocampo, chair-elect of the PMA board. “It is also honest. Some things are made bare that maybe we don’t want to talk about in public” — such as a white supremacy culture sometimes found in PMA. “The fact that harm has been done to staff of color and that trauma exists.”
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
That’s a question for the PC(USA) too, Vance-Ocampo said. Who do we say we are in a world enthralled with capitalism? A country addicted to guns and militarism, where poverty exists in a land of plenty.
“There is no magic pill for what ails us other than Jesus,” she said. “But the report is honest. It looks all these things straight in the eye, and it calls us to let go” of some things that no longer work, “lay them down for good,” find new partners and embrace reformation.
The board’s Coordinating Committee stopped short of endorsing the report – voting to thank the consultants and LIT for their work, and to ask the board to take action regarding certain elements during its Oct. 6-7 Zoom meeting. The coordinating committee is asking the full board in October to:
- Send to the 2022 General Assembly new identity, vision and mission statements for PMA.
- Affirm a list of 10 essential values that will guide the PMA — with a possible narrowing of that list to be up for discussion at the board’s meeting in February 2022.
- Ask Diane Moffett, PMA’s president and executive director, to lead the rebuilding phase of the Vision Implementation Process, and to bring recommendations in February.
Moffett told the Coordinating Committee that the consultants’ report “has my imagination working overtime.” This next phase – the rebuilding phase – will ask of PMA: “Who will we be? What will we do? How will we do it?” And then find a way to make it happen.
“I am excited, I’m challenged, I am inspired, I am humbled,” she said.
The consultants’ report says it would take time – probably 30 to 42 months – for specifics of the restructuring proposal to emerge and the changes to take place. The restructuring could include job losses for PMA staff, Moffett told an online meeting of PMA employees in July attended by about 240 staff members.
“There will be anxiety and probably resistance,” the report states.
But if bold action doesn’t take place early on, it warns, “transformation is likely to stall out.”
Possible next steps, outlined in the consultants’ report:
- Clarify five to seven essential values for PMA.
- Continue working to free up restricted funds for other uses.
- Create a team to identify location criteria in both the U.S. and overseas for where the local teams would be deployed.
- Establish an extensive professional development plan to nurture the skills, expertise and mindset needed to do the work.
- Create a team of “project ambassadors” to share these ideas across the PC(USA) — particularly with those “who may not be fully aligned with the liberatory, reparative, radically inclusive commitments of the transformed PMA.”
Sara Lisherness, who served on LIT and is director of Compassion, Peace and Justice for PMA and the acting director of World Mission, described the consultants’ report as provocative and “life-changing,” with the possibility it will “unsettle some of our colleagues. … Just continue to bathe our employees in your prayers.”
Warren Lesane, chair of the PMA board, said the consultants’ work was immersed in Scripture. “I have never in my life been part of something that’s been so generative and spiritual at the same time.”
If the board approves the approach the consultants suggest, they need to take responsibility for it, Lesane said. “If we approve this, doggone, we stand behind it. We advocate for it, we interpret it, we give it our all.”
Here are some key recommendations from the consultants’ 59-page report.
Decentralization. If the board approves the recommendations, PMA would have a flattened and decentralized structure – with fewer employees working at the PC(USA) offices in in Louisville. A point of context: the PC(USA) is currently committed to a $2.4 million renovation of the first floor of that building, to accommodate committee meetings for the hybrid 2022 General Assembly.
The proposal calls for creating “locally situated action teams” or LSATs. “The team members will be conveners, listeners and co-laborers with those in the local context,” the report states — which could involve the team working with a network of congregations or mid councils, or partnering with ecumenical or local groups working on issues such as racism, poverty or climate change.
These are not necessarily long-term placements. “Convening, establishing action agendas, and connecting local congregational resources” could be work taking two to four years, the report states, although some work might take longer.
The report describes two forms of local teams, typically with three to five PMA employees each:
- One set would work to support structural transformation in the region.
- Another would work to build up local and regional advocacy capacities, connecting local networks with national advocacy groups such as the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival or Bread for the World.
Some PMA functions would remain at the PC(USA) offices in Louisville. Those would include:
- PMA leadership.
- Agency-wide administrative and programmatic support, such as human resources and communications.
- Funding and resource development.
- A new Office of Innovation, Futuring and Discernment.
- A new Office for Repair of Historical Harms, to work with Indigenous, African American Latino/a, and Asian American Pacific Islander communities.
- A “small contingent of subject matter experts,” on issues such as structural racism, systemic poverty, congregational vitality, theological formation, climate and militarism.
Expertise and relationships. The report states that PMA’s primary role will be as a convener — which requires a different set of skills for employees. Instead of focusing primarily on expertise in particular subject areas – for example, immigration or hunger – “the skill set and knowledge base of many employees will shift towards relational practices such as asset and network identification and mapping, convening and facilitating difficult conversations, network weaving, community organizing, etc.”
Funding challenges. The report states that PMA currently finances its work with funds often restricted by donors, mission networks or the Office of the General Assembly. “This system hinders the Agency’s autonomy and ability to allot resources that will carry out its vision and mission. It also prohibits the kind of fluid, relational responses imagined by LIT.”
Some changes the consultants recommend:
- Undertake a comprehensive legal and financial analysis “to determine which currently designated funds can be completely ‘undesignated’ or in the alternative, have the scope or use greatly expanded to achieve the greatest possible flexibility.” That work is already underway, the report acknowledges — and is likely to include cy pres actions filed in secular court to free up funding to support the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program.
- Make money available to the LSATs, first to support organic listening and exploration, and later for work in which the teams come along side work being done in the local community. That might involve short-term placements (2 to 4 years) of PMA staff — plus a commitment to supervision focused on mentoring.
- Align the compensation of mission co-workers who serve internationally to more closely match the compensation typical in the local economy, and to focus on a short and medium-term team approach, rather than having just one or two mission co-workers who remain for a long period of time in an area.
- Focus on repair. That would include setting up teams to work on repair in places where Presbyterians funded or operated boarding schools for Native American or Indigenous children, and on repair or reparation work involving African American communities, as some seminaries, universities and congregations have begun to do. The Synod of Lakes and Prairies already has created a new Restorative Action program, contending that the generational wealth that white churches and families and organizations possess was built at the cost of African American and Indigenous people, and that a portion of it needs to be returned.
- Put money into personnel development.
- Reimagine the grant-making process in the PC(USA); the role of mission networks; and the use of designated funds. “All of these financial models contribute to the expressed sense of coloniality, hierarchy, and lack of mutuality with the Global partners,” the report states.
The report also suggests that PMA establish a set of advisory councils to listen to communities whose “full voice has not previously [been] honored” — possibly including ecumenical partners and groups involved in reparations work in the U.S.
Proposed identity statement.
Proposed vision statement.
Proposed mission statement.
“As a convener of sacred spaces, the Presbyterian Mission Agency nurtures disciples of Jesus and inspires, equips, and connects congregations, mid-councils, other entities of the PC(USA) and our partners locally and globally to do justice and to repair historical harms.
“The Presbyterian Mission Agency listens to, learns from, and co-labors with communities forced to the margins, and connects them to the relationships and resources needed to build congregational vitality, eradicate systemic poverty, dismantle structural racism, end militarism, and address our climate crisis.
“To do this, the Presbyterian Mission Agency provides:
- Context-specific accompaniment.
- Assistance with the identification and development of innovative approaches, and
- Funds to support local and regional initiatives.”
Proposed list of values. The report includes a list of 10 essential values for PMA — with the hope that the list could be narrowed to 5 to 7 through work of the PMA board and employees. In alphabetical order, those 10 values are:
Track record and consensus. Among the questions asked in the visioning conversations:
- What is going well at PMA?
- Which, if any, values and practices need to be dispensed with?
- How does Matthew 25 figure in all of this?
- What should come next?
Also: What regional or global trends or cultural considerations need attention? Some that were lifted up globally included climate change and environmental justice; pandemics; economic strife; nationalism and authoritarianism; and the need for local and regional connectedness.
In conversations with global partners, missiologists and PMA employees working in international contexts, a theme emerged that although good work is being done, “vestiges of a colonialist mission philosophy have continued to appear in PMA ministries” — sometimes evidenced by a “white/Western savior complex.” There’s a yearning for more mutuality and collaboration.
Among the findings from discussions with employees: “Facilitators sensed and often explicitly heard a pervasive and troubling cynicism, specifically among PMA employees, based on their and their predecessors’ experience of feeling unheard. Because of past disappointments, employees often think their input will be unwelcome and go nowhere.”
PMA employees spoke of a sense of top-down hierarchy, isolation, a corporate mentality and feeling “like a cog in a machine,” as one put it.
From their perspective, what needs to go:
- Top-down and hierarchical management.
- White supremacy and marginalization of under-represented groups.
- Squelched creativity and discouraged innovation.
- A depressed and angry ethos among employees.
- Organizational silos.
- A corporate ethos.
What should come next?
- A flatter organization.
- Bold innovation.
- Racial equity.
- Restructuring that encourages collaboration.
- Justice activism.
People of color spoke of the importance of listening to Indigenous voices; to considering ways in which the PC(USA) ordination process reflects white culture; and the economic disparities among congregations. “One Latinx voice bemoaned the fact that PMA and the PC(USA) are still asking and failing to answer the same questions as they were a quarter century ago,” the report states.
Working with anti-racism trainers Jessica Vazquez Torres and Shawna Bowman, the LIT group identified “white supremacist and colonial mindsets” that “should be eliminated from PMA culture,” the report states. Among them:
- Structural and bureaucratic patterns that reflect white culture and norms.
- Relational patterns that marginalized Black, Indigenous and people of color staff members.
- A distribution of resources within PMA that doesn’t reflect the agency’s professed values regarding equity.
- A habit of granting powerful voices – for example, from large, mostly-white congregations – undue authority and influence.
The LIT utilized a number of approaches for focusing its conversations — among them, envisioning what would be on display in a museum of PMA history, and drafting imaginary letters that future children who had experienced a transformed PMA might write to the LIT team about what they’d seen.
In summary, after all that conversation, the report presents this vision of PMA transformation:
“The future PMA is a decentralized agency that embodies mutual relationship, practices listening, learning, and being led by communities most impacted by injustice, and acknowledges harms it’s contributed to and makes amends for those; an organization that leverages its power and influence to change national policy and eliminate historically harmful practices, building narratives for the better. It takes a regional approach to its work, takes radical actions to address issues at their roots, is bold enough to risk everything in the name of justice, makes decisions in favor of climate resiliency, is open to the wisdom of the global community, and moves from a place of courage, love, hospitality, welcome, respect, boldness and mutuality.”
For more information, read the full report from the consultants here (CounterStories Consulting Report to PMAB September 2021). And a 118-page supplement is here (Appendix to Reflecting Reimagining & Making Space).