Presbyterian Mission Agency Board considers massive restructuring and studies implicit bias

The proposal is for a complete reconfiguration of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) — for “revolution, transformation, change.”

That’s how Kevin Johnson, a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, described what consultants are proposing in a massive restructuring report the board is considering during its Oct. 6-7 Zoom meeting — a report that calls for decentralizing PMA, for big shifts in how the agency spends its money and for a new way of living into PMA’s commitment that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) be a Matthew 25 church.

The report is the result of an intense, 18-month long Vision Implementation Process, for which CounterStories Consulting was paid $215,000.

The work could take years, and not everything that the consultants are recommending may come to pass.

But David Hooker, one of the lead consultants for the project, said he senses that Presbyterians have “the capacity to transform the world” through this work.

The board will vote Oct. 7 on the first steps of that report — meaning that it would:

Floretta Barbee-Watkins. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.
  • Send new identity, vision and mission statements for PMA to the 2022 General Assembly.
  • Affirm a list of 10 essential values that will guide the PMA — with a possible narrowing of that list at the board’s next meeting in February 2022.
  • Ask Diane Moffett, PMA’s president and executive director, to bring more specific recommendations in February.

There are some indications that a motion could come Oct. 7 to add to the Matthew 25 vision a more specific commitment to work for gender justice. Board member Floretta Barbee-Watkins said she wants the board to consider how to express such a commitment “really firmly.” As she asks, “how can we say powerfully what we stand for and what we stand against?”

During an opening devotion at the Oct. 6 meeting, Barbee-Watkins called for PMA to “get into formation,” with all multiple meanings of that word – it’s how military planes fly, how marching bands perform, how Christians deepen their faith, how Beyoncé issued a rallying call for Black power, Black pride, feminism and more in her transformative “Formation” music video.

“Board, let’s get in formation,” Barbee-Watkins said. “This has to be a new day for PMA and the PC(USA),” as the church lives into a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

“Systemic change is hard work,” said Warren Lesane, chair of the PMA board. “Church transformation is difficult work. … We have built protections around everything we love. We won’t allow Jesus to change it, we won’t allow the Holy Spirit to move it, we won’t allow God herself to come in and break things up.”

Warren Lesane. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Lesane called the board to leadership — saying “Let’s not revert back to that Presbyterian immobility thing,” in which people protect sacred cows “even when the church is dying.”

Johnson called Presbyterians to live into personal transformation. “Don’t let this change start with the agency. Don’t let this change start with the institution. Let the change start within.”

The Oct. 6 meeting included some time for questions about the proposal.

Board member Kate Murphy, a pastor from Charlotte, wondered about the role of local congregations. Moffett said “locally situated action teams” would work with churches and presbyteries in certain communities.  With a more decentralized staff, “we can sense the context, we can smell the air, we can be in the setting” learning from local leaders, Moffett said. “Not everybody’s in Louisville” – at the PC(USA)’s national offices – “kind of giving orders.”

Hooker said the idea of “completely letting go and having no central point of direction — I think that’s a bridge too far” for Presbyterians. The idea is “much of the work is defined at the local context,” with central coordination of the work.

Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, said he loves the “bold vision of decentralization” and the idea of moving ministry work closer to “those who are hurting and where the church needs to be.”

But Spencer pointed out that the PC(USA) has “a very hierarchical, two-tiered mid council structure,” with both presbyteries and synods, and wonders “do we have barriers” with that kind of structure?

Others asked questions about General Assembly approval and the ripple effect of a PMA restructuring on other denominational agencies.

“We don’t stand alone,” Moffett said. While those conversations are just beginning, “we’ll get there. This is a huge, huge undertaking, but I believe it is Spirit-led and Spirit-infused.” 

After a closed-session discussion of Moffett’s performance evaluation, the board voted to recommend to the 2022 General Assembly that Moffett be re-elected to another term as PMA’s president and executive director.

Implicit bias training. Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee, a teacher at the Seattle Girls’ School, is conducting two two-hour training sessions for the board during this meeting on implicit and unconscious bias — an outgrowth of work that Marian Vasser, a consultant from the University of Louisville, did to evaluate power and privilege dynamics on the board.

Rosetta Lee. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Vasser’s report to the board in October 2020 spoke of “deeply-embedded hierarchies” on the board and in the PC(USA) that is “in direct conflict with innovation, diversity, inclusion and justice.”

So, the board brought in Lee – who for 25 years has conducted training sessions on implicit and unconscious bias for groups ranging from nurses to lawyers and real estate agents – to teach them about what research has shown about how unconscious bias can affect how people think and act, even when they’re not aware of it or think of themselves as fair-minded.

People will say, for example, “How bad is racism really these days? Come on, look at Oprah. Look at Obama.”

But she ran through research showing that people are affected by what people around their say and do; by their own blind spots; by selective perception and stereotyping, and much more.

Implicit biases act at a subconscious level — “we are not aware we have them,” she said. “We can say that we believe in equity,” but still behave in ways that are biased and discriminatory.

Some examples from the research:

  • Black children are often seen as older and less innocent than they really are. So “they might be doing the same shenanigans as any other 12 year old,” but are perceived as misbehaving teenagers. One example: in Cleveland, a police officer shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 when he was playing in a park with a toy gun.
  • When equal resumes are presented, people with names perceived as male get called for job interviews more frequently than those whose names appeared to be those of women. Those with names from the U.S. mainstream are called more often than those with foreign-sounding names. Those with white-sounding names are called more often than those with Black-sounding names (“Chip Adams more than Jamal Watson,” Lee said.)
  • People who are overweight are viewed as less productive and more lazy.
  • People with thick accents are seen as less knowledgeable.
  • People with physical disabilities are seen as less intelligent.

With effort and intentionality, attitudes can change, Lee said. “It is possible to shift it and pretty permanently, but it does take commitment and time and effort.”

Jeromey Howard. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Some examples of approaches for creating change:

  • Seek out the works, ideas and perspectives (books, music, film and more) of people from other communities.
  • Collect data. “We don’t know where our biases show up until we actually count and systematize,” Lee said. For example, she’s asked colleagues to come into her classroom and note which students she calls on, who she affirms and who she corrects. “I have discovered patterns that embarrassed me, but I needed to know,” Lee said.

In a closing devotion to that session, board member Jeromey Howard read from the 7th chapter of Revelation — where people gather from all tribes, all languages, all places. Howard said this was the first passage on which he ever tried the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina — and he imagined this crowd as a family reunion coming after a period of tribulation, where the fighting over power and resources, the pain of oppression and violence had finally ended.

Howard said he also found himself wondering about the church today. “Who do we favor? Who do we sideline in the church? Who do we make room for in leadership?” What about those with mental health challenges? People living in poverty? “How many homeless people do you have sitting on your session?”

His question echoed one that Lee had raised: “Are we going to turn our good intentions into action?”