A struggle for a common PC(USA) vision

The Coordinating Table meets on Jan. 13. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Top denominational leaders had some honest talk on Jan. 13 about what has worked, and what hasn’t, in their efforts to collaborate in shaping the budgets of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

There will be no unified budget – with all the revenues and funding priorities combined in one bucket – for 2023 and 2024. Instead, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Office of the General Assembly and Administrative Services Group will each have their own separate budgets, albeit presented jointly to the 2022 General Assembly.

And the work of finding a common vision for the PC(USA) will only get more difficult as resources become scarcer and hard decisions have to be made about what gets funded and what does not, church leaders said.

Members of the Coordinating Table – a group of 15, made up of top leaders and board and staff representatives from each of those entities – acknowledged in a Jan. 13 Zoom meeting (which had the feel of perhaps being the group’s final meeting) that while there has been increased collaboration across agencies, the work has proved difficult because there’s no shared understanding of what matters most.

In an administrative action taken the day before the 2020 General Assembly convened, the Moving Forward Implementation Commission required that the Coordinating Table be created and that church leaders work towards drafting a unified budget. That may have put the cart before the horse, because “we don’t have an understanding of ourselves as one body,” said Stephanie Anthony, moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA).

Heidi Bolt represents the PC(USA), A Corporation Board on the Coordinating Table. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Anthony spoke of the frustration of “being brought together by an outside entity” – Moving Forward – and being “given a task that didn’t get at the crux of what needed to happen first … The task may have been impossible from the beginning without dealing with the underlying issues.”

Eliana Maxim, COGA’s vice-moderator, said “it would be inauthentic of us to ascribe a lot of our challenges to the pandemic. We’ve struggled with this for decades. … We’ve never been able to have a real, honest conversation about our identity as a denomination, as agencies, how we relate to one another, and the way we are being forced to change because times are changing.”

With declining numbers and tight finances, the national church will face many of the same challenges many congregations already are, said Maxim, who is co-executive of Seattle Presbytery. “They run out of options for how they can address they can address the situation,” she said. “Our runway keeps getting smaller and smaller” for making systemic change. At some point, “it will be forced upon us. The financial realities, the structural realties — those will take precedent over everything else.”

Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said: “Sometimes money drives us.” When the PC(USA) had more resources, “there wasn’t the sense of having an aligned vision and a focus to do this ministry together across the church” that there is now. People focus on money — when there are significant questions as well about where and how the church is growing and how disciples are being formed, she said.

Warren Lesane, chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, recommended a Henri Nouwen book, A Spirituality of Fundraising. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

When there’s not enough money, “hard decisions have to be made,” said Marco Grimaldo, co-moderator with Debra Avery of the Moving Forward Implementation Special Committee. Moving Forward and other groups considering the future of the church are deep into work drafting recommendations to the 2022 General Assembly — reports which are expected to include a recommendation regarding unifying or merging the Office of the General Assembly and Presbyterian Mission Agency.

While Moving Forward likely will conclude its work in 2022, “let’s be clear,” Grimaldo said. The Coordinating Table was created because a series of review groups concluded over the last half-dozen years that “we could do better work if we did it together.” He urged denominational leaders to come up with “a process that works for you” for continued collaboration — saying, “It’s up to all of you.”

While the work has sometimes felt “like spinning wheels in deep mud,” the effort has had the effect of “having all of us struggle together,” Avery said.

“I’m a big fan of struggle,” she said. “In the struggle, we find growth.”