Get ready for General Assembly 2022: 6 big-picture updates you will want to know

In the midst of a pandemic, global warming, economic uncertainty, the life-threatening realities of racism, waves of grief and stress and sometimes hope, it makes sense that Presbyterians have other things to think about than “what happened to all those reports that were coming to the 2020 General Assembly?”

Don’t worry. Other folks have been paying attention to big-picture concerns in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The changes contemplated in these high-level discussions are also likely to take a while — so there’s plenty of time to catch up. Here’s some of what folks concerned about the future of the denomination have been working on.

Merger. While the reports are still in draft stage, it’s likely that some sort of recommendation involving a proposed merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and Office of the General Assembly (OGA) will come to the 2022 General Assembly. This assembly probably won’t be asked to vote yes or no directly on merger, but to authorize some sort of committee or commission to study the possibility and report back in 2024.

That recommendation probably won’t use the word “merger.” Those involved in the discussions – mostly, representatives of the Moving Forward Implementation Special Committee and the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability – are using the language of “unifying” the agencies instead. “The language needs to be shifted away from merger,” said Mathew Eardley, a member of Moving Forward. “That’s a trigger word.”

The Per Capita and Financial Sustainability committee presented five recommendations to the 2020 General Assembly — including calling for a unified budget and recommending that PMA and OGA be unified into one agency. The 2020 assembly simply forwarded those recommendations to the 2022 assembly, part of a huge pile of business that the 2020 General Assembly did not take up when the pandemic forced it to meet virtually and the assembly voted to consider only a small list of critical business. Everything else was put in the queue for 2022. Some of the reports and overtures presented in 2020 may be withdrawn, revised, or new ones may be submitted — groups have until mid-February to finish their work. But recent discussions give some hints as to how things are shaping up.

As much as they can, the Moving Forward and Per Capita and Financial Sustainability committees want to find common ground and to support each other’s recommendations —particularly around the ideas of unifying the agencies and about the importance of moving towards developing a unified budget. When it can be avoided, it’s best not to have “competing recommendations,” said Kerry Rice, the PC(USA)’s deputy stated clerk.

Marco Grimaldo is co-moderator of the Moving Forward Special Implementation Committee. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

“My goodness, if we could agree on language, how much easier it would be for the General Assembly,” said Marco Grimaldo, co-moderator of Moving Forward. “If we could be on same page, holy moly, commissioners would love that,” Rice said.

Unified budget.  While there had been hope that PMA, OGA and the Administrative Services Group (ASG) would present a unified budget to the 2022 General Assembly – basically, one pot of money, with agreement on how that money would be spent – that is not going to happen. Instead, the three groups plan to do a unified budget presentation, as they did in 2020 — meaning each will have a separate budget and spending plan, but will present those budgets to the assembly in one document.

In 2020, the Moving Forward Implementation Special Commission took administrative action the day before the General Assembly convened to require top leaders from OGA, PMA and ASG to come together as a Coordinating Table and start those talks. That’s been happening — but by last summer, top denominational leaders had essentially decided that the best they could achieve was a unified budget presentation. With separate agencies, the task of trying to agree collectively on spending priorities in a single budget proved too difficult.

Despite that, some involved in these conversations still want the PC(USA) to move towards some sort of streamlining of the organizational structure and a commitment to developing a unified budget.

“Is the issue of a unified budget still relevant?” Grimaldo asked in December.  “I think that it is,” because such a budget would reflect a denomination with common values whose leaders work together to make decisions about priorities.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Grimaldo said. “It’s not going to save money overnight. But it might make us a stronger denomination. … It’s more than just the money” that’s at stake.

Having top denominational leaders working together to develop a unified budget “assumes there’s some congruity among the players in terms of values and priorities that can translate into a budget,” Kathy Lueckert, president of the PC(USA), A Corporation, told the Moving Forward committee in November. “A budget is essentially a statement of the values of the governing body that adopts it.” But within the PC(USA), there’s “not common agreement about what is mission and who does it. That’s a fairly key point we need to work out.”

Kathy Lueckert (Screen shot by Leslie Scanlon)

Can there be a unified budget without merging the agencies?

“Without some sort of organizational merger or structural mandate, I think common priorities are very difficult, with differing boards in control,” Rice said. And both Lueckert and Barry Creech, PMA’s director of policy, administration and board support, cautioned that some sort of merger wouldn’t necessarily and automatically lead to common values. “It’s just very, very messy,” Creech said. “A new structure will give you new problems too.”

Another question to be dealt with: What process will be used to develop budgets going forward?

In its June 2020 administrative action, the Moving Forward Implementation Special Commission suspended Appendix A of the Organization for Mission – the usual budget-development process  – to give more flexibility in the hopes that leaders would use that freedom to create a unified budget. Although that hasn’t happened, Moving Forward – which is now a committee and not a commission with the power to act on its own – may recommend that the 2022 assembly suspend Appendix A again for another two years.

By doing that, “it leaves the process flexible,” said Moving Forward member Eric Beene said.

After six years of being involved in these discussions in one form or another, it’s likely that “our committee ends in 2022,” said Moving Forward member James Tse. After that, “I don’t think we’re going to be the ones giving advice” about how the PC(USA) shapes its budgets.

Although a unified budget is not going to happen in 2022, members of Moving Forward still see a need for change, and will try to encourage the assembly to consider what structure and budget process is best for the church going forward — a subject that’s not necessarily flashy, but has real implications for setting mission priorities for the denomination.

“It’s about streamlining mission and ministry and making it easier for people in the pews to understand who we are,” Eardley said.

“This is big work which will take a long time,” said Ian Hall, the new chief financial officer and chief operating officer for the A Corporation. “You end up with a unified budget when you have a unified project.”

PMA restructuring.  One complexity in the discussions about possibly unifying PMA and OGA is the reality that PMA has begun a major restructuring effort of its own — more details of which will emerge at the Feb. 9-11 meeting of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.

Debra Avery, Moving Forward’s co-moderator, listened in on discussion of the plan at the October meeting of the PMA board. She said at Moving Forward’s next meeting that she was struck “by the way it felt the train was already in motion, and it was up to everybody to get on board the train.” Some PMA board members “had some really important questions” they didn’t get a chance to explore in that October meeting, Grimaldo said.

Debra Avery serves as co-moderator of the Moving Forward committee. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

Diane Moffett, PMA’s president and executive director, plans to present the next phases of the restructuring proposal in February. Moffett has said the restructuring could transform the PC(USA)’s work for the next generation — bringing the denomination more fully into its commitment to be a Matthew 25 church, decentralizing the agency and centering ministry with people on the margins.

Restricted funding. Despite the difficulty denominational leaders have had in working towards a unified budget, they have made progress in conversations about whether more flexibility might be possible in the way some restricted funds are spent. Many of those funds have restrictions that date back decades or even centuries — restrictions that do not necessarily reflect the landscape of the PC(USA) today.

A work group assigned to examine PC(USA) restricted funds has identified about $77,000 in funding that could potentially be used by OGA for the ecclesial work of the denomination – such as ecumenical relations or putting on the General Assembly – if we define this ecclesial work as “mission.” And the work group has identified seven funds worth about $5.8 million with restrictions the work group considers racist or to be against General Assembly policy. Figuring out whether some of those funds could legally be used for other purposes and then reaching agreement on what those uses might be is part of the collaborative work that lies ahead.

“We are spending much more time together than we ever had before,” working across agency lines on this issue, Creech told the Moving Forward committee. “That’s not always easy and we don’t always agree. We have to fight against decades of doing things in a particular way.”

 

But in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cross-agency work team came together to address the potential budgetary impact of the pandemic, safety precautions for staff members, and more — and denominational leaders saw the value of that kind of collaboration.

“COVID has made us think about everything in a different way,” and to realize that too often the leaders have been more narrowly focused “on the health and well-being of their agency, not necessarily the health and well-being of the whole,” Creech said.

Role of ASG. Another point of discussion has been what would the role be of ASG, which provides financial and support services for PC(USA) agencies, if some sort of unification or merger of OGA and PMA takes place.

Members of Moving Forward say they’ve been impressed by ASG’s work, and particularly by Lueckert’s leadership. ASG has the attitude of “how can we provide what you need?” said Tse, who led a Moving Forward subgroup that examined ASG’s work. “There were a ton of wonderful things said about Kathy” by the agencies that use ASG services, Tse said, although he cautioned about leaning too heavily on the skills of a particular leader.

James Tse (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

Two recommendations are likely to emerge from those discussions. One, to formalize a way – either through a contract or some other means – to ensure that PMA and OGA continue to use ASG’s services, as they have been required by Moving Forward to do up until now.

Two, a recommendation for increased financial support for technology. With the pandemic, “we have to use electronics more and more in the way we minister to people,” Tse said in December.

Other questions still on the table:

  • Should the Mission Engagement and Support ministry, responsible for fundraising for PMA and also now for supporting per capita, be moved from PMA to ASG?
  • And what should the mechanism be for the Diverse Voices Table – a staff group which considers issues of equity and inclusion in the PC(USA) – be for reporting to the General Assembly?

 

Per capita. It’s still unclear what long-term impact the COVID-19 pandemic might have on per capita giving. While mid council leaders say “anecdotally, there are concerns about per capita” – General Assembly per capita currently is set at $8.95 per member – the payment history so far in 2021 shows “we’re pretty much where we were pre-COVID,” Rice told the Moving Forward committee in late November. So far, per capita payments for 2021 are about what they were in 2019 — bouncing back from the drop in revenue during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. That reading is preliminary. “It may still be a little too early to tell,” Rice said.

Still, a per capita funding system in a numerically declining denomination is problematic. The PC(USA) has typically losing 3% to 4% of its members each year — the denomination’s membership has been declining since the 1960s. “Based on that, per capita’s going to go down” unless the assembly increases the per-member rate, Rice said.

The 2018 General Assembly created the Special Committee on Per Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability in part to address the concerns of mid council leaders who told of small, financially-stressed churches that were having trouble being able to pay their bills, afford pastoral leadership and pay per capita. As part of its work, the committee conducted listening sessions with representatives from all 16 synods and more than 100 presbyteries.

“While receipts of per capita have been reasonably steady in the past five years, our research made it clear that at the presbytery level, per capita as a funding model has become a burden to presbyteries over the last several decades,” the committee’s report to the 2020 General Assembly stated. “Presbyteries that have lost a significant number of congregations and membership have struggled to pay what is due, since the amount due is set by membership data that is two years old.”

At a November meeting, committee co-moderator Valerie Young said committee representatives have initiated some conversations with synod leaders about per capita in recent months, but it’s been difficult — “they’re busy, or in some ways have moved on from this conversation” because of the stresses and struggles of the pandemic.

Valerie Young serves as co-moderator of the Special Committee on Per Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

“Our presbytery leaders are exhausted — just downright exhausted,” said committee member Jeanne Radak, who leads the Presbytery of the Highlands of New Jersey. She knows of pastors who’ve left ministry because they’re worn out.

Mid council leaders are “stressed out worrying about helping congregations to fill their pulpits,” Young said, and some say they are beginning to see congregational donations declining.

With the PC(USA) growing smaller and feeling financial stress, and with no clear agreement on funding priorities, the restructuring conversations continue.

“Merger is probably a really good idea,” Grimaldo told the Per Capita and Financial Sustainability committee in November. “I think some things have gotten better” — he sees “a lot more collaboration by staff who are really trying to fill gaps.”

What hasn’t changed is that OGA and PMA are still “two different agencies with their own leadership,” Grimaldo said. “Their self-interest is in making decisions for themselves first, then finding ways to collaborate. … There are really different sets of priorities in the two agencies. So we really have to propose a new structure.”

Work will continue in January and February as these groups consider what recommendations to make to the 2022 General Assembly. The deadline for doing so is February 18.

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