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Should PC(USA) Special Offerings be revised? Presbyterian Mission Agency Board considers that, climate change recommendation and more

Change is hard.

The Special Offerings Review Task Force, which has been working for the past four years to review the four Special Offerings of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is recommending no change in One Great Hour of Sharing – which supports Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and Self Development of People. One Great Hour of Sharing is “the most popular, best understood, and well-supported” of the four offerings, the task force report states.

But the task force is recommending that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board consider a “comprehensive reshaping” of the other three Special Offerings – the Pentecost Offering, the Peace & Global Witness Offering, and the Christmas Joy Offering – to give each a more unified vision and to more closely align those offerings with the Matthew 25 initiative of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).

The offerings need revision, the task force contends. “The warning signs have been there for decades,” Linda Badger Becker, the chair of the task force, told the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board during its Zoom meeting Feb. 11. “Sadly, many of us would rather just not look up.”

The task force report (P.102 Special Offerings Task Force Report) states: “Everything is not fine. … While we acknowledge that each of the program areas are doing valuable ministry, opportunities for making a significant impact are being missed.”

Linda Badger Becker, making a report to the board at an earlier meeting. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

In recommending change, the task force expected resistance from groups that currently receive funding from the Special Offerings, she said. But last fall, the task force also realized that PMA is beginning a comprehensive restructuring program – and it’s hard to make recommendations for change “when that structure may change,” Becker said.

So, after four years of the task force’s work, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted Feb. 11 to consider some sort of comprehensive reshaping of those three Special Offerings – and to refer that work to the next Special Offerings Task Force, which the board will appoint in the fall of 2022.

As expected, there was pushback to the proposal for reshaping the offerings.

Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, spoke of the value of the Board of Pensions’ Assistance Program, which the Christmas Joy Offering supports. That program helps active and retired members of the Board of Pensions benefits plan who need emergency assistance. “It would be a profound misstep” not to help retirees, their families and others who have financial need, Spencer said, saying grants through that program do help people experiencing poverty and allow them to live “with some modicum of independence and dignity.”

Frank Spencer serves as president of the Board of Pensions. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

Shannan Vance-Ocampo, chair-elect of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, said the assistance program is only available to participants in the Board of Pensions pension and medical plans, but said other church workers who aren’t plan participants can’t access it “because of systemic racism or systemic sexism. … We are by nature excluding a number of people, most usually persons of color and women, who serve the church.”

Spencer responded that the Board of Pensions has worked to expand participation in the plan – but participation also is a function of congregational and presbytery decision-making.

“We need to deal with this as a denomination,” Vance-Ocampo said. “If we don’t hold congregations and presbyteries accountable for issues of equity and inclusion, it’s not going to happen.”

Kate Murphy, a board member and pastor from Charlotte, North Carolina, said she also sees the need for revising the Special Offerings.

“We can’t hold on to everything we’ve ever done before,” Murphy said – quoting Gregory Bentley, co-moderator of the 2020 General Assembly, who said earlier in the meeting that he sees the PC(USA) “seriously divesting ourselves of an empire consciousness and taking on a kin-dom consciousness.”

Bentley said he has two peach trees in his back yard, and “the peach tree’s job is to bear fruit,” just like the church is called to fruitfulness. But it’s necessary to prune the trees. Often, the church is focused on property and money, when “there’s something even more important. What is God up to?”

Gregory Bentley

In the pruning, “you take something away so you get something better from it,” Bentley said.  Pruning causes temporary injury to the tree, takes something away, “so you can get better fruit from it.”

Murphy called for some Special Offerings pruning.

Four times a year, Special Offerings sends “a huge box of highly-produced resources” to her church, which is essentially saying, “Give us your money, and we will go do this work for you and in your name,” she said. The model is that “we feed our resources up the chain, and people at the top decide ‘Here is the right place to do mission.’”

Kate Murphy

What about her church giving that money instead to local organizations doing good work – to  provide a family with rent assistance or help a single mom who needs to buy books for school? Why not send the money “straight out into our community with no Presbyterian stamp on it?” Murphy asked. “That’s yeast” for building relationships.

“I do think it’s time for radical change,” Murphy said. “You can’t have radical change, and not change.”

The board also voted Feb. 11 on a series of other items.

Climate change. The board approved a report from the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) recommending that the PC(USA) divest from five oil and gas companies that MRTI says are not making sufficient progress in preventing global warming. MRT is asking the 2022 General Assembly to authorize PC(USA) divestment from five companies – Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Valero Energy. MRTI has attempted to use corporate engagement strategies to negotiate with those companies to do more, but say the companies have not done enough, according to the metrics MRTI uses to measure how well or poorly companies are doing.

The assembly also will consider at least six other proposals addressing climate change – including an overture from Hudson River Presbytery calling for the PC(USA) to divest completely from the fossil fuel industry.

Will the companies see the divestiture action as “a fierce nudge to comply?” asked board member Michelle Hwang.

Rob Fohr is the PC(USA)’s director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement.

The recommendation is made after “a lot of engagement has been done,” said Rob Fohr, the PC(USA)’s director of faith-based investment and corporate engagement. The companies named “would take some reputation risk,” and there’s a chance the Presbyterian action could influence other investors to take notice and act similarly.

Mission Work Plan. The board approved a new Mission Work Plan that continues the Matthew 25 emphases on congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and ending systemic poverty. It also adds three intersectional priorities: gender discrimination/heteropatriarchy, militarism, and climate change. That Mission Work plan now will go to the 2022 General Assembly for its approval.

Funding. The board allocated $6.5 million from its unrestricted reserves to a board designated fund, to create an Office of Innovation, Discernment and Visioning, a Center for the Repair of Historical Harms, and to fund start-up costs for the Vision Implementation Plan over the five years from 2022 to 2026. (For that report: A.001 RAS Committee Report 01-31-2022) 

The Center for the Repair of Historical Harms is “for the entire church,” said Diane Moffett, PMA’s president and executive director. “What does it mean to repair and to make those historical harms whole again? … This is for people who don’t want to sit in the seat of guilt. They want to move.”

Working to address historical harms “is for the whole church,” said Diane Moffett, PMA’s president and executive director.

An example: an overture coming to the 2022 assembly asking for action to “meaningfully address the wounds” inflicted on Alaska Native people by the 1963 closure of Memorial Presbyterian Church, a multiethnic congregation in Juneau, Alaska. That church, established to serve the Tlingit community, had become multiethnic, but it was closed and its members told to join the nearly all-White Northern Light Presbyterian Church.

While called a merger, “it was the Tlinglit church that gave up their pastor,” said Corey Schlosser-Hall, PMA’s new director of rebuilding and vision implementation, and former executive presbyter of Northwest Coast Presbytery. “It was the Tlinglit church that gave up their property.” Now, a plan for repair is coming for the assembly’s consideration.

The board also voted to provide:

  • $1.5 million to the Office of the General Assembly to help with its 2023-2024 budget. “The work of OGA cannot be accomplished within the parameters of the projected GA per capita budget,” a report states;
  • $1 million to the Administrative Services Group to help pay the cost of renovating the first floor of the PC(USA) office building in downtown Louisville – a renovation needed to host committee meetings of the 2022 General Assembly;
  • $246,000 to help cover COVID-19 related expenses expected for the 2022 Presbyterian Youth Triennium.

Salary increases. The board approved a 3% salary increase for PMA employees, effective April 1.