Gratitude, celebration and a caution for General Assembly

Gratitude, celebration and a caution for General Assembly. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Gratitude and celebration of service was an unofficial theme of the last day of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) Board’s April 27-29 meeting.

Another one: don’t let the 2022 General Assembly form a commission to unify PMA and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).

Gregory Bentley, co-moderator of the 2020 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), sounded the theme of gratitude for the work that PMA is undertaking.

“The work you are doing, I believe in the depth of my soul and the marrow of my bones, has the transformative potential to lead the PC(USA) into an era of thriving and flourishing the likes of which we haven’t seen before,” Bentley said in making his report. “So stay with it, and keep pushing.”

Warren Lesane, who is finishing up his term as chair of the PMA board, praised the agency’s Mathew 25 initiative, saying: “We are in it hook, line and sinker.”

Lesane pushed repeatedly on the idea that Matthew 25 provides the vision that the PC(USA) needs. When PMA held a consultation with mid council leaders several years ago in Baltimore, “what we heard unanimously from them — Matthew 25. Don’t change it for next year. Let it run five years, 10 years, 20 years.”

Warren Lesane. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

And Lesane said “we like this whole idea of consultants” — hiring an outside consultant to assist PMA and OGA in finding areas of collaboration, rather than forming a commission with the power to unify the agencies, echoing what PMA is saying in its formal comment in response to a recommendation from the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability, that the General Assembly form a commission to oversee and facilitate the unification of PMA and OGA into a single agency.

So vision over structure, he said. Consultants over a commission.

“We like this whole idea of consultants. Sometimes when you put a commission together, you run the chance of getting folk who are just tired. And they’ve got axes to grind. Because maybe of a hurt or an injury or a memory of an old tape, years ago. … Consultants already know the important phases and steps and the due diligence process that we need in order to bring the bodies together to develop that common vision and direction.”

Lesane also said: “We hope that the whole church, all commissioners, will be in prayer. Because when you try to merge something that does not fit, doesn’t want it … you create a mess. … You create an atmosphere that the church is not doing the ministry is called to do.”

Bentley stressed the importance of the Matthew 25 commitments to congregational vitality, ending systemic poverty and combating structural racism.

Bentley, who is a pastor from Alabama, said he recently participated in a ceremony renaming a 22-mile stretch in Lowndes County, Alabama, to honor the role that Robert “Bob” Mants Jr. played in the civil rights movement in the region.

Two legal cases that emerged from that work challenged the rules for jury selection in the area, at a time when only White men were permitted to serve, and policies that did not permit tenure for teachers. “You could just be fired willy-nilly, for no reason at all,” Bentley said. Those involved “did this a witness to the love and justice of Jesus Christ” — they did this as an extension of their faith, not because they saw themselves as activists, he said. They called themselves Freedom Fighters because they were fighting for the freedom of all oppressed people.

Gregory Bentley. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

There’s a lesson in that for congregational vitality — one of the pillars of the Matthew 25 program, Bentley said. “We have vital congregations when we have people who are invested and involved in the well-being of society. It’s not a holy huddle. … It’s the church spilling out into the community to be invested and involved, to put our hands in the soul and create a better world.”

Part of the work on this last day of the board’s Zoom meeting dealt with a plan to realign the board itself, beginning at the end of the 2022 General Assembly.

The plan the board voted to approve calls for the PMA board to:

  • Have two co-chairs – with Shannan Vance-Ocampo and Michelle Hwang being installed in those roles.
  • Have two permanent committees (a coordinating committee and an administrative committee) and two flexible committees (Matthew 25 Advancement and Vision Implementation).
  • Limit the number of assignments of board members to other church committees to one each — a reflection that the PMA board now is smaller than in the past, so additional service with few people was becoming onerous.

Vance-Ocampo spoke of the honor of serving on the PMA board, saying “we’ve made a lot of big changes” over the last year in direction and in the staff, “digging in more deeply to the Matthew 25 ministry” —and saying she looks forward to doing more of that work.

“I am really humbled by this,” Hwang said. “I see the gravity of the responsibility. … There are plenty of stories in the Bible about uncertain futures. The bottom line is God is always with God’s people.”

And Hwang praised PMA’s “immensely talented” staff and Diane Moffett, PMA’s president and executive director, “for a passion that I have not seen in quite a long time. It is contagious.”

The board also honored board members who are completing their service at this meeting —Lesane, Floretta Barbee-Watkins, Bong Bringas, Kenneth Godshall, Sinthia Hernandez-Diaz, Kathy Maurer, ecumenical delegate Yvette Noble-Bloomfield, James Parks, Brenton Thompson, Judith Wellington, Tamara Williams and Nicholas Yoda.

Judith Wellington. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Some of those rotating off the board offered words of their own — with Wellington praising the breadth and talent of the staff, and Maurer saying “we have been on a journey, and I am so grateful, so grateful for it.”

Noble-Bloomfield, representing the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, thanked the board for giving her the space “to allow me to be this Caribbean woman in your midst.” And she said of the three pillars of Matthew 25: “They have rocked your church.”

Williams praised the board especially for calling Moffett to serve as PMA’s leader, saying “that just started us on the right path.” She said she will pray “that God will continue to bless this church, this denomination, that we will be just busting at the seams” as Presbyterians spread the word of Jesus Christ.

Repeatedly during this meeting, worship leaders and others have become tearful — knowing their time with the PMA community is ending. In offering her thanks, particularly to Lesane, Moffett said “my tears are tears of joy and tears of gratitude.”