The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly ponders finances, organizational structure of the PC(USA)

It began as a discussion on small details: what comments the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) should make on specific recommendations coming to the 2022 General Assembly.

But it expanded to show how some very technical discussions about church finances and organizational structure are related, at the heart of things, to essential questions about the future, health and ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Can a denomination with 1.19 million members in 2021 – down from 1.24 million members in 2020 – still be organized and financed in the same way as it was when the northern and southern streams of the church reunited in the 1980s and the PC(USA) had three million members?

And what will the next few years bring?

Some of the discussion during COGA’s hybrid meeting April 19 had to do with a report coming to the assembly from the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability that includes a recommendation that the assembly create a commission to “oversee and facilitate” the unification of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). The Moving Forward Special Implementation Committee also has voted to approve a comment supporting the “fundamental concept of unification” of OGA and PMA.

COGA is trying to decide what comments to make about that and other recommendations coming to this assembly.

One recommendation from Moving Forward would move the Mission Engagement and Support office – responsible for funds development – from PMA to the Administrative Services Group in the PC(USA), A Corporation. Chances are, most Presbyterians would never give that issue a second thought.

Diane Moffett

But Diane Moffett, president and executive director of PMA, argued that “money follows ministry,” and that funds development is a ministry function, not a corporate one. “As we tell the story of mission, people begin to respond and they get excited,” Moffett said. “We go out and spread the news of what our church is doing. … When we tell that story, Presbyterians are generous.”

But OGA depends primarily on per capita funding — the per-member rate that the General Assembly sets (currently at $8.89 per member). And with a denomination continually losing members, that stream of funding remains precarious and the budget will decline, unless the assembly agrees year after year to raise the per capita rate, which some congregations contend they cannot afford. COGA has been discussing a draft proposal for increasing the per capita rate for 2023 and 2024, with a vote to come on May 2.

As part of its effort to educate Presbyterians on these issues, the Special Committee on Per Capita and National Church Financial Sustainability Special Committee released a second video on April 19, explaining the impact of per capita on presbyteries, and has created a website giving information about its report and recommendations.

A memorandum of understanding has been struck so that Mission Engagement and Support does now try to raise support for per capita as well as for mission funding. Collaboration is increasing with the message that PMA and OGA are “sibling agencies” – one for mission and one for the ecclesial work of the denomination – and supporting the concept of “funding for one church,” said Shannan Vance-Ocampo, chair-elect of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.

But that still won’t solve the underlying problem — the question of the financial sustainability of the per capita funding system, said COGA member Dave Davis, a pastor from New Jersey. “I understand that funds follow mission, but the constitutional functioning of the church isn’t as enticing as funding World Mission or Matthew 25,” he said. “Redistribution of resources is what’s necessary, not going out and finding more money.”

Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson bows his head for prayer at the 223rd General Assembly (2018) in St. Louis. Photo by Danny Bolin

J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), contends that a shortage of funds is not the crux of the problem. “We are not a poor denomination,” Nelson said. “We have entities that have billions of dollars. It is not a problem of money. It is a problem of distribution and sharing.”

COGA member Sam Bonner said he wants to cut away the brush from these convoluted conversations “so we can see what our real, true mission is” — to focus on the most important work of the PC(USA) and the ways the denomination can become more relevant.

“We’ve been called to do this work, to embody who Jesus is,” to tell a narrative of discipleship, Moffett said. Even though many pastors are exhausted from the COVID-19 pandemic, many congregations are doing important work of justice and repair, she said. “What are we doing to make sure the church is bearing witness in a very polarized world? … We have such an opportunity to be a healing power and a healing force.”

Instead of focusing on that – on mission and a vision for ministry – “we’re always talking about the structure and the money,” Moffett said. The PC(USA) needs to be listening, discerning, innovating, to be open to the spirit. “At the end of the day, that’s where our real work is,” Moffett said. “Now I’m preaching!”

Nelson voiced his frustration that ever since he was first elected as the PC(USA)’s chief ecclesial officer in in 2016, there has always been some commission to which he has to answer.

That takes away, he said, from a focus on the needs of congregations — citing a church in St. Louis he visited recently on a family trip that is “a shell of what it used to be, basically because of the recent pandemic.”

Dave Davis. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

The commissions working at the top levels of the church – the Way Forward, then Moving Forward, now possibly a new commission considering merger – in some ways “do suck up a lot of the energy,” Nelson said. “I’ve been under commissions since the day I got here.”

Constantly having to respond to questions for information from commissions erodes the ability “to be creative, to be restorative,” he said. “When they make a demand, you have to be there,” Nelson said, “It’s hand-tying,” while churches like the one he visited in St. Louis are “in recovery mode, in intensive care” and people on the margins need the church’s attention.

COGA vice-moderator Eliana Maxim said she’s come to see that an “antiquated structure that has outlived its purpose and even ossified really can stymie the mission and the new vision that we have. I feel that definitely is the place we are at right now. … We have energetic, visionary leaders across the country. And we still have a leftover structure that we inherited from reunion still dictating how we live out that mission.”

The recommendation coming to this assembly calls for the General Assembly to create a commission with the power to make change in budgets and structures for PMA and OGA. While it may be difficult to consider all the work that would involve, “I don’t see another way for us to do that wholesale change without a commission,” Maxim said.

There already are suggestions for revising the process being considered — including a proposed comment the PMA board will consider at its Zoom meeting April 27-29 that says any new commission should spend at least two years working on “a single vision for the national church,” bringing that vision statement back to the General Assembly in 2024 for its approval before taking on any issues of structure.

Blythe Kieffer. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

For General Assembly commissioners, there’s a concern that all this technical detail may feel overwhelming. Yet underlying all these questions about structure and finances is a commitment to doing the work of the church.

COGA member Blythe Kieffer, a pastor from Illinois, said she knows that “we mourn about the fact that we are a smaller denomination” than in the past. But “I think we’re smaller because of some of the bold, wonderful statements and commitment we’ve made as to who Jesus Christ is. We are a more inclusive denomination than many of the denominations that are popping and growing. … I am grateful that we affirm women. That we affirm our siblings of color,” people who are transgender, LGBTQ people.

Because of those commitments to inclusivity, Kieffer sees people coming to her congregation who have not been previously involved with church. “Because of that openness, I am proud of who we are. I say a million two (members) is wonderful,” Kieffer said, even if a smaller size brings its own financial challenges.

COGA is expected to vote on the comments it will make to the 2022 General Assembly when its hybrid meeting continues April 20.