Louisville, Kentucky – The Mid Councils Committee of the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) wrapped up its work on June 22, 2022, singing “Here I Am, Lord” as part of the closing communion worship. An apt hymn for those serving faithfully in the church, the committee’s work over the last several days centered around issues of equity, representation and inclusion.
Appointing ruling elder moderators to sessions and for moderators to attend meetings remotely
The committee voted 25-6 to amend and approve MC-05 to add language to G-3.0104 of the Book of Order to explicitly authorize presbyteries to appoint ruling elders as moderators of session and to allow moderators to attend session meetings remotely. Ordinarily, a minister of the Word and sacrament is to moderate session meetings, being either the pastor of the congregation or another minister appointed by presbytery. The Advisory Committee on the Constitution suggested the proposed language was redundant because any “person authorized by the presbytery” may serve as moderator, whether ordained or not. The committee did, however, believe that the pandemic has taught the church it needs to be flexible, opting to replace the proposed language deemed redundant by the ACC with one sentence: “It is appropriate for councils to adopt procedures that may allow for electronic session meetings.” Councils and committees of the church have been meeting electronically for over two years, with many continuing to do so.
Clarifying and expanding the ordination and role of ruling elders
The committee voted 32-0 to amend and approve MC-08 to amend G-2.1001 of the Book of Order to explicitly allow commissioned ruling elders to serve one or more congregations at a time both as pastor and moderator of session. The overture was born out of a Permanent Judicial Commission remedial case in the Synod of the Southwest that raised questions about a ruling elder being appointed by the Presbytery de Cristo to serve fifteen named congregations and sessions. Presbyteries have increasingly expressed a growing need to utilize ruling elders to serve remote and often smaller congregations unable to afford a minister of the Word and sacrament.
Item MC-10, establishing a task force to explore the theology and practice of ordaining ruling elders, was approved by the committee 29-3. The committee supported the idea and agreed with the need for such a task force. A deep and broad discussion started on Tuesday and did not conclude until Wednesday morning about adequate representation on the task force while balancing the ability of the General Assembly co-moderators to appoint people.
The committee was cautioned by resource staff from making the categories of people to serve overly prescriptive, referencing a committee formed by the 223rd General Assembly (2018) yet to be filled because people cannot be found to match the restrictive criteria.
To “reflect the breadth of the PC(USA),” the original overture called for the task force to include: “those who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), immigrant congregations, New Worshiping Communities, and middle governing body leadership.”
The committee added “immigrant fellowships” and the Committee on Theological Education. Other categories of people we discussed, including LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, small membership congregations, rural congregations, and “other minorities represented in our communities.” Ultimately, the committee chose to keep the list shorter to give the co-moderators more leeway in appointing members, and before the list added: “shall include, but not be limited to.”
The task force is to report to the 226th General Assembly in 2024.
Inclusion of immigrant and non-chartered fellowships
The committee voted 26-4 to approve MC-07 directing the Office of the General Assembly to “develop guidelines for chartering Immigrant Fellowships, Worshiping Communities, and New Church Developments” so they may ordain ruling elders, establish sessions, and thereby have direct voice in the mid councils of the denomination.
The rationale from the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC) stated that as the PC(USA) “is making efforts to become a more racially inclusive denomination while its membership is still approximately 90 percent white,” many worshipers in the denomination in uncharted worshiping communities are left out of denominational statistics and discussions about the direction of the denomination.
Denise Anderson from the Presbyterian Mission Agency told the committee that obstacles to chartering churches include the amount of money required to pay for the process and leaders in some of these immigrant communities are required to undergo new ordination processes, even if previously ordained by another denomination or church.
Related to the chartering of various types of worshiping communities, including those started by the General Assembly’s “1001 New Worshiping Communities” initiative, the committee members voted 29-2 to use their decisions on MC-07 to answer MC-01, which calls for the means by which non-chartered fellowships such as those listed above can be counted as “churches” in denominational reports and statistical data. According to the rationale provided by the Presbytery of Nevada, the National Filipino Presbyterian Council first identified the inconsistency “between the biblical mandate of inclusion and being counted with the effect of reporting statistics only on chartered congregations.” The presbytery also referenced the National Asian Presbyterian Council stated difficulty of their voices being heard and counted in the work of presbyteries and synods, despite being deeply involved in ministries relating to immigrants and justice among people of diverse backgrounds.
Establishing a nongeographical Korean presbytery in the west
The committee voted 26-2 to disapprove MC-04 from the Presbytery of the Northwest Coast, calling for the establishment of a nongeographical Korean presbytery in the western U.S. The committee received a letter from the presbytery explaining that they attempted to rescind their overture but missed the deadline. The presbytery requested the GA disapprove the overture at this time.
Expanding Membership in Synods
The committee made quick work of MC-06, voting 30-2 to approve amending G-3.0401 to expand who synods may enroll as members to be more inclusive and allow more participation of the wider church. After advice from Gregg Goodwiller of the Advisory Council on the Constitution (ACC), the committee amended the overture to more explicitly state that synods may enroll any minister of the Word and sacrament or ruling elder, in as nearly as possible equal numbers, in order to fulfill “the principles of participation and representation, and may include a voting member from each of the synod’s racial ethnic active leadership.”
Synod of the Covenant
Item MC-09 was a report and recommendation from an administrative commission (AC) formed by the 223rd General Assembly (2018) to address “disorder” in the Synod of the Covenant. The AC began its work in March 2019 and “found significant systemic dysfunction with no apparent ability to resolve or mediate conflicts within the system.” Assuming original jurisdiction in February 2020, the AC replaced synod staff and sought the consultation of a law firm and auditing firm.
Two years later, after making several significant changes to the structures and operations of the synod, the AC reported the Synod of the Covenant “has a renewed sense of purpose and shared vision.”
Ben McConaughy, ruling elder from Seattle Presbytery and member of the AC, shared with the committee, “It is with great joy that we report that our work and the work of the people and leadership of the Synod of the Covenant since the last assembly has yielded abundant fruit.” McConaughy went on to report that the synod is functioning and “flourishing in a sustainable way.”
The AC is now asking the 225th GA to return jurisdiction back to the synod, effective October 9, 2022, but retain limited jurisdiction to allow the AC to finish some ongoing legal processes which should be completed before the 226th General Assembly (2024). According to McConaughy, providing the limited jurisdiction will allow the synod to continue moving forward “without being distracted by past disputes.”
Board of Pensions inclusion of mid-council staff in pastor participation plan
The committee voted 32-0 to approve a slightly amended and more mildly stated MC-02, which calls on the Board of Pensions to allow mid-council executive staff the option of enrolling in the same pension and medical plan as pastors, whether they are teaching or ruling elders. The issue arose when one synod hired a new ruling elder executive but was forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars more for medical benefits through the Board of Pensions than they would have had they hired a minister of the Word and sacrament.
The original overture “directed” the Board of Pensions to do so. But as has been debated at many previous general assemblies, unlike other agencies that make up the PC(USA), the denomination’s memorandum of understanding with the Board of Pensions states that the board is “not supervised or subject to the oversight of the General Assembly Council.”
Frank Spencer, co-president of the Board of Pensions, told the committee, “I very much appreciate the sentiment [of this overture]. … We want as many people as possible to have benefits.” He raised concerns over the financial implications for the Board of Pensions and the ability to keep the costs of the plans offered as low as possible. In 2017 the board started offering a menu-style plan for those not in the pastor participation plan, which is exclusively for those who fall under the IRS classification of “clergy.” The menu plan made the benefits the Board of Pensions is able to offer available and more affordable to more people as churches and mid councils could select which benefits they were able to offer while keeping costs down for their employees.
Spencer reiterated that the Board of Pensions cannot be instructed or directed by the General Assembly. Further, it is bound to federal IRS policies that treat “clergy” differently and may not allow “non-clergy” to be included in the pastors benefit plan. He assured the committee that the issue presented by MC-02 will be included in the upcoming 18-month policy review process that that is to begin in 2023.
Incidentally, Commissioner Resolution GA-PAP-22 will be before the General Assembly Entity Policies and Procedures Committee beginning June 29, 2022, which seeks to change the terms of the memorandum of understanding between the Board of Pensions and the PC(USA), bringing the board under the oversight of the General Assembly similar to other agencies of the denomination.
J. Herbert Nelson, II, stated clerk of the General Assembly, addressed the committee on this issue, stating that this “is an ecclesial matter. It is not a financial matter.” He stressed that it “becomes how do we, as members of the Presbyterian Church, deal with our employees, particularly those who have been called by ministry.” He ended his statement saying, “With all due respect to the pension board and the work it is doing in this time … [t]his has to do with how we deal with our ecclesiology; how do we deal with what the purpose of the church is.”
Ultimately the committee recommended approval of the overture, softening the language to “encourage,” rather than “direct,” the Board of Pensions to “prayerfully consider” including synod staff in the pastors’ benefits plan.
Presbyteries to define minimums for pastor severances
The committee voted 17-14 after less than twenty minutes of discussion on June 21, 2022, to disapprove MC-03 on amending G-3.0303c of the Book of Order to require presbyteries to set minimums for severance payments to pastors upon dissolution of their pastoral relationship with a congregation, much like they are directed to do so for pastor salaries in G-2.0804.
Twenty-six presbyteries concurred on the overture, though concurrence does not necessarily indicate agreement. A concurrence merely indicates those presbyteries believe the item is worthy of discussion.
The ACC recommends disapproval and believes the overture is unnecessary as presbyteries are already required to negotiate and approve any dissolution agreements between pastors and congregations.
Advocates and some commissioners shared concerns over the inequity among dissolution packages without guidelines to follow. Every agreement is negotiated separately and in isolation. According to overture advocates, the current environment leaves pastors with no recourse other than to either accept a sub-par severance or refuse it. If there is no severance agreement, there is nothing a presbytery can do to make the church pay the departing pastor. Advocates believe requiring presbyteries to develop minimums for severances would help alleviate the inequity.
The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) advises approval of MC-03, sharing the same concerns for equity by establishing presbytery minimums for severance pay, similar to the mandate and authority given to presbyteries to set minimums for pastor salaries in G-2.0804.
Sue Smith, co-chair of ACSWP, told the committee, “There has been long time discussion around this Presbyterian Church around pay equity, and we just look at severance as another piece of pay. So, to make sure that presbyteries are ensuring there is equity even in this piece of pay is important.”
At the end of the day, several commissioners expressed frustration with the speed of the discussion and action on MC-03, which was less than 20 minutes, not including a brief break in the middle. They were trying to put together an opposition to the disapproval but felt they did not have time to act. As a result of the rather close vote on disapproval and the dissenting commissioners’ concerns, a commissioner on the prevailing side of the previous vote, as is required by “Roberts Rules of Order,” offered a motion to reconsider that was overwhelmingly passed.
The committee took up the reconsideration of MC-03 the next morning on June 22, 2022. An amendment was made based on other advice from the ACC to align the language of the overture with other parts of the Book of Order and to include both installed pastors and “those serving in temporary pastoral service.” After some discussion, the amended overture was unanimously recommended for approval 32-0.
Memorializing non-ordained servants at GA
The committee voted 21-10 to recommend referral to the Committee on the Office General Assembly (COGA) item MC-11, a commissioner resolution seeking to memorialize “non-ordained servants of the church” at General Assembly, in addition to teaching elders who are already memorialized. The biggest roadblock for the resolution was the logistics of collecting so many names from every mid-council and presenting them in a timely matter at GA. The referral includes a request for COGA to work in coordination with the writer of the resolution.
Review of Synod Minutes
The final item for business for the committee was reviewing the minutes of the synods of the PC(USA). Throughout the three days the committee was presented with video and written reports from the synods, highlighting the work and ministries of each.
Tricia Dykers-Koenig, associate stated clerk of the GA and committee resource person, informed the committee that it will act on the minutes on behalf of the assembly and will not need to go before the assembly for approval unless something warrants it.
The committee voted to recommend to the assembly that all minutes of the synods, including all exceptions, comments, and corrective actions ordered, be approved, except for the minutes of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest.
Synod of Alaska-Northwest
At the 224th General Assembly (2020) an exception was noted in the minutes of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest that a financial review, as required by G-3.0105, was missing. The exception this year noted that the synod has still failed to conduct a financial review. The committee voted 30-0 on MC-12, a late addition to the business, to recommend to the assembly approval of a plan suggested by the synod stated clerk peer review process to direct the Synod of Alaska-Northwest to conduct a financial review. If the synod fails to do so, the Stated Clerk of the GA would be authorized to request the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to conduct a Special Administrative Review of the synod and, “if warranted, propose further actions to the 226th General Assembly (2024).”