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Polity Committee recommends requiring new policies on anti-racism training and non-sexual harassment

Also approved: a recommendation to recognize the ordinations of immigrant pastors

Commissioners on the Polity Committee meet in small groups for discussion. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Louisville, Kentucky — The Polity Committee voted July 22 to recommend that the 2022 General Assembly approve a proposed amendment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) constitution that would require each council of the church (including sessions of congregations and mid councils) to adopt and implement two additional policies – an anti-racism policy and a non-sexual harassment policy.

Councils already are required to have policies regarding sexual harassment and misconduct, and child and youth protection.

Ryan Obray (YAAD-Florida) in the Polity Committee. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

In a series of votes, the Polity Committee removed from its recommendation, however, proposed language that would have called for the anti-racism policy to include “suggested training for all members of each council” or for “an anti-racism policy to include training on dismantling structural and systemic racism.”

The committee used its action on POL-10 to also answer another overture, POL-17.

By removing language suggesting that councils provide training for all members, “I feel this is the simplest way to have a starting point for what we’re trying to achieve,” said Jasmine Smart, a minister from Detroit Presbytery. “We hope that training would come after the fact,” as churches and presbyteries develop their policies.

Some commissioners raised questions about how required anti-racism training would work.

If anti-racism training is mandatory for congregations and mid councils, how will the PC(USA) measure the effectiveness, asked Scott Riker, a ruling elder from Highlands Presbytery.

“That is a great question, said Anna Kendig Flores, co-moderator of the General Assembly Committee on Representation. “What is the purpose of mandatory training if we don’t understand the effectiveness of it for the long term? … Do we even have those structures” in the church to keep track? Is that something the PC(USA) should address?

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) had recommended removing the suggestion for training of all members on the anti-racism policy.

“The constitution is not intended to be a manual of operations,” said Barbara Bundick of the ACC. “I’m not saying it’s not important, but it should be implemented in some way other than in the text of the Book of Order.”

The action the committee took, by a 25-3 vote, also:

  • Suggested that the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) create or provide template policies for councils of the church to use or adopt.
  • Added a comment to say that it recommends that PMA use an updated version of the “Standards of Ethical Conduct,” which the General Assembly approved in 1998, in developing those policies.

Kyle Jackson, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific, said he likes the idea of suggesting anti-racism training, but not requiring it. “We would never want to mandate training, because it could result in a backlash, some discomfort,” he said. The Matthew 25 initiative, which includes an emphasis on dismantling structural racism, includes educational materials about structural and institutional racism that will be ongoing, Jackson said, and are valuable for congregations and presbyteries wanting to do this work.

Sally Herlong, a minister from the Presbytery of Charlotte, argued unsuccessfully for keeping language in the proposed amendment referring directly to structural and systemic racism.

Fred Powell-Haig, a minister from the Presbytery of Tropical Florida said many Presbyterian congregations “don’t have a clue” about what structural racism is.

“The time is now,” Herlong said. “I don’t want it to be watered down. … I just hate to miss an opportunity to make a difference.”

The committee also discussed whether to recommend that the constitution be changed to require a harassment policy, in addition to the requirement already in place for sexual misconduct policies.

Heejoon Park (REC-Midwest Korean American) works in the Polity Committee. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Overture advocate Eck Gerner from the Presbytery of Philadelphia said such policies would be a vehicle for addressing behavior such as bullying, inappropriate emails, or harassing comments on social media. A recent situation from his church involved an elder accused of harassing two female pastors. “It is time for our leadership to step up” to prevent such behavior, he said.

But Bundick raised questions. “What is non-sexual harassment,” she asked, saying the term is undefined and too broad – pointing to one of the comments to the overture, from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, which stated that “just a few examples of these behaviors are talking over a person, interrupting, or ‘mansplaining.’ “

The committee also discussed whether members of congregations who are not ordained as elders or deacons are subject to the rules of discipline – and Judy Woods from the ACC said yes. “It does happen,” she said, that disciplinary cases are brought against church members – she currently has three cases pending.

The committee’s final action was to vote 28-0 to approve POL-15, a recommendation from the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee involving a proposed constitutional amendment regarding recognizing the ordinations of new immigrant pastors. The committee adopted language recommended by the ACC, to say that a presbytery may recognize the ordination and receive the minister as a member, “if it determines that its strategy for mission with that group requires it, and in consultation and partnership” with that immigrant community.

If the minister lacks some educational requirements, “the presbytery should provide such educational and mentorship opportunities as seem necessary and prudent” for the minister to succeed, the proposed amendment states.