Financial Resources Committee does not support creating a commission with the power to unify two top church agencies; votes for a task force instead

The committee did approve the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s work plan for 2023 and 2024, with a Matthew 25 focus.

Laura Cheifetz (left) and Valerie Young, co-moderators of the Special Committee, present in the Financial Resources Committee meeting. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Louisville, Kentucky – The Financial Resources committee voted July 1 not to ask the assembly to name a commission with the authority to merge the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) – but instead to set up a task force that would report to the next General Assembly, in 2024.

The committee passed an amended version of the first recommendation in FIN-10, from the Special Committee on Per Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability, which the 2018 General Assembly had created.

The special committee had asked the assembly to create a commission with the authority to move ahead with merger and to report back to the 2024 General Assembly. But the Financial Resources Committee balked on that, wary of creating a commission with too much authority.

Diane Moffett, president and executive director of PMA, speaks in the Financial Resources Committee meeting. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Instead, relying on promises from J. Herbert Nelson, who is stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and also leads OGA, and Diane Moffett, president and executive director of PMA, that they have a good relationship and will work cooperatively on these issues, the Financial Resources Committee voted 17-6 to go with a task force.

The effect of that: a task force could recommend changes to the Organization for Mission leading to merger, but could not make those changes without assembly approval.

The language approved, however, does seem to contain a commitment to unifying the agencies, as it recommends that the assembly “form a task force to oversee and facilitate the unification” of OGA and PMA “into a single agency.” So a commitment to unifying the agencies is in the recommendation, while the task force doesn’t have the power singlehandedly to make it happen.

The Financial Resources Committee has not yet acted on the second recommendation in FIN-10 – a recommendation that the assembly direct its co-moderators to appoint a Funding Model Development team to develop and implement possible experiments in funding alternatives to the current per capita system.

This is complicated stuff – and there was a mountain of subtext to some of the comments made in the discussion.

Some commissioners appeared to be keeping current events in mind. Jeff Geary, a minister from Hudson River Presbytery, said at a time when democracy in the U.S. is under attack, “I can’t get behind empowering a commission” when both agencies are showing collegiality so rare in public life, demonstrating a willingness to work together.

“I just want us to be very cautious” about giving power to a commission, said Ella Busby, a minister from New Harmony Presbytery.

The discussion also revealed a fracture between what COGA recommended and what the stated clerk thinks.

Outlook Editor Teri Ott sits down with the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

Nelson spoke of his reluctance to bring people in from the outside “and we sit on the sidelines and we wait for the outcome.” Nelson repeatedly has expressed frustration with having to continually be responsive to  a series of General Assembly-created commissions that have been at work during his tenure – the Way Forward Commission, the Moving Forward Commission, and now the Moving Forward Implementation Special Committee.

Some back history: the General Assembly created those and empowered them in response to findings, identified by review committees, of dysfunction and lack of coordination at the top levels of the church. In other words, things were not going well.

But both Nelson and Diane Moffett, president and executive director of PMA, told the Financial Resources Committee things have improved, they have a good relationship now and want their agencies to work together.  “It’s important that whatever we do, we work together,” Moffett said. “I’m willing to do whatever it is to make the church stronger.”

Moffett said she was elected to her position to lead Presbyterians in mission. “You’ve got to have a vision that’s compelling to get people going,” saying momentum keeps building for the Matthew 25 initiative. “We have worked together and I think we have done an absolutely wonderful job. But it is a process, because there is so much baggage and hurt from the past, that precedes my coming.”

Nelson said that internal struggles at the agencies are “very much a part of some of these conversations” – including issues of trust.

Even though leaders of Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), the governing board for OGA, spoke in support of the special committee’s recommendation that a commission on unification be appointed, Nelson when he went to the microphone said he does not want a commission.

“That’s not going to be helpful for the work that we have to get done right now,” Nelson said.

He told COGA later that he made the decision spontaneously that day. When the question was asked “could we work together?” his answer was, “Yes, I can,” because he trusts Moffett and her leadership of PMA.

Those assurances seemed to weigh heavily in the committee’s deliberations. “I heard clearly that there was a sense of urgency” and that Nelson and Moffett are committed to getting this work done, said Ramona Williams, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Giddings Lovejoy. Let’s remind them of their promise, she said, “and hope for the best.”

It’s not clear, however, whether what happened in this meeting will contribute to an atmosphere of trust going forward. COGA members remain deeply concerned about the inadequacy of denominational financial support to sustain the work of OGA, and the impact that could have on the agency’s work and its staff.

While Moffett and Nelson spoke of their willingness to work cooperatively, the tensions between COGA, which favored the idea of creating a commission for unification, and the PMA Board, which opposed it, favoring a task force instead, surfaced at this meeting.

Warren Lesane, chair of the PMA board, said “I believe the possible unification can really threaten the whole movement of Matthew 25.”

Michelle Hwang (Racial Equity Advisory Committee) is the incoming co-chair of the PMA board. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Michelle Hwang, chair of the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), delivered a scathing critique of the Special Committee’s recommendations and the role White supremacy culture played in shaping them. She did not tell the assembly committee, however, that she has been elected the new co-chair of the PMA board, and will take on that position at the close of this assembly.

She questioned the “transparency” of results from listening sessions the Special Committee conducted with more than 100 mid council leaders, even though a summary of those responses is included with the material the Special Committee provided to the assembly, and said the concerns of congregations of color were not adequately reflected.

Hwang said that two of the six PC(USA) agencies are led by people of color – OGA and PMA – and the other four by White men. Under the Special Committee’s recommendations, “they will potentially be forced to merge” which might mean that either Moffett or Nelson would potentially lose their jobs, she said.

“Where is the mutuality,” when some agencies – particularly OGA – are struggling financially, while the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation have “ample resources,” Hwang said. Why “target the two that are led by persons of color, with possibly one losing their position?”

The Special Committee did have conversations with leaders of the Board of Pensions and Foundation as well. But it also recognized that those agencies have fiduciary responsibilities regarding the funds they manage.

What’s at stake in these discussions is not just the question of choosing a task force or a commission. Valerie Young and Laura Cheifetz, co-moderators of the Special Committee, argued in their presentation that what underlies the urgency of the unification discussion is the need for the PC(USA) to recalibrate its allocation of resources, because they contend the current funding system is unsustainable, for OGA and also many congregations and presbyteries.

“The recommendations on unification and per capita are both urgent and need to happen for the sustainability of the denomination as a whole,” Young told the committee.

And Cheifetz said: “We believe that the system as is, is a set-up for scarcity. We have a structural problem, an allocations problem, that does not allow us as a church to live into a theology of God’s abundance. We are an incredibly wealthy denomination in all the ways: in money, in people, in theological heritage, in ministry, in beauty, in hope, in vision. What we seek is a structure to better reflect our abundance, simpler, less confusing, with a clear witness to God’s grace and love.”

Here is a link to their full presentation. 

Mission Work Plan. Earlier in the day, with no debate, the Financial Resources Committee voted unanimously to ask the assembly to approve FIN-11, the Mission Work Plan for 2023 and 2024 for PMA.

Over the past 18 months, PMA has been involved in a strategic planning and visioning process.

One result: PMA’s Mission Work Plan for 2023 and 2024, which is bult around a commitment to the Matthew 25 initiative and its focus on dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty, and congregational vitality.

The Mission Work Plan adds three areas of intersection:

  • Climate change
  • Militarism
  • Gender Justice and heteropatriarchy.

And it calls for two new areas of focus:

  • A Center for Repair of Historical Harm – to address repair and reconciliation from damage done by structural racism and White supremacy
  • An Office of Innovation – described as a “learning lab” for innovation.

Leaders of PMA – Moffett, along with Sara Lisherness, deputy executive director for mission program and Corey Schlosser-Hall, deputy executive director for vision, innovation and rebuilding – described their hopes for how the PC(USA) can deepen its commitment to doing Matthew 25 work.

Moffett said the Center for Repair would be a source for funding for churches wanting to do repair work, as well as providing resources and models for doing the work well.

For congregations and presbyteries, the work can be done in contextual ways, Moffett said. That’s how Matthew 25 “becomes incarnate in a particular setting,” Schlosser-Hall said.

Sometimes, congregations can feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of dealing with issues as complicated and entrenched as poverty and racism, Moffett said. She urges them to look at their own communities and ask “what are the issues? Where is God working?” Who is not at the table?

“Be open to the spirit,” Moffett said. “We can together become a balm in Gilead.”