Reimagining change in the PC(USA) and the world: We get to do this

On the final day of its Sept. 21-23 hybrid meeting, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) spent some time talking about unifying the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).

COGA members Leanne Masters (left) and Miguel Rosa Morales listen to the discussion. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

Louisville, Kentucky – It’s on the horizon. The 2022 General Assembly voted to create a new commission, with the authority to restructure the top level of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by unifying the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). The work is expected to begin before the end of the year.

On the final day of its Sept. 21-23 hybrid meeting, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) spent some time talking about what COGA moderator Eliana Maxim described as the “large ticket item.”

Among the questions for consideration:

  • What values need to be part of the unification conversation?
  • What opportunities might the merger of the agencies present?

Here are some themes that emerged from those discussions, first in small group break-out sessions and then with the whole of the committee.

Anxiety. Naturally, PC(USA) staff members are concerned that “unification” of the agencies (that’s the language denominational officials prefer to use instead of “merger”) could mean the loss of jobs. Beyond that, some OGA employees have voiced sadness that “we’re going to lose our culture, we’re going to lose our (work) family” – the sense of camaraderie at the smaller agency, said COGA member Stephanie Anthony. “There was grief,” worry, sadness.

“There is a fear among employees of ‘What is going to happen to my job?’ “said COGA member Miguel Rosa Morales.

Stated clerk. Several committee members said they want the commission to consider the necessary autonomy of the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, who has constitutionally mandated responsibilities and is elected by the General Assembly. “The clerk speaks for the church,” said COGA member Robin Pugh.

Dave Davis (left) and Eliana Maxim (right) serve as vice-moderator and moderator of COGA (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

A more holistic approach. Currently, the work at the top level of the church is divided between mission and ecclesial or “business” responsibilities, such as the logistics of staging the General Assembly. Unification could provide an opportunity to think about the church’s work more holistically, said COGA member Leanne Masters – to end the bifurcation between “administrative work and Jesus work,” as Anthony put it.

Rightsizing.  When some people hear that word, they think “downsizing” – job cuts, Maxim said. But the amount of work needing to be done will remain the same, she said – and with just one agency, there may be opportunities for more collaboration and for streamlining some processes.

Unified communication. A single agency will present opportunities to communicate more clearly the PC(USA)’s identity and sense of vision, said COGA vice-moderator Dave Davis. In a denomination with a complex national structure, it might put “an end to the confusion of ‘Who do I need to call?’ “said COGA member Andy James.

Power. Some assembly commissioners voiced concern that a unification commission, which has the authority to act on its own, would have too much power, Davis said. Ximena Leroux, a corresponding member on COGA representing the PMA board, suggested thinking of the commission as having authority rather than power, and bearing in mind that any new structure won’t be perfect, “will have some brokenness.” The work of reformation, she said, needs to be seen as ongoing.

Values. James said his small group hoped the commission will build its work around the values of unity and transparency. “It’s all about openness about the process and a clarity about identity and vision,” he said. Other key values: Collegiality. Respect. Honesty. Trust.  “We all go into this wanting what is best for the church. We want no one to be seen as a victim. … We ground our conversations in values before we get to the details.”

Urgency. The assembly’s decision to create the commission didn’t come out of the blue – various groups scrutinizing functioning at the top levels of the church have been discussing the idea since 2016, Maxim said. “We’ve been talking about this for…”

“Forever,” interjected J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk.

Denominational leaders said during that time that formal merger wasn’t needed, “we can do this ourselves,” Maxim said. “It’s never happened.”

COGA member Joe Chu (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

The next steps: the portal for applying to serve on the commission and other special committees and task forces is open until Oct. 14.

On Nov. 9, the co-moderators of the 2022 General Assembly, Ruth Santana-Grace and Shavon Starling-Louis, plan to meet with valerie izumi, manager for General Assembly Nominations, to consider the applications and begin the process of deciding who they will ask to serve.

Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk, said the co-moderators hope the commission can hold its first meeting virtually in December and the first in-person meeting early in 2023.

Stated clerk’s report.  Earlier in the session, in his report to COGA, Nelson spoke of “a tsunami of sorts” the church is experiencing. A time of uncertainty, when pastors and mid council leaders feel stressed and overwhelmed; when many congregants who stayed home at the start of the COVID pandemic still have not returned; when more than half of Americans aren’t members of congregations at all.

PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson (left) and Eliana Maxim, moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, talk about “a tsunami of sort” in the church. (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

“Who in seminary taught us that this was going to happen?” – that “people would not be going to church,” Nelson said.

He said he often hears church folk ask, “How do we get back to normal?” His response: pastors and mid council leaders need the training to find new directions, because “we’re really not going back to where we have been.”

Even as COGA plans for the 2024 General Assembly, there’s no certainty, Nelson said. “Are we going to be plagued by another pandemic? Are we going to have something else we don’t even have a name for? We just don’t know.”

His response: the PC(USA) needs to equip leaders with the skills needed to navigate perilous times. In Louisville, where the denomination’s national offices are located, the PC(USA) needs to learn to be a better corporate citizen – more engaged in the community’s justice concerns.

The way he sees it” This is not a dismal report. It’s just the way the world is.” And Nelson is not discouraged. Whether they go to church or not, “people will always have s need for the Lord.”

The changes in the denomination and in the world provide “an opportunity to learn,” Maxim said. For so long, the church has positioned itself to call people to come inside, to fill the pews, and “we are now being called out” into the world. “That is a major disruption for how we think about leadership, how we think about programming, even how we think about preaching.”

When the church is a minority, it feels less entitled, Maxim said. “We don’t want to be part of the empire.” As COGA member Sallie Watson put it: “It’s being not Christian nationalists.”

Ximena Leroux (Photo by Leslie Scanlon)

When too much of the leadership comes from “some of our older, wealthier elders,” then the church can have too much of a sense of ownership rather than a sense of belonging, Leroux said. “When you own something, you want to keep it and you want to preserve it. … I don’t know that that will necessarily fill the pews.”

The church is called to go out and serve others, “because this is what the world needs.”

Masters said she hopes that “we can stop thinking so much about we have to” that the church has to change, has to shift, has to learn new ways – and begin thinking more about “we get to. We can. We want to.”

In all this work – in unification, in being the church in a more secular world, in navigating realities emerging from the pandemic – “we get to reimagine who we are.