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Unification Commission envisions new wine and low-hanging fruit in March meeting

The commission also divided up its work into four workgroups: governance, financials, common mission and consultations.

Putting new wine into new wineskins was the opening image of the March meeting of the General Assembly commission to unify the Office of General Assembly (OGA) and Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). The meeting was held March 9-11 at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky. It was the third meeting of the commission and was the first time members met in person.

As readers may recall, the 2022 General Assembly gave the commission the task of unifying the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and Office of the General Assembly (OGA) in an effort to create a funding structure that is financially sustainable for the 21st-century Presbyterian church. The commission will present a new Organization for Mission to the General Assembly in 2026.

This new unification commission can set strategies and priorities to accomplish General Assembly goals and can establish coordination between missional and ecclesial work. If needed, it has the authority to “assume all governance functions of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.”

Previous meetings have included setting timelines and writing a covenant as a commission. March’s meeting marked a shift for the group toward more creative, generative work.

“My prayer is that we concentrate on the wine as we ponder the new wineskin,” said commission co-Moderator Felipe Martínez in reference to Jesus’ teaching found in Mark 2:18-22 and elsewhere. “That is to say we do this task before us faithfully and with dedication. We continue to ask what God is up to in the life of this denomination, so that the structure and ways we go about being church can match the work that God is doing in us, through us, and in spite of us.

“This is not only a conversation that involves two agencies, several hundred staff members, a certain number of dollars, a board and a committee, this conversation is about us as a church. It is about how the history and the future of our collective faithfulness find its representation at a national level in a way that encourages and mirrors the faithfulness and well-being of all of us as a denomination.”

In the first three meetings, the commission heard significant reports and presentations from staff at OGA, PMA and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation (A Corp), the corporate entity that provides business services to both OGA and PMA.

The meeting began with presentations on organizational structure and finances, then moved towards “low-hanging fruit” — a review of how the organizations currently collaborate. The meeting concluded with the organizing of four work groups to plan the initial steps of their work as a commission. 

The commission also hosted two private meetings with the staff of both agencies. After meeting with the employees, commissioners expressed empathy for staff because the complicated governance of both organizations is difficult to navigate. 

As the commission reviewed the organizational structure, they were curious about the differing cultures at OGA and PMA. Reflecting on their mandate to unify the ecclesial and mission functions of the PC(USA), commissioners also spent time discussing the limitations of distinguishing between these functions. 

“Unification is not a merger between two entities. It is actually a rethinking of how we see ourselves as the church,” said Commissioner Scott Lumsden. “I am seeing that more starkly – the more I am hearing about the systems, the more I am hearing about how people want to work together – but we have all these things that prevent us.” Lumsden continued that their work was not an exercise in management but must respond to the question: How do we do this as one national church?

Commissioner Dee Cooper suggested that the work of the commission was not a “mash-up” of the two organizations but an opportunity for “new wine.” The commission, she said, was seeing and appreciating the agencies’ different cultures as well as their similarities.

“I don’t think our values are very different, but it is how we live them,” said President and Executive Director of PMA Diane Givens Moffett. Acknowledging the challenges of the organization’s history, she said she didn’t know how they would begin working together, but she knew that it was the “people who make difference.”

During the financial overview, Martínez noted that they received what he described as a unified presentation of two different budgets. He asked Ian Hall, A Corp’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer, what a unified budget would look like. A unified vision and mission for ministry, according to Hall, will create a unified budget because the budget should follow the mission priorities of the church.

This is complicated by the number of restricted funds in the PMA budget — money that has been donated for a specific purpose. In 2021, there were over 2,000 restricted funds, many of which are narrowly defined for programs that no longer exist or for purposes no longer align with the mission of the denomination. Some restricted funds date back more than a century.

While PMA’s 2023 budget is made up of about 71% restricted funds, much of OGA’s budget comes from per capita a set amount of money per member that congregations pay to the larger Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Because the denomination has been shrinking (fewer members, fewer funds), OGA is using per capita reserves for their current budget. Of the $4.8 million dollars in these reserves, $1.3 million is budgeted to be used in 2023 and $2.2 million in 2024. OGA is required to keep reserves totaling at least 30% of its expense budget in a given year on hand, so by the end of 2024, all reserves beyond that required minimum will be exhausted. Meanwhile, PMA has about $14 million in unrestricted reserves, though its budget is about four times larger than OGA. 

The discussion about how “low-hanging fruit” detailed 17 different areas where OGA and PMA are already collaborating. The discussion was led by OGA’s Deputy Stated Clerk Kerry Rice and PMA’s Deputy Executive Director for Administration Barry Creech. One initiative that began in January is the Coordinating Table, where the leadership of PMA, OGA and A Corp meet every two weeks. Creech said, “It’s practically unification happening right before our eyes.”

Workgroups

The commission concluded their meeting by creating four work groups to organize their next steps: governance, financials, common mission and consultations. These groups spent Saturday morning in break-out sessions before reporting back to the whole commission. 

The governance workgroup, facilitated by commissioner Debra Avery, shared that they plan to review the Manual of the General Assembly, organizational charts and minutes the Committee on the Office of General Assembly (COGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB). They plan to join part of the April joint meeting between COGA and PMAB.

The financial workgroup planned a deep dive into the finances of both agencies. Among their first items of business is to consult with the Presbyterian Foundation – which holds the endowments, planned gifts, and mid- to long-term investments of the PC(USA) – to better understand the development and designation of funds for PMA and OGA. As the facilitator of the workgroup, Lumsden said, “Some of the ways we talk about our finances need a revisit or a refresh. We want to approach this with an idea of abundance because there are funds. Let’s be clear: The PC(USA) has resources.”   

Commissioner Bill Teng said the common mission workgroup will seek a “common understanding of what mission looks like for a unified body.” This will involve going back to the beginning of the Book of Order to reflect on what the “church is called to do and be.” They started this work in the breakout session by creating a word cloud that included sharing the gospel, building disciples, equipping the saints, global mission, good stewardship, accountability and transparency, social justice, advocacy, communications and equipping for worship.

The consultations workgroup will devise a plan for the commission to consult with all of these constituencies, as they are charged to do in their mandate. Commissioner Dee Cooper, who is facilitating the group, shared that their top priorities are consulting with the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee and the joint meeting of COGA and PMAB. Cooper said it was important to be transparent in these consultations that the commission’s work is both historic and pivotal, and they are stepping into God’s wisdom to lead them. It will not be, as she described it, a “rearranging of the deck chairs.” 

The commission meets next on April 16 on Zoom.

Recordings of the meeting can be found at:

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