LOUISVILLE – Vision, per capita, commissioners’ resolutions and more.
The All Agency Review Committee is preparing a report to the 2018 General Assembly with a smorgasbord of recommendations stemming from the committee’s work reviewing the six agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“Working down our checklist,” Deborah Block, the committee’s moderator and a pastor from Wisconsin, said periodically during the committee’s meeting in Louisville on Jan. 22–24 — referring to a list of more than a dozen items committee members had compiled for possible inclusion in their report to the 2018 General Assembly. That report is due to the Office of the General Assembly on Feb. 16.
In 2016, the General Assembly created three groups that will each report to the 2018 assembly in June in St. Louis on issues involving the top levels of the denomination — All Agency Review, the Way Forward Commission and the 2020 Vision Team.
Each has recently concluded in-person meetings (Way Forward in Seattle Jan. 17–19; 2020 Vision in Dallas Jan. 21–23; and All Agency Review in Louisville). All three are staring down the deadline — working to perfect their reports, with multiple conference calls scheduled between now and then.
Here’s some of what the All Agency Review Committee discussed at its Louisville meeting, resolved and left in-progress before its members rushed for the airport.
The committee is considering proposing a series of changes to the standing rules of the General Assembly — changes that would specify how the next cycle for reviewing the six agencies of the PC(USA) would take place.
If the assembly approves those changes, the six-year cycle would be as follows:
- The review process for the six agencies would take place over the course of three General Assemblies.
- At the first assembly, a review committee would report its review of the work of the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program.
- At the second assembly, a committee would report its review of the work of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
- At the third assembly, a committee would report the results of the all agency review.
There also would be a two-year sabbatical at the start — to give a 12-person implementation commission or committee that the 2018 General Assembly would be encouraged to create (something Way Forward intends to recommend be done, with which All Agency Review is likely to concur) a chance to review the proposed criteria for reviewing the individual agencies and to suggest possible revisions. If that timetable is followed, the first cycle of agency reviews would start following the 2020 General Assembly.
This proposal is not set in stone. The committee also discussed asking the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) to review these ideas at COGA’s meeting in St. Louis Feb. 6–8.
The committee continues to pursue the idea of suggesting that the criteria for reviewing the effectiveness of the six agencies includes the concept, drawn from section F-1.0404 of the Book of Order, of a “new openness.”
To give a sense of that thinking, the language in a draft (language which may or may not survive in the editing process) speaks of new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the church and the world; to God’s continuing reformation of the church; and “to see both the possibilities and perils of informational forms.”
It also discusses a commitment to transparency, and asks: “What does it mean to say yes to some opportunities and say no to others? What do we need to celebrate and release? What do we need to celebrate and support?”
The committee seems to be leaning against asking the assembly to put that language into the standing rules — recognizing that what seems like an appropriate focus for the next round of agency reviews might not work long-term. Putting it into the standing rules means “codifying it now and forever,” said Eric Beene, a pastor from Georgia. “Ironically, codifying openness.”
The committee also discussed whether it wants to make a recommendation for a study of the per capita funding system. That issue is surfacing repeatedly in top-level conversations these days in the denomination — including from an overture from the Presbytery of Newton, asking the General Assembly to create a team to review the financial sustainability of the PC(USA)’s current per capita funding system. Way Forward also has set up a work team to explore issues related to funding streams and financial sustainability at the national levels of the denomination.
All Agency Review didn’t formally vote to approve a recommendation — the committee is still working on the wording.
The idea discussed, however, was basically that the committee would recommend that the PC(USA) agencies engage in a self-study of funding that would evaluate the impact of per capita. The hope that such a study would provide “some creative thinking around alternative funding resources,” particularly for how per capita is used to fund the constitutional functions of the PC(USA).
Draft language in the rationale for that possible recommendation says this:
“The All Agency Review Committee would like to express its significant concern about the long-term sustainability of the per capita funding model especially as it impacts and hinders the work of OGA [the Office of the General Assembly] which is the only agency primarily dependent on per capita funds. While the Presbyterian Historical Society engages in fundraising to support its work, the constitutional office and services of OGA are completely dependent on diminishing per capita dollars. The preservation and future of constitutional services should be the concern of the whole church.”
The committee is well aware there are other aspects to the per capita discussion — including questions involving whether mid councils can or should send the full per capita owed to the national church if congregations don’t pay.
James Tse, a ruling elder from New York, said per capita is not a sustainable system when the denomination’s membership is declining, as “the current congregation is always paying more per capita than its actual membership” (as per capita calculations are based on a previous year’s membership figures).
Claire Rhodes, a commissioned ruling elder from Arkansas, referred to what she described as inequities in the funding among the six agencies. With less money to go around, the conversation needs to be not only about how the agencies spend their slice of the pie, but “how, in fact, we split that pie,” said Marco Grimaldo, a ruling elder from Washington, D.C.
Committee members reported back some of what they’d heard in listening sessions with mid council leaders and others around the church.
Block told of a praise she heard: a presbytery executive from Florida who was pleased to have been contacted by representatives from all six agencies following last fall’s hurricanes.
Committee members heard concerns as well. Among them, said David Davis, a pastor from New Jersey:
- The perception that the six agencies tend to work in separate silos.
- Frustration with communication and confusion about the distinctions among the six agencies working in one denomination.
- Unhappiness with agencies fundraising around the church without Presbyterian leaders in those local mid councils or congregations being aware of it.
The committee also attempted to conduct conversations with other groups around the church (caucuses, advisory and advocacy committees and interest groups) but had trouble getting a response.
The report also likely will include a summary of the responses the six agencies made regarding their specific functions and work — and how they have responded to a series of questions the committee posed about how each agency is living into the idea of a “new openness.”
Discussion regarding that section of the report reflected both areas of collaboration and occasional spots of tension.
There was brief discussion, for example, about the proposed transfer of Congregational Ministries Publishing from the Presbyterian Mission Agency to the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation — a transfer that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board approved at its September meeting and which it was said at that time would take effect on Jan. 1, 2018.
That transfer has not happened, as financial discussions continue. The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board is expected to consider a proposal regarding that at its meeting in Louisville Feb. 7–9. That proposal calls for the PC(USA), A Corporation, the corporate entity for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and OGA, to provide an $840,000 grant — $280,000 a year for three years — to help fund Congregational Ministries Publishing.
Marc Lewis, the president and publisher of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, told the committee that in the past, Congregational Ministries Publishing has been supported with restricted funding. The idea is that the PMA, acting through the A Corporation, would provide the grant for three years, to give time for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation to try to turn Congregational Ministries Publishing into a self-sustaining operation, Lewis said.
Kathy Francis, PMA’s communications director, said via email that PMA has been spending $130,000 per year in restricted or designated funds to support Congregational Ministries Publishing (in addition to money spent for translation services). The additional funds being proposed for the next three years would come from funds being managed by the Presbyterian Foundation that were earmarked for Christian education, Francis said, and are not currently being used.
The board approved a recommendation asking the assembly to change the standing rules regarding commissioner resolutions at the assembly — proposed changes intended to make sure the agencies have an opportunity to respond or comment on matters raised through those resolutions. Because commissioners’ resolutions aren’t filed until the assembly convenes, the agencies don’t have a chance to submit comments on them in advance.
Under the proposed changes the committee may propose in the standing rules, a representative of an agency that would be affected by an overture or commissioners’ resolution would be entitled to speak to that item of business. “The entity should be allowed to speak at least once,” and after that it would be up the committee’s leadership whether to seek additional comment, Tse said.
Also, the financial effect of each recommendation on any agency would be spelled out for the assembly — not just the cost to OGA or PMA.
For example, the assembly’s decision to change the terminology of “teaching elder” back to “minister of Word and Sacrament” cost the Board of Pensions more than $100,000, as it needed to change everything from documents to the way the portal to the board’s online system works, said Frank Spencer, the board’s president.
The committee discussed how it can build the importance of vision work into the ongoing work of the national church. After considerable discussion — including the concern that “we don’t want to usurp the 2020 Vision Team,” as Block put it — the committee came up with possible language for trying to encourage the General Assembly to continue making vision-setting a priority after the Vision Team completes its work in 2020. (On Jan. 23, the 2020 Vision Team released a draft of its guiding statement to the 2018 assembly.)
The All Agency Review Committee may recommend that the General Assembly create an implementation committee or commission, as Way Forward is likely to suggest, and direct it to “collaborate with the 2020 Vision Team to develop an ongoing visioning process for the denomination.”
The committee also wants that implementation team to be involved in reviewing changes the committee voted on Jan. 23 to recommend involving the A Corporation.
The committee did not support, however, a recommendation proposed by Chris Mason, a ruling elder and lawyer from New York, that the committee ask the General Assembly to direct the boards or governing bodies of the six agencies to submit to the General Assembly in 2020 a joint recommendation as to which of the agencies would be responsible for leading a campaign to increase the membership of the PC(USA) by the 2022 General Assembly.
“Somebody needs to be in charge,” Mason said. “We talk about the decline of membership every time we get together. … It is a national problem that requires national leadership.”
Others on the committee, however, disagreed. “I strongly disagree with Chris that any of our agencies are responsible for the total membership of the PC(USA),” said Jim Wilson, a lawyer and ruling elder from Ohio. “It’s setting us up to fail because our agencies don’t have the power.”
As the meeting time ran short, that led to an intense yet brief discussion of the PC(USA)’s commitment to evangelism; of population shifts and birth rates; and of the role of congregations in evangelism.
Wilson contended that what matters most is faithfulness to the gospel. Being faithful to the gospel led the PC(USA) to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers with partners and to allow its ministers to perform same-sex weddings, Wilson said. Those decisions caused significant membership losses, he said — over the past five years, 303 congregations representing 121,383 members left for the more conservative denomination ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Despite that, “I wouldn’t rejigger those decisions for a second,” Wilson said. “I believe that’s been faithful to the gospel.”
While not taking a formal vote, Block responded that her sense was that while the membership issue is important, it’s not central to the review committee’s responsibilities.
The committee’s next conference call is scheduled for Feb. 5.