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From soup to nuts: All Agency Review committee wades through a lot on first day of meeting

by Leslie Scanlon | Presbyterian Outlook

LOUISVILLE — This is how the soup gets made.

The All Agency Review Committee is spending three days — Jan. 22-24 — with its members sitting in a conference room at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national offices in downtown Louisville, figuring out what to include in their report to the 2018 General Assembly. These folks came supplied with subgroup reports and lists, coffee and chocolate, and an unrelenting deadline of Feb. 16 to submit their report to the Office of the General Assembly.

On the meeting’s first day, committee members talked for hours about everything from the value of openness to the standing rules governing the General Assembly to resurrection.

The committee held a conference call with two other groups also cooking soup: the 2020 Vision Team (meeting Jan. 21–23 in Dallas) and the Way Forward Commission, which met Jan. 17—19 in Seattle and whose moderator, Mark Hostetter, participated in the call.

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), met for lunch Jan. 22 with the All Agency Review Committee. (All photos by Leslie Scanlon)

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, joined the committee during a lunch break to offer his sense of things both from the top level and from his travels around the country. “There is a readiness out in the church” for new ways of doing things — along with some anxiety about what comes next, he said.

Presbyterians are asking “what is the vision for the future?” Nelson said. And they want to know “how might that vision be manifest in a country church on the side of the road,” as well as in big churches where many pews now sit empty on Sundays? Both are places, he noted, where Presbyterians are trying to figure out how to do “a new thing.”

Mid councils too face challenges, with some “presbyteries and synods that are barely hanging on,” Nelson said. Some mid councils have lost as many as 30 congregations that have either closed or departed for other more conservative denominations, and “some churches are just very angry” — angry about all the changes, and “they don’t quite understand who they are angry with.”

Still, Nelson consistently sends a message of hope — his conviction that the PC(USA) will emerge strengthened by this time of reformation.

When a General Assembly creates three groups to consider the future of the church, “somebody’s serious” that things have to change, Nelson said. “It’s on the line now.”

Debra Avery

Debra Avery, a minister from California who serves on the All Agency Review committee, said she recognizes that fear of demise, a fear that “the church is dying, the denomination is dying, or Christianity is dying.”

She thinks about it theologically. “What we really need is not resuscitation,” Avery said. “What we need is resurrection” — because it’s through resurrection that transformation comes.

The All Agency Review Committee is midstream in its work trying to determine what to include in its report; what to leave out; and exactly what wording to use. It hasn’t yet formally voted on recommendations (except one approved last summer, jointly with Way Forward, that neither would seek a merger of the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency).

As the soup simmers, here’s some of what the committee laid on the table on the first day of its three-day meeting.

Big-picture thinking
The committee spent some time discussing how to build more big-picture thinking into the biennial General Assemblies — some sense of what is most important to the denomination. Perhaps this would involve a “center of gravity,” or a way to set a clear vision for the PC(USA) from that assembly for the next two years.

Part of this discussion is rooted in the reality that All Agency Review Committee has been unclear about what are the “mission directives” — the criteria by which it is supposed to be evaluating the six agencies.

What are the mission priorities or directives for the denomination? Have General Assemblies in recent years offered a clear vision to guide the PC(USA)’s work — or have the commissioners “largely rubber-stamped recommendations that came to them?” asked Jim Wilson, a ruling elder and lawyer from Ohio.

One idea the committee discussed: recommending that the General Assembly clarify its “mission directives” — so it makes a clear statement of the things it wants the PC(USA) to make a priority, expecting each of the denomination’s six agencies then to be accountable for responding to those, and not just to the dozens of smaller items on which the assembly has acted.

Deborah Block, a pastor from Wisconsin who serves as the committee’s moderator, wants to find a way to encourage the assembly to think big, not micromanage. “Imagine this: commissioners as visioners, rather than administrative reviewers,” she said.

James Tse

Another question, asked by James Tse, a ruling elder from New York: What’s reasonable to expect the assembly commissioners to do in a week?

The committee is trying to determine what to recommend to the assembly about how the review process for the PC(USA)’s six agencies should proceed from here on — including who should do the reviews, how often and how to incorporate that sense of big-picture vision into the work.

How often should each of the six agencies be reviewed? What should the criteria be? How can the process be forward-looking (what should the agencies be doing), not just looking back at how they have performed?

New openness
The committee is considering how to express mission directives around the idea of openness — drawn from language taken from the Book of Order.

Openness is “what the ethos of our agencies should be,” Wilson said. He spoke of “a high level of distrust in the church,” resulting in part from the ethics investigation involving the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program. The results of an investigation the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board hired an outside law firm to conduct have not been made public.

“If we’re going to really be a church that lives into openness, part of that has to be encouraging people frankly to take the risk — that being accountable for our problems in public is the best thing for the church,” Wilson said.

There has also been conversation among the three groups as to whether they could support each other’s recommendations, at least in part. There seems to be an openness to that.

Salvador Gavaldá Corchado, a ruling elder from the Synod of Mid America who serves on the 2020 Vision Team, said he expects what the team produces “will fall in tune with the need to be more open, the need to cooperate. … I think we will find a lot of agreement.”

Deborah Block, a pastor from Wisconsin, serves as moderator of the All Agency Review Committee.

Hostetter said “the spirit is at work” building stronger relationships across the church, and supported the idea of the three groups speaking jointly on some things — although he cautioned 2020 Vision not to “get dragged down into the weeds” of the details of the other two reports. “You are the big-picture committee of the three of us. … I would hate to lose that opportunity.”

If the three groups could speak with one voice, at least in an opening statement, “it would save commissioners from figuring out distinctions we couldn’t even figure out,” Block said. “We want to model a genuine working together.”

Mid councils
Wilson said he wants the committee to urge the 2018 General Assembly to look carefully at how mid councils are working — to address the question of “how to make our mid councils functional again” and accountable.

Wilson pointed out that some presbyteries and synods can’t afford full-time paid leadership and “the way our mid councils have historically functioned no longer seems to be a viable model.” If the committee works to make the six agencies more effective but doesn’t address the difficulties of mid councils, “then we’re not doing what the assembly asked us to do,” Wilson said. “Whatever we do with the agencies can’t be detached from the health of the national church.”

Much, much more
The committee may weigh in on much more: everything from efforts to create a strategic communications plan for the PC(USA) and to strengthen the role of the stated clerk to discussion of the feasibility of the denomination’s current funding system, both issues the Way Forward dug into in Seattle.

Eric Beene listens as Debra Avery makes a point.

The issue of how the PC(USA) communicates — who speaks for it, whether the message and look is consistent, whether the multiple agency websites are too confusing — has been a continuing theme of conversation among the Way Forward Commission, All Agency Review and the 2020 Vision Team.

Way Forward, for example, is working to strengthen the role of the stated clerk, and has asked the chairs and chiefs of the PC(USA)’s agencies to discuss during their Jan. 25 phone meeting the idea of developing an overarching strategy for denomination-level communications and contracting with a “national caliber branding agency” to develop a brand strategy for the denomination.

Chris Mason

The question is “what can we do to make our church look like it’s one church?” asked Chris Mason, a ruling elder and lawyer from New York.

Another issue: How much would it cost to develop that strategic communications plan, and where would the funding come from?

First up when the committee begins work Jan. 23: a closed-door discussion of possible changes in PC(USA), A Corporation, the governance structure for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly.