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Presbyterian Mission Agency concludes spring 2017 meeting

Impacts of Governance Task Force and Way Forward Commission animate closing conversations

by Gregg Brekke and Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 22-24, 2017. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board concluded its spring 2017 meeting today, looking ahead to further discussion on the structure of the board and its relationship to findings and recommendations of the Way Forward Commission.

Board chair Ken Godshall noted the many changes underway in the denomination. “We need to take this opportunity to seize changes that are long overdue,” he said of the PMA, the largest and most visible agency in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the one most affected by declining membership.

Noting the work of the Governance Task Force in its interactions with the Way Forward Commission, including a recently issued white paper on the role of the PMA and related historical documents, Godshall encouraged continuing dialogue with the commission and other groups looking at the effectiveness and structure of the denomination.

“We need to be very clear about the purpose of the Mission Agency,” he said. “Not everyone is aware of that GA-mandated vision for our ministry. We need legal, financial support. We need to do a better job of describing how we do.”

Godshall also announced the formation of two new task forces and two ministerial teams to replace the completed “Role of Print in the PMA” and “Implementing Belhar” ministerial teams:

  • Stony Point interfaith and ecumenical ministries task force
  • Mission work plan task force
  • Ministerial team addressing this question: What are the three most important strategic responses the Presbyterian Mission Agency can offer to advance Christ’s prophetic and compassionate mission in a divided nation?
  • Ministerial team addressing this question: How shall the Presbyterian Mission Agency respond to the 91 General Assembly referrals?

Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the PMA, gave a report on the transition of Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center from the PMA to the National Ghost Ranch Foundation (NGRF). He said the legal transfer occurred on Dec. 31, 2016, as expected and that the books on the previous organization had been closed as of Feb. 28. An initial payment of $500,000 accompanied the initial transfer and was supplemented with January 30, 2017 and February 28, 2017 grants. A final July 31 payment of $150,000 to the NGRF will complete the contractual arrangement between the NGRF and the PMA.

Board member Molly Baskin gave the report of the finance committee, noting unrestricted giving in the preliminary, unaudited, 2016 financial statements. Highlights included unrestricted giving of $14 million, which included a large shared mission gift. Total expenses were $68 million, $6 million lower than the expected $74 million, in large part due to lower than anticipated enrollment in the Young Adult Volunteer program, less activity across grant programs, and the retirement and attrition of mission co-workers.

As a result, the PMA was able to deposit money into its reserve fund, the Presbyterian Mission Program Fund, instead of making an anticipated $3.5 million 2016 draw on the account.

An afternoon discussion on the Governance Task Force recommendations was scheduled but postponed, due to board members asking questions and making recommendations regarding proposed changes to the board structure.

Concerns over representation from advocacy groups in the PMAB generated the most discussion; some questioned whether alternative models of representation to these related Presbyterian entities would be entertained. Others questioned the timing of information release and how the work of the task force was disseminated.

Melinda Sanders, chair of the Governance Task Force, said the work of the task force was considering internal and external input, responding as quickly as possible as resources allowed. Their work included addressing a response from the Way Forward Commission that prompted the task force to delay conversations with advocacy groups in order to write a white paper.

“When we got the request to write the white paper, it disrupted our process,” she said. “We’d hoped to speak with the entities about what they anticipate the future relationship to look like. … Part of the reason to bring this to you is so you can see our process and not just the final product.”

The Rev. Mark Hostetter, moderator of the Way Forward Commission, addressed the PMAB following dinner, saying, “We’re not going to get new members by restructuring the church. … We’re not trying to create a process that will last a decade, but to create something that will last and help us to move forward.”

Providing an overview of the Way Forward Commission’s work, Hostetter said any conclusions as to the structure or operation of the PC(USA) must be “flexible and not rigid,” giving permission to outsource functions and projects in which the church does not have expertise. He said one of the commission’s primary questions has shifted to “How can we establish a structure that allows us to look more broadly at the function of the denomination?”

Rather than attempting to force new structure on the denomination, as some had anticipated at the outset of the commission’s work, Hostetter assured the PMAB the group was looking for ideas on how to “empower agencies to think in new ways.”

“We can step in as a commission to help facilitate those discussions,” he said. “The people who know best are the people in the ministry level and should be empowered to do it. … [We may] use our authority to get the conversations to the table or enable them to happen, [but] we’re hesitant to implement something without consensus, or at least a discussion.”

Affirming the process of the Way Forward Commission continues the Presbyterian tradition of being a “Reformed church, always reforming,” Hostetter said. “We have no illusion this will be in place 30 years from now,” he added. “We hope it won’t.”

Noting that the commission’s effort seeks to address the effectiveness of mission throughout the denomination, and not just the PMA, he looked toward the PMAB and its staff to inform the group’s work. “It’s a conversation, and nobody should look to the Way Forward to decide it,” he said.

Hostetter concluded his remarks by saying, “I can’t think of a more fun project than to think about how we can be better Christians and better Presbyterians together.”

The next meeting of the PMAB is scheduled for September 21-23, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. Documents from the PMAB Spring 2017 meeting can be found at this link.

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