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The PC(USA)’s Unification Commission receives a primer on the history of the Church’s structure and emerging trends

Saturday’s online gathering lays the groundwork for an in-person meeting next month at the PC(USA)’s HQ

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — During its monthly meeting, the Unification Commission went to school Saturday, receiving lessons on the histories of the Office of the General Assembly, the Presbyterian Mission Agency and, more recently, the Administrative Services Group. Members also took in a statistical overview of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other communities of faith.

The American religious landscape

Dr. Susan Barnett, director of Research Services, provided statistics to outline the extent of the numeric decline of a number of denominations, the PC(USA) among them. Among the statistics cited:

  • The number of adults ages 18-29 unaffiliated with a faith community increased from 10% of the demographic in 1986 to 36% in 2020. For people 65 and older, those who list themselves as unaffiliated grew from 3% to 24% over the same period.
  • Among the “Seven Sisters” — United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the PC(USA), the Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches in the USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — the PC(USA) is snug in the middle, with about 1.5 million adherents when new worshiping communities are considered. The United Methodist Church has about 8 million members, with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) the smallest of the seven, at about 400,000 members.

The PC(USA): A statistical overview

Kerry Rice, Deputy Stated Clerk in the Office of the General Assembly, focused statistical attention on the PC(USA) itself. One trend that’s also been identified in other venues is that smaller PC(USA) congregations are becoming commonplace: In 1995, less than 1,000 PC(USA) congregations had 25 members or fewer. By 2021, that number had grown to 1,770 of the denomination’s 8,813 churches, or 20%. About two-thirds of PC(USA) congregations have 100 or fewer members. “We are a denomination of small churches where most of our membership is in large churches,” Rice told commissioners. “It’s nuanced, but it’s important to recognize.”

Rice also provided charts outlining per capita and mission budgets. In 1990, unrestricted funds were slightly higher than donor restricted giving. By 2020, donor restricted funds had grown to five times the size of unrestricted funds. “Donors are very much influencing where the Presbyterian Mission Agency spends their dollars,” Rice said.

One more attention-grabbing statistic was a graph highlighting the number of employees in the OGA, PMA and, since 2020, the Administrative Services Group, which provides services to both the PMA and OGA. While the size of the Office of the General Assembly, the ecclesial arm of the PC(USA), has remained relatively stable over the past two decades, the PMA has been reduced from about 600 employees in 2005 to about 250 in 2023. Part of that reduction in the size of the PMA workforce can be attributed to recent moves that include Ministry Engagement & Support’s transfer beginning Jan. 1 from PMA to ASG.

The structural evolution of the PC(USA)

Barry Creech, Deputy Executive Director for Administration in the PMA, presented a timeline of the denomination’s structural evolution since reunion occurred in 1983.

Among the milestones since then:

  • 1986 was the beginning of the structural design for mission. The General Assembly Council had nine ministry units and five related bodies.
  • By 1993, the structure became more centralized. Nine ministry units were reduced to three divisions. “It was an expensive proposition to maintain” nine ministry units, Creech said. “By 1992 or so they could see there was not enough money to keep this going.”
  • As soon as 1994, conflict and decentralization came about, with the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly separating from GAC and the PC(USA)’s publishing operation, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, also separating from GAC. The relationships with the GAC and the Board of Pensions and the Fiduciary Corporation, the ancestor of the Presbyterian Foundation, were clarified.
  • In 1997, a report by Arthur Andersen Consultants concluded that the inability of the GAC and other entities to coordinate work and resolve conflict led to poor morale and weakened leadership. A special committee to review the General Assembly was formed the following year to address the findings of the Andersen report.
  • In 1999, a 21-member Council of the Assembly was proposed to coordinate management. While the proposal was endorsed by the General Assembly, it failed to win approval in presbyteries. Creech said reporting at the time indicated worry that the proposal would be tantamount to installing “a college of cardinals.”
  • In 2004, the General Assembly became a biennial gathering. In 2006, the GAC as an elected body was sliced from 84 to 48, including voting and non-voting members. The focus shifted from being programmatic to visionary, with identifiable goals and objectives. The GAC staff was restructured in 2007.
  • The PC(USA)’s New Form of Government began in 2011. Two years later, the Office of the General Assembly was restructured into three major units: Ecclesial and Ecumenical Ministries, Mid Council Ministries and Churchwide Ministries.
  • In 2015, the PMA structure shifted. The next year, the General Assembly formed OGA and PMA review committees.
  • The Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee reported in 2018. The report of the Moving Forward Implementation Commission, later changed to a committee, was delayed by the pandemic in 2020. It reported to the 225th General Assembly in 2022, and the PMA structure once again shifted slightly.

There were “a lot of interlocking boards” from both the northern and southern churches in the years immediately following reunion in 1983. “The thought was that we would have more trust [that way], but conflict was baked into the system. It’s been a challenge,” Creech said.

Next up

The Unification Commission, formally known as the Commission to Unify the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, will next meet in person in Louisville March 9-11.

Although the agenda is still being developed, Co-Moderator Cristi Scott Ligon offered up a general outline for the commission’s first face-to-face meeting. On March 9, commissioners will meet from 1 p.m. through about 8 p.m. Eastern Time. Commissioners plan to include “time and space for staff to share any concerns they wish to share,” Ligon said.

The next day, commissioners will learn more about denominational finances and other matters. March 11 will be a half-day for meetings, with commissioners being assigned to work groups and determining next steps.

“We will work to state clearly what we understand the case is for this work of unification,” said Co-Moderator the Rev. Dr. Felipe N. Martínez.

Saturday’s meeting concluded with a closed session for commissioners to discuss personnel matters.

Unification Commission agendas and other documents are available here.

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