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The PC(USA)’s Unification Commission wrestles with the ‘M’ word

‘It can’t be about the money’ notes one commissioner as reports show an abundance of financial resources

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

“Defining what constitutes mission and how mission is funded and who has fiscal authority are fundamental questions that are beginning to arise for us,” said the Rev. Scott Lumsden, a member of the Finance Work Group within the Unification Commission, which seeks to combine the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Commissioners met Thursday afternoon at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky, for their second in-person meeting since beginning their work in December. Commissioners have met seven times virtually in addition to meeting as work groups.

The agenda for Thursday’s gathering was mostly to hear the reports of the work groups’ findings since their last virtual meeting in May. As work groups — Finance, OGA/PMA Consultations, Common Mission and Governance — discussed their findings, similar questions arose around how mission has been defined.

Lumsden, co-executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Seattle, gave the report for the Finance Work Group researching funds, policies and practices of the OGA, PMA and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation. The work group, which also included Kris Thomson, ruling elder from National Capital Presbytery, and the Rev. David Davis from the Presbytery of the Coastlands, has meet weekly to gather more information on the finances of OGA, PMA and A Corp, as well as to better understand the Presbyterian Foundation’s function.

“There is a lack of clarity and consistency and the use of words like ‘mission’ and ‘board’ throughout the accounting procedures and the presentation of financial statements, and that’s just past practice,” said Lumsden, who noted that the audited financial reports from A Corp are “very well laid out, but they don’t represent a unified budgeting or management process.”

Lumsden pointed out how past practice had resulted in the PMA receiving large sums of restricted and unrestricted funds while the OGA received relatively small funds. Since 2018, A Corp has acted as the financial and fiduciary agent of the General Assembly, receiving restricted and unrestricted funds from the Presbyterian Foundation and distributing those to the PMA and the OGA, who determine separately how those funds will be used.

Kerry Rice, Deputy Stated Clerk in the Office of the General Assembly, pointed out how prior to 2018, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board was also the A Corp Board.  “And so they sat as the corporation board and made decisions about disbursement of funds at that point. Historically, those funds were assigned to PMA work, and functions. And so even though now A Corp is separated from PMA, that history and practice assigning of funds historically has remained,” said Rice, who also spoke to the role of “inertia in keeping money in the places where it currently is.”

The Co-Moderator for the 225th General Assembly, the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, who joined via Zoom, commented towards the end of the Finance Work Group report, “This structure that has existed for our lifetime was based on another ecclesiastical understanding, where OGA was literally a constitutional, smaller embodiment as it was understood at that time. And whatever we call the mission agency arm, which has been called 200 things since, was viewed as the on-the-ground, historically missional kind of embodiment.”

“Most of us would view OGA as being ministry and mission today,” the Co-Moderator said, “so we’re dealing with a whole cultural and ecclesiastical shift in how we would fund what we understand to be church today.”

“It’s impossible to write a governance document without understanding about the mission and what the mission focus is and how we are going to do that,” said the Rev. Debra Avery of Great Rivers Presbytery in the report from the Governance Work Group. “The mandate of the General Assembly that we were given is really quite broad, such as ‘establishing national and ecclesial coordination.’ All of the points are quite wide and give us a lot of opportunity.”

“Our governance tends to emphasize the functions and activities rather than its roles,” said Kathy Lueckert, A Corp president. “But you will have an opportunity to create a new thing, a new board, and you don’t have to do what was or what is now.” Lueckert compared the changing model within larger church institutions to the shifts in the governance of higher education and encouraged the commission to focus on roles first and not “jump immediately to who’s going to be where on the organization chart and what tasks they are going to do, but to think about order in broader terms of the roles of governments.”

The Rev. Bill Teng from Peace River Presbytery and a member of the A Corp Board reported that the Common Mission Work Group has reviewed several sources, including Scripture, the Book of Order, particular confessions, and the Vision 2020 statement and determined we “really couldn’t come up with anything new and unique.”

Frances Lin, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of San Diego, who looked more closely into the Vision 2020 Statement, recognized a pattern of making statements as a church. “We [put out] statement after statement after statement. None of us can recite anything. So, no wonder we don’t know what our true mission is. And that’s common. That’s not just here, that’s not just the denominational level but the congregation level.”

Recognizing that the church doesn’t need another mission statement, Lin asked for clarity from commissioners as to what product they are looking to come from their time together. “My point is if you have some important statement out there, your people should know it by heart. If we don’t know it by heart, what good is another statement?”

“Having heard the reports, each one of the work groups has made reference to just how the work impacts the others,” said Carson Brown, Young Adult Advisory Delegate to the 225th General Assembly and a ruling elder in the Presbytery of Peace River. Brown, a member of the Governance Work Group, said it’s “our hope and our intention [that] so many of the conversations we’re hoping to have while we’re here this week will lead us to those understandings and hopefully produce the frameworks that we’ll be able to work together.”

Summing up the perceptions around the way “mission” is defined and articulated in various documents and bodies, Commission Co-Moderator Cristi Scott Ligon said, “the commission needs to frame what is mission.”

After a commissioner referred to mission as the “M word,” Lueckert observed, “It strikes me that the word ‘mission’ has way too many meanings, and they’ve been co-opted in various ways by various organizations to suit their own purposes or to carve out their particular piece of the term. So, we’re trying to be clear about what we mean by ‘mission.’ This new board needs to have a mission or a purpose. But that doesn’t negate the need of the whole church to do mission to Christ in the world.” The commission settled on coming up with a purpose statement about why their work is important before the end of the meeting.

After a break, Scott Ligon led the commission in a discussion to answer the questions: “Where are we now? Where do we need to be at the end of this meeting? Where do we commit to be by the August 20 meeting?”

Before moving into a closed session to discuss another report of the Finance Work Group on the budget implications of unification, commissioners discussed how they would communicate the “emerging purpose of their work” and revisited collective wisdom that had emerged from the research of the work groups.

“It can’t be about the money,” said Lumsden of their purpose, agreeing with other commissioners who recognized that the question about sustainability had more to do with restructuring for a more unified, cohesive and healthy organization. “We just want to reiterate that in our review of our denomination’s or General Assembly’s finances, we don’t see a scarcity of resources,” said Lumsden. “That is good news.”

The Unification Commission will continue meeting Friday and Saturday in the Presbyterian Center. An agenda and other documents are here. Livestreaming information is here.

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