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Way Forward Commission begins September meeting in Louisville

LPTS hosts group as it formulates recommendations and General Assembly report

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Way Forward Commission co-moderator Eliana Maxim (center right) discusses the need for expanded translation services within the PC(USA). (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

LOUISVILLE – Meeting at Laws Lodge on the campus of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the Way Forward Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) set its sights on recommendations for the denomination and the report it will deliver to the 223rd General Assembly meeting in St. Louis next summer.

In an opening devotion, commission member Cliff Lyda said, “We are not restructuring this church, we’re going to rebuild it,” referring to the Old Testament story of Nehemiah seeking to restore the temple. “[Nehemiah] kept reminding the people, ‘Our God will make this happen … Our God will give us success.’”

After presenting a brief introduction to work accomplished in the past few weeks, including the formation of a joint working group with the All Agency Review Committee to review administrative support, the commission went into a closed session for three hours to discuss the outcome of interviews with over 60 PC(USA) employees and constituent groups.

Citing “property and personnel matters” as the reason for the closed session, commission moderator Mark Hostetter added that the content of this discussion would contain the “candid responses” of those interviewed.

The group reconvened in open session at noon and reported no action from its closed session.

Sub-group reports filled the first half of the afternoon, with Hostetter leading the way with a summary of the working group established with the All Agency Review Committee to look for efficiencies in the operation of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).

Hostetter said the team was “working toward a unified, coordinated recommendation for the General Assembly,” saying two areas were “ripe for further discussion and action — the building and communications.”

Noting that the current configuration of building resources in the Louisville area could be seen as a source for revenue generation and/or a tool for further mission, the commission made the following recommendation:

The Commission will convene in October a group including all six agencies to engage in a conversation regarding property and facilities of the church, specifically including 100 Witherspoon Street [Louisville] and 200 East 12th Street [Jeffersonville, Indiana], to formulate proposals for going forward, including a timeline for implementation.

Turning its attention to communications, the commission made particular mention of the status of translation services in the denomination. Commission co-moderator Eliana Maxim emphasized there is not enough staff to do all of the translation work required by the General Assembly directives.

Citing the directive’s goal of translating “essential documents,” she said, “Right now, the person who determines what is translated as an essential document is an Anglo person located in Louisville. … We were told that if there were other documents we [the Hispanic caucus] needed translated, we should do it ourselves.”

Following this discussion, the commission made the following recommendation on communications:

The Commission commends the conversations between the communications staffs of each of the six agencies that have taken place to date regarding the coordination of communication activities, and will convene in October a group of such staff and the board leadership of their agencies together to engage in conversations in far deeper depth, specifically considering greater communications integration among agencies and translation services among other things, to formulate proposals for going forward including a timeline for implementation.

Summarizing discussions with staff of the PMA, commission co-moderator Eileen Lindner said when asked if the current structure inhibits or enhances work she received more responses from interviewees on procedure that inhibits their work.

“People felt they were situated correctly, with good working groups,” she said. “Not surprisingly the procedures that slow down the work were administrative — finance and so on. Only a few cited specifics where the structural alignment was not quite right.”

Commission member Samuel Bonner met with the Black Presbyterian Caucus, saying there was “great participation” from the group. “Their central theme was the idea of voice and vote,” he said. “There is a continuing need to expand that voice and vote to ensure it is as complete and whole as possible for everyone.”

The commission’s working group on diverse voices within the denomination issued the following recommendation:

The Commission working group on diverse voices will convene in October representatives from the national caucuses/networks plus leaders from PMA and OGA racial ethnic ministries, to review existing formula of agreements and strategic plans, formulate proposals to comply with these and create collaborative efforts to serve the various racial/ethnic/gender diversity in the denomination. This will include, but will not be limited to, leadership development and production of resources, and identification of all offices and personnel working on this across the agencies.

Jo Stewart, commission member and former PMA Board member, gave a report on the Joint Working Group on Administrative Support. The group conducted 35 in-person interviews over four days and is still finalizing its reports.

Confining the definition of shared services — especially as it relates to OGA and PMA — the group is analyzing the administration of finance and accounting, information technology and building services (including print and mail center, distribution services, HR, internal audit, legal and risk management). The group is also considering for further evaluation research services, communication and Mission Engagement and Support.

Two recommendations came from this working group:

  1. The Commission working group on shared services will convene in October a group of shared services users to formulate proposals for going forward in providing support services, along with a timeline. This group will not include shared services providers.
  2. In line with concerns raised in prior reviews from All Agency Review Committee and the Commission’s midterm report, the Commission directs the PMA and OGA leadership to work with the Commission to engage an outside consultant such as an expert on institutional change theory to guide the center staff on how to formulate a healthy institutional culture. The Commission will develop with the consultant a list of specific areas of focus.

Although a recommendation was not issued, strong concerns were raised about how mid councils — synods and presbyteries — receive support from the denomination.

“Mid councils are in desperate need of resourcing,” said Maxim, associate executive presbyter for the Seattle Presbytery. “Where within OGA and PMA are we providing mid council support, and is it the support they need?”

Turning its attention to the Feb. 16 date for reports due to the General Assembly for consideration, Hostetter outlined a draft outline for the report format and the timeline of the commission’s subsequent meetings. The commission will meet via conference call Oct. 24 and Nov. 29, and have its final face-to-face meeting Jan. 17–19 in Seattle.

In broad strokes, the outline suggested a review of the formation of the Way Forward Commission, the process it used in its deliberations, an assessment of the culture — including an affirmation of its approach, a review of the agency initiatives, continuing initiatives and the PMA/OGA merger, which was tabled. Looking into administrative services, the commission will review its actions along with those of the PMA and any resultant, yet-to-be-proposed, structural changes. Along with outlining its set of recommendations for General Assembly action, the commission will likely recommend the composition of a group to follow up on recommendations to evaluate their effectiveness and/or ensure their implementation.

Hostetter will provide updates on the commission’s progress to the Committee on the General Assembly (COGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB), both meeting in Louisville later this week.


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