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Way Forward Commission call reveals tentative recommendations for PC(USA)

Corporate oversight, shared services, Mission Agency and Stated Clerk top discussion

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Way Forward Commission members Eileen Lindner, moderator Mark Hostetter, and Eliana Maxim at the group’s March 5–7 meeting at Columbia Theological Seminary. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

LOUISVILLE — Meeting on the one-year anniversary of its first gathering at Auburn Seminary in New York City, the Way Forward Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) held a three-hour conference call today to hear reports and initial recommendations, plan for its report drafting sessions and look beyond General Assembly 223 (2018).

Formed by an action of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the PC(USA), the Way Forward Commission has been tasked with preparing a recommendation to address structural and functional inefficiencies, enhance institutional collaboration and provide a blueprint for ongoing evaluation of the church and its mission.

Having been tight-lipped regarding any broad structural changes, commission members today tipped their hand slightly and openly discussed findings from working groups and the basis of preliminary recommendations that may be made to the General Assembly.

“The reports we’ll get back will speak to what’s going on,” said Eliana Maxim, commission co-vice moderator, as various working groups began revealing details of their investigations, what the meeting agenda labeled “Broad-Brush Directions for Structural Recommendations.”

A Corp

The “A Corp” of the PC(USA) is the principal legal corporation of the denomination, which receives, holds and transfers property and facilitates the management of the church’s corporate affairs. All voting members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) serve as members of the board of directors of this corporation. Bylaws state that the executive director of the PMA serves as the president of the A Corp.

The placement of this corporate function in the PMA has caused tension in the denomination — internally for the PMA because it directs energy toward corporate management and away from mission activities and, according to Way Forward Commission co-vice moderator Eileen Lindner, “Externally it’s a source of distrust over the fairness of policies and principles, whether they’re done to the benefit of all agencies or [if] is there is a priority toward PMA.”

Lindner said the working group was prepared to make a recommendation to untether the A Corp from the PMA and suggest a much smaller board, possibly nine or 13 members — comprised of equal representation from the six agencies of the PC(USA) and several appointed at-large members, along with an elected board president — to replace the existing board of 40 PMA board members currently managing the A Corp.

“We began to think of this as a utility,” Lindner said of the possible A Corp reconfiguration that would include much of what is being referred to as “shared services” in the commission’s discussions. “[The] A Corp could exist anywhere in the organization; there’s no reason particularly that it had to rest in PMA or OGA.”

“By changing the board membership of the A Corp — not its functions, not its duties — we might be able to affect the change that would allow the agencies of the church to work in greater coordination with each other and not favor any agencies’ preferences in those services,” she said.

“We’re not sure [the new] shared services will be the same [as the old] shared services,” Lindner continued. “There may be additional ones, there may be ones that are outsourced in which case there might be some supervision of contracts, but not the carrying out of the duties themselves.”

Not limiting the scope of “shared services” in this new configuration, Lindner proposed that other agencies beyond the Office of the General Assembly and PMA might participate in the use and configuration of services. One such recommendation, which came later in the meeting, was the suggestion that denominational translation services could best reside in a shared services model.

Commission member Cliff Lyda focused his shared services energies on the potential for the newly formed group to provide what he called a “center of gravity” for the denomination.

“This is where everything comes together among all the agencies of the church,” he said. “This is the place where we touch home. Everybody goes out and does what they do, but there’s got to be a home base.”

“We hope and believe [shared services] ought to enhance the authority [each agency board] has over its work,” Lindner said. “It should strengthen each board in their calling and task.”

Commission member Jo Stewart expressed apprehension over the proposal, primarily on the grounds of “details” of the transition, saying, “I remain concerned about those details and I remain concerned we are adding an additional layer of complexity without a lot of gain from that additional layer of complexity. I remain concerned that Cliff and Eileen’s ‘center of gravity’ is not, in effect, a real center of gravity.”

Hostetter encouraged the A Corp to work to address Stewart’s needs and consider matters of governance, appointment and elections that would need to be included in the bylaws of any new A Corp configuration.

Shared Services

Stewart and commission member Matthew Eardley gave a report of the Shared Services working group, saying they were working closely with the All Agency Review Committee to compose a coordinated recommendation.

“One of the questions I have about the A Corp structure is how do we ensure there’s skin in the game for all the agencies,” said Eardley. “That sort of comes back to the comments that Eileen and Cliff were sharing. I see potential for shared services to be a fairly significant component of that.”

More details of the shared services report will be available at later meetings and as more details of structural changes emerge.

Way Forward Commission members Matthew Eardley, Jo Stewart, and Patricia Rarumangkay at the group’s March 5–7 meeting at Columbia Theological Seminary. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Presbyterian Mission Agency

Hostetter described the removal of A Corp responsibilities from the PMA as a “freeing of them up to be able to discern and think about what leadership means in the missional context, that their focus and decision making could be on mission.”

Saying there has been some conversation with the leadership of PMA how to engage in that kind of generative thinking around the configuration of the PMA Board, he said the Way Forward Commission is in conversation with the group to learn.

“It seems to me this is sort of a third leg of this A Corp/shared services stool that needs some definition as we move forward,” he said.

“As we interviewed the program directors of the PMA I was really struck by their hopes and dreams for directions in mission,” Lindner said. “Recognizing substantial change in the demography and topography, frankly, of the Christian church. Is it time to rethink large questions of missiology? Who are our partners internationally?”

“I came away from those conversations with a variety of staff people [believing] there hasn’t been the ability or opportunity to have the bandwidth to really engage in theological conversations about what do we mean by mission,” Maxim added. “What are the areas that we as the Presbyterian Church are being called in to be a witness and to be faithful to in the 21st century?”

The staff members, she reported, were enthused to speak on topics that they hadn’t been able to engage in because they “had been encumbered by responsibilities and oversight of areas that have nothing to do with mission.”

“This really affords us the opportunity to see some real engagement and the use of the talented people we have, doing and heading up various mission departments in that agency to be set free to do the work they’ve been called to do,” she said.

“I see this as being the ‘why?’ to all the questions we’re doing here,” Hostetter said. “To restructure for the sense of restructuring makes no sense and would be a waste of all our energy. But the idea that why as a church we have as a core of our church, both the Office of the Stated Clerk and the mission of the church, those two things are very central. And to be able to focus on how we do mission, and to allow the mission agency to run with that to provide leadership for the denomination without having to worry with the things that have preoccupied their time by necessity, is really exciting to me.”

Communications

Looking toward collaboration and coordination of communications across the PC(USA), Hostetter said “up to now it seems like a collaboration,” but that he’d not seen signs of intentional coordination.

Eardley cited “a multitude of websites and lack of cohesiveness among them,” “perceived competition among agencies,” and the inability of even the “best and brightest” people in congregations and mid councils to find the resources they need from the denomination, as symptoms of this lack of coordination.

As the communications task force continues its work, it recently allocated one of its four working groups — translation services — to the diverse voices subgroup, focusing its energy on the PC(USA) online presence, recipient focus via database services, and content and coordination.

Praising the professionalism, insight, willingness and work of the “Six Comm” group, which gathers communications heads from each of the six PC(USA) agencies monthly, Lindner encouraged the denomination to “get some family resemblance, some coordination, and how do we do strategic [denomination-wide] strategic planning when we recognize the diversity and uniqueness of the various offices.”

Implementation

The Way Forward Commission continues to recommend the formation of an implementation group to follow up on how agencies are implementing approved recommendations of the General Assembly. Details of this implementation group are in process and will be announced at an upcoming meeting.

Stated Clerk

Several recommendations around the role of the Stated Clerk resulted in a proposal by Lindner for a “stronger and broader recognition of the Stated Clerk as the continuing ecclesial officer and head of communion of the PC(USA).”

Suggestions included having the Stated Clerk serving in an ex-officio capacity on all PC(USA) agency boards with the privilege to attend all closed or executive sessions of each board. Agencies considering a new executive director or president would consult with the Stated Clerk “so there aren’t any surprises,” she said.

Additional thoughts considered whether to relocate the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy from the PMA to the Stated Clerk’s office, and looking at possible reporting lines to the Stated Clerk for the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and the Office of Public Witness rather than the PMA.

Lastly, the commission embraced the vision of current Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson II to fortify the denomination’s commitment to leadership development.

“Leadership development will become a bigger function; training through the church would become very practical for all the things we’ve got to do,” said Lyda, hoping the incorporation of new models of learning would “bring us out of the old school method of teaching and learning” as the church prepares leaders for the time ahead.

Mid Councils

“How do we root [mid council work] in relationship and trust building?” asked Eardley, sensing a dissatisfaction with the perceived model where experts in Louisville provide information to mid councils.

With a focus on relationships rather than expertise, Maxim said the interviewed staff were eager to work in this matter.

“We’ve come a long way,” Rosemary Mitchell, Way Forward Commission staff advisor and director of Mission Engagement and Support, said of the effort to focus on relationships and mutual ministry between national staff and mid council leaders.

The release of further information on these recommendations is in process.

Way Forward Commission members, from left, Emily Marie Williams, Rosemary Mitchell (PMA staff liaison) and Jo Stewart at the group’s Louisville meeting. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Funding

Although it’s not reporting any recommendations, the working group is  exploring how funding for PC(USA) mission and ministry can be sustained and asked, “What is the viability of our current funding structure?”

Stewart responded, based on her interviews on shared services. “It is clear that funding has been an issue and per capita remains an open issue. Funding of shared services will remain a critical issue. We don’t have an answer for all that, but I do believe it’s an issue on which we need to make some recommendation going forward.”

Diverse Voices

Commission member Julie Cox raised three points around the representation of diverse voices within the denomination:

  1. “We do not have a comprehensive national strategy for inclusivity and diversity. It’s abundantly clear to us, the historical ways of siloing — of doing and being — to be seemingly impossible for collaboration to happen. Our racial-ethnic justice work has been pushed, shoved into particular pockets of our work.”
  2. “We don’t want any more resources developed, etc., until we know what we already have. Inventory, curate what we already have and be able to communicate that. And begin to live into that and plan on how to live into that.”
  3. “Translations can’t be optional, this little thing on the side. It’s integral to our work as church. We would suggest, even recommend, moving translation services into shared services and make it more comprehensive. [Current translators] Stephanie and Paul are doing great work, but they are only two people.”

 

“There’s a tremendous gap and inability for our agencies to work together,” Maxim said of translation services. She said moving translation into shared services “will underscore how important opening up and creating access is going to mean for part of [our] strategic plan.”

Lindner asked about the use and implementation of translation services in other agencies, to which Maxim responded, “That is precisely why we want to move translation services outside of PMA. It’s not just PMA’s responsibility. This needs to be all our agencies accessing this tool, a tool for us to do ministry. … That includes the Board of Pensions and [the Presbyterian] Foundation as much as PMA and OGA.

“This is something we’d ask all six agencies to ensure they are providing materials in both Spanish and Korean at this time,” she said.

Institutional Culture

Hostetter said a collaborative effort between the All Agency Review Committee and the Way Forward Commission to engage an outside consultant to provide recommendations on the institutional culture of the PC(USA) was underway. No additional details were given as to the timeframe or scope of this project.

Next Steps

“There will be a lot of listening around the church over the next 30, 60 days,” said Hostetter, in anticipation of the work needed by commission members and the All Agency Review Committee in completing their reports and recommendations.

New conversations, he said, include helping the PMA to dream and focus on how they will fulfill the mission work of the church under a new structure that no longer requires management of the A Corp.

A document drafting group has been set up for the next meeting to pull together from the various groups the input needed to put together the first draft of the commission’s report.

Hostetter expects the commission will have “a draft in hand so we can get down to business” during its final face-to-face meeting Jan. 16–19 in Seattle.

“We’re getting to the finish line,” he said. “I am amazed we have been working together for only a year. … I am grateful for the partnership we all have had in working with each other, with All Agency Review Committee members, all the staff and elected board members at the agencies. It’s been a remarkable, collaborative experience for me and in some ways has kept my faith high and my confidence high we will succeed in helping us to be the best church we can.”

Final reports of the Way Forward Commission and All Agency Review Committee are due to the Office of the General Assembly by Feb. 16.

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