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Way Forward Commission focuses attention on forming recommendations

Communications, General Assembly, shared services and PC(USA) structure top list

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The Way Forward Commission (WFC) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met last night (Oct. 24) via a three-hour conference call to review progress on recommendations it plans to make to the 223rd General Assembly meeting next summer in St. Louis. Though still in process, and with input needed from more than a half-dozen task forces, some major themes are developing for the group’s work.

Before delving into working group updates, the Rev. Mark Hostetter, WFC moderator, provided a status report on the biweekly All Agency Review Committee (AARC) and Way Forward Commission conference calls. The regular attention to sharing information between the groups, he said, has allowed each to fine-tune its work.

Upon receiving feedback from the Committee on the General Assembly (COGA) and Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) meetings, in addition to hearing from mid council leaders, the joint working group is in the planning stages of setting up a joint workgroup with AARC and COGA to provide creative ways — written materials, videos, TED Talk introductions, etc. — to help General Assembly commissioners receive information on the groups’ work prior to June.


A communications roundtable was held last week with leadership of the denomination’s six agencies and heads of each agency’s communications group. Hostetter said the objective was to “collaboratively shed some light and discern how we can make our denomination’s communications more effective.”

To that end, four communications working groups have been established to provide the following information:

  • Online presence — Review websites, ease of navigation, social media utilization, search ease and common branding.
  • Recipients of data — How the denomination shares lists of individuals, mid councils and churches. Balance the inundation of information with its relevance.
  • Translation services — Examine resources, both personnel and funding, needed to accomplish the desired translation services. Review timeliness, who decides what materials to translate, and the bi-directional flow of non-English materials.
  • Content and coordination — An acknowledgment of the different functions within communications, which include marketing, fundraising, news, informational broadcasts and promotional materials. Address structural issues and the authority of who speaks, and on what they speak, for the denomination.

Commission member Julie Cox said, “There’s a hope to have an integrated database by 2020,” to address the issue of distributed information across the agencies, and sometimes fragmentation of data within the agencies. The Presbyterian Mission Agency and Office of the General Assembly are to submit a strategic workplan by the middle of November for review by the WFC during its November conference call.

“This is not a two-agency issue,” said Cox. “It’s all the agencies being dedicated to those tasks and collaborating strategically.”

Mid Council relations

The concern of how to better engage mid councils in their work was raised during the recent Mid Council Leaders Gathering in St. Louis. Staff liaison Tom Hay cautioned the group that changing the focus of the agencies to serve mid councils would be a “cultural shift.”

“Perhaps more than any other agency, OGA employees understand they serve at the discretion of the clerk,” he said. “I would hope it is the clerk who drives this transformation in any way you can make that happen.”

Commission member Eliana Maxim said the group recognized “the relationship with the agency and mid council leaders changed a while ago and they are playing catch-up. And we need to be more focused about that.”

Calling the shift in culture “high-hanging fruit,” commission member Sara Dingman, presbyter of Missouri River Valley, said the “low-hanging fruit” of this workgroup would be the creation of a mid council database for effective communications.

Voice of the Church/Stated Clerk

Addressing the leadership, public witness and representation of the PC(USA) in the broader culture and among ecumenical and interreligious partners, the Voice of the Church/Stated Clerk is currently considering four central issues:

  • Strengthening the wording of the job description and role of the Stated Clerk as head of communion
  • Defining the Clerk’s relationship to other agencies — to make more explicit the Clerk serving in a mediating or leadership role in times of conflict in the other agencies
  • Strengthening the public voice of the PC(USA) — making a stronger voice by bringing the Stated Clerk into closer relationship with the public witness office, ACSWP and the part of legal services that deals with first amendment rights and the free expression of religion
  • Determine the context for a missional use of the property at 100 Witherspoon in Louisville.

“Another thought Cliff [Lyda] and I picked up out of our deliberations is the potential role of the Stated Clerk in what must surely become a more vigorous role in leadership development,” said commission member Eileen Lindner.

For Lyda, one of the pressing concerns for the role of the Stated Clerk is how the denomination draws its organizational chart. “We aren’t looking for a presiding bishop or CEO,” he said. “But we are looking for the guardianship of the General Assembly that gives the Stated Clerk a voice and a seat at the table in all venues across the church.”

Diverse voices

Speaking for the working group investigating the representation and role of diverse voices in the PC(USA), Maxim said they had made three observations: there is a lack of a comprehensive plan to address the needs of the emerging majority; there is a lack of clarity in communications with the caucuses representing diverse voices; and very little has been done to integrate the work of the caucuses into the agencies.

“This is going to be a cultural shift,” she said. “There’s been a lot of siloing around this work in our denomination. This is indicative of institutionalized racism — we isolate people in order to marginalize their voices.”

The working group’s short-term goals include:

  • Compile an inventory of the work that has been done — either requested by the General Assembly or completed by the OGA and PMA — around racism, inclusivity and diversity.
  • Work together using staff positions and caucus and network leaders and advisory leaders to come up with a national denominational plan around diversity and inclusivity.

“Our problem is we can’t get our hands on these materials,” Maxim said, speaking to the lack of an existing repository to be used by all six agencies. “It’s not just a PMA and Racial Ethnic [& Women’s] Ministries issue.”

“This cannot be the work of people of color in the denomination,” she said. “This is white people’s work, and we need that to happen in our denomination.”

Property and facilities

Leading the work of this group, Hostetter said it was an effort of all six agencies, which held its first meeting Oct. 23. He said three additional conversations will be held to determine a direction for the work over the next few weeks, to include discussion on:

  • Transparency and data collection to a complete analysis of the denomination property, to include rental value, maintenance costs, expansion need, subleases, subleases under negotiation, parking alternatives, etc.
  • As-is use of current facilities — What are some of the dreams for the use of 100 Witherspoon? What sort of partnerships or ministries are needed? Are there potential barriers, including budget and resourcing, for these facilities? How do we sell the “excitement” of living in and being located in Louisville? What is the process for soliciting input on this?
  • Explore alternative possibilities — What is the advantage of being in one location vs. being scattered around the country? Should the denomination be more closely situated in geographic pockets of Presbyterians, diversity considerations, time zone considerations?

A Corp

The legal entity of the denomination — the Presbyterian Church USA, A Corp. — has received scrutiny due to its affiliation with and board control of the PMA Board.

“We’ve come to understand A Corp could rest anywhere in the denomination,” Hostetter said of the A Corp’s PMA affiliation. “That’s had some implications for good, and some for not so good. It’s likely we’ll make a suggestion about the location of PMA, if not in agency alone in the composition of its board.”

He noted that any changes in governance structure will require changes in the documented structure of some of the other agencies.

Shared services

Ongoing discussion about the role and deployment of shared services (accounting, legal, print and mail, information technology, etc.) have not reached any conclusions. The working group has divided their work into two areas for investigation, and a third group to provide an analysis recommendation for shared services:

  • Philosophy of shared service — what is their role within the organization
  • Tactical group — to look at each service area and evaluate the current situation, the cost and whether or not we should look at outsourcing or insourcing across agencies.
  • A joint group convened to discuss how the philosophy and tactical groups’ findings mesh.

Of the many concerns voiced over shared services, one in particular generated an extended discussion: the integration between financial systems and donor management systems. To that end, the group approved the following recommendation:

The Way Forward Commission will convene in November a working group that includes staff from all six Agencies to engage in conversation about comprehensive systems framework for constituent databases and data warehousing, including those that support sharing across systems as appropriate, in collaboration with the working groups on Communication and Mid Councils and with outside resources as needed.

Next steps

While not embedded in work of existing groups, commission member Sam Bonner suggested the WFC consider a recommendation to give the All Agency Review Committee “teeth” to follow up and hold agencies accountable for implementing recommendations.

Awaiting outcomes from the various working groups noted above, the commission will meet via conference call Nov. 29 and set in motion the process of drafting its report to the General Assembly. The commission will gather in Seattle on Jan. 16–19 to compile these drafts into their final report.

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