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Way Forward Commission looks to ‘possible outcomes’ and ‘common elements’

Strategy to address change emerges prior to Chicago meeting

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – Beginning with advice from the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Way Forward Commission met via video conference call last night to hear updates and plan its strategy to tackle what it sees as necessary changes for the denomination.

The three-hour call began with a 40-minute closed session conversation with Nelson to discuss specific structure and personnel matters pertinent to the work of the commission, along with details of his Advisory Opinion issued on the scope of the work of the Way Forward Commission.

Mark Hostetter, Moderator of the Way Forward Commission, summarized the Advisory Opinion saying any “changes or implementation of any of our vision [that] involve missional or structural changes must be brought to the General Assembly in the form of a recommendation.”

The opinion, he noted, leaves broad latitude for staffing and functional changes, along with cross-agency collaboration efforts, while acknowledging it introduced “an edge to our power having to do with structural or missional changes.”

Leading up to its May 15–17 meeting at McCormick Seminary in Chicago, Hostetter urged commission members to continue the sub-group work of structural alternatives, shared/common services and hearing from diverse voices along with considering two items as preparatory “homework.”

First was his suggestion to devise “possible outcomes” of changes that are “realistic to accomplish” within the commission’s scope. Second was a proposal to investigate “common elements” — such as the increasing corporate nature of the national church, operational and communication silos, and perceived lack of support for local congregations and presbyteries — that commissioners say are possible areas for improvement.

“Are there commonalities among us where people say we need to throw the whole thing away, like a forest fire cleans the underbrush?” said Hostetter. “Or is that not on the table because that’s not what people feel is the way we should go? Is what we should begin to think about recommendations in respect to just PMA [the Presbyterian Mission Agency] and OGA [the Office of the General Assembly] and a continuation of the process?”

Commission member Patty Rarumangkay, a ruling elder in National Capital Presbytery, suggested the commission engage in a functional evaluation of the denomination, saying the task was akin to reorganizing a dresser drawer.

“The first thing you would do is take everything out, pile it up into organized piles and understand everything in your drawer,” she said, calling on her process improvement experience as an accountant. “And then put it back in in an orderly fashion. Put it back in a way that makes more sense once you’ve dissected it all. … The first thing we need to do is understand the processes.”

“I see this as a realization that the chest of drawers is no longer suitable,” countered Eliana Maxim, associate executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Seattle. “It’s not just taking everything out of the drawer, but realizing that the chest of drawers, in and of itself, is either not large enough, not small enough, or not appropriate for what I want to store.”

Saying she sees the process of tangibly improving the denomination’s structure in “large and broad strokes” rather than getting into the detailed operational areas, Maxim offered, “I think of some general sweeping things, if we were to share that, we might find some common points that we all agree on.”

Bonner asked Maxim, “How do you know this chest of drawers isn’t right?”

“It’s not functioning,” replied Maxim. “How do you know that?” asked Bonner.

“Having been on the PMA review committee I had a chance to see how that chest of drawers is not functioning,” said Maxim. “Having followed up with the PMA and asking why they didn’t follow the recommendations we provided them, their rationale and reasoning further indicates an inability to understand that we’re looking at a different chest of drawers than we were before.”

Hostetter remind the group it needed to form its recommendations to the 223rd General Assembly by February 2018, saying, “We want to be living into our boldness that we all believe deeply and that the church is asking us to be — from NEXT Church to people on the surveys. They are looking for us to move this forward in a significant way.”

Commission member Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina, suggested commissioners use their individual network of contacts within the PC(USA) to discern the most important elements of the church. “If nothing existed today, what would you build?” she asked.

“If there are three forces at work there’s preservation, there’s destruction, there’s creation,” said Sara Dingman, transitional synod executive for the Synod of Lincoln Trails. “I feel that I get really bogged down by the preservation and destruction — what to let go of — that I don’t get to the creation piece. And this might be way for us — if we start at zero — for us to get to creation, which people are hungry for from this committee.”

Reports from Moderator and Vice Moderators

Since its last meeting in Atlanta, commission members attended the NEXT Church gathering in Kansas City, Missouri, along with the joint Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and Committee on the General Assembly meeting in Puerto Rico.

Hostetter gave a similar presentation to the PMAB and COGA saying that he “introduced them to how the Way Forward Commission was approaching its work, including the process map and stages they are going through.” He also shared the Affirmation of Approach approved by the group in Atlanta and discussed common areas of interest.

“It put a face to, and gave some insight into, the work we are doing,” he said.

Maxim said her experience as a first-time COGA member meeting in joint session with PMA board members was “eye-opening.”

“What really struck me was the inability to move forward as two different bodies of the same denomination, and thinking about how we might facilitate that,” she said.

Maxim and Dingman, along with OGA staff advisor Tom Hay, attended the NEXT Church gathering in Kansas City and led a session with 49 people interested in the work of the commission.

“The theme that I got was a resounding ‘be bold, don’t wait, do something bold and transformative,’” said Dingman, noting churches and presbyteries are concerned about the national denomination’s ability to be responsive. “They feel there’s a disconnect with the national church and a lagging behind of the national church — [wondering] if it’s possible for the Way Forward Commission to get ahead of that.”

“In the past 20 to 25 years, there’s been a lot of Band-Aid work in the church in the denomination and people are frankly tired of that,” Maxim said. “The encouragement to us a commission was don’t be afraid to do some of the work we’ve done in local church and mid councils.”

Cross-committee dialogue and inter-agency conversations

The three working groups assigned to look at the function and form of the PC(USA) — the Way Forward Commission, the 2020 Vision Team and the Six-Agency Review Committee — have each formed coordinating committees to inform the other groups of their work and findings in hopes of avoiding overlap and redundancies.

Commission members Eileen Lindner and Sam Bonner, along with Maxim and Hostetter, joined the last 2020 Vision Team conference call and agreed to a protocol and schedule for exchanging information. The same procedure was established with the Six-Agency Review group.

Discussions of diversity in the church centered on recent concerns voiced by advisory groups and the Governance Task Force’s structural proposal to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.

“The larger question is something that is also beginning to be on the table, about the advocacy and advisory groups’ role in the national church,” Hostetter said. “At the time they were set up the PMA was, in some ways, the General Assembly between General Assemblies, and the advocacy and advisory committees were brought into that process.”

Bonner brought findings from conversations between the Way Forward Commission and the six agencies of the PC(USA): the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program (PILP), the Presbyterian Foundation, the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC), and the Board of Pensions.

He said the group had asked each agency to respond to four questions in an effort to understand how they are relating to one another, and how those relationships might be improved, including:

  • What do you see as the future of your agency, what is the future of the church, and what is your agency’s role in it?
  • What have you done in response to other evaluation groups visiting you in years past?
  • What process do you have to go out to the presbyteries and synods? What’s your process for understanding what’s going on in the churches? What process can be established to report this activity?
  • In what ways have you been able to break through functional silos between agencies?

The group continued its discussion on duplication of efforts from the last meeting citing publishing, investment and loan functions, communications and shared/common services.

Hay noted an invitation was given to COGA to join a discussion on shared publishing by PMA Interim Executive Director Tony De La Rosa. COGA declined the opportunity, saying the General Assembly had wanted the Way Forward and Six-Agency Review groups to decide how the restructure of church functions should proceed. Hay said the commission could redirect COGA if they like.

“Part of what COGA is afraid of is decisions getting made on these little task forces and a big picture decision getting made by the commission and all of this coming to the Assembly and it being competing conversations,” he said.

“We can talk about the non-negotiables for us and really put everything on the table that way, rather than these piecemeal conversations,” said Maxim of the attempt to manage small problem areas without having a more comprehensive direction and structure guiding the denomination. “There’s almost a desperation of ‘let’s try to put together a task force or a work group before the commission can get to it.’”

At Hostetter’s suggestion the commission agreed to focus the communications subgroups’ efforts on looking at collaborative efforts between the OGA and PMA communications groups in an effort to hone a “theological basis” for the messaging of the denomination.

Evaluation of Structural Alternatives

Julie Cox, Presbytery of New Harmony associate executive presbyter and Associate Stated Clerk, reported on the findings of the Structural Alternatives subgroup and their evaluation of other denominational websites and messaging.

She said the group was impressed by the clear information available on the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), United Church of Christ (UCC), and Christian Church — Disciples of Christ (DoC) websites and their use of “clear versus unclear information, and the lack coded language” in comparison to PC(USA) web resources.

“Our structure points to six equal agencies, but they’re all in a row together,” she said of the appearance of a flat structure between agencies. “But perhaps in the necessity of the core functions, the six are not exactly equal. Some of the agencies support those core functions, but are not those core functions.”

Retired Teaching Elder Cliff Lyda, agreed, saying, “the ELCA are really a lot like us.”

“We found an awful lot of help knowing they have the same struggles we’ve got,” he said. “They know who their leaders are, and we really don’t. That straight line in our organizational chart with six agencies… By protocol we look to [the Stated Clerk as for leadership], but organizationally he doesn’t. … Who leads the Presbyterian Church? Where does the buck stop? When leadership is not clearly identified at the national level, then it becomes covert.”

“There’s 720 days between the General Assembly, and who’s minding the store in between?” Lyda said of the desire to have clear leadership demarcation in the PC(USA) national structure.

Shared Services

“When we talk about looking at shared services what are we talking about?” Stewart asked before listing finance and accounting, information technology, human resources, legal, communications, marketing, building and property management, insurance and risk management, internal audit, mailing and printing services, distribution services, research services. “And that list might be more than it needs to be, or less.”

In looking at these services, Stewart said the subgroup wondered if they should be looking at how these services are expected to be utilized: by the entire denomination, by the four agencies (OGA, PILP, PMA and PPC) that exist in Louisville at the Presbyterian Center, between OGA and PMA, or only within each specific agency.

The group agreed to continue its evaluation of shared services and propose a potential best practice once other foundational work had been accomplished.

The next meeting of Way Forward Commission is May 15–17 at McCormick Seminary in Chicago.

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