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Way Forward Commission meets at McCormick Seminary

Discernment exercise imagines possible future for the PC(USA)

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Jan Edmiston (left) speaks with the Way Forward Commission at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Commission member Eliana Maxim is seated next to her. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

CHICAGO – The Way Forward Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met today at McCormick Theological Seminary to receive updates from its subgroups, engage in an extended discernment exercise and to hear from the Rev. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016). The commission meeting concludes tomorrow, May 17.

“This is an unusual meeting,” the Rev. Mark Hostetter, Moderator of the Way Forward Commission, said in his introduction to the day. “We’re taking time to have a brainstorming session. The idea behind this was to have a discernment exercise — to engage in free association of ideas and see what bubbles up as a theme or themes that we can use to prioritize our work on the structure of the national [Presbyterian] church.”

Explaining that the goal of the meeting was not to vote on or approve anything, Hostetter encouraged commission members to envision possibilities and discern previously unimagined opportunities.

After opening worship the group received greetings and an update from Edmiston who cautioned the commission, “There are things we love more than Jesus.”

She encouraged the group to look for ways they could focus attention on the ability of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to “transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ.”

“Our church has the ability to change the world,” she said, noting the resources and expertise of the PC(USA), including its national staff. “We have extraordinary people who work at the [Presbyterian] center who have great relationships around the world.”

“Most of what you talk about happens at a local level,” commission member Jo Stewart said in response. “Even if we design the best national structure that has all the elements to create the environment you’re talking about, I’m still trying to figure out how this flows through the structure and into the congregations and members.”

Edmiston offered the advice that “we need a world-class communications office” for the PC(USA) to effectively communicate and “make it as easy as possible for people to get information.”

Calling attention to the difficulty she and others have found in finding information on the denomination’s website, frustration over administrative and legal roadblocks she and Co-Moderator the Rev. Denise Anderson have encountered in self-publishing information through official channels, and confusion over where to go to get answers on communication protocols, she asked the commission for help. “I’m not sure where to go to do this, because each of the agencies has its own communications group,” she said.

Edmiston also called attention to the anxiety felt by staff about the outcomes and recommendations from the Way Forward Commission, the All Agency Review Committee and the 2020 Vision Team and reminded the commission that there is anxiety in all corners of society.

Edmiston said she heard from all corners of the church a desire for the denomination to be “less institutional, less regulatory and more relational.”

Report from the Way Forward Commission moderator

Hostetter said regular conversations between the Way Forward Commission and the All Agency Review Committee had been fruitful. “We’re sharing notes and communication so that there’s as little duplication as possible,” he said. “Both the committee and the commission are hitting their stride so it’s important that we be in regular communication.”

He said the group was also in close contact with 2020 Vision team, which is currently engaged in listening sessions. Coordination, he said, was key to these cross-group conversations so they could “most effectively model the behavior of being one body in Christ.”

Hostetter gave a brief overview of conversations that occurred at the joint Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) and Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) meeting in March in Puerto Rico, saying continued conversations with the Office of the Stated Clerk and the PMAB Governance Task Force were helping to ensure “we are all working together.”

Reports from subgroups

Way Forward Commission members (from left) Sam Bonner, Cliff Lyda and Julie Cox at the group’s May 16 meeting in Chicago. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Members of the all agency, structural alternatives, engagement of diverse voices and shared/common services subgroups have met since the last call of the Way Forward Commission but with limited attention due to other assignments.

Commission member Sam Bonner said discussions had occurred with the Stated Clerk and will continue after this meeting.

Stewart noted that the discussion of shared/common services is ongoing, specifically asking the question of what is considered shared services in each agency or ministry context. Listing several of the possible functional roles — including printing and mailing, communications, legal, accounting, human resources and others — she concluded by saying, “We need to have our own definition of what we call shared services.”

Commission member the Rev. Adan Mairena gave his report on engagement with diverse voices, saying the PC(USA) has “three types of churches for those not in the mainstream,” especially those in racial-ethnic and immigrant churches.

“The high steeple churches we can’t even relate to,” he said. “They are sustainable and are going to have their positions paid for in future generations. Ministries who are partnering with their communities, nonprofits, service centers and are tied into the denomination. And churches that are about to die or they stay open only because someone dies and leaves enough money to keep them open on Sundays.

“The issues aren’t just racial-ethnic,” he noted. “They go across all areas of the church.”

Brainstorming session

Way Forward Commission member Sara Dingman presents her “Megabus” concept at the group’s May 16 meeting in Chicago (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

The majority of the meeting was spent in a brainstorming session where each commission member presented their vision of a structure for, and functional roles within, the PC(USA).

Over six hours, as each person discussed their proposal, the group collected themes, values, questions and ideas that will be presented to the denomination in a midyear report.

Much of the discussion centered on the role of the Stated Clerk and how to establish a clear line of authority within the PC(USA).

“At the highest level of the church we do not have clearly defined lines of authority,” said commission member the Rev. Cliff Lyda, who suggested that a general presbyter could fulfill such a role. “Human systems necessarily need clear leadership. And if leadership is not clearly defined it becomes covert and necessarily political.

“Whether it’s the Stated Clerk or not, that someone [needs to] be elevated to the position of not only speaking to and for the church, but to lead in a corporate way. When the buck’s got to stop, it stops there. When there’s a dumpster fire in the PMA, or one of the other agencies, who has the authority given to him or her by the church to lead? Somebody’s got to lead. And we can’t identify who that is in the Presbyterian Church.”

Other organization suggestions included inserting a chief operating officer between the Stated Clerk and the agencies, suggesting the Stated Clerk would supervise the ecclesial tasks of the church while entrusting operations to this person.

“If you go one step too far you’ve created an episcopacy in an ecclesiology that doesn’t support it,” warned commission member Eileen Lindner of moving too quickly to redefine the role of the Stated Clerk. “This is not a place for clodhoppers; it’s a time for ballet shoes.”

The following are the themes, values, questions and ideas collected during the brainstorming session. The group noted that they are preliminary points that will be used to generate further discussion and do not represent a definitive direction or recommendation by the Way Forward Commission.


  • Voice and role of the Stated Clerk
  • Presbyterian Mission Agency focus on mission delivery
  • Mid councils — resourcing
  • Location and supervision of shared services
  • Congregational support — locus of ministry
  • Effective communications
  • Post-traditional church leadership support and development, including pastors and mid councils


  • Flexibility and innovation
  • Moving from a regulatory to a relationship model
  • Knowing who is the client
  • Recognizing contextual diversity


  • Do we need a Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) board?
  • How can we incorporate Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministries throughout all agencies and the life of the church?
  • Is there a funding model for centralized publishing?
  • Are separate corporations needed?
  • How can we strengthen mid council relationships?
  • How can we strengthen congregational relationships?
  • Do we need all our denominational offices in one place?
  • To whom is the Board of Pensions accountable?
  • What are the sources of funding for the church?


  • Leadership development in Stated Clerk’s office
  • Consolidation of assets into A-Corp
  • Applied research
  • Revisit age group defined ministries
  • Continually refer back to core principles — the six great ends of the church
  • Duly elected, with proper checks and balances, all agency leader — possibly a national PC(USA) general presbyter
  • Chief operating officer in charge of Mission, Publishing, Investing and Pensions
  • Vertical structure with a General Council
  • Permanent improvement group — Six Agency Review
  • Public witness — go from proclamation to community organizing
  • Responsive flexibility/nimbleness
  • First Amendment legal services

Commission subgroups will continue to perform discovery and discussion on mid council needs and mission delivery, constitutional questions about the A-Corp and position of the Stated Clerk, and work on the delivery of a midyear report.

In formulating the midyear report, the Way Forward Commission hopes to present a design schematic that contains major themes; responses to agency specific initiatives and issues highlighted by past review committees; a review of the Way Forward Commission process, including its interaction with the agencies, review committees and other groups; and an invitation to further feedback via a survey.

At the close of the day, the Way Forward Commission went into closed executive session to talk about personnel implications of their brainstorming session. The Chicago meeting of the group concludes tomorrow with planning for its next gatherings and assigning communication tasks.

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