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Way Forward Commission receives updates from sub groups

Process for churchwide evaluation to expand scope, hear from broader base

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – The Way Forward Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met last night via conference call to discuss its members’ progress and continue mapping strategies for evaluation of and recommendations on the denomination’s structure.

Commission Moderator Mark Hostetter introduced the meeting, noting the conference call was a “bridge” meeting between the first meeting of the commission in New York City in early December and its next scheduled meeting at Johnson C. Smith Seminary in Atlanta next month.

Giving an overview of the process the commission is using to complete its work, Hostetter noted the group was in the initial “Culture Shift” phase and would move into an analysis of “Short-Term Structural or Organizational Changes” as it approaches the April 5-7 meeting in Atlanta. The final phase of the proposed working process is a “Comprehensive Review of National Structure with Recommendations for the Way Forward,” upon which the commission will act and/or make recommendations to the 223rd General Assembly (2018.)

Eliana Maxim, associate executive presbyter of Seattle Presbytery, reported on her group’s analysis of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA.) Discussion of the PMA was moved to the top of the agenda due to the PMA Board’s recently proposed board restructuring and reaction by advocacy committees to this proposal. Using these inputs, recent interviews and a 2015 review of the PMA as her guidelines for evaluation, Maxim was critical of the progress the Mission Agency has made toward addressing the concerns found in the 2015 review report.

“The general consensus we get [is] that the [PMA] board is acutely aware of these concerns… And they are taking some steps as a staff,” said Maxim. “What we don’t see is any real transformative work happening at a deeper level with any kind of vision for what the end product is going to look like.”

“This was illustrated to me most acutely in the recommended board restructure that the PMA is suggesting,” she continued. “It kind of highlights—and looks at form over function—that there hasn’t been any deep conversation about the function of the board and the identity of the agency, which still sees itself in many ways as a corporate entity.”

Also in Maxim’s review was her conclusion that the discussion around shared services between the six agencies was underway but that there was “not a clear understanding of what the ultimate goal is.”

She wondered if shared services functions were part of the mission of the church and, if so, why it resided in the PMA. “Why is that one agency is exerting authority over a resource that is meant to be for the church as a whole?” she asked.

Another subgroup addressed concerns over intra-agency communication and coordination, noting each agency seems to be doing good work on its own, but without a clear sense of connection and shared mission with the other agencies.

Hostetter suggested there needs to be “far more conversation between the agencies to ask what the church needs and how they can serve these needs together.” Wondering how the individual agencies can “get ahead of the curve” of a changing church that includes—in many cases—a decline in membership and giving, conversation turned to who has been included, and who has responded, to the Way Forward Commission survey.

Engagement with new worshiping communities, the ‘emerging church,’ racial ethnic churches, mid council leaders, seminaries and seminarians, and other educational institutions were suggested as focus areas, in addition to more participation from those at the local church level.

Saying there is a “missing sense of urgency in the church,” Patty Rarumangkay, a ruling elder from Maryland, hoped reaching out to these less often heard voices would provide a “realistic and up-to-date idea of how they do their work.”

As the commission continues its work, the group will focus its energies on four areas leading up to the April meeting: Hearing input from “non-traditional, racial ethnic and immigrant” communities, working with the Presbyterian Mission Agency on its board structure and response to the 2015 review recommendations, collating and analyzing survey responses, and continuing to refine the process map for future work.

“I really appreciate everyone’s stamina and participation,” said Hostetter of participation in the two hour and 45 minute conference call. “This may well be a great way between our face-to-face meetings to keep our focus and move our process forward.”

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The commission is one of three bodies established by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) last June in Portland, Oregon. The other two are the 2020 Vision Committee and the All Agency Review Committee. Leadership of all three bodies has jointly committed to open communication and close collaboration of activity as they move through their individual initiatives.


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