The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy feverishly worked last weekend on a half-dozen reports it is preparing for the upcoming 219th General Assembly later this year in Minneapolis.

The committee — which develops policy statements, resolutions and other reports on topics that are referred to it by the General Assembly — is trying to finish work on papers on public education, HIV/AIDS, the theology of compensation in the church, gun violence, human rights and a study on the nature and value of human life.

The committee was unable to complete work on any of the papers during its Jan. 21-24 meeting here and planned a series of online and telephone conference deliberations to complete work on the documents before the early March deadline to submit them for the Assembly’s consideration July 3-10.

Because ACSWP protocols bar quoting from documents until they are in final form, this story is based on committee conversations.


The report on HIV/AIDS is being written in response to two overtures to the 218th General Assembly (2008). According to Kezia Ellison, Clinical Research Assistant at Harvard School of Public Health and the founder and president of Educating Teens about HIV/AIDS, Inc. who participated by phone, the new report “focuses on the dynamics of power and how they affect ... underlying issues or determinant issues, such as poverty, discrimination, stigmatization, human rights and gender inequality” in many parts of the world.

“HIV itself is not the problem, it’s a virus,” Ellison, chair of the eight-member writing team, said. “Society’s ills are the problem. There are structural things that need to be comprehensively addressed. Multi-faceted approaches that address power and resource allocation are essential.”

Joy Raatz, who leads Presbyterian World Mission’s HIV initiative, agreed.  “The issue of HIV/AIDS is holistic, particularly in places like Africa,” she said. “People may have the ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs), but if they don’t have clean water or if they don’t have food, the issue becomes much more complex.”

She added that the competition for scarce resources in many countries hampers prevention and treatment. And for the church, Raatz said, “Theology is very important — they see death daily. The theology we use needs to be pastoral, supportive and meet people at their place of need.”

The committee’s work is complicated by the presence of majority and minority reports from the writing team. Though the two versions vary little in content, writing team and ACSWP member Marsha Fowler said “we (the minority) felt we needed to start with an explanation why we needed another report. There have been so many — the demographics are the most complete for any disease ever.

“But they still don’t count everyone — children and women particularly,” she said, “so we wanted to lift up underreported up front (in the report). “To put them at the end would simply marginalize them all over again.”

The other minority report supporter, the Rev. Ann Hayman, praised the PC(USA) for “the wonderful work” it has done in the 30 years of the AIDS pandemic. “But we discovered early on that we are dealing with some systemic issues that have not been addressed before — poverty, gender issues, etc.,” she said, “and we need to say that the playing field must be leveled if we’re going to win this AND we can win — the resources are there.”

Public education

The 2008 Assembly directed ACSWP to study the churches on public education in relationship to the issues of desegregation, affirmative action, faith-based initiatives, home-schooling, charter schools and the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation.

“We have looked at the history of public education, demographic trends which are changing dramatically, school-assignment decisions (in Seattle and Louisville) by the U.S. Supreme Court, the emphasis on testing in “No Child Left Behind” that shows much racial and socio-economic bias, teacher training and the pedagogy of teaching that places more emphasis on teaching methodology than on knowledge of the subject matter,” said ACSWP member Christine Darden.

She said their research shows, among other things, that:

  • Home-schooled students do better on standardized tests;
  • A Stanford University study shows mixed results for charter schools, with about 20 percent demonstrating better academic achievement but about 30 percent showing worse results;
  • Federally funded faith-based educational programs continue to be plagued by proselytization along with education; and
  • Unequal funding patterns and teacher certification standards across the country.

The 20 recommendations in the report, Darden said, seek to equalize funding for public schools, hold charter schools to same accountability standards as public schools, reaffirm education as a right and the PC(USA)’s commitment to public education, support legislation that addresses “opportunity gaps,” calls on the U.S. government to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and support a constitutional amendment that affirms access to a quality public education as a basic human right.

ACSWP co-chair Ron Kernaghan said that though he liked the “balanced” approach of the paper, he wondered “if the impact of poverty on children is underplayed.” He supports the report’s recommendations to reallocate resources more equitably to the nation’s public schools, but “I don’t think money is the only reason why some school systems are failing — what other levers are there beside money to make public education more effective.”

While saying he “learned a lot” from the paper, ACSWP member Bill Saint asked for tighter focus in the final version. For instance, “Though some say charter schools are re-segregationist and home-schooling is religious freedom-oriented,” he said, “much of both movements are a result of failures of current educational practices. We need to decide what we’re addressing. I’m afraid we’re succumbing to the tendency to denounce every wrongdoing we see rather than focusing on a few things that can be fixed.” 

Gun violence

While previous General Assembly attempts have focused on controversial gun “control” measures, the current study reflects a change — the 2008 Assembly asked ACSWP to “articulate a Reformed theology of proactive constructive nonviolence way of life and tactical methods for bringing God’s justice and peace to our communities and around the world.”

The chair of the writing team, Brian Miller, has lived gun violence in a very personal way — his brother, an FBI agent in Washington, DC, was killed when a man walked into his office and opened fire with a machine pistol, also killing two others. On that day, Miller quit his business and became a full-time crusader to reduce gun violence.

Organizations he has aided in Philadelphia and New Jersey have been successful by pressing gun shops and dealers to endorse a code of conduct that keeps guns out of the hands of violent offenders. Gun dealers who refuse are subject to demonstrations in front of their shops.

Such an approach to gun violence is new to ACSWP and the PC(USA), said coordinator Chris Iosso. “This paper,” he said, “provides a theological counterpoint to the ‘theology of the gun.’” It also “references direct action” (such as Miller’s), Iosso added, “without basing the whole paper on it.” The paper is built on a “construct” of five-part social movement development, a methodology commonly used in community-development organizations.

ACSWP member John Knapp asked that the final version of the paper “have more reference to the toll gun violence takes on the African American community, which is the hardest hit community in U.S. “

Knapp also sought a fuller treatment in the paper of  the “culture of violence and the desensitizing of society by media games, media violence and the like.” And, he concluded, “What about suicide? Half of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. What can we say about that?”

Theology of compensation

The 2008 Assembly directed ACSWP to update the denomination’s 1983 report on the subject, asking it “to provide theological guidance to church and society with regard particularly to the impact of secular market assumptions on the compensation practices of the PC(USA).”

In the study approved by the 1983 Assembly, theologian Walter Brueggemann said the PC(SA) was captive to “a culture of competitive consumerism rather than a stewardship society of the church” and called the church to “move beyond the idolatry of secular models of success.”

The Rev. Deborah Fortel, chair of the writing team developing the new theology of compensation paper, said the document is “not a plan, but a theological analysis” of compensation in the church. The 1983 compensation guidelines, she said, “have been implemented only in part.”

Over the last 30 years, the PC(USA) and its predecessor denominations have variously established guidelines for the ratio between the highest and lowest salary in any given entity (a presbytery or a General Assembly entity, for example) of 3:1, 4:1 and the current 5:1, approved when the 1995 General Assembly adopted “God’s Work in Our Hands.”

The Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions, she told the committee, “have pay scales significantly beyond the salaries of any other employees in the denomination.” The General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) also does not adhere to the 5:1 ratio between highest and lowest salaries, she added.

Fortel, who will retire on Feb. 1, said the Theology of Compensation report commends Presbyterian World Mission for the egalitarian compensation policy it uses for PC(USA) mission workers around the world, the Office of the General Assembly for maintaining a 5:1 compensation ratio, and the Board of Pensions for basing pensions for retired church workers on the churchwide median salary, a policy which significantly improves the pensions of church workers who were lesser paid during their working years.

The report, she says, recommends that the 5:1 ratio be applied to the GAMC and that consultations be held with the other national agencies to discuss the guideline.

A tougher nut to crack, Fortel said, is compensation practices in presbyteries and their congregations, where compensation discrepancies often are even wider than in General Assembly-level entities.

That’s why, said the Rev. Catherine Borchert, a denominational veteran and primary writer of the report, it is written in a way to appeal to people in the pew. “We’ve had lots of policies over the years, but none of them have been very accessible to congregations,” she said. “Money really grabs sessions and church members — if you’re going to talk about compensation, the way to talk to church people is biblically and theologically, educating them about why the Bible compels us to look at staff, workers and each other differently in the church than in society.”

Fortel said that to make compensation more equitable across the denomination “we’ll all have to study creative forms of partnership between congregations,” such as presbytery minimums and maximums with churches exceeding the maximum contributing to a fund to support those being paid below-minimum.

Knapp asked that the final version of the paper include compensation data comparing the PC(USA) with other churches and non-profits, saying “they would be more analogous to us than business.”

And most agreed that compensation conversations are difficult in any circumstances. “It’s hard to talk about compensation when it’s so hard to talk theologically about money,” Knapp said.

“We need conversations in congregations about how we live together, not just about pastors’ salaries,” Kernaghan added.