Assembly panels update mid council leaders on their work

Glimmers of hope emerge for representatives of year-long process

October 17, 2017

St. Louis

The three groups tasked with discerning the form, function and vision of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gave updates October 15 to 300 church leaders gathered here for the annual Mid Council Leaders Gathering.

Initiated by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Oregon, the 2020 Vision Team, the All Agency Review Committee and the Way Forward Commission have worked for more than a year at their respective tasks. The presentation to mid council leaders provided the groups’ representatives an opportunity to describe the process and possible outcomes of their activities.

2020 Vision Team

The Rev. Lisa Juica Perkins, co-moderator of the 2020 Vision Team and pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sherman, Texas, began by providing the biblical foundations for the team’s work, reading from Habakkuk and Mark 8.

“Who do you say I am?” she asked the attending leaders, echoing the works of Jesus from Mark. This initial question, Juica Perkins, said, led the group to ask other question as the team seeks to discern a vision statement for the PC(USA). “Who are those we’ve complained against, who are those we want answers from, and who are those we need to ask — combined with what breaks Gods heart?”

She said the spheres of questioning had broadened beyond those within the church, extending to those who are church affiliated and those with no affiliation. Church affiliated constituents — such as chaplains, YAVs and camp and conference center staff — were asked about their connections to the PC(USA), and what they believed God was calling the church to do. Unaffiliated persons — such as Black Lives Matter groups, missionaries and representatives from other denominations — were asked how they found meaning and purpose in their life and what they thought of when they heard the word “Christian” or “Presbyterian.” 

“You haven’t heard a lot from the 2020 Vision team because we’ve been listening,” said Juica Perkins, listing some of the emerging priorities as love and action, service to community, celebrating mission, mission wherever you are, change makers, loving neighbors and understanding who they are, consolidate without duplicating effort, become co-conspirators, dialog to action and how the church is to be in this world.

“In the last 11 months we have listed and are beginning to make a turn into what our vision statement looks like,” she said. “It’s not our calling to resuscitate the PC(USA). We feel crucified — we have heard that, but we have not looked for that.

“We are outside the tomb looking for Jesus.”

“We believe the purpose is to move the vision forward in creating the kingdom [of God] here on earth,” Juica Perkins said in response to a question about how the vision statement will be implemented. “Our idea as a vision team that, at the local congregation level, this vision statement can be for them. It will speak across the divide, provide unity for us. Not only in words, but in song and in art so we can imbibe it in our bodies.”

All Agency Review Committee

The only regularly scheduled review of those working to report to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) in St. Louis is the All Agency Review Committee. An all agency review happens every eight years, with two of the six agencies receiving reviews every two-year General Assembly cycle in between.

Jim Wilson, a lawyer and ruling elder at Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio, presented the mandate of the group as: “To review the service of the whole of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its six agencies in implementing the GA’s mission directives.”

Saying the committee had welcomed the presence and input of representatives from each of the six agencies at its meetings, he said, “I would take our work as a great model of how [the PC(USA)] can be evaluated as a faithful model.”

Calling attention to the committee’s joint work with the Way Forward Commission, he described outcomes of that collaboration including a deep dive into the idea of merging the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), investigating a more efficient model for shared services deployment, a look at the function of the A Corporation as the corporate entity of the PC(USA) and a review of General Assembly processes.

The joint working group ultimately decided not to merge the OGA and PMA, continuing to focus its attention on the administration of shared services and the place of the A Corporation in the denomination.

Wilson said, “form follows function,” wondering on behalf of the committee if “the A Corp is serving the church or is the church serving the A Corp?” He added the group was considering “changes to corporate governance that will make the corporation much more useful to the church.” 

Way Forward Commission

The Rev. Mark Hostetter, co-moderator of the Way Forward Commission and pastor at First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, said the commission arose as a “response to the agency reviews and a sense that some of the recommendations [of these reviews] hadn’t been accomplished,” adding, “The commission has the authority to suggest changes.”

Saying the group had done a comprehensive overview of PC(USA) structural changes over the past 30 years, Hostetter reiterated the three primary tasks of the commission as affecting a cultural shift, making short term structural changes and conducting a comprehensive review of the national denominational structure and recommendations for a way forward.

“Throughout our process we are continuing to coordinate the other committees of the General Assembly and also to collaborate and communicate with staff, boards, advocacy and advisory groups, seminaries and other groups,” he said.

“We have the ability to make recommendations to GA, but we want to do that in an interactive way so that we bring ourselves along with the rest of the church,” Hostetter said of the hoped-for outcome of the group’s recommendations, adding, “The church has to be responsive to the cultural context, have a willingness to change and try new things. [We need to] address what some perceive as the bureaucratic nature or irrelevance of the national church.”

Hostetter enumerated the themes emerging from the work of the Way Forward Commission as a congregational focus, mission priority, diversity and leadership, mid council relationships, functioning as “church,” re-conceptualized administrative support, and effective communications.

Saying the group had three venues for instilling change — collaborate, imposing changes or making structural changes through General Assembly processes — he pointed to the recent decision to fold Congregational Ministries Publishing into the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation as a result of collaboration.

Expressing thanks to the over 200 mid council leaders who responded to a Way Forward Commission survey, Hostetter closed by saying, “The mid council voices are critical to thinking about what we can accomplish in the Kairos moment when the church seems to be embracing doing things in a new way.”

In the question-and-answer period that followed the groups’ presentations, Jodi Craiglow from Chicago Presbytery asked each presenter for the “elevator pitch” each would present from their group.

Hostetter of the Way Forward Commission said, “We focus so much on what is going wrong with the denomination, looking for who is the problem. But there is such a vitality in the core of who we are, and my hope is that we help that spirit to fly… Remove the barriers to success.”

Wilson from the All Agency Review committee said, “Our aspiration is not for perfect church agencies, but more faithful church agencies — what we hope for in a church. Agencies that witness to the openness of the church through transparency and that God is working toward change, and witness to the joy of work.”

Juica Perkins said on behalf of the 2020 Vision Team, “Resurrection. Have you see it lately? God is on the move in the PC(USA).”

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