The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) heard a presentation on April 27 on the comments proposed by its Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) Review Committee Response Writing Team Task Force.

The three-member task force—composed of Marsha Zell Anson, Jeffrey Joe, and Nancy Ramsay—was elected by the board at its February 3-5, 2016, meeting for the purpose of drafting comments in response to the report and recommendations of the GA Committee to Review the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Action on the recommended comments will be taken up in plenary session on April 28.

The GA committee’s work stems from an action by the 213th General Assembly (2001) mandating that the agencies of the denomination be reviewed every six years to evaluate the relationship of the agencies’ individual ministries with the mission of the whole denomination.

The schedule that was set forth in 2008 began with a comprehensive, all-agency review (2008-2010) followed by separate, in-depth reviews of each of the six General Assembly agencies, taken two at a time every two years, beginning in 2010. The PMA and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) were individually reviewed in the current two-year cycle (2014-2016). The next all-agency review is scheduled for 2016-2018.

The GA committee’s three recommendations to the 222nd General Assembly (2016), meeting June 18–25 in Portland, Oregon, are:

  • That the General Assembly delay the appointment of the All Agency Review scheduled for 2016 and instead direct the Moderators of the 220th, 221st, and 222nd General Assemblies (2012), (2014), and (2016), in consultation with the General Assembly Nominating Committee (GANC), to name a committee of fifteen people to explore the possibility of a merger between the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).
  • That the General Assembly direct the Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016), in consultation with the GANC, to name a committee of eight people to review the responsibilities of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and provide a plan for restructuring the Board so that it can be better able to do the adaptive work necessary to provide leadership and guidance for the PMA and the church, today and into the next generation.
  • That the General Assembly direct the directors of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Office of the General Assembly, the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, Inc. (PILP), and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC) to appoint a staff committee to explore the best ways for Shared Services (finance and accounting, information technology, payroll, communication, translations, human resources, legal and risk management, internal audit, building services, mail and print, Presbyterian Distribution Service, and the Hubbard Press) to serve those four agencies.

Where the task force diverged in its response from what the GA review committee is recommending to the GA’s The Way Forward Committee is on the first of the three recommendations.

“As we looked at the three recommendations,” Ramsay told the PMAB Executive Committee in its April 27 meeting, “we were in substantial agreement on numbers two and three.”

Of the committee’s first recommendation—which calls for a merger of the PMA and OGA—Ramsay said that it is “at odds with how the agencies practice discernment.”

“We found the action premature and the scope too narrow,” she said. “If we make a change, we felt we should account for the full range of issues that such a structural change should address. A proposal to simply merge two agencies overlooks our interrelatedness.”

Ramsay added that the task force was “frankly unclear as to how the recommendation for a merger is related to the problems identified in the report.”

In the task force’s presentation to the full board on April 27, Anson pointed out the opportunity inherent in following the established GA protocol of an all agency review.

“Such a review would ensure that everyone is at the table when we make strategic changes in how we will operate,” said Anson. “We felt it was really important systematically to look at everything all together…and to have everybody at the table when we make those changes. It would be a life-giving exercise for the six agencies to work together to ask some of the big questions, such as, ‘What does the church need from us? What does the world need from us? How can we be Jesus in those places?’”

Throughout their presentation, members of the task force emphasized and attempted to clarify the purpose and the process of both types of reviews, which Anson earlier told the board’s executive committee was misunderstood.

“Compared to the in-depth review of each agency,” Anson said, “the all agency review looks horizontally across all agencies. It doesn’t dig deep." 

They also stressed that their comment in response to the first recommendation in no way suggested that other agencies change their operations.

“We did not presume that all agencies of the PC(USA) would require change,” Joe told the board in plenary.

Ramsay observed that the responses received thus far from the other agencies could possibly “complicate the work of the commissioners.”

One such response was filed by Frank Clark Spencer, a corresponding member of the PMA board and president of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions. Spencer—who had stated his objections to the task force’s proposed comment in response to the committee’s first recommendation in a written report to the board—also rose to speak during the debate that followed the task force’s presentation.

Spencer prefaced his remarks by saying that he wanted to affirm what the review committee said about “our faithful and hard-working staff.”

“I also want to echo something that was said earlier from the podium,” he added, “that these structures were created before any one of us were in this room.”

Spencer said that the current system made sense when resources were plentiful. “But now that resources are tight,” he said, referencing the GA committee’s recommendation to merge the PMA and the OGA, “far from being premature, my friends, it is almost too late. Until this happens, we as a denomination won’t be able to address the critical issues. I urge you to embrace recommendation one completely.”

Other speakers during the debate on April 27 included Landon Whitsitt, who affirmed Spencer’s position, citing his own experience as synod executive and stated clerk for the Synod of Mid-America.

Whitsitt noted that the call for a merger of the PMA and the OGA is not an isolated call from the PMA review committee. He said that there are at least two overtures “just to this assembly” that call for this goal.

“Anything short of fully supporting recommendation number one is not good enough for me,” Whitsitt said. “The missional and the ecclesial go together. It’s high time that we strive to bring them back together.”

Chad Herring, chair of the board’s Finance Committee, stood to say that he was reflecting on the wisdom of the board’s making any comment at all on recommendation number one.

“Maybe we should just offer a word of gratitude for the review committee,” Herring said, “which would show that we receive criticism well, and do all of our work in faith with the best efforts we can. We can give this to the assembly, in its wisdom, to work on it.”

PMAB vice chair, Jo Stewart, said that while she appreciates and understands the opposition to the comment to move forward with the original plan to do an all agency review in lieu of first pursuing the merger, she does not believe it to be a “delay tactic.”

“I’m okay going into the review with the hypothesis that a merger might be a good outcome,” Stewart said. “We’re not denying that recommendation in our response.”

PMAB member, Melinda Sanders, called the issue “pretty simple.”

“It’s about whether collaboration is important,” Sanders said. “I think talking about a merger with the PMA and the OGA and thinking that represetatives from the other agencies don’t have something to say about it is wrong.”

Ken Godshall, incoming chair of the PMA board, described the debate as “exactly the kind of discussion we should be having.”

“I want to address a criticism that has been made of us that indicates that we’re deflecting or pushing back,” Godshall said. “I don’t think that’s true or fair. The first sentence of our second comment acknowledges that there are deficiencies in the board. We have the right, having accepted the criticisms, to push back at number one. I don’t think that there is a reason to stop the all agency process that was established in 2008.”

Ramsay and her task force colleagues all affirmed the review committee’s work, acknowledging that it began its challenging assignment at a difficult time in the life of the PMA, and that there is work that the agency needs to do. Ramsay expressed regret, however, “that the committee didn’t follow the second step of the protocol, which would have given an opportunity for the PMA to correct the errors” in the committee’s report. The oversight was addressed in an addendum found on page two of the report.