The Assembly Committee on the Way Forward– after hearing one review report harshly critical of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and another largely supportive of the Office of the General Assembly – on Monday started deliberating on proposals from both review panels that a special committee be appointed “to explore the possibility of a merger between the PMA and the OGA.”

The boards exercising oversight of the two agencies disagreed. Margaret Elliott, chair of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, expressed worry that a merger of the two agencies might compromise the independence of the Stated Clerk, the PC(USA)’s top ecclesiastical officer.

Marcia Anson, the incoming vice-chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, argued that the review of the PMA came at a particularly difficult time – a huge cost-overrun for the 2013 Presbyterian Youth Triennium, special offerings promotional materials that were scrapped after being called overtly racist, and the unauthorized creation of an independent corporation outside PMA control that resulted in four staff terminations and two still-active lawsuits – and that the situation within PMA has improved since that “snapshot” was taken.

But Eliana Maxim, co-chair of the PMA Review Committee, said the panel “decided to look at systemic issues rather than that series of events. We spoke to about 70 people, mostly face-to-face,” she said, “and focused on two questions: how  is the agency serving the church? and what is the role of a denominational mission agency in the 21st century?”

She said the review committee found, among other things, that the PMA:

  • Has an unclear sense of identity and purpose.
  • Lacks a theological foundation.
  • Lacks collaboration with OGA.
  • Is confused about where the locus of ministry is – “it’s not Louisville,” she said.
  • Is driven in its decision-making by resources rather than vision and strategy.
  • The role of the PMAB is unclear, a holdover from the old General Assembly Council (which acted between assemblies rather than an independent board).
  • Is a stressful place to work, with a silo mentality, conflict avoidance for fear of retribution, an unwieldy structure and a rigid hierarchy.  

Maxim and review committee member Eric Beene praised the dedication and hard work of PMA staff, and said the agency’s dysfunction is not the fault of Interim Executive Director Tony De la Rosa, who began work last December. “The culture was created by previous leadership, and that mindset has seeped down through time,” she said.

The situation is so acute, Maxim said, that the next review in the cycle – an All-Agency Review that would take in the entire church, including all six General Assembly agencies plus synods, presbyteries and congregations, and assess how they all work together – should be delayed to accommodate the OGA-PMA exploratory talks.

“The All-Agency Review is a good idea, but is not urgent in the way PMA dysfunction is,” she told The Way Forward Committee. “An all- agency review would dilute the immediate issues around PMA and OGA.” PMA Board member Melissa Sanders said the board agrees with a second review committee recommendation to create a group to “review the responsibilities of the PMAB and provide a plan for restructuring the Board so it can be better able to do the adaptive work necessary to provide leadership.”

The PMAB already has created a task force “to review our model and propose changes,” Sanders said, “and it has already proposed substantial changes. The crux of the matter is that when you have a clearly defined problem and a clear vision, you have the way forward,” she said. “We have that with PMA but not with a merger. This proposal seems like ‘let’s just change everything and hope that it works.’”

De la Rosa agreed. “While youbmay hear defensiveness, we are taking the review findings to heart,” he said. “It’s my to-do list as interim [executive director].” He added that he “doesn’t know what the goal of consolidation is.”

Cliff Lyda, chair of the OGA Review Committee noted that “our report is far different in tone than the PMA Review Committee.” He said his review committee found that the OGA is “fulfilling its mandate with staff deeply committed to the church,” but in the wake of a downsizing and restructuring of OGA in 2013, “we now have too much work with two few people.” As mid-councils shrink, more and more work is devolving to OGA, he said. 

Lyda said the OGA Review Committee has taken no position on merger itself, “but exploration is essential.”

“We’re moving into a new time when the church’s corporate life might have to look much different than it is now. That conversation needs to take place and it needs to take place now.”