As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) asks “Who do we want to be as a church in the global community?” a related question was put to PC(USA) staff members and international partners gathering in Kuala Lumpur last month: “How can we collectively discern our calling in the world at this time and how can we support and encourage each other?”
Bringing those “we”s into mutuality through sustained dialogue and collaborative decision making is crucial to moving the church’s ministry efforts around the world into alignment with its principles, including “acknowledging, understanding and repenting its colonial past, its legacy and the recognition that even in our relationships today, with all our talk of partnership, harmful elements linger on.”
Those words, like the questions, come from the resource booklet of “Walking Together: Reimagining Partnership,” the five-day consultation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Meeting goals included drafting a mandate for a proposed global advisory panel and criteria for selecting members to constitute that international and ecumenical group. Also on the agenda was discussing how a global advisory panel should connect to existing networks and organizations in different regions.
Meeting participants exchanged wisdom related to the future work of any global advisory panel, including who should be invited to participate, who the group would report to and what staff support should be provided.
Dr. Dianna Wright, Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations in the PC(USA)’s Office of the General Assembly (OGA), said that the meeting had roots in the 2021 visioning process by the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), which raised the idea of both a global advisory panel and domestic advisory panel.
The PC(USA) leaders present in Kuala Lumpur included PMA staff members the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus (Director, Humanitarian and Global Ecumenical Engagement, Compassion, Peace & Justice), the Rev. Philip Woods (Associate Director of Global Strategy, World Mission) and Louisa Gallup (Project Associate, World Mission). Wright noted that the collaboration between OGA and PMA in Kuala Lumpur is the kind that will continue to grow as the two agencies move toward unification. Establishing a shared international and ecumenical vision for both PMA and OGA staff will be vital to achieving widespread buy-in for whatever global and domestic groups follow.
Joining the four PC(USA) staff members in Kuala Lumpur were 16 individuals from the international ecumenical, interreligious and justice community, including those connected with the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, seminaries in the Middle East and national churches and NGOs in Portugal, Liberia and Nepal. Global Learning Partners, which works with organizations “to integrate proven principles and practices of adult learning into a wide range of initiatives,” facilitated the meeting.
One early exercise saw the full group create a timeline of significant moments in PC(USA) world mission history since 1900. Later, participants exchanged ideas and notes of caution about reimagining partnership and becoming a decolonized church.
The United Church of Canada’s Patti Talbot traveled to Kuala Lumpur to share about that church’s experiences with its Partners Advisory Council, a group established in 2011 as a part of a “Reviewing Partnership in the Context of Empire (2009)” process.
Wright said many of the meeting’s conversations focused on “what it means to be in partnership.” In the past, groups around the world have noted that the PC(USA) has brought people together for conversations about mutuality without having enough follow-through. Asking the right questions of the right people is important, Wright said, but so is continued and consistent engagement.
Testimonial Authority, a focus of the PMA visioning process, helped guide the conversations and was itself a reason to form the proposed global advisory panel. Testimonial Authority refers to “who is listened to” and how those voices and others are centered in discussions or left to the periphery.
“The PC(USA) often shows up as a group that has the power — in part because of funding realities,” Wright said. “Groups think long and hard about how to respond to invitations such as the one for the global advisory panel because of those financial support relationships.”
She added, “We want to go away from the 'we created you' thinking. We want to have the work stem from the local context. We want to support it in ways that works best for local churches and groups.”
In Kuala Lumpur, participants kept themselves from trying to answer the biggest questions about reframing the PC(USA)’s international ministry and support. “We wanted to figure out who should be a part of the group that answers those questions, making sure the diversity of voices is there,” Wright said.
The meeting’s final trip report includes the group’s world mission timeline, as well as a section noting the individual and shared wisdom from those gathered. Multiple participants urged the PC(USA) to disrupt systems of oppression and exploitation using its different forms of capital and influence.
Draft recommendations for PC(USA) leadership include identifying 15 participants to join the proposed global advisory panel, including 6 from the Kuala Lumpur meeting as well as others from the interfaith and ecumenical community. Representatives from the racial justice, environmental justice, LGBTQIA+, differently abled, young people and indigenous communities should also be represented, as well as persons living in conflict zones.
The trip report calls for invitations to the global advisory panel to be sent in the spring and summer. In the meantime, PC(USA) staff members who attended the Kuala Lumpur meeting will brief PC(USA) leaders on progress and possible next steps. The trip report indicates plans to have the first full meeting of the global advisory panel by the end of the year.
What the group will be called is still to be decided. “‘Global Advisory Panel’ wasn’t liked much,” Wright said, “especially the word ‘advisory’.” Participants wanted a name that reflects a commitment from leadership not just to consider but embrace the group’s work.
“This is the beginning of a very long and sustained process,” Wright said. “It needs to be beneficial going forward for the PC(USA) and our partners.”
Reflecting on the time spent in Kuala Lumpur, World Mission’s Woods said, “The meeting exceeded our expectations. It became very clear that establishing a global advisory panel will not only be enriching for our life and witness, but will help us all as we seek to journey together, creating a space for collective discernment around our shared ministries and concerns.”
Kraus, from Compassion, Peace, & Justice ministries, also praised the shared spirit and endeavor in Malaysia, and thanked participants for the candid conversations about the PC(USA)’s past and current international commitments, including the global advisory panel effort.
“By the end of the week there was clarity about what our siblings felt the mandate of this group might be, as well as strong unanimity from the gathering as to how to build a wide diversity of identity and perspective.
“[PC(USA) staff members] were challenged by their honest and loving critique of our Church and its relationship to power and privilege, inspired by their trust and hope for a more equitably relational future and deeply moved by their steadfast love and commitment to a renewed shared vision for our work and life together.”