Having gotten through a bunch of posts related to a number of other GA’s let me turn to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I am hoping to discuss a few of the major topics coming to the GA and I hope that my blogging time before the big show starts is sufficient to get through what I want to.
While many in the church are hanging on the results of the overtures concerning marriage, and a number outside the church are actively lobbying on both sides of the Israel/Palestine divestment debate, it is my view that the most important business coming to the Assembly in terms of the future of the PC(USA) is the Mid Councils Commission Report.
This Commission, originally known as the Middle Governing Bodies Commission but renamed when the church got the new name for governing bodies (councils), has been working hard since the last GA to produce a report and make recommendations. The report is a good piece of work and does a great job of dissecting the denomination and its problems. You can read the basic report (111 pages) or a version with all the data they collected ( 326 pages – you have been warned but presbygeeks can go have a field day ). In fact, in one of the presentations on the MCC Report I attended the member of the commission freely admitted that there is way more info in that data than the commission had time to massage out of it.
But the Commission’s output does not stop there. They also have posted a number of Resources, their Minutes and Meeting Documents, an active blog with embedded YouTube videos they have produced, a Twitter account (@mgbcomm), and a Facebook page. There has also been a lot of discussion of the Commission’s work on the individual blogs of Tod Bolsinger, the chair, and commission member John Vest. You can not say that this Commission was trying to be stealth about their work.
Let me make some comments first on the report in general so if you just want to see my comments on the recommendations you can jump down a bit.
The report begins with the usual front pieces including the recommendations and an executive summary. The main body of the report begins right up front with their vision:
We envision a larger geographic canvas, a secure frame of constitutional accountability, and creative, collaborative leaders experimenting in creating missional communities for sending disciples into to the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It then goes on to unpack that vision a bit before going on to assess the state of the PC(USA) specifically and the context of the changing world around us. I know that the Commission is promoting a later piece of their report as the “if you are only going to read one thing read this…” but for me I think the preceding section on Presbyterians in a Post-Christendom World is a great reality check for anyone who tries to simplify the current context the denomination finds itself in.
So based on that what’s the nature of the recommendations the Commission is proposing? They say:
So instead of affirming structures that only protect us from the dysfunction of a few, we offer a proposal for the “maturing, motivated, and the missional”; that is, those who are willing to work together to draw upon the historic values of our past and faithfully reinterpret them to engage a far different world than any of our forbearers imagined.
Another way that they have been describing it is a denomination that is “Flat. Flexible. Faithful.” They then offer these suggestions that come out of their conversations:
- Reengage the Pew in Presbyterian Shared Life, Mission, and Governance
- Growing in Cultural Proficiency to Engage an Increasingly Multi‐Cultural Context
- Develop Capacity to Lead Congregational Transformation
- Rebuild Trust
The report then gets into details of their work — if you are interested in it go read it. In summary, they talked with anyone and everyone from the denomination they could get into a room with them. In addition they conducted surveys of the wider church through Research Services. They are a little bit vague on consultations with other denominations and I would be interested in seeing more here since I think there is a lot to learn from some of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters around the country and the globe.
I must admit that in my early thinking about this Commission I was anticipating some more concrete recommendations about what the PC(USA) should look like going forward. We will see if it is for better or for worse, but the Commission report does lays out a lot of models as examples of what is being done now without recommending or favoring any specifically, except to the extent that they got included. They basically invite the church have at it. So in order to create the space for that to happen they have eight recommendations that fall into three categories.
This may be the recommendation that has gotten the most press and many see as “getting rid of synods.” Yes, the very first recommendation in the report is to strike Book of Order section G-3.04, but read the recommendations carefully and you realize that a lot of what we now know as synods continue in some form under their proposal. The Commission describes it as Repurposing synods.
Synods as a
judicatory court governing body council would disappear but similar work would go on in different forms. The Commission proposes that most of the ecclesiastical work would be carried out in five Regional Administrative Commissions at the General Assembly level (Recommendation 3). Similarly, the judicial structure would be revamped to continue to provide for an intermediary judicial level (Recommendation 4). And each of the current synods would bring to the next GA a plan for what is going to happen to its assets, projects and programs (Recommendation 2). We will have to wait and see what diversity of proposals there are to this repurposing.
Since this set of recommendations seems to continue synod activity in a modular form it is interesting to speculate about alternate options for synods. As I will discuss in a moment the report recommends providing a new flexibility at the presbytery level and it might be worth considering the possibility of extending similar flexibility to synods rather than the compartmentalization.
I should also note the significant transitional infrastructure that comes with the transformation of the synods. There will be a committee to set up the Regional Administrative Commissions and to clean up the polity wording for the Constitution (Recommendation 3). Another committee would work on setting up the new PJC structure. Finally, there would be a commission that would be empowered to act on presbytery and synod rearrangements in the interim until the Regional Commissions are empowered to do so. This final Commission is important because it will allow the denomination to act more rapidly on presbytery restructuring rather than waiting for the next regular General Assembly.
The Commission is recommending something that has been proposed before ( 217th, 218th, 219th ) but overwhelmingly rejected, the idea of flexible presbyteries. The Commission does put two provisions on the recommendations that makes it different from previous proposals. First the flexible presbyteries are only for missional purposes and not for more general purposes of affinity (but I would speculate there is a thin line between the two). Second, there is a sunset clause and these flexible presbyteries are provisional and only for trial purposes and at the end of the trial at midnight on December 31, 2021 these golden carriages turn back into pumpkins and everyone goes back to where they started. And one of the things the Commission emphasizes is that at the presbytery level nothing has to change.
The details are pretty straight forward: It takes ten churches and ten ministers to form a presbytery. (But the report says churches on average only have 56% installed pastors so maybe it would really take 18 churches to come up with 10 pastors.) Under Recommendation 6 if you have the requisite number you can form a non-geographic presbytery for missional purposes. The churches remain connected to their geographic presbyteries of origin, can split their per capita between them, have voice in meetings of the presbytery of origin, and have to have the approval of the presbytery of origin for matters regarding property or for division and dismissal. For churches moving between geographic presbyteries it would work the same way.
Associated with this is Recommendation 5 which forms the previously mentioned commission to act on behalf of the Assembly in matters regarding presbytery and synod reorganizations.
Racial Ethnic Ministries
One of the hot topics this Commission faced was racial ethnic ministries in the PC(USA). This has to be dealt with if synods are to be repurposed because, as the report says (page 73):
It is widely acknowledged, and factually irrefutable, that Synods have been the traditional Safe Haven for matters regarding racial ethnic Ministry. This truth emerges from two (2) primary factors, Critical Mass and Sociological Necessity.
The Commission emphasized this relationship and formed a Racial Ethnic Strategies Task Force as part of their Commission to specifically address this and their report is included in the body of the main report.
In response to this need the Commission recommends (Recommendation 8) that a National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force be formed. The recommendation begins:
In light of what we have heard in our conversation with the church identifying a critical condition concerning lack of confidence in the substance and direction of racial ethnic ministry, we recommend
It goes on to specify the groups the members of the task force should be drawn from and to state that its charge is to “review, assess and explore the call to, responsibility in, and vision for racial ethnic ministry within the PC(USA).”
One final area the Commission noted was the break-down of trust within the denomination. They write (page 41):
Of all the “non‐structural issues” that we have identified, perhaps the single greatest gift that this Commission can raise up for the church is to say as loudly and as clearly as we possibly can that there is a crisis of trust in our denomination and that it, more than anything else, is the single greatest threat to the vitality and future existence of the church.
Congregational leaders don’t trust presbyteries. Presbyteries don’t trust synods. Synod leaders see themselves as the “breakwater” protecting the church from the General Assembly (which might be the least trusted system of all.) As the report from our Commission’s Racial Ethnic Strategy Task force states, “Also prominent in the Commission’s polling of the Church were the expressions of deep and abiding mistrust – fueled by a general absence of meaningful connection to the national, regional and even local judicatories.”
There is no specific recommendation to rebuild trust but they explain it this way (page 43):
Perhaps the greatest effect of our proposals is that it will by necessity bring the church closer. Now, for congregations to have more flexibility they will necessarily practice discernment within both presbytery and General Assembly processes. While the flexibility to experiment comes with built‐in mechanisms to insure relational and constitutional fidelity, the true test of our trust will come as we allow room for others to create presbyteries that are different than our preferences and maybe even contradictory to our convictions.
There is a related recommendation, number 7, which asks for a task force to review the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly, their “nature and function … specifically with respect to their relationship with and support of mid councils as they serve the vitality and mission of congregations in our changing context. Regarding this they write:
Over and again, stories were told about the pervasive distrust of General Assembly, about the amount of resources that go into our six‐part structure, the lack of an effective and clear national strategy toward immigrant populations, and the ways in which the GAMC “competes” with presbyteries and synods for giving dollars. A flatter hierarchy with a focus on the congregation as the center of the mission of the church will not be complete until the church reconsiders the bureaucratic structures of GAMC and eliminates any competition for power or resources between the GAMC and OGA. These conditions foster a bureaucratic mentality at a time when we need to do get back to mission and ministry, doing “whatever it takes” to revitalize local congregations. [emphasis in original]
But Wait, There’s More
Now the GA junkies reading this are well aware that a commission report like this does not happen in a vacuum and there are other opinions floating around out there.
The first set of opinions are those attached to the report on PC-Biz. The Assembly Committee on the Constitution weighs in first in a lengthy discussion. They note that the first four recommendations concerning synods are a work in progress and while it contains the constitutional language to begin the process they express concern that the details are left for later. They write
Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) notes that the
recommendations presume a number of constitutional amendments that are
not yet before this assembly (cf. Recommendations 3 and 4). There is
considerable risk in committing to a course of action on the assumption
that the proposed action can be accomplished constitutionally without
having the opportunity to evaluate the merits of the proposed mechanisms
In addition they advise that the four recommendations be taken as a single multi-part motion. While expressing concern about non-geographic presbyteries and suggesting that the end could be accomplished by affiliations that do not require constitutional changes they more suggest tweaks to the language than out-right disapproval.
That is not the case for the Assembly Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns which asks that none of the Commissions recommendations be approved and instead the present an outline for a new Racial Ethnic Ministry Commission. However, in reading through this comment I see no powers or responsibilities being granted this entity which requires it to be a commission to act on behalf of the General Assembly.
The next group to comment is the Assembly Committee on Social Witness Policy. Their comment is brief – they recommend the Commission’s recommendations be disapproved. The opening line of their rational pretty much sums up their view: “Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.” The rational is long and I will summarize it by saying that they see continued value in the PC(USA) structure and tradition and that the main cause of the decline of the mainline is the intolerance young people see in the church.
The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly is much more surgical in it’s recommendation. It too sees the Commission’s recommendations as a work in progress and recommends referring portions that are focused on constitutional language. It wants a task force to refine these recommendations to address the critical and important issues.
The General Assembly Committee on Representation advises the Assembly to approve Recommendation 8 creating the National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force. They too note the non-traditional nature of non-geographic presbyteries and express concern for groupings by choice rather than by geography and implications for diversity.
Finally, there is a joint comment by the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly that expresses much of the same interest and concern as the GACOR recommendation does. It particularly highlights the historic linkage between the synods and racial ethnic ministry in the denomination and expresses their willingness to resource the proposed task force.
The Mid Councils Review Commissioners Committee at GA has more than the Mid Councils Commission report to deal with. There are 19 business items plus the review of the minutes from the 16 synods. Within the business items another six are transfers of churches between presbyteries and sometimes synods. While most of the remaining items would have some interaction with the Commission report – such as 05-01 that would permit synods to reorganize presbyteries without the need for GA approval or 05-14 from the ACC that asks for an Authoritative Interpretation that non-geographic presbyteries are “only for the purposes of meeting the mission needs of racial ethnic or immigrant congregations” – three items directly address the report. Item 05-02 from the Presbytery of St. Andrew proposes the alternative of reorganizing the synods down into six to eight rather than the Commission’s repurposing scheme. Item 05-09 from the Presbytery of San Diego asks both to extend the Commission’s service to handle the presbytery reorganizations or make the new commission proposed in Recommendation 5 a successor commission, as well as proposing a slightly different plan for flexible presbyteries. Finally, in item 05-10 the Presbytery of Baltimore says that all of these changes are too much at one time and they ask the Assembly to delay the non-geographic presbytery recommendations to the 222nd GA (2016).
And in another venue one of the required questions for the candidates for Moderator of the GA to answer in the Moderatorial Candidates Book is about what they find “especially promising” about the Commission report. All four of the candidates speak highly of the Commission report and mention the flexibility and space for creativity and creating new relationships especially the partnering between churches for mission.
I have been watching the process of the Commission, I have read their report and considered the reaction to it both in the formal comments and around the web ( exempli gratia ). Blogger John Shuck will be serving as a commissioner on the Mid Council Review Committee and he has already noted that support or opposition to the Commission recommendations fall along familiar lines. It is a complex report and most would agree it is a work in progress. Maybe the biggest question is not the church’s openness to doing things in a new way but whether it is willing to take a step in a particular direction without all the “i’s” dotted and the “t’s” crossed. And support and opposition is complex as well with multiple parts and the option of supporting it in part and disagreeing in part.
What will happen at GA? It might be approved with few or just minor revisions. Maybe it will be deemed “not ready for prime time” and referred back to the Commission with instructions (and the Commission’s life extended) much as the nFOG was. More likely the different parts will see different fates. I don’t know and I am hesitant to speculate, but where angels fear to tread… If I had to predict based purely on my gut feeling I would expect that the GAMC/OGA Review Task Force and the National Racial Ethnic Task Force (Recommendations 7 and 8) will be adopted overwhelmingly. The provisional non-geographic presbyteries pieces (Recommendations 5 and 6) will be more controversial but will be adopted with some revisions and with some opposition. The synod recommendations (1-4) will be deemed still too much of a work in progress and referred to someone to work out the details and bring it back to the 221st GA.
But as with many things Presbyterian the process will probably be as important, and telling, as the outcome. I see this issue as the primary bellwether at this GA for the future of the denomination and its openness to change. It will be here that the tension between different visions of the future from different parts of the denomination can best be discerned. And that indicator will continue down to the presbyteries if any of the constitutional amendments are sent down to them. How much can we fight the seven last words of the church – “We’ve never done it that way before.” [ Hint: we have done it that way before but that is a topic for another time.] Is Flat, Flexible and Faithful what we need to be about now? As the PC(USA) looks to its future may we be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
And now for something completely different… to conclude, a bit of silliness. While reading through the Recommendations of this report with a task force here and a commission there it started to remind me of something and so I fleshed it out so we could all sing along. I think you’ll catch on to the tune…
On the fifth day of G.A. the MC Comm gave to us
5 Regional Commissions
4 Hundred pages
3 Book of Order amendments
2 Review task forces
And a request for synod plans to repurpose