A report on the effectiveness and relationship of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and Office of the General Assembly (OGA) expressed concern that neither agency is equipped to help mid-council bodies address their most acute needs and sometimes serve as a distraction from such tasks.
A sub-committee of the Mid-Council Commission 2 (MCC-2) presented the assessment during the 15-member panel’s meeting at the American Airlines Training and Conference Center in Dallas on Monday, Sept. 9.
In creating the MCC-2, the 220th GA directed it “to review the nature and function of the General Assembly Mission Council (now called Presbyterian Mission Agency) and the Office of the General Assembly, 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 and to report back to the 221st General Assembly the nature of those relationships.”
In presenting the report to the entire panel on behalf of the MCC-2 sub-committee, the Rev. Eileen Lindner of Palisades Presbytery explained the methodology used to examine the nature of relationships of both national entities to presbyteries and synods, including a partnership with Michael Kruse as a PMA liaison.
Synod and presbytery personnel from across the country (of varying sizes and locations) were asked open-ended questioned in telephone interviews. The proposed questions and strategies were discussed with Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and PMA Executive Director Linda Valentine prior to implementation of the sampling of the mid-council bodies.
Lindner said that there was not an expression of an acute crisis that might be expected given the stressful nature of the church’s life right now.
“It’s a feeling that we should be more than the sum of our parts,” she said. “It’s a feeling of can’t we all get behind an expression of our ministry for Christ together rather than as PMA, OGA, presbyteries or local congregations.”
Findings of the report
The findings about both agencies revealed them to be “distant” and “out of touch” with the realities faced by presbyteries and synods, though both mid-councils noted they receive services from PMA and OGA and are appreciative of them. The perception was that the national agencies take a general rather than specific view of issues instead of the more local and specific views by presbyteries and synods.
The report also revealed that PMA takes initiatives within presbyteries/synods without consultation, and the OGA, especially as represented by the clerk, is perceived as failing to take into account the consequences of public pronouncements for the relationship of local Presbyterians to interfaith partners and to neighbors who differ with Presbyterian perspectives.
Findings showed that PMA staff members were seen as having highly-developed knowledge and resources for ministry along with a readiness to share with mid-councils. Conversely, PMA was described to be, at times, inclined to be competitive with regard to financial and human resources within presbyteries.
“People are proud of our staff, and they believe they can call on them and get help, but there’s a feeling they don’t always play well with others,” Lindner said of the findings about PMA. “It’s not a matter of bringing us into divorce or separation, but there are points of discord.”
OGA staff members were viewed as highly-skilled, particularly in matters related to governance and judicial issues. However, there is a perception that the OGA is seen as a source of tedious institutional maintenance requirements and/or tend to focus on matters of little consequence to struggling congregations.
Additionally, controversial stances and statements of the OGA are seen to serve as a source of embarrassment or conflict with others.
In spite of such issues, the report indicated that both agencies are perceived as making substantial efforts to foster a coherent and consistent approach to the mission and ministry of the church.
Trusting the missions
Lemuel Garcia-Arroyo of Salem Presbytery wondered if there was a trust factor to be considered.
“Why is it so hard to be trusting of each other?” he asked. “We are various parts of the Body of Christ being separated, not joined. If we agree we value the work at all levels, then we need to help create a sense of trust at every level in the church.”
It was mentioned that sometimes two different languages are being spoken. For example, national agency talk may revolve around one issue, such as the new Form of Government (nFOG), while presbyteries may by dealing with issues deemed more important for them and their congregations, such as filling pastoral vacancies, handling churches leaving the denomination or providing mission assistance. The sampling revealed that to be a disconnect as well.
Lindner acknowledged that findings of the presbytery/synod sampling questioned the need for two national agencies, the expense to operate in such a way and a need to have them located in the same place.
“There are questions here,” she said. “We’re not at war with each other. We still see value in each other’s missions. It’s not an antagonistic set of relationships, and I hope we don’t wait until it is before we address these issues.”
A need for two
While there seemed to be no critical points of tension, the review revealed a widespread malaise regarding the identity of the church as a whole as well as concern if the church can afford (financial and human resources) the continued existence of what are seen as two large and expensive national entities along with two levels of mid-council structure.
Jim Wilson of Scioto Valley Presbytery, and Landon Whitsitt, a Mid-America Synod executive from Heartland Presbytery, both questioned the cost of resources and having staff all in one place.
“The importance of relationships with staff seems OK,” Wilson said. “But does it really make sense to have all our staff in Louisville? How much in resources do we commit to PMA/OGA for services they provide?”
Whitsitt listed the cost of the agencies, staff located in Louisville and a re-integration of mission and ecclesial functions as concerns that jumped out at him, and asked that more consideration be given to the issue.
“I want to see some recommendations,” he said. “I’d like to have an opportunity for this group (the sub-committee) to continue working and bring us some concrete recommendations and quantitative analysis.”
Liza Hendricks, executive presbyter of Western Reserve Presbytery, added, “We need to determine the best way to foster relationships between the national offices and regional bodies.”
The full commission voted to refer the report back to the sub-committee for further work that will be presented during the next MCC-2 meeting scheduled for Jan. 13-15, 2014, in Dallas.
MCC-2 acts on behalf of GA
The MCC-2 also approved action recommending that the 221st General Assembly (2014) continue the Mid-Council Commission 2 through the meeting of the 222nd General Assembly to act on the behalf of the GA when dealing with changes to boundaries of presbyteries or synods between the meetings of the 221st (2014) and 222nd (2016) assemblies.
In addition to the responsibilities for making recommendations regarding the future of synods as ecclesial bodies, MCC-2, like its predecessor, also was given the responsibility of acting for the General Assembly between its meetings on recommendations to change the boundaries of presbyteries, and potentially synods, when those councils agree upon and request such a change.
“That authority generally is held by the GA,” said Jill Hudson, coordinator of mid-councils for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). She explained that boundary changes generally would have to wait until a meeting of the GA to be handled.
However, the GA opted to experiment and allow the MCC to handle the transfer of churches from presbyteries and such necessary boundary changes, eliminating lengthy delays for such implementation between GA sessions.
“The Mid-Council Commission functions on the GA’s behalf in that way, so you would be able to stay in existence as a commission to deal with transfers of congregations, synod divisions and presbytery mergers,” Hudson told the panel. “It just seemed foolish to have another commission formed after all the work on such matters by this particular commission.”