From the Worldwide Faith News archives


Date 05 May 1996 08:38:16


                      by Jerry L. Van Marter 
CINCINNATI--Representation or control?  Restructuring or realignment? 
     These questions promise to be discussed at length in the coming year 
after the 207th General Assembly referred an overture from Western Colorado 
Presbytery (with concurrence from Santa Barbara Presbytery) that calls for 
radical restructuring of the General Assembly offices and dramatically 
alters the way Presbyterians are elected to serve on Assembly-level 
     The overture was referred to the quadrennial Committee on Review of 
the General Assembly Council (GAC) and its entities that is scheduled to 
report to next year's Assembly. 
     The key issue behind the overture is representation, said the Rev. 
Robert Taylor, executive presbyter of Foothills Presbytery and eastern area 
leader of the "Genevans," a coalition of Presbyterians seeking structural 
changes in the denomination. 
     The overture calls for all members of General Assembly entities to be 
elected by presbyteries from nominations by sessions.  Currently, 
Assembly-level committee members are elected by the General Assembly upon 
nomination by the General Assembly Nominating Committee (GANC). 
     "Though current folk come from presbyteries somewhere, they are not 
representative of their presbyteries or directly accountable to them in any 
way," said the Rev. Al Ruth, executive presbyter of Western Colorado 
Presbytery and the Genevans' western area leader. 
     But the Rev. James D. Brown, GAC executive director, said the proposal 
is "a bare sketch of a very different concept" of representation in the 
Presbyterian Church.  He noted that governing bodies elect "commissioners" 
rather than "representatives" to higher governing bodies.  "The concept of 
accountability rather than election is a very different matter," he said. 
     The Rev. Lori Zang Kosinski, outgoing GAC chair, agreed.  "If people 
expect those sent to represent particular interests, then it is very 
different from the way we have always operated in the Presbyterian Church," 
she said.  "I guess I am not yet clear what the expectation is of those who 
put forward this overture." 
     "There is no real voice from the presbyteries in the current 
arrangement," said Taylor, noting that any Presbyterian can submit his or 
her name to the GANC without any presbyery involvement in the nominating or 
electing process. 
     Brown agreed that ways must be found to get more input into 
Assembly-level decision making, but argued that the direct election method 
is not the right approach.  "There is a difference between local 
representation and control of outcomes.  Ecclesiology matters, and I 
believe we really need to explore, and the Committee on Review is a good 
place to explore, basic issues of fairness, justice and representation as 
they relate to the integrity of the General Assembly." 
      The success of any representational system lies in its ability to 
"draw out new leadership," Kosinski said.  "How does a new voice get heard 
in any system? And how do new people, particularly the marginalized, become 
a part of the system?  How does this proposal help those on the outside 
move into leadership in the church?" 
     Asked if such an electoral process threatens inclusiveness in the 
church, Ruth said, "Look at the Assembly floor -- that room is filled with 
a diverse, inclusive group of Presbyterians and they were elected by the 
presbyteries.  I have no reason to believe that it will not be the same on 
national committees." 
     The Assembly instructed the Committee on Review to "develop a plan" 
for implementing the new electoral scheme as part of its report to next 
year's General Assembly.  An amendment proposed from the floor to change 
"develop a plan" to "consider the issues" was easily defeated. 
     While Ruth and Taylor insist representation is the key issue behind 
the overture, the referral also calls upon the Committee on Review to 
"strongly consider" a proposal to dismantle the GAC and replace it with 
four semi-autonomous boards that would oversee various aspects of the 
General Assembly's programmatic work.  The work of the four boards would be 
tied together by a "coordinating council." 
     "A small centralized group (like the current 70-member GAC) just 
cannot grasp and micromanage the whole picture," Ruth said. 
     "I don't call this a `restructure,' but a `realignment,'" Ruth said. 
"It doesn't mean staff would be different and we've already gone through 
downsizing," he added. 
     But Brown took sharp exception to that assessment.  "As pastor of the 
flock at 100 Witherspoon, I see progress in the three years that we have 
been living into the current structure.  To dismantle an organization put 
in place just three years ago will exact a terrible toll," he said. 
     Kosinski said the overture falsely presumes a closed system.  "We have 
and will continue to include ad hoc participation by lots of people on a 
project-by-project basis," she said, citing the teams of Presbyterians 
working on the GAC's various initiatives as an example. 
     Brown pointed out that the "shape and form" process that produced the 
1993 restructure "decried the previous system of nine semi-autonomous 
ministry units that proved to be far too unwieldy and expensive -- I just 
don't believe the church wants to go back in that direction." 
     Taylor said he had come to support the structural proposal in the 
overture after being skeptical at first.  "I've been won over," he 
explained, "because I see every major corporation breaking up centralized 
operations into functional groups."   
     Taylor said he believes national staff members will support the plan 
"because they will be freed up to work on stuff that is in their field of 
     "Our only goal," Taylor insisted, "is to correct problems in the 
system and help it work for all Presbyterians." 
     Brown agreed.  "The heart of this matter is finding the right level of 
engagement, how to enliven the church, how to carry on dialogue that will 
lead to common insight and get away from either/or debates." 
     Communication is the key, said Kosinski.  "Everybody has to be 
intentional about communicating with each other," she said.  "I talked with 
a lot of people after the General Assembly who were so excited about going 
back and telling their people about things they didn't even know were going 
on in the Presbyterian Church. 
     "Every congregation can be represented," she added, "but if people 
don't communicate what they learn, then trust won't be rebuilt."          

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
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