Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America (Part 3): Strategic Planning And Corporate Culture Change

When the 35th GA convened at Memphis’ Cook Convention Center June 12–14, 2007, the PCA was changing from the inside out. Its expanded Overtures Committee met for the first time, and the CMC (Cooperative Ministries Committee) was begun. CofCs (Committee of Commissioners) could no longer improve the work of permanent committees, leaving possible only the draconian method of returning the motion to the permanent committee. In the intervening third of a century, the PCA had (a) weakened its grassroots CofCs; (b) strengthened its Coordinators and Atlanta-based committees; (c) heavily promoted the work of its insiders; (d) created a CMC that looked eerily similar to the former GAC (General Assembly Council); (e) created an SJC (Standing Judicial Committee) that looked eerily similar to the former PJC (Permanent Judicial Commission); (f) created a progressive culture among MTW, MNA, RUF, and CTS; and (g) made it challenging for smaller churches to afford participation in GA, much less for grassroots to be heard at Assemblies. The adoption of most of the work of the SPC completed much of the serial reorganization of the General Assembly.

The 35th Assembly did act well on its study committee report on Federal Vision, adopting a clear defense of the traditional view of justification and cautioning about the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision theology (see https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/studies/07-fvreport.pdf). R. C. Sproul, at the height of his influence, rose to speak against the NPP and FV views, leading the Assembly to adopt the study paper overwhelmingly. Even so, future years would find enforcing an otherwise good study more challenging. Unity by study committees was as elusive as ever.

In addition, an attempt to require payment of denominational dues as a prerequisite to voting at Assemblies failed to receive support from the presbyteries.

In the Assemblies of 2006–2009, the following decisions were made:

  • Personal Resolutions were to be treated as new business and were required to receive 2/3 approval to be referred for consideration.
  • In 2007, a method for allowing TEs to teach their exceptions was proposed but not approved.
  • Approval was granted in 2007 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of John Calvin’s 1509 birth in various seminars at the 2009 Assembly.
  • In 2008, much discussion took place about various overtures to allow women to serve as deacons. The OC recommended against creating a study committee for this purpose, but a minority report advocated for the study. Eventually, the OC was upheld at the Assembly in the same approximate ratio as in the committee; thus, no study was approved. A year later, in 2009, a strongly insider-supported attempt to permit ordination to female deacons failed, and BCO language was substituted to ward that off.
  • In 2008, the SJC concluded a case that found fault with Louisiana Presbytery for not investigating one of its TEs who held to Federal Vision views. In that case, the SJC admonished the Presbytery for not finding a strong presumption of guilt and investigating the case. A little over a decade later, a very different approach by the SJC would be used for a case in Missouri Presbytery.
  • The 2005–2009 GA worship services became more and more progressive.
  • In 2009, a procedure allowing some debate on minority reports from the OC was approved.
  • Ridgehaven seemed to be barely viable and under-supported. As a result, a lengthy report was given in 2009 to attempt to breathe new life into the conference center.
  • The CMC advocated for the PCA to become more missional. This, along with the CMC assuming the remaining aspects of Strategic Planning, would lead to a major report at the 2010 Assembly in Nashville.

An original schematic by the SPC summarized the “themes” and the “means” to significantly alter General Assembly’s operations. It was likely due to a combination of inattentiveness from the grassroots and a yen for American efficiency, coupled with a powerful sales force populated by elite bureaucratic officials, that such a radical overhaul occurred. The ethos of the 2010 plan, which lodged considerably more power and influence with entrenched denominational leaders a generation after its 1973 founding, was toward centralization and distant professionalism rather than animated by local churches and presbyteries.

The 2006 Assembly appointed an Ad Interim Committee to recommend a more efficient GA. A recommended funding mechanism was not approved.1 The other recommendations were procedures that, in the mind of the CMC, would modernize the Assembly and allow it to reach future generations better. The elite-driven recommendations caught parts of the church a bit by surprise and were released two months before the Assembly. Besides the failed funding mandate, the reformist values before the 2010 Assembly were a collection of some of the day’s most cutting-edge managerial ideas. It is unlikely that the grassroots were as progressive as the recommendations from the CMC, which represented the top bureaucrats of the PCA. Notwithstanding, after six hours of discussion, the GA assented to try most of the recommendations. How much actual support among the local congregations could only be determined after the adjournment of the Assembly.

The report divided recommendations into “Themes” and “Means” with some “Objectives,” also listing the insider’s assessment of pros and cons. Below are some of the listed Themes and Means.

Among the means to the end of this theme were to create “safe spaces” (as if dangerous spaces had been harming the delicate assembly-men heretofore), to foster healthy discussions, and avoid “unbalanced splinter discussions,” or “crushing dissent,” while creating “enthusiasm and interest for assemblies,” support the ‘always being reformed’ mantra, and to “inspire and unite the church re important new practices, insights, threats or opportunities.” Minority voices were to be treated with an ecclesiastical form of affirmative action to “make their case without threat,” and where “opportunity to listen to ideas not native to our culture or tradition” were welcomed. This first Mean was to provide “Public forums at GA to test ideas without vote or risk.”

This was to be a forum of free expression, where dissent was not critiqued except ever so gently. In addition, following this new model, lower courts and “non-agreeing enclaves [were] to discuss major denomination-or culture-changing ideas; and how to live together with differences,” opening the stages for more discussion or exploration of new ideas.

Further, “Leader churches, networks, and presbyteries” were to act “out of selfless desire to promote the progress of the church” with no judgmentalism.

The second Theme initially called for “more seats at the table, especially younger generation, women, ethnic leaders, global church representatives.” But, more cosmetically stated, it harmlessly called for a second major Means to this end: “Representatives from constituencies vital to the church’s future involved with denominational leadership (e. g., advisory voice on committees, sessions, Boards, speaking at gatherings, consulted by presbyteries; employed in non-ordained ministries). More specifically, ethnic minorities, global church leaders, and female voices were to be solicited and given greater decision-making access. [ed., this was another case of sanitizing the final version’s wording from the initial.]

This would supposedly “unite our efforts with the Spirit’s movement in the Global church.”

Most of these broadening targets would be achieved over the next decade of the PCA’s life due primarily to a hierarchy of leaders dictating norms for behavior. Coordinators and top leaders actively recruited these new leaders, even if it meant subsidizing conferences with travel and lodging expenses to “mentor” the next generation. This was advertised as a means of leadership “succession,” but it was more likely an attempt to change the leadership culture of the PCA. At the same time, some of the early caucus leaders (from the 1995 PCA Consensus and PPLN) could steer such transitions without yielding their seats at the table.

This plan further called for nominations to be controlled by these “Means” and targeted the involvement of more new generation leaders. Clearly, the top bureaucratic leaders wanted newer, younger, less traditional members on as many boards or committees as possible. Even though these ‘recommendations’ did not amend the BCO, they were hoped to be marching orders for a broader church. Over the coming years, similar to the progressive ascendance in the PCUS from 1934–1959, the PCA would ironically follow that path of bureaucratism.

Another clear goal was to increase the role of women and others by creating a non-ordained but recognizable tier of leadership. A “certification” tract was envisioned to “Endorse the importance of women’s gifts in non-ordained church ministry” and “Gain the insights & contributions of women for our ministries.” Women’s ministries were specifically to link arms with RUF and Covenant College, and Seminary2 to advance this part of the progressive agenda. An “alternative credentialing” method was envisioned for “disadvantaged constituencies.” This affirmative action was clear to the top PCA leaders, if not altogether so for the grassroots. . . .

While this eschatological set of goals was noble—and hedged by language stressing the church’s role—these statements could have been virtual echoes of earlier social gospel movements. Likely unintentional but equally lethal, hardly any communion has ever targeted social, political, and cultural transformation while avoiding being absorbed by that culture over time. Except for the first-century church, no small communion since Pentecost had succeeded in that mission—surely requiring a hubris beyond plausibility for the PCA to think that she would be so triumphal.

This immanentizing of the eschaton would certainly come with a price. Attached to this third Theme (to be involved in Global mission) was an invoice calling for the PCA to develop a “unifying” (not unified) funding means to support PCA ministries and mission culture; features to include:

  1. Ability for all churches, presbyteries, delegated Res, and TEs to participate (e. g., dues to support AC, erase GA fees);
  2. Necessity of all who are PCA to participate at meaningful level3;
  3. Non-participants with voice but without vote at Presbytery or GA.

This was a velvet glove of missionalism over an iron fist of centralization—with bureaucratic monopolization serving as one of the markers that Sean Lucas had identified as part of the founding PCA ethos. As an additional selling point, supposedly, this taxation would “Create a denominational ‘can-do’ spirit for God’s purposes, making zeal for being PCA infectious and inspiring for present and future” generations. One of the top-down steps advocated was for the “Stated Clerk’s Office [to] assess and record dues; determining TEs eligible for higher court vote (all would have a voice) . . .” With such confiscatory centralization, it is little wonder that the funding plan was not adopted. Initially recommended for the PCUS-like hierarchy was “The mechanism for evaluation to be worked out in proposal form by the Coordinators, referred to the CMC and presented to the GA within 3 yrs.” Not only is it unsurprising that these ideas did not gain traction, but it is short of amazing that a bureaucracy would put forth these specific tried-and-found-wanting ideas with such confidence and lack of sensitivity to its audience, if not to its history. Such amnesia in a mere 40 years could hardly be explained, except either by unawareness of the exact historical dynamics that led to the founding of the PCA or due to hubris.

While the harmlessly worded third Theme about “global mission” would have a great emphasis on internal denominational control by the elite strategic planners, this document even called for broad implementation, viz., allowing for desired revisions to the “RAO to set up procedure and sequence for committee and agency evaluation process.” One cannot fault the CMC planning for being half-hearted or not thorough in the extent of its wish list for control. In the planners’ minds, such measures would “build confidence” in the denomination and provide a “level of accountability that diminishes cynicism & increases support.” The only thing standing in the way of this progressive agenda were attitudes of “distrust,” “fear,” or party spirit—likely code names for traditionalists.

This approach to ecumenicity by progressivist bias saw the more conservative reformed and Presbyterian communions as hindrances, with only the more progressive ones as desired partners. These leaders wanted all GA policies and involvement to be directed toward one side of Christianity while not being “left behind in parochial concerns.” These “parochial concerns” were manifested in the planners’ minds by the stodgy conservatives who might not qualify as “Appropriate parties or target efforts for cooperative ministry efforts.”

This was an apparent attempt to conform the image of the PCA to a broader path. It succeeded in part and was resisted by others. The coming decade, however, would see many of these ideas implemented. The larger question was whether those ideas would be proven to be healthy over the next 50 years.

Notwithstanding, even with all the bureaucratic leaders and assets, this plan was not swiftly adopted. Indeed, a better method received more support than some insiders wished or expected.

Editor’s Note: This material is from Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America by David W. Hall (Covenant Foundation, 2023), reproduced here with permission from the author. Single copies can be obtained from Amazon.com. Discount available on bulk orders from the author. View the whole series here.

Notes

1. For the specific Assembly actions on individual parts of this report, cf. Min38GA, pp. 326–330: https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/38th_pcaga_2010.pdf.
2. Later, when a high profile pastor in St. Louis left the PCA in 2022, he singled out these three agencies as targets of continued affection.
3. At some point, realizing that the funding plan was massively unpopular, the final version limited the mandated taxation only for the poor AC.


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