While much of the work of the second Mid-Council Commission (MCC-2) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is focused on streamlining the structures of the denomination ― particularly the role of synods ― one sub-group of the commission is turning its attention to the web of relationships that mark the PC(USA) as “connectional.”

This commission was authorized by the 2012 General Assembly, which rejected most of the recommendations of the first MCC, including the creation of non-geographic presbyteries based on theological affinity and the elimination of synods.

The Assembly asked MCC-2 to continue to address the role and function of synods and also asked the commission “to review the nature and function of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) with respect to their relationship with and support of mid-councils.”

“Where other teams [of MCC-2] focus is necessarily fixed on structural issues with the Body,” said team chair Warren Cooper ― a ruling elder from Philadelphia and holdover from MCC-1 ― “our team’s focus is on the nervous system and blood flow connectivity.”

At MCC-2’s March 14-16 meeting here, Cooper insisted that his team’s work “is not a performance review of PMA and OGA.” But in interviews with PMA Executive Director Linda Valentine, General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and a number of presbytery and synod executives and stated clerks, Cooper said four “consistent observations” emerged:

  • A lack of common purpose: “We found both positives and negatives, but not overall malaise or anger and disaffection some fear,” Cooper said. “We heard respectful and reasonable assessment of relationships, but a lack of common purpose.”
  • “Fatigue tinged with hopelessness” ― “We found no ticking time bombs,” Cooper said, “but a kind of emptiness. There is little energy to find ‘a fix.’
  • “A deafening silence on the part of synods regarding a sense of common identity and relationship.”
  • The denomination “is in the midst of a serious and widespread reconsideration of what it means to be a church nationally.”

While many comments were general in nature, Cooper said some were oft-spoken and consistent. Among them:

  • The PMA is perceived by many in mid-councils as a “top-down corporate command attitude,” marked by competition with presbyteries for fundraising without consultation;
  • Many long for a consistent standard from OGA for churches wishing to leave denomination;
  • Mid-council leaders with personal connections to PMA and OGA staff members have more positive reflections and attitudes about denominational connectionalism;
  • The overwhelmingly prevailing issues for mid-council leaders are power and trust between mid-councils and PMA and OGA;
  • There’s a burning desire for common purpose, for “everyone to pull the cart in the same direction”;
  • There’s “a yearning to transcend territorialism and hierarchy in the PC(USA).”

“The bottom line,” Cooper said, “is a three-fold desire for common purpose, shared identity and mutually-held power and trust.”

“There is an incredible lack of personal possessive pronouns in our conversations,” said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, a member of  MCC-2 and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. “We never hear the word ‘ours.’ It’s always ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and it’s a very serious issue in our drive for common identity and purpose.”

There’s no “quick fix,” added the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop of Chapel Hill, N.C. “It’s pretty clear there is no ‘big thing’ that if we fix it the overall malaise will disappear. We’re yearning for something we don’t have … What’s at stake is not the fact of connectionalism but the quality and character of it.”

Former General Assembly Vice-Moderator and MCC-2 Co-Chair Byron Wade agreed. “We know we want something different but we don’t know what it’s going to look like, so there’s much anxiety. We’re trying to figure out where ‘there’ is ― I’m enjoying the journey but not all are.”

The Rev. Liza Hendricks, general presbyter for the Presbytery of the Western Reserve and a member of both MCC-1 and MCC-2, said relationships “go both ways and we all have to work at them.” She said the sub-group heard a wide range of expectations from Presbyterian leaders “who are feeling so many pressures ― we’re in an ‘in-between’ time that everyone wants to see solved but few know how.”

MCC-2 will make its final report to the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit. Its next meeting is Sept. 9-11, also in Dallas.