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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Goodbye, Peacemaking. Hello, Peacemaking and Global Witness.

A familiar feature of World Communion Sunday, for quite a number of years, has been the annual Peacemaking Special Offering. One of the changes made at this year's General Assembly was to broaden the scope of this offering, so as to add a "Global Witness" component. Now, we're being asked to promote a "Peace and Global Witness" offering.

I remember hearing about the change when I was at the General Assembly, but honestly, it didn't make a big impression on me at the time, what with all the other issues the commissioners were wrestling with. It hit home a couple weeks ago, when our church secretary brought me the bulletin inserts for the special offering, so I could choose which one we'll be using on each Sunday leading up to the offering.

They looked different. Not only that, but the name of the offering - Peace and Global Witness - is a mouthful.

It struck me that this change makes the offering much more difficult to interpret. What is "global witness," anyway - and what relationship does it have to peacemaking? Peacemaking is a fairly clear concept (even though we've had to work hard, over the years, to broaden people's minds about the many and varied settings where Christians are called to make peace).

Not so for "global witness." What is it, anyway?

I think I understand the reason for the change - even though the promotional information on the offering's main website page is none too clear. Previously, receipts from the offering (at the General Assembly level, anyway - there's always been some money retained by congregations and presbyteries for local work) have been disbursed by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Now, a portion of the offering money will be used by the Presbyterian Mission Agency as a whole, for global activities related to peace and justice ministries.

You have to drill down through the web pages until you come to a pdf file of a "Leader's Guide" before you can find out much about the activities that will be funded under the woolly concept of "Global Witness." To get to the Leader's Guide, you have to go through a process that looks like you're ordering literature to be mailed out (perhaps at a cost), but in fact, clicking on the button takes you right to the (free) pdf file. Navigating this portion of the website, though, is far from easy.

This is a mostly bureaucratic change, a way of moving money around from one account to another at the national level of the church. The effect is to tap some of that Peacemaking money to cover deficits in funding our mission co-workers and other vitally-important global mission activities. It still fits the general definition, of course, so no one can really argue with it. But I don't think it's the greatest idea, and here's why...

Any change that muddies the waters of how special offering money is used makes the offering more difficult to promote in local congregations. "Peacemaking" we can describe without too much difficulty. "Peacemaking and Global Witness," not so easily. In the bestiary of special offerings, it's a multi-headed monster.

We live in an age when givers are eager to designate their gifts, to know exactly how they're being used. When special offerings are combined into these multi-purpose causes - an attractive option, in this age of declining mission giving, to those who read balance sheets in denominational offices - the descriptions of the offering lose their punch. They no longer sound "special," or specific, in their focus. We lose the advantage, the unique appeal, of a special offering.

It makes me wonder what sort of research the General Assembly staff did before recommending the change - whether they conducted focus groups of pastors or church members, for example, to find out what sort of name-recognition goes along with the phrase "Global Witness."

In the long run, I predict that decision will reduce the amount of money given, overall.

That's a pastor's perspective, anyway, from the front lines of mission interpretation. I wonder how much the Mission Agency folks considered that front-line perspective, when they made their administrative decision to recommend this change to the General Assembly?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Executive Session

Every once in a while, a council must go into executive session.

So, what is an executive session? It's got two basic characteristics. First, no observers are present. Generally, only the members of the body, along with their officers (such as the moderator and the clerk of Session) remain in the room. Sessions can allow certain invited guests to be present, but this is uncommon. Second, the proceedings are confidential. No one's supposed to talk to anyone else later about what went on (although members of the body can discuss those things with one another, provided no one else is listening in).

There can be minutes of an executive session, but if there are minutes, they must be kept elsewhere than the regular minutes, because no one is allowed to see them but the members of the body. When it comes time to approve those minutes, the body must go into executive session a second time to do so.

Most Sessions find it easier simply not to pass any motions while in executive session. They talk about what they need to do, then go out of executive session and immediately pass whatever motions are needed. The action they have taken, then, is public, but the reasons behind the action are not.

It's hard to imagine a situation in which a body would need to pass a motion while in executive session, because it's hard to imagine implementing anything that's secret. Generally, the discuss-in-executive-session, then vote-in-regular-session procedure does the trick. Robert's Rules does allow for motions in executive session, though, just in case.

So, when should there be an executive session?

The short answer is, "as seldom as possible." Especially in the church, where transparency is generally the ideal.

Yet, there are situations in which it's a valuable option. Such as discussing delicate personnel matters. Or pondering how to respond to a member who may need ecclesiastical discipline. Or setting a range for bidding on a piece of real estate, when it's not to the church's advantage for a seller to know how high the church is willing to go.

If there are no observers in the meeting-room to begin with, a formal executive session may not be needed. The clerk simply needs to take care to limit what goes into the minutes (although motions must always be recorded). Yet, even if there are no observers to ask to leave the room, an executive session may still be useful, if only to impress upon the Session members the need for confidentiality.

Just one more useful item in the parliamentary toolbox.