• The number of commissioners would increase — from 554 in 2002 to 816, an increase of 262 commissioners, or 47 percent. (Those figures are based on the current reported membership, but could change as the denomination gains or loses members.) Each presbytery would send at least two commissioners (one minister and one elder) to the assembly. Presbyteries with over 8,000 members would be entitled to send four commissioners, those with over 16,000 members would be entitled to six, etc.
• The length of each assembly should stay the same — seven days, starting and ending on a Saturday. There was some discussion that, with fewer assemblies, each could expect to handle more business and perhaps the meeting should be lengthened. But the longer the assembly meets, the more money it costs, so COGA is recommending no increase in time. The cost savings, for an assembly of that size and duration, would be about $1.5 million over two years. And the assembly in 2006, in Birmingham, Alabama, might have a different timetable because the PC(USA) assembly will be meeting concurrently with those of the assemblies of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of America.
• The denomination’s Standing Rules be changed, so that, on most General Assembly-level committees, someone would serve one four-year term with a possibility of renewal for a second four-year term, with a maximum of eight years of service. Changes need to be made, because some committees now have three-year terms of service. To avoid having vacancies occur in years in which the assembly was not meeting, the General Assembly Nominating Committee needs a process to transition some entities from three-year terms of service to four-year terms, so the nominations can be brought to the assembly at the correct time.
• Book of Order changes be made — among them, them, that it would take four years instead of two to amend the Book of Confessions and that proposed amendments that would require a Book of Order change be submitted no later than Dec. 31 of the year before the next assembly.
A work group from COGA and the General Assembly Council will meet over next several months to try to flesh out the details of these recommendations, which still must be approved by the General Assembly. One possibility, for example, would be finding ways to have different rules for committee membership for young adults — those 25 and younger — who might be in college or starting a career and not be able to make a long-term commitment to serve on a committee.
COGA also talked about concerns regarding how the role of the General Assembly moderator might be affected by going to every-other-year assemblies. According to Valerie Small of the PC(USA)’s staff, who assists each moderator in his or her work, people have raised concerns about whether a moderator who serves for two years might burn out and whether the constant travel demands might become too exhausting or expensive or hard on the person’s family.
Some wonder if the pool of candidates might be restricted if a two-year commitment were required — would a pastor with a congregation or an elder with a job in the secular world really be able to take that much time away? As Small put it in a paper she distributed, “How can we ensure that the pool of those willing to serve is not limited only to persons who are retired or who have large resources of time, money and people power?”
Still, there’s a value to having a moderator who travels across the church. For many congregations, a visit from the moderator is a reminder that Presbyterians belong to a connectional church, said Stephen Grace, a COGA member from Michigan. “I don’t think we should be putting the brakes on this happening,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity when the moderator comes to town.”
Some COGA members suggested a realigning of responsibilities between the moderator and the vice-moderator — but that could mean that the vice-moderator might have to be an elected position as well, rather than appointed by the moderator. And Small said many have told her that “the moderator is a sign of unity” for the denomination — they don’t want to see that role splintered among more than one person.
COGA agreed to keep thinking about the moderator question.
Its members also spent time at this meeting, which ends Oct. 10, discussing the Constitution Project — a “discernment process” to look at developing an approach to “missional polity” that will serve the church in the 21st century — an idea that Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, began discussing in a presentation he made in Atlanta last spring.
“For the church’s mission to be most faithful and effective, its Constitution must also change, because it is our polity that makes possible the missionary outreach of the church,” a paper presented to COGA states. That paper describes the discernment process as a way to enable the PC(USA) “to reclaim our confessions and to build a new polity for a new reality.”
Some of the pieces of that approach include building a culture of respect for the constitution and each other; adopting the first four chapters of the Form of Government as a covenantal document; discerning the core elements of a revised polity; and engaging the denomination in dialogue about adding confessions to the Book of Confessions.