“Our experience was a mixed bag,” said Kathy Lancaster, a minister from Mid-Kentucky Presbytery who was moderator of the Worship and Spiritual Renewal Committee. The commissioners’ responses, she told the 218th General Assembly, ranged from a couple of committee members who walked out in frustration, to a youth advisory delegate who said he was “stoked” about the prospect of trying to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Two of the assembly’s 17 committees were given special instructions to practice communal discernment in their discussions as a way of modeling to the rest of the church how that process might work.
“Do not be deceived,” Youth Committee moderator Sue Rush, an elder from Kendall Presbytery, told the assembly. “The lack of assigned business did not equal a lack of business.” The committee’s process, she said, included prayer, Bible study, and conversation in small groups and together.
They called it a “generative process” — a General Assembly committee whose business was to think up its own business.
The assembly Youth Committee started off with no official business, although a commissioners’ resolution was referred to it once the assembly got up and running. The committee members prayed and tossed up ideas, covering the walls of their meeting rooms with suggestions written on sticky notes and newsprint.
They watched a documentary, “Soul Searching: A Movie About Teenagers and God,” based on the work of the National Study of Youth and Religion — a copy of which will now be sent to all the presbyteries. They talked about how young people express and develop their faith, what influences them and affects their thinking, what Presbyterian churches do well and not so well in working with youth.
Then, the committee drafted its own suggestions to the assembly along with considering the commissioners’ resolution referred to it.
The Worship and Spiritual Renewal committee also was asked “to explore a different way of seeking the will of God during a General Assembly through the use of communal discernment.” That committee, however, did have two overtures from presbyteries on its agenda to consider. And it found the road bumpy. Two commissioners walked out, and Gradye Parsons — who was director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly and later in the week elected the new stated clerk for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — was called in to try to explain why the discernment approach was being used.
In summarizing her committee’s work to the assembly, Lancaster said more training would have been helpful as apparently some committee members didn’t understand in advance that their work would be different than that of other committees (and not everyone thought that different approach was a great idea.) Working in small groups allowed the voices of quieter people to be heard, she said, but transitions proved tricky. Commissioners struggled to move from those small groups, or from less-structured conversations, to the more formal process of voting.
“What nurtured us was worshipping together,” Lancaster said. Because her committee had only two items of business to consider, “it felt to some like we were using a sledgehammer on a thumbtack,” she told the assembly. “Many of our members found our experience to be frustrating.”
Because the committee was generating its own business, rather than responding to overtures sent to it, a three-quarters vote was required to send any item to the assembly for its full consideration. In all, the committee sent the assembly five items to consider, plus the commissioners’ resolution.
The assembly approved a proposal to change the name of “youth advisory delegates” to “young adult advisory delegates.” “Youth” often refers to those ages 12 to 18, while youth advisory delegates are ages 17 to 23.
The assembly voted 613 to 53 to create a task force on youth and young adults “to continue the dialogue,” and report back to the 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis in 2010. The task force, which GA Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow will appoint, will consist of five young people ages 15 to 21, and five adult mentors.
Other measures the committee presented, and the assembly voted for, included:
• Asking congregations and presbyteries to develop mentoring programs for young people;
• Agreeing to provide each presbytery with a copy of the video “Soul Searching: A Movie about Teenagers and God.”
But the assembly — following the committee’s recommendation — voted down a commissioners’ resolution that would have allowed middle- and high-school-aged youth to volunteer at General Assembly.
At this assembly in San Jose, a group of teenagers from Central Church in Atlanta wanted to volunteer, asking to usher at worship, help with registration and ticket sales, and other tasks. They had their own chaperones but were turned down as official volunteers for being too young, from ages 12 to 17.
The commissioners’ resolution, which the assembly defeated 605-77, would have encouraged the “full participation” of youth at assemblies, including as volunteers.
In congregations, “they serve on mission trips, they plan worship services, they are ushers and leaders in our church,” said Marie Andrews, an elder from Western Reserve Presbytery who was one of the sponsors of the resolution.
But having teenagers officially involved in the assembly creates liability and insurance concerns, the assembly was told. As assistant stated clerk Deborah Davies explained, “there are significant risk-management issues.”
The assembly voted to support the committee, which recommended disapproving the commissioners’ resolution. So did the youth advisory delegates, by a margin of 190-42.