The annual meeting has many benefits. At the same time a number of changes should be considered by commissioners at the forthcoming Assembly to improve it. First a summary of the positives.
Year after year we see hundreds of earnest minister and elder commissioners come to the meeting, toting their thick notebooks, determined to be open to the Spirit and to do their best for the church they love.
Second, the dedicated staff of the Office of the General Assembly and an army of volunteers from the host presbytery or presbyteries, together work the equivalent of years to ensure that all the needs of the participants and meeting logistics are taken care of. The staff of the General Assembly Council and other national agencies also participate in this work.
Third, this is the one place and time in which the whole church — the entire Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) family — comes together to listen for God’s word to God’s church in our time. Where else can we all, representatively at least, get together as a family before God?
Fourth, at a time when interest in the larger spheres of life wanes, when individualism and self-indulgence reign supreme, it is an important experience for those present to catch a glimpse of what the Presbyterian Church is today. Many Presbyterians know nothing beyond their own congregation. Seeing an Assembly in action is a great educational experience.
Finally, despite all the distractions, dead ends, wasted time, bad ideas that get adopted, the wrangling that goes on, the product of every Assembly is always more than one could have expected given the raw material present — which is a testimony that God does work in and through the governing bodies of the church to advance God’s reign on Earth.
The downside of this annual meeting, however, is the belief that somehow the General Assembly, as inspired as it is, can solve all the church’s problems; or that at least those problems should be brought up and discussed and, if at all possible, some action taken.
The sheer volume of business guarantees that much time will be spent on things that don’t matter at all, and precious little time on the great issues that require the best wisdom we can muster.
Also, the gathering has become too large and unwieldy. Commissioners are outnumbered by other participants — many seeking to influence their decisions — by four or five to one.
There are changes that could be made to improve the functioning and the work of the annual meeting. If this year’s commissioners are in a mood to move the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in a new direction, they should initiate a movement for change and come bearing resolutions to accomplish some or all of the following through changes in procedures, in the Standing Rules of the General Assembly, in some cases the Book of Order. Since Assemblies are scheduled several years out, any changes must be considered far in advance.
1. Consider meeting every other year for business and strictly limit the business to be considered. Focus on worship and mission, not on arcane polity details.
2. Vastly simplify the Book of Order and require a two-thirds vote of the Assembly and the presbyteries to change it.
3. Declare long periods of time when the Constitution shall not be amended, thereby removing all such proposals for change from the docket.
4. Limit attendance that is encouraged by Assembly arrangements procedures to those whose presence is absolutely critical for commissioners’ deliberations.
5. Hold the much-smaller Assembly, if possible, at some church-related institution; keep it characterized by simplicity.
6. Cut down the length of the Assembly. Focus on the business; less time for entertainment and distraction.
7. Put a strict limit on the amount of business to be considered: first come, first served (overtures, resolutions, etc.).
8. In the off years, have some other kind of community-building national gathering, open to all who want to come, that would give time and space to some of the activities currently held at the GA.
9. Periodically have an Assembly where the sole business on the docket is to worship, study Scripture and pray — as a whole, in small groups, individually — and to consider the mission priorities of the church in relation to the needs of the world. Imagine what might happen if the elected commisioners of the presbyteries were able to meet for several days in a prayerful, expectant mode in a quiet place away from the distractions of 21st-century life?
The General Assembly could self-consciously model what all governing bodies of the church should strive for in terms of process and tone.
The church cannot order the coming of the Lord Jesus, but it can certainly pray for it and hope for it in connection with the annual meeting of the General Assembly.
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