It has been “totaled” and is in need of a complete overhaul. Until this happens, the week will continue to frustrate us, divide the denomination, and injure its participants. It will continue to weaken our connectionalism, drive us farther apart, and set us back each time we meet.
The way we currently have structured the week prevents us from discerning God’s will together. Instead of eliminating obstacles to good decision-making, it creates barriers. There is a much higher probability of good decisions being made at our session meetings and our presbytery meetings than there is at the G. A. meeting
The amount of business handled each week is unrealistic. No one can be adequately informed about all the items that come up for a vote. We know that commissioners do not read all of their materials before they come, and we laugh about it, as if that wasn’t a problem. We shrug our shoulders as if there wasn’t anything we could do. We resign ourselves to the fact that decisions are made by commissioners who haven’t adequately studied the issues. Because there is too much business, people don’t spend the time studying and learning the issues, thinking through the consequences, and prayerfully weighing the options.
Because commissioners come in overwhelmed by the amount of business, and with a huge deficit of knowledge, they quickly grab on to opinions offered by different groups in the church. Instead of thinking for themselves, commissioners quickly adopt the positions of interest groups, advisory committees, and advocacy committees. The problem is not that their advice is always wrong. It’s not. The problem is that people don’t have time to make up their own minds, and adopt positions offered to them without prayer and study. So, we blindly make some good decisions, and we blindly make some bad decisions.
Most people I know ask about only three decisions made by each Assembly. Those who are really involved want to know about ten decisions. Yet, the Assembly makes hundreds of decisions each week, most of which people don’t know or care about. Our decisions would be much better if we reduced the amount of business to the level that could be adequately dealt with in one week. If each Assembly dealt only with the really big issues, commissioners could read all their material ahead of time, we could actually schedule the kind of long conversations we need, and would have time to listen to each other and pray together.
Another issue involves the Youth Advisory Delegates/Young Adult Advisory Delegates. We certainly need to listen to our young people. We need to keep them in mind when we make decisions. They have a passion and an energy that is good for us. But, they are particularly susceptible to being used by various groups during the Assembly. They speak frequently and from little experience, taking conversation time away from more seasoned commissioners. They often do not understand the long-term consequences of the decisions. And after they Assembly is over, they can go back to school and not have to deal with any of the problems they helped to create.
Most sessions do not have youth delegates on them. Most presbyteries do not have youth delegates. Most synods do not have youth delegates. Yet, the General Assembly has youth delegates? This is backwards. Our young people should gain much needed experience and wisdom first on the session level, and then on the presbytery and synod level, before being qualified to serve at the General Assembly. It would be far better for our young people and for the denomination, to have a separate Youth General Assembly, or a polity class where they can learn and observe the process in action, rather than letting them influence major decisions for which they have not been equipped.
At General Assembly, often the people who have the most knowledge about the issues aren’t voting commissioners. They sit on the sidelines hoping that people will ask them to explain these complicated issues. Some people who have the least amount of knowledge are the ones casting the votes. They haven’t read the materials ahead of time, and they haven’t had personal conversations with people who have the knowledge and expertise. Is it any wonder that bad decisions get made?
At our session and presbytery levels, we work hard to build relationships between the voting decision-makers, so they can discuss important matters within an attitude of familiarity and trust and comfort with one another. Why, when we go to General Assembly, do we expect perfect strangers to work together to decide huge issues that could have a major impact on thousands of churches and millions of members? This is absurd. You can’t expect a group of strangers to work together well and make good decisions on complicated issues. Without taking the time to get to know each other, they will not make good decisions.
We have way too many commissioners. We have a denomination of a little over 2 million members and we send over 700 commissioners to vote at GA. Our nation has about 300 million people, yet Congress has only 435 representatives, and the Senate has only 100 people, and they meet year round to build the relationships that are needed in groups that large.
The number of our commissioners needs to be cut in half. The number of business items needs to be reduced dramatically. We need to find a better venue for our young people. We need time to bring commissioners together to build relationships and trust. We need time listening to God’s Word and praying together. We need time for long conversations. And if we still don’t have enough time to reach a good decision, we need the courage to put off the decision until the next Assembly. No decision is better than a bad decision.
Clark D. Cowden is executive presbyter of San Diego Presbytery, San Diego, Calif.