Among the issues the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, known as COGA, has been talking about during its Feb. 22-24 meeting in Louisville is whether the General Assembly is getting slammed with too much business on too many combustible issues, making it next to impossible for exhausted commissioners to consider it all carefully in a week’s time.
And the middle governing bodies — the denomination’s presbyteries and synods — are struggling, trying to find their way in a financially precarious time in which mainline denominations no longer can assume a central role in American cultural or spiritual life.
COGA is proposing that the 2010 General Assembly authorize the creation of a General Assembly Commission on Middle Governing Bodies. The 21-member commission would consider the mission and function of middle governing bodies, and would develop models to show how presbyteries and synods can operate well in a changing context.
One possibility is that such a commission — which could have some power to make decisions between the every-other-year assemblies — could make progress, and thus reduce the amount of work the assembly itself has to deal with, said Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk.
The idea of a Commission on Middle Governing Bodies would be “our first real attempt in the biennial world to empower a body to work on something between assemblies and come to decisions,” Parsons said.
Already, a handful of overtures regarding middle governing bodies have been submitted for this assembly’s consideration, Parsons said.
Some presbyteries are doing “some really fantastic stuff,” he said. “We have some that are really floundering.” Some are having transitions in leadership, some are running out of money, some because of internal political disputes “are on the road to destruction or something close to it.”
The proposal calls for the commission to be appointed by the moderators of the 218th and 219th General Assemblies (the assemblies from 2008 and 2010, in consultation with the General Assembly Nominating Committee. One of the General Assembly committees this summer will focus specifically on middle governing bodies and their future.
The report to the assembly states that “no significant study of middle governing bodies has taken place for the past four decades,” and that “the General Assembly has received numerous overtures, reports, and other concerns about the life and health of the middle governing body system. The limited time of the General Assembly does not allow for a focused and thoughtful approach to the future of middle governing bodies.”
During part of its meeting, COGA heard from three presbytery executives who shared some concerns flowing out of ongoing conversations among the Association of Executive Presbyters.
At the General Assembly, “the sheer amount of business is overwhelming,” said Jeff Hutcheson, transitional executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois. Some committees are huge; some have especially heavy workloads, “and everything’s important.”
Among the questions the presbytery executives are asking, Are pro-and-con speeches of a minute or two a good way to make decisions on complex issues about which people are passionate?
“Our commissioners come home, and they are exhausted,” said Betty Meadows, executive presbyter of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery and the president of the executive presbyters’ association. “They don’t sleep when they’re there,” and get overwhelmed by the amount of material they must read and consider. “They love the relationships, they love the worship,” but the amount of business is staggering. “Are there better ways to come together? Are there better ways to make decisions?”
In Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, prayer, singing, and worship have moved front-and-center at every meeting, Meadows said. More business is done through consent agendas. More time is spent in Bible study in small groups, in sharing faith stories, in being first a Christian community.
At presbyteries, synods, and the assembly, questions are being asked about what’s working and what’s not — and change may come by “prodding people to see there are other ways of doing things,” said Sally Hinchman, interim general presbyter of Shenandoah Presbytery.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly, said as he travels, he has heard “this is the conversation … every level of the church is having” — about how the world is changing, and how the PC(USA) needs to change as well.