Panel aims to help GA make its meetings a better blend of worship and business

LOUISVILLE – A special committee is poised to recommend restructuring General Assembly meetings in ways intended to allow the assembly to blend worship more fully into its work and to focus more energy on fewer items of business.

The recommendations of the General Assembly’s Special Committee to Review Biennial General Assemblies are still preliminary – they are considered to be works in progress and may still shift. Some would require changing the denomination’s Standing Rules or the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to take effect.

But the committee will present the gist of its recommendations to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly at its meeting in Louisville Oct. 5-7, hoping to solicit feedback and spark discussion.

Here are some of the recommendations the committee is considering.

Overtures. An overture would need concurrences from at least 10 percent of the 173 presbyteries (meaning 17 presbyteries) in order to be considered by the full assembly. An exception could be granted by a super-majority vote of two-thirds of the assembly. The idea, committee members said at a recent meeting, is to encourage collaboration among presbyteries and to empower commissioners to spend more time on the most substantive matters.

Commissioners. Commissioners would serve at two successive General Assemblies – with half the class in any given year being new, and half being returning commissioners.

Now, “we invite people to the General Assembly, 80 percent of whom have never been to General Assembly beforehand,” said Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly. “We expect them to walk into a new country, speaking a new language and with new customs and to function at a high level immediately.”

Committee members said such a rotation would give the assembly a group of more experienced commissioners each year and would help develop leadership. The moderators of assembly committees, for example, might be drawn from the half of the commissioners who had already served at one assembly and were familiar with how the assembly works.

In plenary sessions, commissioners would be seated according to the committees on which they were serving, rather than being grouped by presbytery. That’s because, in post-General Assembly surveys, commissioners consistently rank their committee service as among their top experiences at the assembly – so the committee is trying to extend those meaningful relationships for a longer time, Hay said.

Moderator. A moderator would be elected at one General Assembly, but would not preside over the meeting until the second assembly. This would give the moderator (perhaps known for a time as the “moderator-elect”) a chance to help plan the assembly at which he or she would serve, and to “shadow” the previous moderator and learn the ropes before stepping onto center stage. The committee did discuss, however, the possibility of having the moderator-elect preside for a few sessions at the first assembly (much as the vice-moderator does now) to gain some experience and give commissioners a taste of that person’s leadership style.

Consent agenda. The committee discussed the possibility of empowering General Assembly committees to resolve some matters of business without having those items come before the full assembly for a vote. In other words, there might be two types of business – those items needing a full assembly vote and those that committees could decide on their own (including such things as approving minutes or certain types of reports).

After discussion that touched on the difficulty of determining what types of business would fall into which categories, the committee moved in a different direction, to give assembly committees more discretion. The idea now is: to encourage General Assembly committees to put more items on the consent agenda. The yardstick would be that normally an item of business the committee approved by at least a super-majority vote would go on the consent agenda for the full assembly’s consideration, although any item could be removed from that agenda if a commissioner requested it.

The items that committees recommend for the consent agenda would go onto one combined consent agenda the assembly would vote on at the first plenary following committee deliberations. That would streamline all committee reports.

Assembly committees also would have time, after they completed their own work, for a briefing on “big issues” coming before the whole assembly. In other words, after completing their own work, they’d have a chance to learn what other committees had done.

Worship. The committee is encouraging assembly planners to consider ways of more fully integrating worship into the assembly’s work – perhaps by scheduling worship later in the morning, rather than before the day’s first business meetings, or by blending in prayer and singing so the worship flows in and out of the assembly’s work.

The committee talked of continuing approaches the assembly has used before, such as setting up small prayer groups among commissioners and arranging seating so commissioners can more easily see most of the room, rather than sitting in straight rows facing the front. At the 2012 assembly, the last hymn sung at the end of opening worship will be the song playing when the commissioners enter the first plenary session, said Hay.

The hope is to use Christian practices of prayer and discernment to discover the will of God, said committee member Tom Evans, executive presbyter of Greater Atlanta Presbtery. “Commissioners would eat that up,” said committee member David Van Dyke, a minister from St. Paul. “This is what they’re after. They want to be more spiritual,” infusing worship into work.

Young adults. The committee is not recommending any change in the terms of service for Young Adult Advisory Delegates to the assembly. In other words, they would still serve just one term. But the committee likely will suggest that 32 additional young adult delegates be elected to each assembly – one teaching elder and one ruling elder from each of the 16 synods. The presbyteries within each synod would determine the method of selecting these delegates.

Obviously, the recommendations the committee is considering go well beyond the narrower question of whether the General Assembly should continue meeting every other year. “There are many who believed that the task of the review committee was to determine when and how often” the assembly should meet, said Carol McDonald, executive of the Synod of Lincoln Trails and moderator of the committee. But an overture from Giddings-Lovejoy to the 2010 assembly expanded that charge to include a much broader review of how the assembly operates.

The committee has conducted surveys – both of assembly commissioners and advisory delegates (more than 900 responded), and of presbytery and synod executives and others in denominational leadership. The results show strong support for having the assembly continue to meet every two years, and for reducing the amount of business that comes before the assembly.

The committee’s recommendations will be discussed by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly at its October meeting, and at the Fall Polity Conference, attended by stated clerks and executives from the PC(USA)’s presbyteries and synods. The Biennial Review committee will meet again in Denver Jan. 8-10 to consider the feedback it’s received and to finalize the recommendations.