General Assembly can feel overwhelming: a week-long blitz of motions, controversy, business, worship, too much complexity hitting too fast to absorb.
Recognizing that, a committee that’s been studying how General Assembly works is recommending changes it hopes can make the assembly function better — including recommendations that could affect the way moderators and committee leadership are selected. The Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies is recommending to the 2014 assembly changes in the Standing Rules that, if approved, would take effect at the 2016 assembly in Portland.
Among those proposals:
- That a statement involving core values present at the General Assembly be added as an introduction to the Standing Rules. That statement refers to love, humility, grace and patience, and asserts “that our engagement with one another in the ministry of the gathered church will reflect the transforming love of God, enabling us to discern God’s will together.”
- That the assembly would have the option to elect co-moderators of the assembly (two candidates standing together) as well as being able to elect a moderator who then names a vice-moderator, subject to confirmation by the assembly. Co-moderators would run as a slate, with the hope that some candidates reluctant to shoulder a two-year commitment to serve might consider the possibility if they could share the job.
- That up to a third of the moderators could be appointed for General Assembly committees who aren’t commissioners to that year’s assembly, but who served as a commissioner to one of the three previous assemblies. That would give the assembly a chance to tap the skills of commissioners who emerge as leaders once an assembly is underway.
- That the number of Theological Student Advisory Delegates would decrease, from 23 to about 12.
Another recommendation — that some commissioners not be assigned to serve on any assembly committee — was dropped after hitting opposition earlier this year from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, said Carol McDonald, who chairs of the committee and is synod executive for the Synod of Lincoln Trails.
All of these ideas are the fruits of years of work by the committee. Originally, the committee’s task was to review whether biennial assemblies (the General Assembly meeting only every other year) was working — hence the name. But the 2010 assembly broadened the scope of the committee’s work in response to an overture from the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, to include everything related to how the General Assembly functions, and the 2012 assembly instructed the committee to keep working for two more years.
The committee, created in 2010, already has made an impact — the 2012 assembly approved a series of its recommendations. Among them: that plenary sessions will include prayer, Bible study and community building; that an overture presented by one presbytery must receive a concurrence from at least one other presbytery in order to make it onto the assembly’s agenda; and that commissioners’ resolutions must be signed by two commissioners representing different presbyteries. The intent of those changes was to reduce the amount of business coming before the assembly and to give commissioners time for prayer and reflection.
Here are other ways the 2014 assembly will feel the committee’s influence:
- Committee members are providing fixed-hour prayer litanies that can be used morning, mid-day and evenings for all committees — allowing committee members to give full attention to their deliberations, but still break for worship.
- The Thursday morning plenary will include roughly 90 minutes for prayer and discernment regarding two of the most difficult issues before the assembly (whatever they turn out to be — possibly same-sex marriage and divestment) without needing to move immediately for a vote. As commissioners, “we often go thinking our minds are made up, and it’s in the context of community, and the community praying together — even if it’s in silence — that I think offers the Holy Spirit the opportunity to break through,” McDonald said.
- The 2012 assembly accepted the recommendation “that prayer and Bible study and reflection be included each time we gather in community,” she said. “The opportunity to stop, look and listen is really helpful.”
One recommendation that’s also coming to the assembly, but not from the committee, is an overture to give Young Adult Advisory Delegates (currently ages 17 to 23) full vote at the assembly and to give them a new name: Young Adult Commissioners (with an age range of 18 to 25). That overture, presented by the Synod of the Covenant, states that “the sooner we make the young adults in our church voting stakeholders, the more they will feel welcomed and valued.”
McDonald said the Biennial Review Committee does not support that overture, considering it not clear enough — it doesn’t say, for example, whether the Young Adult Commissioners would have to be elders.