The year was 2008. The city was San Jose, California. The hashtag was #GA218.
That was the last time I attended General Assembly. I was a Theological Student Advisory Delegate representing both Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and Columbia Theological Seminary.
This time I am attending GA as an observer.
Perhaps it is the perceived passivity of this label “observer,” or perhaps it has to do something with the color-caste name badge system we use (commissioners, delegates and staff get colorful nylon pouches with a zipper; observers get a plastic rectangle on a string designed to fall apart), but going to GA as an observer is a completely different experience.
First, everyone asks me why I am here. No one asked me that when I was a TSAD. Yet the reason back then is the same reason as now: because I care about our denomination and love to worship, fellowship and commune with other passionate Presbyterians.
Second, I have to go look for information. When I attended as a TSAD I had packets and policies and procedures all mailed in bulk to my home mailbox months before the event. I was handed flyers and brochures every time I turned around. And when PC-Biz decided to not pull up on my computer, someone was always there to fix it for me. But this time I have had to be intentional about reading ahead on the issues. I have to go looking for people to have conversations with or to answer my questions.
And third, with some poetic irony, I actually do have more time to observe. (Go figure, right!?) My time as a TSAD was a roller coaster of a week that never stopped and never slowed. This time, I have had some more time to pause and reflect as the week unfolds.
Many things are the same at this assembly.
A lot of the same committees and a lot of the same issues. We are still talking about our brothers and sisters over in Israel and Palestine and how we can best show our love for them. We are still talking about divestment and whether that is our most faithful approach. There are still new books coming out and new curriculum to explore. Ten years ago, we had Gradye Parsons as our new stated clerk and today we have J. Herbert Nelson as our still new-ish stated clerk. Funding is still an issue. Denominational numbers are still an issue.
Yet many things are not the same at this assembly.
One of the committees hard at work this time is solely designated to evaluate and help us envision our future as the PC(USA). They have heard reports from The Way Forward Commission as well as some of the folks in the All Agency Review and they are aware of the Vision 2020 taskforce. I find a lot of excitement among the anxiety in that room.
Another committee is looking at how we can best interact and relate to each other in our connectional church through our mid councils. A lot of the presbytery and synod execs are paying close attention to this committee. I expected them to be frustrated with this work because it would disrupt a lot of what they are currently doing, but I have overwhelmingly heard them say that this is the conversation they’ve been waiting for and they are more than ready to see where the Spirit takes them.
Still another committee is looking solely at “Mission Coordination” and I find it fascinating to not only see how blessed we are to be participating in so many of God’s amazing missions in this world, but how willing we are to engage our missions with our theology. We are doing so much, we literally need a whole committee of our General Assembly to coordinate it!
I invite you to continue to pray for the people at GA: the commissioners, the YAADs, the TSADS, all the advisory delegates, our co-moderators, the staff, the execs, the worship leaders, the overture advocates, the COLA volunteers and even the “observers” who are praying with you on location.
Pray for courage.
Pray for discernment.
Pray for the Spirit to continue to form us into the church God calls us to be.
BRIAN CHRISTOPHER COULTER is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina. He is a husband, father, pastor, author, blogger and pingpong champion who is pretty good at sidewalk chalk.