The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) has made some decisions regarding contingency plans for holding a virtual General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in June — but is holding off voting on whether that will happen until its next meeting on April 23.
The General Assembly is scheduled to meet in Baltimore June 20-27, but COGA is making contingency plans to hold a virtual assembly if that doesn’t happen. An in-person assembly is unlikely – the Baltimore Convention Center is being turned into a COVID-19 field hospital – but PC(USA) officials still are in discussions with people in Baltimore about financial and contractual ramifications of those earlier plans.
Among the contingency plans COGA announced during its Zoom meeting April 16:
- If a virtual assembly is held, commissioners would elect a moderator or co-moderators on June 19, following a virtual “town hall” with an opportunity to ask questions of those standing for the office.
- The assembly would begin with a worship service in which the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, would acknowledge the context of gathering during a coronavirus pandemic — speaking of both lament and hope. And it would end with a reflective prayer service.
- COGA approved a list of “virtual and optional” pre-assembly events, including participation June 20 in the Poor People’s Campaign virtual event, virtual small group gatherings for commissioners and advisory delegates, Bible study June 24 and a Youth Rising event on a date to be determined.
- COGA approved a preliminary list of critical items the assembly would consider during two days of plenary sessions on June 26 and 27, many of them related to budgets, confirmation of agency executives or standing rule changes. It also appointed a small group to review that list, “and make sure we picked up everything we need to pick up that’s core and critical,” COGA moderator Barbara Gaddis said.
On April 15, COGA approved a recommendation that the assembly would consider only those items “critical to our governance and ecclesiology,” using three tests:
- Is this (business/event/mission priority) so time sensitive that we need to address it now? Would not addressing it have negative legal or polity implications?
- If we do not address this (business/event/mission priority) will it have a negative impact on the church financially?
- If we do not address this (business/event/mission priority) will it leave critically important leadership positions vacant?
COGA also deferred to the April 23 meeting any decision about holding a virtual exhibit hall.
Nelson acknowledged the pushback he’s been receiving, particularly from people concerned “about social justice issues not being part of this assembly.”
In limiting the business at the 2020 General Assembly, “we are not divorcing ourselves at all from issues of social justice,” but recognizing “we are in a world and a nation that is hurting in many ways,” Nelson said. People are dying, isolated from their families. People are losing their jobs.
Presbyterians continue to work around the world for social justice, “and we have policies out the wazoo with regard to justice,” Nelson said. This is a time for the PC(USA) to express compassion and love for congregations struggling to survive financially and find new ways to connect, for those who have lost friends and family, for those who “have held the hands of those who are dying, for those who wanted to offer last rites but could not. … It is a time of lament.”
COVID-19 will change churches “in every hamlet” for the rest of our lives, Nelson said. Instead of the typical General Assembly business, “we have to focus on life and on death. In life and in death, we belong to God. … There is something about this window of spiritual and physical and global crisis that we have to speak into. There is no other choice. This is what the gospel requires.”
COGA member Eliana Maxim presented the idea of using short, two-minute videos to highlight social justice work Presbyterians continue to do, and also the impact COVID-19 is having in their communities and their lives — to show, for example, “what is church like during COVID in the middle of Texas,” or what a Presbyterian hospital chaplain has seen and experienced.
For those who have presented business that a virtual 2020 General Assembly doesn’t consider, “there will be disappointments, and there will be things left off the table,” Maxim said.
There’s a tension, said Cindy Kohlmann, co-moderator with Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri of the 2018 General Assembly, between the lament that’s already finding voice and the hope of where God will lead the people next. “I want to say we hold the tension.”