The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) met in closed session April 15 to consider how to hold a virtual General Assembly this year — but plans to delay announcing its decision on how to proceed until later in April.
The General Assembly is scheduled to meet June 20-27 in Baltimore, but that’s not likely to happen, as the coronavirus pandemic has scuttled nearly all in-person meetings and the Baltimore Convention Center, where the meeting is scheduled to take place, has been turned into a COVID-19 field hospital.
Discussions continue, however, with Baltimore officials regarding the contracts that were signed for that gathering, and COGA is trying to handle the negotiations to put the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the best position financially when everything shakes out.
In a Zoom meeting April 9, COGA discussed the possibility of holding a shortened and fully virtual General Assembly, with no committee meetings, and with plenary sessions June 26 and 27 and Bible study on June 24.
Other possibilities COGA has been considering as part of that week: a “meet the moderator” town hall June 19 where commissioners can ask questions of those standing for the office; participation June 20 in the Poor People’s Campaign virtual event and a fundraising concert for the “Hands and Feet “ program; and a Youth Rising event on June 24 — intended to support efforts in Baltimore to work with disadvantaged young people.
COGA has also been discussing limiting the business at the virtual assembly to critical business – discussing a proposalthat the assembly consider 37 items of business, many of them related to budgets, confirmation of agency executives or standing rule changes – with 14 of the items to be considered individually and 23 via consent agendas.
“We are in unbelievably unprecedented times,” said COGA moderator Barbara Gaddis.
During an open session 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?
There was no conversation during the open session of exactly which items of business fit that criteria, and which do not.
J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said he’s already heard “many requests for certain issues to be lifted up” and considered by the 2020 assembly, with much of the prodding coming “from some of the justice advocates,” who are aware of his history of working for social justice.
Nelson said he’s also been affected by “the incredible effort of our congregations on the ground to push through this difficult time,” and the recognition of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting people – the deaths of loved ones, the struggles of health care provider and essential workers, the pain of those who have lost jobs.
The pandemic has produced so much change that “I don’t think we’re ever going to be the same church again,” Nelson said. He wants the assembly to lean into an unofficial theme of “moving from lament to hope.”
Already, there’s been some response to what COGA has been discussing.
The Moving Forward Implementation Commission sent COGA leaders a memo April 14, suggesting that if the 2020 General Assembly doesn’t consider the commission’s recommendations, that the commission’s mandate should be extended for another two years and that the commission might play a role in developing the PC(USA)’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other groups have weighed in too: including a group working on proposals involving family leave policy, which is calling for this assembly to consider justice work as essential. Others voicing opinions include the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the General Assembly Committee on Representation and the Israel Palestine Mission Network.
COGA’s agenda states that any announcement of what decision is reached at this meeting will be made between April 21 and 23.