Planning for General Assembly in a pandemic: Reflections from the leaders of COGA

Guest commentary by Barbara Gaddis and Stephanie Anthony

Nothing can prepare you for a General Assembly in the midst of a global pandemic. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly has been wrestling with how to do exactly that since March.Utmost in our minds at all times was the health and safety of our volunteers in Baltimore, our commissioners, our advisory delegates, our staff and visitors from all around the world.  How could we be certain we would not risk spreading the disease with such a large gathering?  How could we ask folks to risk air travel in such uncertain times? As we saw the country closing down, we began to look for alternatives should we not be able to gather.

We first asked the Advisory Committee on the Constitution if we could cancel the assembly, considering perhaps meeting in 2021 or just waiting for the 225th GA in Columbus in 2022.  We were advised that the Book of Order mandated an assembly this year.

We began to think about the possibility of an assembly later in the year, or something virtual. However, it became obvious by the middle of April that not only could we not hold an assembly in Baltimore, we would unfortunately not be able to gather physically in 2020.  As we grieved that loss, we turned toward the enormous task that was before us.

Our grief was matched by that of the Committee on Local Arrangements in Baltimore and the Hands and Feet fellows there with the realization that plans they had been hard at work on would not occur. We also heard from disappointed commissioners who lamented not being able to experience a traditional General Assembly.

We entertained the notion that we could recreate an assembly experience as much as possible in a virtual platform.  One idea had the assembly meeting a couple of times a week over the span of one month.  Another idea asked commissioners to spend those long days of an assembly on their computers, meeting first in committees like normal and then in full plenary.

In the meantime, COGA members continued to meet weekly via Zoom and found that even in our small group of 15, who knew each other fairly well after two years of working together, we had difficulty connecting. Besides basic connectivity challenges, deliberations proved more difficult, as did the flow of conversation, and the comfort of talking and hearing and being heard; things took significantly longer than usual, weren’t easier or certainly not the same. The reality was that we were working at home with families and health concerns and job responsibilities pulling at us in an already difficult time.

Like people all around the country we were finding that just maintaining our usual levels of productivity and creativity at work, on the committee and in our households was extremely difficult under stay-at-home orders. It was no different for the staff of the Office of the General Assembly who were actually carrying out the day-to-day operations of the office while also re-planning our biennial meeting.

To ask the staff to completely revamp an experience that had been in the planning for two years, in two to three months, was simply unrealistic.

Everyone was working at capacity, and we knew that those attending this assembly were already working at capacity.  How could they provide their full attention to an entire full-blown online assembly?

We wondered how General Assembly commissioners and advisory delegates might feel, trying to build connections with strangers in order to navigate difficult decisions and nuanced arguments.  We wondered how we could create the kind of intentional space that exists at an in-person assembly in which relationships are built that enable deep discernment of the movement of the Holy Spirit.  We just did not think such intimacy was possible virtually in the current circumstances.

We grew concerned about the availability of commissioners and advisory delegates for a full work week at the end of June.  If folks had been laid off, or had been working from home, were then were returning to normal work days, would they still be able to take a leave in order to give their full attention to a weeklong assembly — even virtually?

We also considered how much mental bandwidth commissioners and advisory delegates might have for multiple days of four, six or eight hours of screen time with virtual committee and plenary meetings.

We came to the understanding that we were not living in normal times, and that recreating anything like it used to be was simply not being faithful or realistic.

We were moved by the Spirit to understand that something bigger than the PC(USA) General Assembly was going on in the world. And so we began to scale our plans from the assembly experience we all love and value to an assembly that held only what absolutely needed to be done according to our constitution. This kind of assembly would in turn allow the denomination to focus most ministry resources and attention on the mission and justice work being done by congregations and mid councils around the country during this pandemic.

We spent a great deal of time discussing what business we would recommend. In these deliberations each of us struggled as we saw items of business, mission and justice priorities being forwarded to the next assembly.  There was a temptation to add “just this one” to the docket because individually we could make a personal argument about why this business or event felt crucial to the practice of our faith and this historical moment.

Ultimately, we established criteria to evaluate consistently the business we would recommend as critical to the continuity and governance of the PC(USA).

  • 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?

Instead of an assembly that encapsulated all of who and what we are as Presbyterians, we realized this assembly only had the capacity to hold a small part of our identity. Every item before the General Assembly was essential to us as a church, expressing the fullness of our ecclesial and mission identity, but not every item was critical to the continuity and governance of the PC(USA).

We knew this decision would be controversial in some parts of the church, and it was difficult for us too. What reassured us, however, was knowing that people and churches across the denomination are actively engaged in social justice work. We would continue to find ways to take faithful actions on these issues beyond an assembly gathering in a year when being together wasn’t possible. Already, we  knew that our denomination was “practicing what it preached” on the ground in Baltimore with the Hands and Feet fellows, with the Presbyterian Foundation donating $1 million dollars to an affordable housing initiative and all over the country through the Matthew 25 initiative in local churches, presbyteries and synods.  That part of who we are would continue no matter what form the assembly took.

COGA and the staff of the Office of the General Assembly have been working diligently as the landscape has been shifting around us almost daily at times. We believe that the Spirit has guided our deliberations to these plans for the 224th General Assembly, knowing that the faithful ministry of congregations, mid councils, national leaders and international mission workers will continue to lead us in the work of justice until we can gather together again.

We have faith that the commissioners and advisory delegates to the 224th General Assembly are willing to take a bold step with us and participate in an online assembly, one that exceeds the scale of any other meeting we have known or of which we are aware.

We invite the church to pray for commissioners, staff and elected volunteers who will navigate this extraordinary assembly next month. We also invite you to join us in considering how we may continue to move forward in the fullness of who we are in the next months to address issues that mean so much to us and yet cannot be taken on during the two days of a virtual assembly. We continue to walk by faith, but we know we walk more assuredly and faithfully when we walk together.

BARBARA J. GADDIS is an honorably retired member of the Presbytery of Des Moines and serves as the moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.  STEPHANIE ANTHONY serves as the pastor and head of staff of Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in Geneva, Illinois, and is vice vice moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.