Just a few weeks after the 2020 General Assembly wrapped up, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is looking ahead – trying to figure out what structural and procedural changes are needed in the Presbyterian (U.S.A.), and what shape the General Assembly should take in 2022 and 2024.
These are early, getting-started conversations — with some veteran members continuing service and some new people joining the committee.
But it’s clear: Coming out of the 2020 General Assembly, in which white supremacy in a mostly-white denomination emerged as one of the post-analysis themes, COGA wants to look at what changes are needed as the church moves ahead.
Another issue sure to emerge: how to cut costs from the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) budget. OGA already has offered a retirement incentive package to 16 staff members age 60 or older; they have until August 14 to decide. While the 2020 General Assembly approved PC(USA) budgets for 2021 and 2022, decisions still must be made about spending — in other words, how to cut costs in order to meet budgets built around the assumption that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring significant decreases in giving over at least the next two years.
As COGA convened its July 16-17 meeting via Zoom, PC(USA) stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson, just elected to a second four-year term, urged COGA members to think of this as “a new period of history,” with people protesting in the streets of Louisville daily following the police killing of Breonna Taylor.
Nelson said Presbyterians need to learn “not to hold on to the church of yesterday, but to build the church” the PC(USA) needs to become.
COGA member Wilson Kennedy said he was born in 1990 – and those of his generation “understand this work of race and equity is not an option,” but the “primary work of the church” – something that’s imperative.
The PC(USA) structure now is “a white structure, and it’s comfortable for many of us,” Kennedy said. But “the reality is our structure doesn’t work. And when our structure is not working, we see things like macro- and microaggressions at the General Assembly, when commissioners say awful things to the moderators and the stated clerk. … We don’t have a mechanism in our structure to deal with that.”
The thinking needs to shift from “how are we going to serve the structure, to how are we going to serve the mission,” Kennedy said. “What is the work we need to do right in this moment … in order to ensure that the ministry that happens long after all of us are going is going to be just and equitable and is going to bring about the very reign of God?”
Elona Street-Stewart, who is co-moderator of the 2020 General Assembly along with Gregory Bentley, said the PC(USA) is structured now through a lens of “categories of membership,” and built upon ideas about voting procedures and democratic process that white settlers brought with them from Europe. In doing that, “there was an erasure of what was already sacred here,” Street-Stewart said. “It eliminated what was already sacred to allow the church to be created here.”
Kennedy, a recent graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, quoted his former professor, the late Katie Geneva Cannon, who spoke of the need to “wrestle with difficult contestable issues to eradicate systemic oppression.”
Kennedy said he’s white, straight, Southern and male — and he wants to invite Presbyterians “who look like me and talk like me” into a conversation about how the PC(USA) can become “more loving and just.”
Among the working groups COGA is convening:
- Innovative discernment. This group is looking at the rules and structures for decision-making and discernment in the PC(USA). “How do we make decisions?” asked COGA vice moderator Eliana Maxim. “How do we practice discernment?” What are the current practices — and are there better ways?
- Merger and national unity. Over the past year or so, conversations have bubbled up about the possibility of some sort of denominational restructuring, including a potential merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly. COGA wants to take a closer look at those conversations, said moderator Stephanie Anthony, and to determine what partners need to be involved in those discussions. Pieces of that could include work needed to develop a unified budget (not just separate budgets reported in a unified report) and a look at denominational funding and structural issues.
- Upcoming General Assemblies. Because of contract considerations, COGA will need to make decisions fairly soon about the shape and scope of the General Assemblies for 2022 (currently scheduled for Columbus, Ohio, from July 2-9) and 2024 (scheduled for June 29-July 6, 2024 in Salt Lake City). What was learned this year — with the PC(USA)’s first online General Assembly, held via Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic? What worked, what didn’t, and are there ways “to blend and modify the way we have traditionally held assemblies?” Anthony asked.
COGA members talked about the way that structure flows from theology in the PC(USA). “We should be a community of hope, bringing the good news,” said Luis Jose Ocasio Torres.
There also are practical and political realities.
“We spend so much time in the church protecting our power and our privilege,” said Shannan Vance-Ocampo, who is vice moderator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and a corresponding member of COGA.
After a time of small-group discussions in the work groups, COGA members reported back some of the thoughts that surfaced.
“It’s time to recreate the table,” and “if we’re going to build a new table, we’re going to build it from the ground up,” Kennedy said. “What do we need to throw out or retire or lament or repent? And what do we need to build up, so that our decisions reflect the full diversity of our church?”
Luci Duckson-Bramble, one of the new COGA members, said her group talked about how to engage young adults as voting participants of the assembly, and how to continue to hear commissioners’ voices between now and when the 2022 General Assembly convenes.
“We have lots of structures, lots of paper, lots of things that are great and wonderful,” Duckson-Bramble said. “How do we deal with people who feel they have ownership of our denomination who really do block people from sitting at the table?”
Robin Pugh, another new COGA member, spoke of creating a culture or vision focused on building relationships among commissioners – not just of people getting the votes they need to pass a particular resolution – so that what’s being considered is more likely to actually come to fruition.
Think of the assembly as a vehicle for relationship-building and collective discernment, “not just jockeying to have enough votes to have our way,” Bentley said. “Their commission is for two years” — so if commissioners kept meeting over that that time, the collaborative discernment could be stretched out for a longer period.
That could represent a cultural shift, away from “personal pursuit of my pet project or my overture” toward considering the welfare of the whole community, Maxim said. A challenge that raises is: “Is that natural for a North American, Euro-centric denomination?”
And Vance-Ocampo said, in a comment made via the Zoom chat function, that: “As we reimagine these pieces of the assembly, then the other big piece is communicating to presbyteries who elect the commissioners … the leadership qualities and capabilities of those they send. If they continue to send people, in so many presbyteries based on seniority, etc., then that isn’t what we will have.”
COGA members also talked about how to get young people more involved in the assembly. Of Young Adult Advisory Delegates who were nominated, about 20% never signed up for a PC-Biz account – probably with some dropping out because they knew that this online assembly wouldn’t have committees and they wouldn’t be allowed anything other than an advisory vote; with some not using email as a primary form of communication and so not reading the messages to sign up; and with some needing to work at what were considered essential jobs during the pandemic. Some young people in her congregation say “they’ve kind of been Zoomed out,” said Blythe Denham Kieffer, a new COGA member and a pastor in suburban Chicago.
Participation of young adults also dropped during the course of the assembly.
Many young people value a platform that permits social interaction, which the technology used for this meeting did not, said Leon Lovell-Martin. He also missed the salsa dance breaks used by the co-moderators at the 2018 General Assembly; he thought at times this assembly, which was all business, felt monotonous.
If the assembly is to focus more on discernment – listening to the spirit – rather than just decision-making, commissioners may also need to pay more attention to spiritual practices such as prayer and Bible reading, Bentley said. “If we’re going to do spiritual discernment, we’ve got to do spiritual stuff — to position ourselves to learn from the Lord.”