At a high level, they know what they want to achieve: designing a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with space for imagination, innovation, building relationships — and doing it mostly virtually.
The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), meeting via Zoom April 13-15, is working to begin put flesh on the bones for its plan for the 2022 General Assembly, in which assembly committees will meet in person in Louisville, Kentucky, but most of the plenaries will be held online.
Among the points of discussion: How can COGA build in opportunities for education and conversation for commissioners and advisory delegates before the assembly even starts?
Among the possibilities: webinars in the weeks or months before the assembly on some of the big issues, with a chance for commissioners to submit questions in advance. Online “ask me anything” sessions with PC(USA) leaders. And a community bulletin board that would open 30 days before the assembly — and would be a place where commissioners could share ideas and collaborate on crafting commissioners’ resolutions.
Another point of discussion: the idea of requiring that presentations for public hearings and from overture advocates be pre-recorded (with a time limit) and submitted in advance — possibly even for representatives from PC(USA) agencies or special committees that are bringing business to the assembly.
There’s been talk about “equity of presence,” said COGA member Andy James, a presbytery leader from North Carolina who’s on COGA’s Process and Discernment Working Group. “We want to get different voices,” James said. “And let this not be about who can afford a plane ticket and to pay for a hotel room” — which has been a factor at in-person assemblies.
There’s also a desire that the pre-recorded presentations not rely on who has the best skills or equipment for production technology — that they not be “highly produced videos,” James said, but recorded simply when someone logs in to the site and starts to speak.
On April 13, COGA discussed the reports from three work groups – its Process and Discernment team (A-06a – Process and Discernment Proposal – First Read – March 2021); the Events team (A-07 – Events Team March 2021); and the Design team, which presented a report (Design Team Report to COGA 210413) and a proposed docket (A-05a – GA225 Docket) for the assembly. COGA will vote April 15 on those matters needing action.
Love and division
J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, also spoke about vision and transformation — about how the world is changing, but the church hasn’t always kept up. Too often, he said, Presbyterians divide themselves by whether they’re liberal, conservative or moderate — for some 30 years, the denomination was divided by political battles over ordaining gays and lesbians and whether its ministers could perform same-gender marriages.
But “Jesus was about relationships,” Nelson said. And Presbyterians need to learn about crossing boundaries — to reach out to welcome immigrants; to do interfaith and ecumenical work; and to join forces on justice issues with people from other faiths or who aren’t part of organized religion. That work, Nelson said, is based on the understanding that all people need grace, love and mercy, and that all are created in the image of God. “We are all human beings.”
At the General Assembly, a lot of energy is focused on which side is winning or who gets to speak, he said. “It can be very divisive.” Commissioners need time to “understand the otherness of the other,” to share enough to know what the economy or church life looks like in Iowa compared to New York or Texas.
Commissioners need time to see “the brokenness, the pain and the hurt of the other, and how to make our love real,” Nelson said. “That’s what our theology is about. That’s what our faith is about. It’s about love.”
Even in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, some insisted that the General Assembly should meet in person, Nelson said. That’s what’s familiar to Presbyterians, but “we are stuck on stuck,” he said. “This pandemic has changed everything about how we live and how we will live.” For the church to be meaningful, “we have to regain a sense of imagination again.”
The pandemic changed a lot at the congregational and regional levels of the church, said COGA vice moderator Eliana Maxim, a presbytery leader from Seattle. “We’ve had to think less about the maintenance of who we were, and pivot quickly” to new approaches.
Maxim said she wants to hear more of the local stories — of “how the church has been reforming under our very nose,” and how that’s happening with community organizing and nonprofit groups as well.
“There’s very little cookie cutter work that can be done in ministry today,” Nelson said — “no blueprint for what we are dealing with” at an extraordinarily challenging time. Who would have imagined, he said, that this week a police officer would shoot and kill a Black man – 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota – even as Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is on trial a few miles away for killing another Black man, George Floyd?
“The church has to respond in some way,” Nelson said. “This is a rough time.”