As the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is trying to pencil in more details on the blueprint for the 2022 General Assembly, some bigger-scale questions are rising up too.
What’s the plan for future General Assemblies?
Should Big Tent be revived — or some kind of in-person gathering with a chance for Presbyterians to be together and build personal connections?
Whose voices are heard at an assembly, and whose are not?
And – not to put it too bluntly – what’s the point? When a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) speaks on matters of public policy, who’s really listening? How can churches be relevant in an increasingly secular world?
Often, it’s paid lobbyists who have influence on Capitol Hill, not the churches, said J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk. The General Assembly puts a lot of time and effort into crafting statements that call on Congress to take action on public policy matters like climate change or gun violence, but “they’re not listening to us,” Nelson told COGA during its Zoom meeting April 14.
Those public statements “just sit on the table,” ignored, because “the infusion of money is more important,” he said. “Christendom is not taken seriously” and “is in a struggle right now – a struggle with how relevant we are going to be.”
COGA is in the midst of trying to draft plans for the 2022 General Assembly — having already voted to hold a hybrid assembly (with committee meetings in person in Louisville, and most plenary sessions online). It’s now trying to flesh out more of the details, in a Zoom meeting being held April 13-15, and to find ways to find ways to make the General Assembly into more than just a policy-making meeting held every two years.
A recent Gallup Poll found that fewer than half of Americans belong to a church or other house of worship — 47%, down from 70% in the mid-1990s. Every day, the news breaks people’s hearts: COVID-19 deaths, hunger and poverty, gun violence, the killings of people of color. People are “looking for a church that is engaged in transformative change,” Nelson said. “It’s not just about changing a General Assembly. It’s about being relevant in the 21st century.”
Here’s some of the points of conversation from COGA’s April 14 discussion.
Lament and anxiety. COGA’s Events work team has held discussions with more than 100 people — hearing both a sense of lament from those who mourn the loss of an in-person assembly and some creative ideas for new ways of doing things, said COGA member Dave Davis, a pastor from New Jersey.
There’s also anxiety about General Assemblies after 2022, and “some pretty strong assumptions that this model we are developing is a one-off” — a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, not a more systemic attempt at change, Davis said.
Focus. Instead of trying to make space for all the related events of an in-person assembly, Davis said the 2022 assembly likely will focus more narrowly on business, worship, Hands and Feet social justice initiatives and an exhibit hall limited to denominational agencies. Part of the reason: data from ticket sales in 2018 showing that relatively few commissioners attended the related events anyway.
Big Tent revival? Some COGA members spoke about the idea of continuing the national Big Tent gathering during the years when the assembly isn’t meeting. “That is key,” said Wilson Kennedy, a pastor from Virginia – to have some place for training, collaboration and to “catch up with old friends.”
Stephanie Anthony, COGA’s moderator and a pastor from Illinois, said many who attend the General Assembly “are not there on their own pocketbook” — their expenses are paid by the organization sending them. Some Presbyterians might not be able to afford to go to Big Tent – or might have to take vacation time from work in order to go, although Anthony raised the possibility of funding models including scholarships.
Finances and equity. One argument in favor of a hybrid or online assembly is that it will allow for greater participation — anyone who wants could watch the plenary sessions without having to travel or pay for a hotel room. The idea is to create “equity of presence” and “to reduce the burden on per capita as well” of holding in-person meetings, Davis said.
But there are other considerations too.
The time commitment for this hybrid assembly – with committee meetings and plenary sessions staggered from June 18 through July 9, 2022 – could pose challenges for some, particularly for commissioners who don’t work for the church or would have to take time away from their jobs or family responsibilities (the rules call for half the commissioners to be ministers and half ruling elders). The 2022 hybrid assembly calls for six days of plenary sessions, plus three days of in-person committee meetings, travel days and pre-assembly webinars, educational sessions and open hearings.
Communication. COGA’s Communications work team is trying to “help the church see what we’re doing,” Kennedy said — in part through a monthly “On the Road to GA” newsletter and “Vision Videos” that will describe Nelson’s vision for the PC(USA).
Anthony said mid council leaders have asked “what’s the elevator pitch?” for the approach that’s being taken.
And COGA member Andy James, a presbytery leader from North Carolina, said he’s finding information about the 2022 assembly hard to access. James said he searched unsuccessfully on the PC(USA) website for the link for signing up to for the “On the Road to GA” newsletter. “I couldn’t even find it on Google,” James said. “It was brick-wall level” obstruction.
Theme. The theme for the 2022 General Assembly will be the same as in 2020: “From Hope to Lament.” The Scripture focus will be different — this time, Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Contracts. Some COGA members asked questions about contracts already signed for future General Assemblies — with penalties for breaking those contracts that will accelerate as time passes.
Another question: “Does this new model mean that General Assemblies are in Louisville forever?” Anthony asked. She said she likes the model of engaging in ministry in the local context where the assembly meets — with the possibility of that being rotated to various cities, as the PC(USA) typically has done.
One complication: The plan for the 2022 assembly calls for a significant capital investment of an estimated $1 million in renovation work at the denomination’s national offices in downtown Louisville to create a production studio and spaces for four General Assembly committees to meet simultaneously.
Looking ahead. Nelson said he’s concerned about “future sustainability” and financial stewardship — since General Assembly per capita pays for the cost of holding an assembly. This will be a pivotal assembly, he said, coming during a pandemic and a time of cultural shift.
Many assume the pandemic alone is the catalyst for the changes being proposed for the 2022 assembly, Davis said. But he cited other reasons as well, including increased participation and equity and greater opportunities for commissioners to build relationships, prepare in advance and continue to live out the assembly’s commitments do when they return home. Finances and the pandemic aren’t the only factors in the redesign, Davis said.
Robin Pugh, a COGA member and educator from California, encouraged the church “to have a spirit of exploration” about what comes next. “I don’t know what the form of General Assembly is going to be in 10 years,” Pugh said. “I have no idea. And that’s not a failure.”
Representation. COGA also heard a report from Byron Elam and Anna Kendig Flores, co-moderators of the General Assembly Committee on Representation (GACOR), presenting findings from GACOR’s analysis of issues of representation at the fully-virtual 2020 General Assembly.
Among those findings:
- Participation declined in plenary sessions as the assembly progressed, particularly among Young Adult Advisory Delegates. With 113 YAADS having completed the required training, the highest participation in any plenary session was 90 – dropping down to 67 in one session, Elam said. Thirty of 171 presbyteries did not send any YAADs, said Julia Henderson, director of assembly operations.
- While 498 commissioners completed the training, the maximum voting in any plenary was 479, and the lowest was 423. “It’s a lot easier to multitask in a virtual space” — to have divided attention, Kendig Flores said.
- One in ten participants said they had to make arrangements for stable internet and to get appropriate equipment, and about 14% said they felt anxiety about technology and access, Elam said.
- Some commissioners felt “there was not enough transparency in the process” — a sense they felt disconnected or distant and that they didn’t have a sense of the “mood of the room” (such as when the assembly was ready to quit debating an issue and vote), Kendig Flores said. She encouraged COGA to work with GACOR to think about ways to improve collaboration and equity at the 2022 assembly, and to collect better data to assess what’s working and what could be done better.