Although the event itself is still a year away, decisions about the configuration of the 2022 General Assembly continue to unfold — with two policy-making groups meeting via Zoom May 20 to make choices about finances and responsibilities.
The board of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation, voted to approve a $2.4 million budget (Project Estimate) for renovating the first floor of the Presbyterian Center in downtown Louisville to make space for a hybrid General Assembly in 2022, with committee meetings to be held in person in Louisville and most plenary sessions virtually.
The A Corporation board approved a $2.4 million renovation budget (P.102) — a budget that church leaders acknowledge may increase, and which leaves unanswered for now the question of how much the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) Board might contribute to the work.
The plan calls for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) to provide more than $478,000 for the work from per capita funding; for $325,000 to come from the A Corporation’s capital reserves; and for a request to be made that the PMA board vote at its July meeting to provide about $1.6 million from unrestricted reserves. The understanding: If the PMA board agrees to do that, those reserve funds would be repaid later in 2021 if the $8.8 million Paycheck Protection Program loan the PC(USA) received in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic is forgiven.
While the A Corporation board voted to approve that approach, some board members said they want more discussion about the rationale for repaying those funds — and about the financial support it’s reasonable to expect PMA to provide for the renovation project.
Why does PMA need to be paid back, “when OGA and A Corporation are not?” asked board member Cynthia Campbell.
“It’s extremely confusing to me,” said board member Bridget-Anne Hampden. “It seems as though it’s only a one-way street” and “not a good feeling in terms of a community of faith.” Since the PMA board has more than $19 million in unrestricted reserves – considerably more than the $12.5 million currently required under its policy – “why is there this need to look for sources of repayment rather than say, ‘yes, this is a good use of funds’? ”
Board member Sam Bonner said the renovation is a capital investment — it will increase the value of the Presbyterian Center.
“All of the parties have got to buy into the concept” and the funds need to come from available denominational resources, said board member Tom McNeill. As far as the renovation budget, “the numbers are going to change — there’s no question about that,” and the dollar amounts likely will shift. “This is the concept we’re buying into. It’s for the future of the church.”
And board member Sinthia Hernandez-Diaz said the PPP loan, from an accounting perspective, is technically money already spent — “it’s not money that’s available” for a new use.
2024 General Assembly
A work team of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) has decided not to take any action regarding the location or format of the 2024 General Assembly, currently scheduled to be held in Salt Lake City. The work team decided that commissioners at the 2022 General Assembly should have a voice in making those decisions — so “we hold steady,” COGA moderator Stephanie Anthony said, recommending no change for now so “that decision is in the hands of the commissioners.”
J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said he’s asking for a pause – a slowing down – to consider ways to make the assembly less focused on up-and-down voting, with winners and losers, and the tradition of “using General Assembly as a bully pulpit” instead of a way of building unity in the church.
Among the questions he wants to explore:
- “What are we really looking for out of a General Assembly?”
- How can commissioners be involved for the full two years of their terms of election?
- What does the PC(USA) actually do with the policies a General Assembly enacts?
Expectations for commissioner
COGA approved a document laying out the expectations for those serving as General Assembly commissioners in 2022 — including time commitments and expectations for commissioners before, during and after the assembly. (Commissioner Expectations GA225).
Some COGA members said they’ve heard concerns from presbytery leaders about the time commitment expected — especially asking commissioners to hold open the full block of time from June 17 to July 9, 2022, free of work and family commitments, until actual committee assignments are made and dates set for when particular commissioners will travel to Louisville.
“It just feels so radically different and daunting,” Anthony said. Presbytery executives will need to begin recruiting and preparing commissioners “super early,” said COGA vice moderator Eliana Maxim — and the difficulty of asking commissioners to commit so much time may emerge as a reason “why this may not be a sustainable model” for future assemblies.
The “expectations of commissioners” document also includes a section regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. It states that:
- At times, up to 340 commissioners and advisory delegates could be in attendance together at the Louisville meetings.
- “All in-person Assembly meetings will follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and local health authorities in effect at the time of the meeting. Commissioners and advisory delegates are required to comply with that guidance regardless of the guidance in place in the state where they reside.”
- “Any plans for vaccination and/or Covid-19 testing requirements will be announced closer to the time that the Assembly convenes based on the advice of health authorities.”
COGA member Leon Lovell-Martin, a minister from Florida, suggested that depending on the situation, the PC(USA) might want to adopt more stringent standards than local officials require if denominational leaders think that’s safer — or might consider requiring all assembly participants to show proof of vaccination. In Florida, “we are told we don’t have to wear a mask,” even though many think it’s safer to do so, Lovell-Martin said. He has conservative evangelical friends who “say we don’t need to be vaccinated. Jesus will take care of us.”
Committee member Robin Pugh, who presented the work team’s report, said the document leaves room for PC(USA) leaders to make decisions about specific policies closer to the 2022 assembly. “I share your concern, coming from California,” she said. “We’re all masked everywhere, all the time.”
Stress and frustration
COGA members also referred to hearing increasing numbers of pastors complaining about tensions and frustration, particularly around decisions of what’s safe and what’s not as more congregations begin meeting in person.
“One of the things I’m also seeing surface right now is some fussiness in a few of our congregations,” COGA member Sallie Watson, the general presbyter of Mission Presbytery in Texas, wrote in her weekly newsletter to the presbytery. “Overworked pastors plus overworked members, divided by high pandemic stress and multiplied by closings and re-openings at school and church and work, is not a healthy equation for congregational bliss.”
A recent survey of Protestant pastors by the Barna Group found that 29% said they had given “real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry in the last year,” according to a recent article from Religion News Service on pastoral stress and burnout.
Child protection policy
The A Corporation board approved amendments to the PC(USA)’s protection policy for children, youth and vulnerable adults — changes specifically involving the participation of minors in virtual and online meetings. (Child Protection Policy). The board also is urging Nelson to send a communication to the denomination stressing the importance of mid councils and congregations including these changes in their own policies,
The A Corporation board elected a new co-chair: Heidi Bolt, will serve with co-chair Bill Teng beginning July 1.