Pausing for equity: Presbyterians consider how General Assembly makes decisions

With the overall parameters set for the 2022 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – primarily the dates and the hybrid format – the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is digging into details, including how it can invite the assembly to consider issues of equity during decision making.

In its virtual Nov. 18 meeting, COGA discussed the idea of “choice points and equity primes” — voting that COGA will begin using those concepts at its upcoming meetings as a way to model those practices and troubleshoot their use in a PC(USA) context, and that General Assembly commissioners and advisory delegates will be trained in in using these approaches.

COGA Moderator Stephanie Anthony, a minister from Illinois, admitted the idea of choice points and equity primes was new to her: “I have no idea what it is.”

Leon Lovell-Martin at the Nov. 18 COGA meeting. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

COGA member Leon Lovell-Martin, who has been leading a COGA workgroup that brought the recommendation, said using those approaches at General Assembly would allow the body to pause to consider whose voices are potentially not being heard and to raise for consideration questions of equity. The workgroup is still discussing specifics.

COGA member Dave Davis, a minister from New Jersey, said choice points and equity primes are increasingly being used in diversity, equity and inclusion work, although it’s a “developing language” in those circles, so “we need to be really careful how we talk about it.”

At General Assembly, some hesitate to speak because they’re not familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order, said Lovell-Martin, a minister from Florida. “They don’t feel they understand when and how to speak” and sometimes the voices of those new to the process, whose first language isn’t English or who are not in the racial majority are “muffled by those who are more familiar with Robert’s Rules and want to dominate.”

Jihyun Oh at the Nov. 18 COGA meeting. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Jihyun Oh, director of mid council ministries, described choice points as key decision points where alternatives are included that could lead to more equitable outcomes.

An example: When a New Jersey court system used this approach, with the intent of trying to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, Oh said, judges were reminded in the sentencing phase of a range of options so that they could consider possibilities other than sending teenagers to a juvenile detention facility.  “Our brains are primed to make automatic connections,” she said. “We often go to the thing we have most often done,” rather than considering other approaches.

Making changes so the system was “primed for equity … had an enormous impact in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline,” Oh said.

COGA member Robin Pugh, an educator from California, said she’s used these techniques as part of a collective bargaining team for her local teachers’ union. On matters that had been identified in advance as most important – the ones with potentially a long-term impact on the majority of teachers – the bargaining team made space for extra consultation and feedback.

The team had a list of questions they’d consider before voting. How would the decision impact the part-time faculty? The most recently hired? Faculty members of color? The intent, Pugh said, was to carefully consider how the decision might impact groups with less representation.

Robin Pugh at the COGA meeting on Nov. 18. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

COGA Vice Moderator Eliana Maxim, a presbytery co-executive from Seattle, said COGA would need to consider accountability — or what the process would be for holding participants accountable for following the choice points and equity prime process.

And Maxim said COGA should expect challenges to the idea. “We would be very naïve to think this would be an easy thing to do,” she said. “This is going to slow things down and it is going to make a lot of us very uncomfortable,” particularly those who have a “white-centric” approach.

But if the PC(USA) values relationship-building, then the discomfort with not “getting things done in a timely, speedy manner” can be balanced “in order to nurture relationships and allowing all voices to be heard,” Maxim said.

J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said: “this is so antithetical to the way we have done things in the past” that there will be “total opposition” for some. Nelson encouraged COGA to provide training for assembly commissioners and advisory delegates well in advance of the assembly’s opening plenary on June 18.

“We need to recognize that we are used to doing business one particular way and we see it as the most efficient way,” Lovell-Martin said. “But does it allow for equity? … Does it allow for full participation, or are we only hearing the voices of some and neglecting the voices of others?”

COGA also gave a first reading to some proposed changes in standing rules — some of which are being proposed to allow the 2022 assembly to be held in a hybrid format, with committee meetings in-person in Louisville and most plenary sessions online.

COGA members hold up signs for Giving Tuesday at the Nov. 18 meeting. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

That includes some rules that would be specific for this assembly only — “we are not setting out any plan for the future,” said COGA member Andy James, a mid council leader from North Carolina.

Also proposed: a provision for the 2022 assembly, meeting with an in-person quorum at the first plenary session, to ratify the actions taken by the 2020 General Assembly, which met entirely virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we are to be fully decent and fully in order, it is best practice for us to adopt a motion such as this one to ratify the action taken by the Zoom meeting” of the 2020 assembly, James said. COGA likely will vote on the final language of those provisions at its hybrid meeting Feb. 7-10.