General Assembly 2022 will require COVID vaccination, masks

All commissioners and other in-person participants at the 2022 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

They will be required to wear KN95 masks in the building.

And all commissioners and advisory delegates will be required to attend in-person committee meetings in Louisville — there will be no hybrid option because the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) doesn’t have the capacity to run four hybrid committee sessions simultaneously.

J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, told the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) during its Jan. 20 Zoom meeting that he has made those decisions to protect the health and safety both of those who work at the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville, where the assembly committee meetings will be held in June, and of commissioners and others attending the meetings. General Assembly plenary sessions will be held virtually.

COGA is also acknowledging the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic is slippery and ever-evasive — so what makes sense now can change as the pandemic morphs. OGA has created a COVID Advisory Panel, consisting of two physicians and an epidemiologist, to give advice on ways to mitigate the risk for those attending the assembly.

The final date when COGA could decide to shift to an entirely virtual assembly with no penalties for travel costs would be Feb. 18.

J. Herbert Nelson. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

With a changing pandemic, the COVID Advisory Panel has said it can give its best advice within a 60-day window before the assembly convenes June 18, said Julia Henderson, director of assembly operations. So April 20 is “the last day we could really make changes” to go all-virtual, although there would be financial penalties for changing course that late, Henderson said.

Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk, said the advisory panel “has been very helpful” and has essentially said, “This is all about risk tolerance. Are you willing to have people come (to the assembly) with COVID, to get COVID while they are at the assembly, to go home with COVID?” If the answer is yes, and the committee meetings are held in person, the panel has advice on what mitigation strategies to take.

The decision to require vaccinations, Nelson said, is connected not just to his concern that some participants might get sick with COVID, but that some could die.

Julia Henderson. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

COGA members said they also need to be prepared for the possibility that some commissioners might try to formally challenge Nelson’s decisions regarding vaccination, masking, in-person gathering, etc.

“We’re here to protect everybody who is participating” but there needs to be a protocol in place procedurally in case someone wants to raise an objection, said Elona Street-Stewart, co-moderator with Gregory Bentley of the 2020 General Assembly. There needs to be a bureaucratic way “to bring this to the assembly and challenge it. I just want us to be prepared.”

COGA member Lynn Hargrove, general presbyter and stated clerk for the administrative process of the Presbytery of New Covenant in Texas, said “we’ve already elected commissioners,” before the vaccine mandate was announced. If a commissioner is not vaccinated, she has no alternates, Hargrove said. “I support the need for vaccination, I really do,” she said. But in a state like Texas, “where there’s so much pushback,” there could be challenges.

Lynn Hargrove. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Nelson said he hopes Presbyterians would talk about theology — to speak of “the good of the whole” in making these decisions. Individually, “people do have to make decisions about coming or not coming,” he said. “We are doing everything we possibly can to preserve life and have it more abundantly. That’s really the core of our theology and who we are” as Christians. “We need to wrap this in the theology of the church.”

Even with that, the Office of the General Assembly needs to be ready for pushback, said COGA member Dave Davis, a minister from New Jersey. “I can’t speak for every pastor in the denomination, but I think a lot of us have tried that argument you just made,” and still have congregants angry about the rules their churches have set up about requiring masks, vaccinations and social distancing. “We still get pushback from people,” Davis said. “Let’s just be prepared.”

Henderson said OGA is trying to be clear in advance about the mitigation efforts that it’s using to try to keep people safe at General Assembly. “However, coming, you do accept the responsibility that you may get COVID,” she said.

Some of the mitigation protocols are that:

  • All participants must wear KN95 masks in the PC(USA) building.
  • Lunch and meal breaks will be staggered.
  • The number of volunteers helping will be limited.
Stephanie Anthony, a minister from Illinois, serves as moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.

Assembly planners have considered holding some events outdoors and have scouted possible locations, Henderson said. They’ve talked about using tents for meals or even meetings, despite the threat of thunderstorms and the difficulties that might cause with technology.

OGA also is considering contracting with a third-party vendor to step in if a participant does test positive for COVID.  “We are not health care experts,” Rice said. “We are polity experts, meeting experts.” So OGA may hire a vendor to take responsibility for next steps, including quarantining and seeking medical care, when a participant comes down with COVID.

Another reality: “All of the mitigation options will increase costs,” Rice said.

To read the full statement from Nelson and the OGA regarding COVID mitigation efforts at General Assembly 2022, see here: Rules Announcement – January 2022.