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A conversation on deck: What should the General Assembly of the future look like?

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) plans to vote Feb. 9 on a recommendation that it honors a previous decision: to hold the 2024 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Salt Lake City.

COGA is considering recommending that this year’s assembly support the decision of the 2018 General Assembly to hold the assembly in Salt Lake City from June 29 to July 6, 2024.

That recommendation doesn’t say specifically what the format of that assembly would be – whether everything would be in-person or whether some sessions might be held virtually. “I hope nobody hears us saying we’ll go back to doing everything the way it was before” – before
the COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 General Assembly to go all-virtual, said Robin Pugh, a COGA member from California.

Instead, COGA wants the General Assembly itself to lead the discussions on what the shape and format of future General Assemblies should look like. Also part of this discussion: COGA is considering – but has not yet voted on – a recommendation asking the 2022 assembly to set up a special committee to consider broader revisions to the assembly’s standing rules.

COGA member Andy James, who leads a work group considering potential standing rule changes, said revisions of the rules are needed for the PC(USA) to live into new ways of being the church. For example, “the standing rules did not imagine a world in which people could livestream every action of the assembly,” James said. The proposed changes also could consider issues of equity and representation and would adjust the standing rules “for a church that has substantially fewer people and financial resources,” one proposal states.

Andy James

Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk, gave a few updates for the 2022 General Assembly. So far, no candidates for moderator have formally been endorsed by a presbytery, although “there are rumblings out there” about several possible candidates, Rice said. The Office of the General Assembly won’t present a proposed General Assembly per capita rate until May – but likely will propose a percentage increase for 2023 and 2024 that’s “in the single digits” compared to the current rate of $8.98 per member, Rice said.

And the 2022 General Assembly will be asked during the opening plenary June 18 to approve a standing rule change to allow an electronic meeting of the assembly – for this assembly only. “If for some reason the motion fails, we’re going to be booking a convention center and a whole bunch of flights with almost no notice,” James said.

Here’s more of what COGA talked about during the start of its Feb. 7-9 Zoom meeting.

San Francisco Theological Seminary

At the 2020 General Assembly, controversy burbled up over the status of San Francisco Theological Seminary, which in 2019 became a graduate program of the University of Redlands.

That change is a signal of broader shifts taking place in the landscape of theological education in challenging economic times – with seminaries closing, merging, moving, selling property, or reconfiguring. The question on the table in 2020: would this historically Presbyterian seminary, which Presbyterians founded in 1871, still be considered a Presbyterian seminary following its merger with the University of Redlands?

After commissioners repeatedly tried to bring issues related to the future of the seminary up in plenary, and attempting to avoid a potentially ugly and time-consuming floor fight, the assembly’s co-moderators, Gregory Bentley and Elona Street-Stewart, announced that after the assembly concluded they would bring the parties together to try to resolve the dispute, using a mediator if needed.

Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly (2020) Elona Street-Stewart (left) and Gregory Bentley (right) helped navigate discussions about the relationship of San Francisco Theological Seminary and the PC(USA).

Early this year, an announcement was made disclosing the results of those negotiations: an agreement had been reached that San Francisco Theological Seminary would continue to remain a PC(USA) seminary. Both the seminary and the PC(USA)’s Committee on Theological Education endorsed the agreement, which will need the approval of the 2022 General Assembly.

April Davenport, associate general counsel for the PC(USA), told COGA that representatives from the seminary and from the Committee on Theological Education worked for months with a mediator, eventually reaching an agreement that the seminary will have a voice and vote on the Committee on Theological Education through a six-year covenant relationship agreement. That agreement also covers the use of financial assets and property obtained for the use of Presbyterian theological education prior to the merger with the University of Redlands.

As a result of those discussions, Saundra Tracy, chair of the Committee on Theological Education, is asking that Christopher Ocker, interim dean of San Francisco seminary, be named a corresponding member of the 2022 General Assembly, giving Ocker the ability “to speak in
committee and plenary regarding the proposed covenant relationship with San Francisco Theological Seminary,” a letter from Tracy states.

“The angels must have been in the room” during these discussions, Street-Stewart told COGA. “We had a great mediator” – a Presbyterian ruling elder who’s a lawyer.

J. Herbert Nelson

J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said “there’s been a lot of good work” done on this issue under the leadership of Street-Stewart and Bentley. At the 2020 General Assembly, “we were almost in the street fighting over it,” Nelson said. Nelson said he’s grateful for the peaceful outcome and that “we are still together. … God is still in the business of creating miracles.”

The future of General Assembly

While the 2022 General Assembly is still four months away, COGA is already discussing what provisions should be made for the 2024 General Assembly – a conversation which recognizes the reality that some Presbyterians are unhappy with the decisions COGA made for 2022.

Some say it should be up to the assembly itself to decide where and how to hold the assembly – even though, for this year, COGA stepped in to rearrange things, cancelling a plan to hold an in-person assembly in Columbus, Ohio, because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mid council leaders have said the format for 2022 – a hybrid assembly, with committee meetings in-person at the denomination’s national office building in Louisville and plenary sessions being held online – makes it difficult to find people willing to serve as commissioners, because people are being asked to block out on their schedules essentially three weeks for potential service, until committee assignments are made.

Some disagree with COGA’s choice to spend an estimated $2.4 million to renovate the first floor of the PC(USA) office building to accommodate the assembly.

A report from a work group that COGA set up to consider issues related to the 2024 General Assembly said it would cost an estimated $3.6 million to hold a traditional, in-person assembly in 2024.

If the assembly doesn’t meet in Salt Lake City in 2024, the PC(USA) would incur contract cancellation fees for both the Salt Palace Convention Center and for hotels – with the costs escalating the closer the cancellation comes to the time of the event.

Estimated cancellation costs would be:

  • 25% of the contract costs (close to $665,000) if a decision were made by June 26, 2022;
  • 60% of the contract costs (more than $890,700) if the decision is made from June 27, 2022 through Dec. 31, 2023; and
  • 80% of the contact costs (more than $1.2 million) if the decision is made after Dec. 31, 2023.

The work group also is hoping that this year’s hybrid assembly can provide some lessons for the assembly two years from now – and a chance to build support in the church for the idea that the
assembly itself needs to change and evolve.

To help achieve that, COGA plans to hold virtual conversations this spring with mid council leaders, representatives of the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee and racial-ethnic caucuses in the church, Presbyterians in Utah and more.

The report from the COGA work group raises points to consider in these discussions, along with some of what has popped up already in consultations with mid council leaders. Among them:

  • Some have contended that an in-person assembly is essential for a connectional church – it builds and strengthens personal relationships across the PC(USA). “Relationships among commissioners deepen in committee experience that includes mealtime, breaks, and other non-meeting conversations,” the report states. “However, the church at every level has also learned that relationships can be experienced virtually.”
  • Some are complaining about the format for the 2022 General Assembly – and “many, many, many” feel committee sessions should have been held virtually and the plenary sessions in-person, the report states. “Deal with under-the-breath grumbling about going back to the old model and possibly revisionist memories of how well the old model worked,” the report states.
  •  The renovations to the Presbyterian Center potentially will have a longer-term financial impact in reducing travel costs of larger gatherings, if groups begin to meet virtually or in hybrid form in that space, and will provide the flexibility to pursue various models for the gathering of the larger church. The report also states: “Questions about the financial sustainability of traditional assemblies will only increase over time.”