A hybrid GA in review

Teri McDowell Ott reflects on the three-week hybrid General Assembly model and some of the highlights from the assembly.

Sonia Suarez-Cualia (Presbytery of Suroeste, left) and Olga Rickets-Peart (Chicago Presbytery, right) in the General Assembly Ministry Coordination Committee meeting. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook

This feature article relies on content written by the Outlook’s talented GA reporting team.

On Friday, June 18, the Outlook’s on-the-ground General Assembly reporting team moved into our three-story, six bed, four bath Airbnb in the West end of Louisville, Kentucky. Every time I made a grocery run to the local Kroger and struggled with the lock on the historic home’s massive wood door, I reminded myself, “It was the right price.”

The 225th General Assembly’s unique three-week hybrid format presented challenges for all involved. The expense of transportation, housing, feeding and compensating the larger group of reporters needed to cover a month of denominational news was one of the Outlook’s challenges. A special grant from First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport, Louisiana, got most of our team on the ground. A few of our reporters had to stay home to cover the event virtually. But we learned a lot from this unique General Assembly. We can file the lessons learned to aid us in future assemblies, and in our mission to be a church Reformed and always reforming.

Notable news from this General Assembly included a new commission to unify the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly; an approved resolution naming the Israeli government’s policies and practices regarding the Palestinian people as “apartheid”; an amendment to the Book of Order calling for presbyteries to vote on including 12 weeks of family medical leave in a pastor’s terms of call; approval of the report from the Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force; a declaration of the PC(USA) as a “sanctuary and accompaniment church,” supporting immigrants and asylum-seekers; and the decision to divest from five fossil fuel companies: Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Valero Energy.

To right, from top: Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott speaks to Robin Morris, a ruling elder commissioner from Foothills Presbytery. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook; Prayer during opening worship at GA 225. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook; Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott interviews YAADs about their experiences at the 225th General Assembly. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook; Commissioners during plenary session. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of this assembly, though, came with the breaking news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade as the Race and Gender Justice Committee met. Early in the afternoon on June 24, the committee took a moment to acknowledge the breaking news and heightened feelings of committee members as they deliberated resolutions regarding race and gender justice. As Outlook journalist Beth Waltemath reported, the first decision the committee made together the day before this news hit, was, in fact, RGJ-03: “A Resolution on Reproductive Justice: Black Maternal / Birthing People and Infant Mortality” co-sponsored by Racial Equity Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns. The committee approved the resolution by a vote of 31-1 with the following comment: “Racism is now being acknowledged as a public health crisis. It is also a reproductive issue. The numbers and disparity between People of Color / Black birthing people and White birthing people in the United States have and continue to experience violations of bodily autonomy.”

From my perspective as Outlook editor covering my first General Assembly, here is an overview of other key elements.

The commissioners

I’m sure General Assembly commissioners are committed to the work of the church every year, but the 2022 group especially impressed me. Perhaps because they had set aside three full weeks of their summer before learning what committee they were serving and when they would be traveling to Louisville. Maybe because so many were new and unjaded (171 of the 349 were first-time commissioners, 132 were second-time.)

According to data I very scientifically mined from Facebook, this group of commissioners drank an average of 200 pots of coffee a week, were excited by the prospect of pizza for lunch, and appreciated Vice Moderator of the Financial Resources Committee Felipe Martínez’s many references to #DonutThursday. The commissioners periodically broke out in the wave during opening plenaries and danced (albeit awkwardly) to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” after the announcement of the co-moderators’ election.

The actual data regarding representation of this GA’s commissioners will come out later. Before the assembly, concerns were raised that the three-week model would lead to a much older, Whiter group of commissioners, excluding those who had to work and/or couldn’t afford to set aside so much time. This important concern led to a lot of discussion of increasing the accessibility and inclusivity of future assemblies. But when it came to business, our elected commissioners of the 225th General Assembly were thoughtful and discerning. They took their work seriously and fought through fatigue to live into Christ’s call to be the church.

The technology

The advancements our denomination made with the technology of this year’s General Assembly were and are significant. During my interview with the Office of General Assembly’s (OGA) tech team, they acknowledged how far behind the church has been on technology and how slowly the church warms to change. COVID forced us to catch up, quick. Now, we’re not only caught up on technology at our denominational center, but we are poised to embrace and adapt to the future with the software and systems developed for the 225th General Assembly.

As I mentioned in my editorial, Associate Director for Technologies Vicente Guna’s geo-fence technology was “magic.” Commissioners assigned to the first four committees were the only ones allowed to vote to establish the quorum. Those on-site in Louisville were also the only ones, according to parliamentary procedure, to authorize removing standing rule restrictions to allow this assembly to meet electronically. The geo-fence encircled the Presbyterian Center during these crucial votes so that only commissioners on site could vote. Once the first two procedural votes were taken, the geo-fence was lifted and all the commissioners – those in the room and those engaging via Zoom – were allowed to participate in the voting … like magic.

Nathan Young, the producer of GA225, described this as a key time for our church when we can embrace a 21st century model of doing business that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve even two years ago. The commissioners reflected their new comfort in using technology and Zoom. The all-online General Assembly in 2020 gave us the chance to roll out technology for which OGA was ready but would have been resisted had it not been for the pandemic. Julia Henderson, leader for GA planning and business management, explained that OGA had been ready for overture advocates to participate remotely in Baltimore (2020) and vote in committee using PC-Biz, making the GA more accessible. “These things were ready to go, and then COVID came. So what it did was it gave us permission to use it. We [didn’t] have anyone resisting the change. We turned it around and we were ready to go fully remote in six weeks,” she explained.

Henderson added that the technology has improved accessibility overall: vision-impaired commissioners have been able to vote successfully with the use of screen readers; people with movement disabilities who might not have spoken at a physical assembly because it would be difficult to get up to a microphone, now just need to push a button to seek recognition. “Our public hearings,” Henderson said, “are all online. So people who previously had to come to a convention center to make a statement, they don’t have to do that anymore. It’s not an issue of having time or finances. You can do it from wherever.”

Overall, the goal of this technology and the mission driving it are, according to Guna, “transparency of governance.” Through the technology, everyone has access to the information. All of it is out there. “That, and going paperless,” Guna added.

The tech team was clearly excited about the advances made, as we all should be. Guna named the biggest success as, “showing that it’s possible to use new tools, no matter who you are and what is your background or your challenges.”

With these advances in technology, and the growing comfort in using new tools, I welcome another hybrid General Assembly (although I do hope and pray it can be shorter.) As a church, I think we must be forced to use these technological tools to keep up with the way our digital world is rapidly advancing. And frankly, we can’t afford to fall behind again if we want to advance the work of social righteousness in today’s world.

Young adult advisory delegates (YAADs)

The YAADs were a clear highlight of this General Assembly. Their voices were appreciated throughout, but especially during discussions on hot, social-justice topics such as divestment from fossil fuel companies and gun violence.

Daniel Herron, a YAAD from Olympia Presbytery, stressed the urgency of action against climate change. Herron said he voted against categorial divestment as a YAAD in 2018 — but it’s a vote he now regrets. In September 2020, he saw the mountains of Washington state covered in a blanket of toxic smoke caused by forest fires. “It was choking anyone who was not indoors,” Herron said. “Every summer, the land burns. Our churches burn. Our homes burn.” As a Matthew 25 denomination, he said, “We must take drastic action” to stop climate change that is particularly hurting the world’s most vulnerable citizens. (You can read more from Daniel on page 18 of this issue.)

As much as they were appreciated, though, YAAD participation was down over the course of this hybrid General Assembly. According to Jeff Moles, who coordinates the YAAD program at the assembly, only about 90 of the 166 presbyteries elected YAADs. Many said it was difficult to recruit young people interested and able to commit to the three weeks. Only 75 of the 90 YAADs elected registered for the assembly, and only 60 attended in-person committee meetings in Louisville. YAAD participation clearly dropped off during Zoom plenary sessions, with sometimes fewer than 30 voting. Perhaps one of the reasons YAADs disengaged was because (as Kate Stoops writes on page 26 of this issue) their voices and votes were only taken as advice and didn’t count in the end.

The assembly did change some standing rules about YAADs, offering more flexibility by saying presbyteries may elect anyone who is:

An active member of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation;

A participant in a new worshipping community or an immigrant fellowship that has a relationship with the presbytery;

And is between 18 and 23 years old on the day the assembly convenes.

The raise in age requirement from 17 to 18 was made to avoid the complications and additional expense of hosting minors at General Assembly, as YAADs under age 18 require a chaperone in compliance with a PC(USA) policy for protection of children, youth and vulnerable adults.

When speaking of our YAADs at this GA, I heard a repeated statement: “They are not the future of the church, they are the church now.” I agree with this statement. Our Book of Order states that the General Assembly’s “commissioners shall consist of ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament elected by the presbyteries and reflective of the diversity within their bounds” (F-1.0403 and G-3.0103). Advisory delegates play an important role, ensuring our voting commissioners hear from a variety of perspectives. I’m sure everyone would like to see more young adults sought out and encouraged to participate as YAADs. An experience of the national church’s work can lead to a young adult becoming a much more engaged Presbyterian. But I’d also love to see more of these sharp young adults ordained as ruling elders and recruited to be commissioners at General Assembly. If our YAADs are the church of now, and we really appreciate their thoughts and opinions, then we should be doing all we can to get them into positions where they can vote, now.

Worship services

Kudos to the worship planning committee and the production team that made hybrid worship work. We’ve all watched a lot of video services over the past two years, and I’ve honestly not seen any more artfully planned and produced than those at the 225th General Assembly.

The Juneteenth worship service was a highlight for me. To be in the Presbyterian Center’s chapel for this service — feeling the vibrating base notes of the organ, joining the voices around me singing, “holy, holy, holy,” getting Holy Ghost goosebumps during the prophetic proclamation of the Word — well, that’s worship. It’s always better to be, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, in “the room where it happens.” The debate over hybrid worship will likely never cease. But this General Assembly modeled what is possible with our advancements in technology.

Watching worship from home, I missed being surrounded by Presbyterians singing, praying and responding bodily to the Word read and proclaimed. But worship was still beautiful. I marveled at the representation in these GA worship services — liturgy read in multiple languages, music from a variety of traditions and cultures, artistic images displayed encouraging us to breath and take a moment of sacred pause. One of my favorite virtual worship moments was “Dancing our Prayers,” when a group of Native youth from the organization Mending Wings, danced to the drumbeats of their leaders. I felt that, even through my computer’s screen.

The work of the national church

COVID was and still is a threat. But the church’s work could not be postponed further or canceled. So much work was tabled from the 2020 all-virtual General Assembly for this assembly to take up. The docket was extremely full.

After three weeks of following and reporting this summer’s General Assembly, the Outlook team is not alone in feeling like we have run a marathon. But the satisfaction of crossing the finish line comes in knowing that, even though it was exhausting and difficult, we saw this thing through. The work got done. Progress was made.

Not everyone left this General Assembly agreeing with its results. But that, too, is part of the progress. That we had the chance to gather, in person and virtually, to discuss and deliberate the issues before us, advocate for our positions, discern and cast our votes, is progress. We are God’s people at work in the world with the Spirit. Until the next General Assembly, and the next chance for deliberation, debate and decision-making, let us keep our eyes on our prize, Jesus Christ, and the transformative ministry to which he calls us all.