Being a connectional church: Chaplains at GA

Katrina Pekich-Bundy, who served as an on-call chaplain at GA225, reflects on the spiritual care available for commissioners and leaders at this assembly.

Photo by Nixx Studio on Unsplash

Many aspects of General Assembly 225 involved new approaches to gathering. As a denomination, we sought a means of holding onto tradition while also being able to adapt. We are Reformed and always reforming. The whole event conjures up Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s concept of adaptive leadership. An adaptive challenge (as compared to a technical challenge) is one that often requires creativity and imagination (Presbyterians are known for these gifts!). It necessitates going outside of what is normative and trying a new path. Technical challenges involve altering an already existing answer to a problem, reading a manual or adjusting based on prior knowledge.

But as we have experienced through most of the pandemic, we must adapt and learn as we go because there is no manual with solutions for gathering in a safe and healthy way during an epidemic. After two years, we now know the importance of masking and distancing and vaccinations, but distancing is harder in large groups. We have learned how to cope through community. We have learned how to gather in new ways thanks to technology.

More and more large events and church gatherings are either virtual or hybrid. We are creating and reforming as we go. In fact, the concept of on-call chaplains for General Assembly came from another church gathering that successfully created a volunteer pastoral staff for their event. In pre-pandemic years spiritual guidance at General Assembly came from colleagues or mid council leaders. If someone needed guidance, prayer or a word of encouragement, it was never far. General Assembly, whether virtual or in person or hybrid, is a rich gathering that can also be exhausting and taxing. Spiritual care is important for all commissioners and staff dealing with the weight of what are often difficult decisions.

Yet we know that sometimes the virtual world can be isolating, and so the Office of General Assembly decided to coordinate chaplains to be on call for the three weeks of General Assembly. 27 people signed up for various times to serve as a chaplain. Each on-call slot was four hours. Chaplains included ministers of the Word and Sacrament and ruling elders who had some training and background checks. The willingness to do pastoral care was evident in these chaplains, who gave their time and energy. They were on call during the two weeks of committee meetings and the week of plenary. If someone needed pastoral care, they could call the Help Desk, who would refer them to the chaplain on call. Mid council leaders could also refer a commissioner out of concern for that person. Co-moderators Shavon Starling-Louis and Ruth Santana-Grace were exceedingly pastoral in their approach to moderating. They frequently reminded commissioners to check in with their bodies and minds when difficult or triggering subjects were being discussed. They also reminded the commissioners regularly of the chaplain team.

For a very different General Assembly, this worked well. As per the vote of this assembly, General Assembly 226 will be hybrid again. In two years, it will include virtual committees and in-person plenaries. It is unknown what future General Assemblies beyond the year 2024 will look like or if this chaplain model will be used again, but the groundwork is laid should it be necessary in the future. Whether a team of chaplains is utilized again, or if spiritual care comes from mid council leaders as it has previously, we are a connectional church that cares for the mind, body and spirit of every person.