Reinventing the General Assembly again: Committee discusses possibilities for 2024

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is considering some options for how to structure the schedule for the 2024 General Assembly.

Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon from OGA presentation.

Louisville, Kentucky – This much we know (barring some new unexpected global catastrophe): the plenary sessions of the 2024 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be held in-person in Salt Lake City, and the committee meetings online. That’s what the 2022 General Assembly voted to do.

Now the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is considering some options for how to structure the assembly schedule – talking through possibilities but not yet making any decisions.  “We are still, yet again, reinventing the General Assembly,” said Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk.

While two options were up for discussion during COGA’s hybrid meeting Sept. 22, “we really are not limited to just two,” said valerie izumi, part of a staff team with Deb Davies and Kate Trigger Duffert from the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) that is helping COGA sort through alternatives. “Feel free to imagine new ways and new possibilities.”

Kate Trigger Duffert (left) and valerie izumi present information on possible scheduling formats for the 2024 General Assembly. (Screen shot by Leslie Scanlon)

COGA considered two possibilities for the 2024 General Assembly as a starting point for discussion, with the following rough schedules:

Format 1:

  • June 24, 2024:  A possible online plenary with opening worship and moderators’ election.
  • June 24-27: Committees meeting online.
  • June 28: Travel day to Salt Lake City.
  • June 29-July 3: In-person plenary sessions.

Format 2:

  • June 8, 2024: An online plenary.
  • June 14-15: Group 1 of committees meet online.
  • June 21-22: Group 2 of committees meet online.
  • June 28-July 2: In-person plenary sessions.

Some threads of the conversation about these possibilities:

Diversity and privilege: What are the implications for each possibility for whose voices are privileged, and who will have a harder time participating? Many pastors don’t want to be gone from the pulpit on Sundays. Ruling elders often have to burn personal vacation time from their jobs to be a commissioner. Young Adult Advisory Delegates may have limited time to give.  COGA member Miguel Rosa Morales cited low levels of participation by YAADS at this year’s assembly and said it’s important “that we not sacrifice YAADS” with too long a time commitment.

Miguel Rosa Morales (Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon)

The schedule calculations aren’t simple, izumi pointed out – as some pastors are bi-vocational with responsibilities throughout the week, and some folks who work outside the church have jobs with night and weekend shifts.

Moderators’ election. Traditionally, the moderators’ election has been held during the first plenary session – before the committees meet. Is it possible to have committees meet first, and for the election to be held in-person during the first plenary in Salt Lake City?

Travel time: Given the uncertainties of airline travel these days, the schedule will need more than one day of travel time to get to the assembly. “Flights are just unpredictable,” said Eliana Maxim, COGA’s moderator. “A minimum of two days is realistic.”

 Committee meetings. Should all the committees meet online at once, or should there be two groups? What are the implications of those options for costs, for technology, and for staffing and supporting those committees? Which is better – committees that meet for more hours on fewer days? Or shorter meetings for more days? “After about two hours on Zoom, people lose their effectiveness,” said COGA member Robin Pugh.

Based on all that feedback, the staff team will tweak the possibilities – and COGA will consider the matter again when it meets virtually on Oct. 20.

This hybrid COGA meeting will conclude on Sept. 23. Here’s more from the discussion on the second day of this meeting.

Open Meeting Policy. Rice said he expects there will be a review and revision fairly soon of the PC(USA)’s Open Meeting Policy.  “It’s on our radar,” Rice said, without being more specific about the process for that review.

Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk (Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon)

Some possible points of discussion:

  • Is it now expected that all meetings will be hybrid, so people who don’t attend in person can still participate? How would that increased accessibility change the nature of those discussions?
  • What conflicts are there between the current Open Meeting Policy and an administrative action on Trust and Transparency that the Way Forward Commission took in 2018 – and which the 2022 General Assembly voted to direct OGA to add as an appendix to the Manual of the General Assembly? “We recognize there are some inconsistencies,” Rice said.

General Assembly evaluation. In a post-assembly evaluation conducted by the PC(USA)’s Research Services, most participants (83%) reported being either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the 2022 General Assembly overall, and nearly 9 in 10 agreeing that the assembly’s work overall was meaningful. About 6 in 10 described committee time as their most meaningful assembly experience, with 17% citing worship as most meaningful. Three-fourths (77%) said they’d be willing to serve again.

Just under half (49%) said they work full-time (although that includes many ministers) and 29% were retired. Regarding taking time off, 38% said they work for the church in some way and didn’t need to use vacation time for the assembly, while 12% said they took paid time off and 8% took unpaid leave from their jobs to participate.

Demographically, the assembly skewed:

  • White – with 76% White, 12% Black, 4% Asian American/Pacific Islander, 5% Hispanic/Latino/a/x.
  • Older – with an average age of 58.
  • Female – with 59% female, 40% male, 1% gender non-conforming or non-binary.

Sixty percent were attending their first General Assembly.

Distracted driving. COGA discussed, but did not act on, the question of whether an anti-distracted driving policy which currently applies to employees of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and of OGA, should also apply to members of the governing boards or committees for those agencies.

The gist of that policy, according to Mike Kirk, general counsel for the PC(USA), A Corporation: don’t engage in agency business while driving. That includes making phone calls or participating in virtual meetings. Kirk said he has noticed “more and more folks who are in committee meetings or board meetings” while driving – including participants at last summer’s General Assembly.

“It’s a risk management issue” – whether there could be liability for the denomination in case of an accident – as well as a safety issue, Kirk said.

Another perspective: people need to follow the laws of their states or localities involving using cell phones will driving, but this policy might even more restrictive. “This is a dramatic difference from how many of us operate in day-to-day life,” said COGA member Stephanie Anthony, who said she follows the laws of her jurisdiction but does make hands-free calls while driving. “There’s a lot of business that happens while driving,” Anthony said – and prohibiting that might change the availability of people willing to serve.

DeAmber Clopton (Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon)

Financial implications. DeAmber Clopton, associate director for finance administration at OGA, presented the per capita financial implications for actions the 2022 General Assembly took. The per capita cost stemming from those actions: $532,100 for 2023-2024, including meeting costs for special committees the assembly created (including to rewrite the standing rules and to draft a proposed new confession), as well as for a special commission that will work to unify the national structure of the denomination.

Clopton also said that “overall, OGA is in a healthy position” financially at present, although costs will increase as vacant positions are filled and more staff members resume traveling as COVID-19 restrictions loosen.