With the virtual ink barely dry on the many pronouncements, policy changes, advisements and aspirations expressed by the 225th General Assembly (2022) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it’s time to look forward to what commissioners and church watchers will find at the next assembly in 2024.
But first, a little context may be helpful for those who haven’t followed the assembly’s recent work. Prior to the shutdown of big in-person meetings due to COVID-19 in 2020, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) and its predecessor denominations had met a total of 223 times. Up until the 216th General Assembly in 2004 in Richmond, Virginia, the body had met every year. Beginning in 2006, the assembly became a biennial event.
In 2018, General Assembly 223 met for a week in the halls of the St. Louis convention center to make decisions on behalf of the denomination. With representation based on a calculation of presbytery membership, a total of 538 voting commissioners and 183 advisory delegates were present to meet in committees and plenary sessions. Attendees also marched in the streets as part of the Hands and Feet initiative in support of cash bail programs in the city.
By 2020, in part due to the pandemic and in part due to declining membership, there were only 400 commissioners and 180 advisory delegates at the all-online four-day virtual assembly. It was a herculean effort to arrange a virtual meeting on short notice after much of the assembly’s planning had developed around gathering in Baltimore. Budgets were passed, issues were addressed, and although some work of the church was completed, it forwarded much of its business to General Assembly 225 for consideration. When the assembly closed, it was clear much needed to be done if a virtual event was going to approximate the depth and complexity of debate and the decision-making power found in previous assemblies.
So when 460 commissioners and more than 100 advisory delegates came together for General Assembly 225 this year, a hybrid model was chosen for the meeting. Opening plenaries kicked off the business of the assembly on June 18 and included the election of Ruth Santana-Grace and Shavon Starling-Louis as co-moderators of the assembly. Next, for two weeks, 16 committees met in-person in Louisville during four three-day sessions of four groups to review and vote on topical overtures submitted to the assembly. Committees then forwarded their recommendations to the whole General Assembly, which met online to vote in plenaries during the final week.
One note from the opening plenary sessions is that a physical quorum of delegates meeting in Louisville, limited to the first group of committee commissioners, was required so they could vote to ratify actions of the virtual General Assembly 224 because the PC(USA) constitution had no provisions for officially counting virtual votes. With the quorum met and approval achieved, further actions of the assembly provided for the current and future assemblies to meet and vote virtually.
For participants, observers and assembly staff and volunteers, the longer format was both blessing and bane. The blessing came in the form of committees having adequate time to consider, debate and vote on all the items in their purview. The bane was the duration and staggered meeting schedule of the assembly. One issue confronting many participants, which contributed to some presbyteries having difficulties filling General Assembly roles, was commissioners and advisory delegates were required to block off the entire three weeks of the assembly on their calendars, not knowing beforehand their committee assignment and the four-day block during which they would be required to travel to Louisville.
On the plus side, the last two years have trained most of us to use streaming technology and participate in online meetings. The technology provided by the Office of the General Assembly to facilitate debate and voting was truly groundbreaking — efficient, transparent and democratic. What was lacking, and commissioners charged with deciding the format for General Assembly 226 (2024) in Salt Lake City, Utah, hoped to address, was the extended and uncertain schedule required for delegates.
Several options were presented by the Committee on the General Assembly (COGA) for consideration to the General Assembly Mission Coordination Committee regarding the General Assembly 226 format in item GA-MC-15. Acknowledging the difficulty in making this decision, the overture explained, in part, “The pandemic emergency and its continuing uncertainties since early 2020 have required changes in the traditional format of the General Assembly, primarily because gatherings in large groups have been impossible or questionable for health and safety reasons. Since those changes could not be approved by the General Assembly itself, the decisions have fallen to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.”
First, Plan Alpha proposed a similar format to this year, with in-person committee meetings and online plenaries, although it specified all committees would meet at the same time in Salt Lake City June 30-July 2, 2024, which includes opening plenaries. The cost of this plan was estimated at $2.51 million.
Plan Omega – the plan commissioners ultimately recommended, and the General Assembly approved – proposed online committee meetings and in-person plenaries in Salt Lake City June 29-July 3, 2024, where the assembly votes on committee actions. Within this plan, several committee formats were offered such as shorter committee meetings beginning in May, three-day meetings for each committee close to the opening of the in-person plenaries, and a mix of these two options. The estimated cost of Plan Omega is $2.82 million.
A Traditional Assembly, meaning everything in person, was the third option proposed by COGA. Due to costs associated with this format – estimated at $3.65 million – and the health uncertainties mentioned in COGA’s rationale for the various options, an all-in-person assembly was rejected.
Finally, the proposal for an Online Assembly was also rejected by the committee. Although the cost was much less – $1.25 million including cancellation fees for facilities in Salt Lake City – the importance of meeting together, at least part of the time as in a hybrid format, was affirmed by commissioners.
The final vote to approve Plan Omega by the assembly was 268-105. Although this represents a supermajority of commissioners who have vote, non-voting delegates such as young adult advisory delegates (YAADs), who can speak but not vote in the assembly, felt their voices were not heard in the debate to consider other options. Thus, they issued an online letter following the vote, petitioning commissioners to reopen debate and reconsider the available options.
A motion to reconsider action on GA-MC-15 was presented to the General Assembly on its last day and during the debate several YAADs and others presented their opinions, mostly advocating for the Traditional Assembly, all in-person, option. The motion to reconsider was ultimately rejected by commissioners, solidifying Plan Omega as the format for General Assembly 226.
Until 2020, and because of the global pandemic, there was never a thought that a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would be held in any other format than the established process — a day of opening plenaries followed by three days of committee meetings and four days of closing plenaries. It’s also true that the development and utilization of video conferencing, online voting systems and streaming technologies may not have been mature enough to support a virtual or hybrid meetings until that time.
Although the format is known, there is still some uncertainty concerning committee meetings for 2024. Will they choose the shorter three full days of meetings format, shorter meetings over several weeks or some combination of sessions to bring recommendations to General Assembly 226? What is known is commissioners will be headed to Salt Lake City – health conditions permitting – at the end of June 2024 to consider these issues, listen to the Spirit and speak the will of the gathered assembly to the denomination.