Decision made: No traditional exhibit hall at 2024 General Assembly

Church leaders are looking for new ways to foster connection and networking at the assembly.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) continues to move forward with plans for the hybrid 2024 General Assembly – voting Dec. 15 not to offer a traditional exhibit hall at that assembly. They also voted to limit the logistic support the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) offers to events held in proximity to the assembly. While other groups are welcome to host events, OGA will only assist certain groups.

COGA members said they wanted to be careful not to be perceived as simply saying “no” to having an exhibit hall for the 2024 General Assembly in Salt Lake City — but they are hoping to find new, creative ways for people who attend the assembly to connect.

COGA met on Dec. 15, 2022. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

COGA voted to approve a motion that the assembly in 2024 “not include a traditional exhibit all with physical displays.” But it is asking the OGA staff “to explore opportunities for connecting” with General Assembly entities and agencies and with other Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) organizations during the in-person part of the assembly. General Assembly committee meetings will be held online from June 25-27 in 2024; plenary sessions will be in-person in Salt Lake City from June 30 to July 4.

COGA Moderator Eliana Maxim said she and Vice Moderator Dave Davis met earlier this month with elected leaders from most of the PC(USA) agencies, to talk about “the plans, dreams and realities of the upcoming General Assembly.”

She and Davis described those conversations as positive, collaborative and open. “It lacked the lament we heard two years ago,” when the assembly moved completely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis said. “Definitely the Holy Spirit — she’s up to her stuff here,” as church leaders try to discern new ways of gathering for the biennial General Assembly, Maxim said.

Here are some more details of COGA’s Dec. 15 meeting, held via Zoom.

Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk of the PC(USA), speaks in the Financial Resources Committee meeting at the 2022 General Assembly. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Exhibit hall. Among the reasons for not holding a physical exhibit hall, according to Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk:

  • “It’s a pretty big expense item” for an agency or entity to travel to the assembly and set up and staff a booth.
  • It takes staff resources for OGA to manage the exhibit hall, and “we don’t have that position anymore.”

Among the possibilities that might be considered as alternatives to a physical exhibit hall:

  • Setting up a welcome center with comfortable chairs and charging stations. Agencies or entities could sponsor the welcome center in shifts — and could use those times to interact or network with Presbyterians in that space.
  • Creating an online directory of exhibitors, with links to their websites or information about their work.

The written recommendation COGA considered can be found here.

COGA members raised concerns about the narrative that might emerge from this decision. “How do we tell this from a place of flourishing,” rather than a “taking away” of something, asked Ruth Santana-Grace, co-moderator of the 2022 General Assembly.

“It seems no matter how we spin it, it’s going to be (perceived as) ‘There is no exhibit hall,’” said COGA member Lynn Hargrove.

COGA member Andy James said he supports the change but is concerned that “the exhibit hall is a place of democratization” at the assembly. “I fear that if we don’t have an open space where everyone is welcome,” then the result may be “echo chambers where people get invited to hospitality suites” — meaning some people have access to those conversations and others do not.

Maxim said that, as decisions get made, she wants church leaders to “evaluate why we’re doing what we are doing.” What’s the purpose of an exhibit hall at the assembly? To provide information? For PC(USA) agencies to showcase how they can resource churches and mid councils? For groups to advocate on particular issues? To provide hospitality and connection?

This decision is not a “no, period!” Maxim said, but an invitation to creatively explore “what really meets our needs and the church’s desire in this new season of ministry for all of us. It’s not so much we are chucking something out, but we are continuing on this path of reformation.”

Outside events. COGA voted that at this next assembly, OGA would continue its practice of facilitating optional breakfasts, lunches and other functions surrounding the assembly — but would only provide those services for functions sponsored by a limited number of groups. Those are:

  • General Assembly entities or agencies
  • Other committees or groups that report directly to the assembly
  • PC(USA) seminaries or theological institutions in a covenant relationship with the denomination
  • Caucuses and councils serving communities of color
  • Mid councils
Ruth Santana Grace
Ruth Santana-Grace. Photo submitted.

Those are the only groups for which OGA would sell tickets for the event and facilitate arrangements with hotels or the convention center for the event. Other groups that want to hold events could do so, Rice said —but to reduce the demands on OGA staff, those groups would have to handle ticket sales and all logistics on their own.

Appointments. Santana-Grace, co-moderator of the 2022 General Assembly along with Shavon Starling-Louis, reported that the new Unification Commission – a commission the 2022 assembly created to unify the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency – will hold its first meeting via Zoom Dec. 17.

In November, the co-moderators named the members and leadership of both the commission and Funding Model Development Team. Next up, Santana-Grace said, will be to make appointments for five more special committees the assembly created — starting with the Special Committee on the Standing Rules, and then the Special Committee to Write a New Confession for the PC(USA). Rounding out the list:

  • Special Committee on the PC(USA) and Race
  • Task Force to Explore the Theology and Practice of Ordination
  • 2020 Vision Guiding Statement Implementation Team

Finding diverse representation for all these new entities has been a challenge, Santana-Grace said, with the applicant pool not representing the full breadth and geography of the church. She praised the knowledge, graciousness and expertise of valerie izumi, manager for General Assembly nominations, and said the co-moderators are encouraging people of color and those representing all ages, types of experience and abilities to consider serving the larger church. “Please keep praying for us,” as trying to fill all those spots is “quite the challenge,” Santana-Grace said. “Stay tuned.”

Uncollectable per capita. COGA voted to approve the writing of nearly $1.2 million in uncollectible per capita for 2021 — about $776,000 less than had been budgeted, meaning that collection of General Assembly per capita in 2021 went better than expected.

Sudan. The PC(USA) will send Starling-Louis and Dianna Wright, the PC(USA)’s director of ecumenical ministries, to be part of an ecumenical peace pilgrimage to South Sudan in early February. That pilgrimage will be led by Pope Francis; Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the moderator of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields.

Stated clerk’s report. PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson said the OGA staff has moved into its renovated office space on the first floor of the PC(USA) national office building in downtown Louisville and is trying to approach the 2024 assembly imaginatively and live into flexible working arrangements.

As Christmas approaches, “I’m here with Jesus joy today,” Nelson said, “looking toward the manger.”