What happens to General Assembly referrals after the final gavel?

Outlook reporter John A. Bolt sits down with the Presbyterian Mission Agency to learn how they process GA rulings — and make sure nothing falls between the cracks.

General Assembly 225 co-moderators and support staff celebrate the end of the assembly. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories looking at how the business that comes from General Assemblies is handled. This story deals with the process the Presbyterian Mission Agency follows for GA-assigned referrals. The second article will look at the way the Office of the General Assembly handles GA-assigned work.

As soon as the gavel came down adjourning the 225th General Assembly (2022) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and even before the last commissioner logged off Zoom, the folks at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville saw their “to-do” list expand by more than 200 discrete items, many beginning with words like “direct” or “advocate” or “create” or “increase.”

The topics ranged from the largely symbolic (change all use of the term AIDS to “all people living with HIV” in PC(USA) publications) to the aspirational (“Work towards a goal of 100% renewable energy in congregations, mid-councils and agencies in the PC(USA) by 2030 by practicing energy efficiency, purchasing our power from renewable energy sources, and investing in the development of renewable energy”).

When you tally up all the business GA225 sent to the PMA, the total comes to about 200 discrete pieces, when accounting for some referrals containing included multiple recommendations.

The denomination-at-large often has little awareness or remembrance of what happens from one GA to the next, but there is a detailed, elaborate process at the Presbyterian Center, where the denomination’s national offices are housed, to keep a handle on referral status.

Diane Moffett speaks prior to her election for another term as president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency at GA 225. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

“PMA is in service to the General Assembly, therefore referrals are very important directives for our work,” said PMA Executive Director and President Diane Moffett. “We work diligently to implement the measures approved by the assembly.”

Immediately after each assembly, the referrals for PMA are sent to Moffett’s office where they are reviewed and assigned to the appropriate ministry unit; that process is usually completed by the November meeting of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.

“Each one must be reviewed to ascertain whether a response is due to the next assembly,” said Barry Creech, PMA deputy executive director. “If the referral ‘directed’ PMA to do something, then PMA must respond with what it did. If the referral ‘encouraged’ or ‘urged’ PMA to do something, then there is discretion as to whether a response must be submitted.”

Responses can be one of three types: 

  • Final: If accepted by the assembly, this closes the referral.  The response describes the work with respect to the referral and it does not include any recommendations for future assembly actions.
  • Response in progress: When PMA has not yet done everything requested. A progress report is given and the referral stays open until a final response can be given. (For example, Creech said, PMA is carrying over five referrals from Assemblies prior to 2022.)
  • Final, with recommendations: Used when the work called for by the referral generated ideas for assembly consideration.  These items will become stand-alone business items for the next assembly.

But what about the work already underway at the PMA, which is responsible for leading and coordinating the denomination’s total mission program?

“Fitting in the work is typically not a challenge,” Creech said, “but only because considerable effort has been made to make the assembly aware of the implications of prospective actions.”

One way PMA does this is by communicating in real-time with the assembly. PMA has four main mission areas — Compassion, Peace and Justice; Racial Equality and Women’s Intercultural Ministry; Theology, Formation and Evangelism; and World Mission. Each of area has the opportunity to comment on business during the assembly, making commissioners aware of what it would take to implement a referral, both financially and structurally, Creech said.

In addition, the standing rules of the assembly require an overture to include “evidence the affected entity(ies) has (have) been consulted. If such evidence is not submitted, the overture shall not be considered.”

Nevertheless, conflicting referrals will sometimes come through, but the entire process usually prevents that, “so it isn’t a frequent occurrence,” Creech said.

Barry Creech

Regardless, however, “if GA has directed an agency to do it, then it becomes a priority,” he said.

For most of its existence, the General Assembly met every year but moved to biennial assemblies beginning in 2004. In addition to the expense and logistics of holding such a large meeting every 12 months, one of the reasons given for meeting every other year was the difficulty of responding to one assembly before the next one rolled around. 

Now, to make sure work on referrals continues through the two-year cycle, there are various checkpoints along the way to ensure responses are ready by the time the mission board – which officially responds – holds its winter meeting ahead of an assembly, which itself is just ahead of the 120-day deadline for reports to an assembly.

Areas are likely beginning to check in on how progress is coming on the referrals,” Creech said. “We are also holding training sessions on how to write responses to referrals.”