For many members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a General Assembly is more akin to a family reunion than a gathering of the denomination’s highest governing body. It’s where relationships are made and rekindled and where some of the lesser-known parts of the denomination get to tell their story to a larger audience.
It is no small matter, then, when the look and feel of this now-biennial event undergoes major change, which it has done markedly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. GAs have changed before – notably from annually to biennial – but in the words of Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell, “this is the fourth iteration” since 2018, the last traditional biennial gathering. (The first 216 assemblies were held annually until 2004 when they were switched to only even-numbered years.)
“This is going to feel different, yet it will have some taste of similarity,” said Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell.
“This is going to feel different, yet it will have some taste of similarity,” Boswell said at the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) meeting from Sept. 12-14. While together, the group approved detailed plans for the 226th General Assembly from June 25 to July 4. (The decision to forego the exhibit hall, however, had been made at a previous meeting.)
In addition, at the meeting, COGA discussed the impact of the coming unification in 2025 of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and approved an updated job description for the stated clerk.
When commissioners are called to order in Salt Lake City on June 29, there will have been three days of online committee meetings on the preceding Tuesday through Thursday, followed by a day off while commissioners head to Utah and get their reports ready for consideration by the full body. Then come six days of plenary, with adjournment on Thursday, July 4.
While the way business is conducted will be mostly familiar, aside from the logistics, there will be changes in what happens outside the meetings, perhaps the most significant one being the absence of an exhibit hall.
Even as the exhibit hall has shrunken noticeably in recent assemblies, it has remained the PC(USA) town square — a place where most Presbyterian mission and related organizations have been on display for all to see. In addition, it has been a gathering place for colleagues and friends to meet and embrace, and even perhaps connect before sharing a meal at a communal dining hall.
There will be other changes as well. For example, OGA will not be able to provide as much support for other activities, notably the scores of special dinners and meetings that usually occur around the assembly. Organizers will be on their own, except for having their events listed on the assembly calendar.
While there are only 456 presbytery commissioners and assorted advisory delegates and support staff and officials, the assembly has traditionally drawn several thousand people to a host city. It’s unclear how that will change in 2024, but likely there will be significantly fewer people. Nevertheless, Boswell challenged the notion that GA226 will be a “closed down” assembly and said everyone remains welcome to attend.
Boswell challenged the notion that GA226 will be a “closed down” assembly and said everyone remains welcome to attend.
This is especially important to the members of the Presbytery of Utah, which is playing host to the assembly.
“We’re excited to show who we are here because there are so many prejudices when it comes to Utah,” Executive Presbyter Mirjam Haas-Melchior said. “We are more than just the opposite of the (Latter Day Saints) church.
“We are a very progressive, all-gender affirming, all orientation and identity affirming presbytery, and I think people don’t know this,” she said.
While Haas-Melchior acknowledged it would have been nice to have the assembly in town for almost two weeks as was the case in the past, a key hope is being fulfilled, i.e., being present on a Sunday.
“We really invited them to consider a Sunday so we can invite the commissioners and everybody who is coming to worship in Utah,” she said, “To really be the body of Christ and to offer hospitality to the wider PC(USA).”
Assembly attendees will be invited to worship in area congregations on the morning of June 30 before returning to the Salt Palace Convention Center for the rest of the meeting, and the assembly’s opening worship, another highlight of the assembly.
“The elected members of COGA are very aware of the relational nature of GA meetings for many in the PC(USA),” said Dave Davis, COGA vice-moderator. “We are very aware of a sense of loss, grieving, and longing for a GA as it once was for ourselves and for others. As COGA is repeatedly trying to communicate, while the pandemic has driven significant change to the General Assembly meeting, not all of the changes are related to health and safety.”
The primary responsibility of COGA and the Office of the General Assembly is the meeting itself, he said. “The role of commissioners and the business of the General Assembly has always been the first priority. The stewardship of the meeting in terms of financial cost and availability of human resources is a significant concern.”
“The nature of General Assembly meetings in the longer-term future will clearly be impacted by the ongoing work of the Unification Commission related to matters of governance and General Assembly finances,” Davis said.
Many agree that it seems unlikely General Assemblies will return to the previous format, even if finances improve or change.
“With the General Assembly’s decision last year to have the meetings in 2024 and 2026 be the same format of online committees and in-person plenaries, I really don’t know what the collective wisdom will be for 2028,” Acting Stated Clerk Boswell said. “What I do know is that we need to be open to how the Spirit will lead us into the future.”
Another goal that has been expressed is to make assemblies more equitable and accessible so that a broader range of Presbyterians can participate.
A key piece of business for GA226 will be the election of a stated clerk to succeed J. Herbert Nelson, who served seven years in the role.
The new job description approved by COGA differs primarily in only one respect from the current one, recognizing that the role may change during unification.
Prior to approving the change, committee members informally discussed unification and how it would affect the office. Several members expressed concern that some of the uniqueness of the office of the stated clerk wasn’t clearly understood or appreciated throughout the denomination, although others noted that the Book of Order mandates the office and responsibilities.
The job description partially addresses those concerns, saying, “As a new organizational structure emerges through the work of the Unification Commission, it is possible there would need to significant changes in the scope of the stated clerk’s work, especially as it relates to the likely need for engagement and management around the process and it may be initially necessary to review the job description of the stated clerk on an annual basis. The stated clerk shall work closely with the Unification Commission to bring the process of unification to completion.”