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Hybrid format + condensed schedule = no exhibit hall at #GA226

The decision to have no exhibit hall for the General Assembly in Salt Lake City sparks strong reactions. Greg Allen-Pickett reports.

The 2022 Committee on Mid Councils met in Louisville during GA225, where there was a virtual exhibit hall due to the pandemic. Photo by Jonathan Watson.

Due to mandates of hybrid General Assembly (GA) gatherings this year and in 2026, as well a tighter schedule for the in-person plenaries, the exhibit hall – an institution for many at pre-pandemic GAs – will be missing this year in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The 224th General Assembly in 2020 was held entirely online and did not include an in-person exhibit hall. The 225th General Assembly in 2022 was hybrid with the committee meetings in-person in Louisville, Kentucky, and the plenary sessions online, and did not include an in-person exhibit hall, in part due to the hybrid format and in part due to COVID-19 precautions. There was a virtual exhibit hall at both of the assemblies. This year, the 226th GA will follow a different hybrid model with the committee meetings taking place online and the plenary to be held in-person at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The hybrid format and the condensed schedule are the primary driving forces behind the decision to not have an exhibit hall at GA, said Kate Trigger Duffert, director of General Assembly Planning and assistant stated clerk. This decision was made by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) in December 2022 based on a recommendation from the Office of the General Assembly staff.

“The decision to not have an exhibit hall came largely from the hybrid format that was decided by the last assembly.” — Kate Trigger Duffert

“The decision to not have an exhibit hall came largely from the hybrid format that was decided by the last assembly,” Duffert said. “The exhibit hall has traditionally been open during committees due to greater flexibility during the committee meetings. Because of the format of this assembly, which was determined by a vote of the last assembly, all committee work is online with only plenary being in-person. In-person plenary doesn’t have time for commissioners to visit the exhibit hall. This decision was primarily a function of scheduling.”

Also at play is the number of GA attendees. At the 2018 GA, there were nearly 3,000 non-commissioners registered. The number of non-commissioners at this GA is still being finalized, but OGA is anticipating it will be lower due to the hybrid format, with many overture advocates, resource people, and corresponding members appearing remotely at committee meetings and not coming to Salt Lake City. Duffert said there will be 584 commissioners and advisory delegates this year, down from 933 in 2010 (a number that corresponds to GA standing rules that state the number of commissioners attending will be based on the number of active members, including resident clergy members of presbyteries). With fewer people and less time for people to visit the exhibit hall due to the hybrid format, this decision made the most sense for OGA staff and that was affirmed by a vote of COGA.

Also at play is the number of GA attendees.

The reaction to this decision has been strong, with many people lamenting the loss of an opportunity to connect and learn about the diverse ministries and organizations affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.

Dave Brown, a retired teaching elder from the Olympia Presbytery, attended his first GA in 1970 as a Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD), presbytery-elected representatives for a specific demographic to serve as GA commissioners, and he remembers going to the assembly and seeing all the different exhibits, booths and movements. As a youth who grew up in a small church in New Jersey, Brown gained exposure in the exhibit hall to what the Presbyterian Church was doing to address peace, poverty, racism, and myriad other issues.

“It gave me a much broader idea of what the church was about,” he said. “We are taking that opportunity away by not having an exhibit hall. I believe that this is a big mistake.” Brown is also the chair of the western taskforce of Self-Development of People (SDOP) and stated, “We were hoping to be at the exhibit hall to meet presbytery executives and others from presbyteries in the western region, not only to encourage giving to SDOP but to also help us identify projects in their area to be funded.

“In addition to learning about the story of the Presbyterian Church, the exhibit hall provides an opportunity for us to be in community, network across regions, and help to generate enthusiasm for what it means to be Presbyterian,” Brown said. “I am worried that this decision and others like it will hasten the decline of this denomination.”

“I am worried that this decision and others like it will hasten the decline of this denomination.” — Dave Brown

“The prophets never come from the center,” said Jack Haberer, a retired teaching elder who also is disappointed about not having an exhibit hall. After more than 30 years being active at General Assemblies in a variety of contexts – as an advocate, the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, and a commissioner – he feels the exhibit hall has served as a marketplace of ideas wherein we honor the outliers and the centrists, the new ideas and the old ideas.

“Eccentrics have a word from the Lord for the rest of us. The exhibit hall is a chance for the eccentrics to have a voice at the GA. It gives an opportunity for contrarians to be heard on the possibility that they might have a word from God for all of us. And it functions as a family reunion, creating the informal sinews and connective tissues for the family that is the PC(USA),” Haberer said.

Erin Jacobson is a teaching elder whose husband, Steven, is a clergy tax accountant. They registered to have a booth in 2020 for their clergy tax service before GA was moved online, and they had hoped to exhibit in 2024. “Jacobson Clergy Tax Service was disappointed to learn that there would no longer be an in-person exhibit hall at General Assembly this year and going forward,” they wrote in an email. “We understand that their decision was based on rising costs of the exhibit hall. In previous years, vendors would pay a fee to ‘rent’ space in the exhibit hall. As a small business, we completely empathize with those struggling with rising costs. Sadly, we were not even offered the opportunity to rent space in the exhibit hall at an increased rate. In-person events are extremely important to our completely virtual tax firm as it gives us the opportunity to connect with our clients and potential clients in person. It is our fervent hope that the PC(USA) reconsiders this decision for future assemblies.”

“As a small business, we completely empathize with those struggling with rising costs. Sadly, we were not even offered the opportunity to rent space in the exhibit hall at an increased rate.” — Erin Jacobson

But the decision wasn’t a money issue per se, Duffert said, partly because of the “rent” that Jacobson referred to. “The exhibit hall is a budget-neutral operation because the fees that vendors contribute cover the costs of the hall,” she said. “The cost emerges in staff time. In 2019, we had six people focused on General Assembly operations. We are now down to three full-time and one part-time staff member. We don’t have the capacity to manage an exhibit hall faithfully with our current staffing configuration, specifically managing vendor relationships and space set-up, though we would have added this work to staff responsibilities had COGA recommended we continue the exhibit hall.

“Should the Unification Commission or the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly prioritize the exhibit hall for future assemblies, we would reassess staffing,” Duffert said. “Ultimately, the decision for 2024’s General Assembly was made based on the format of the assembly and wanting to prioritize the work of the General Assembly as a council; we want to make sure that the core of the people there in the assembly will be available to do the work of the assembly.”

Julie Bailey, the director of alumni relations for Columbia Theological Seminary, will travel to GA as a seminary representative. “Eliminating the exhibit hall was a disappointing decision, but I am reserving judgment until after this GA to see if it affects how many alumni and prospective students we are able to connect with,” she said.

“The exhibit hall is a budget-neutral operation because the fees that vendors contribute cover the costs of the hall,” she said. “The cost emerges in staff time.” — Kate Trigger Duffert

“Truthfully, exhibit halls are wildly expensive for the denomination and for the organizations … But I also think connectivity is crucial for us as a denomination,” she said. “If not connectional, in person, then why gather in person? My hope is that we can find a way to bring back connectivity in a less expensive format.”

Laura Cheifetz, a teaching elder from Tennessee, offered a perspective from other denominations, stating, “I’m really disappointed because I watched the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Assembly last year and their joy at being together — including a robust exhibit hall. The exhibit hall is also how I found out about so many PC(USA) networks, organizations and resources. I encountered some real national church legends and learned so very much about who we are, and gained tons of insight and access to resources through the exhibit hall when I first attended in 1999 as a member of National Network of Presbyterian College Women’s core team. Not having an exhibit hall just feels like it runs the risk of being anemic.”

“Not having an exhibit hall just feels like it runs the risk of being anemic.” — Laura Cheifetz

Melanie Hardison is a teaching elder who is also former staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. She helped to facilitate the Global Marketplace in the exhibit hall that included fair trade partners who would sell their wares and raise awareness about their ministries. “The marketplace specifically allowed us to encourage Presbyterians to consider how their purchases, not only at the assembly, but year-round, are a reflection of their faith values and how fair trade and artisan purchases can help create the global economy we desire.”

Plus, “everyone was welcomed and included in the space together and we developed deep connectional ties,” she said

OGA has set up alternative ways for people to connect at GA this summer, including a welcome center that will provide a gathering space on-site where people can meet and converse. There will be a welcome reception on Saturday, June 29, with tables hosted by agency partners and a “Meet the Agencies” event with a time to connect the national church agencies to participants. OGA has also designed specific LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC spaces to support participants of those identities both online and on-site. Groups that might have exhibited or hosted an official meal or event will have an opportunity to share information on functions or meals they are hosting by posting on the GA schedule directly. On the digital front, a series of moderated Zoom town halls was planned, leading up to the assembly which will provide open conversations about topics facing the church that anyone can join. There will also be a message board that allows groups to directly contact all commissioners and advisory delegates with information and the opportunity to sign up for more information as well as the GA226 Facebook group and live Q+A opportunities for people to gather virtually and share information, be in community, and ask questions directly to an OGA planner.

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