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The connectional needs of the church

Teri McDowell Ott interviews Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell as she wraps up her time in the position.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In Shenandoah Presbytery (Virginia) where I am a member and Rev. Bronwen Boswell has taken a leave as general presbyter to serve as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s acting stated clerk, I’ve come to appreciate Bronwen’s leadership, her skill as a parliamentarian, and her willingness to step in and serve when needed by our denomination. When I asked for an interview about the 226th General Assembly and the conversations it has prompted, Bronwen was quick to accept and was generous with her time.

Teri: Thank you for setting aside this time to talk to me, Bronwen. Can you tell me about what your priorities have been in this role as acting stated clerk?

Bronwen: Well, one of the priorities was working toward the unification of OGA (Office of the General Assembly) and
PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency). And also making sure General Assembly happens the way that the 225th General Assembly said it needed to happen this time.

In working toward unification*, it became clear that we needed to start taking some steps. So we’ve started with the communications team. I’ve worked closely with Corey Schlosser Hall from PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency). Both Corey and I have worked at the mid council level, and we’ve seen mergers that have not gone well. So we looked at this not as a mashup, but as a startup — like a new startup group.

Also, the stated clerk is head of communion, so I speak on behalf of the General Assembly. Statements are put out via our policies and what the General Assembly has said. I have worked to assemble a team (coming out of communications, as well) that makes sure that we’ve got all the information that needs to come together to produce these statements.

I also have had the opportunity to welcome the United Church of Christ that came to Louisville. They were having their national meeting, and [I went] to the United Methodists’ annual conference. Then it was time for the apology to our Native Americans in Alaska. It was the most appropriate for the stated clerk to be the one offering that apology. It was also most appropriate that it be a White person. That was very moving. It was very humbling. And I’m very grateful that I got to be a part of that. I truly am.

Teri: Tell me what you’ve learned about our denomination from this seat that you didn’t know as a mid council leader. What have you discovered about us?

Bronwen: One day we were checking in with staff and asking how people were feeling about unification, and one person was saying that they didn’t feel real good because they said people think that there’s far more people here doing this particular work. And then they say that we’re siloed. And they say, “Yeah, we’re siloed. Because I’m a department of one.”

This is also what is happening with unification. Folks out in the pew think we’re all mixed up together doing all of our work. And in reality, that hasn’t been how the system has been organized. This is why unification of OGA and PMA is going to take time. I know the Unification Commission said unification would happen in July of 2025. And yes: unification will happen then. But that’ll just be the beginning.

Even going into General Assembly where we say we want PMA or we want OGA to do particular things, we’re putting O-G-A-P-M-A in brackets, because it’ll be the new entity. It won’t be one or the other. It’ll be both. Part of what I’ve learned is that there are folks out there who think there are a lot more people available to do certain kinds of work than maybe are actually there. PMA has a large staff. The Office of the General Assembly, not so much.

The other thing that I’m realizing is that we have resources and references and it’s out in a variety of forms. And yet there are people who are saying “I have never heard of this program. I had no idea that this was happening.” It’s a communication thing. All sorts of resources have been available. But folks are at a place where they’re like — we just don’t know which way to turn and look and find the resources.

Teri: As I’ve been traveling and listening to people, there is this feeling of disconnect between local churches and denominational staff, denominational resources and programs. I know those resources are often there, but the connections aren’t happening. Are you thinking there’s a communication issue to be resolved where the resources
are in many places and not in one central place?

Bronwen: Well, that might be one of the issues. But I also wonder about folks having too much in their inboxes.  Or, you know, we send out information to our mid councils, and then we don’t necessarily know how that gets passed on.

Teri: When we published the news about COGA’s (Committee of the Office of the General Assembly) decision to not have an exhibit hall at this summer’s General Assembly, there was a long thread of comments — a lot of grief about the loss of opportunities to connect. But a larger issue was named about access and bridging the disconnection between the local church and the denomination’s work, about access to the church at the highest level, and also about giving Presbyterians reasons to connect, and to go to our GA.

In this conversation, the idea arose that we should see the spontaneous lunches and dinners and conversations that happen at GA as essential parts of our connectional church and not just ancillary distractions. I am wondering what you’d say to those Presbyterians who think that not having an exhibit hall just furthers that disconnection and doesn’t give us the chance to introduce the broader work of our church to visiting youth groups, sessions, even families.

Bronwen: Let me say that the idea of the exhibit hall is not gone forever. The last General Assembly said this General Assembly must have committees online and plenaries in person. And then looking at what we’re going to do in the plenary, in the amount of time we’re given, then how do you do an exhibit hall? When most of your commissioners can’t go?

Teri: I consider myself a professional “tabler” for the Outlook now. I’ve tabled outside a business meeting, or a presbytery meeting or over a lunch where you get cross traffic, people taking breaks, etc.

Bronwen: But that’s different than an exhibit hall.

Teri: It is, but there are opportunities there for engagement.

Bronwen: Right. And the six agencies of the national church have been invited to have tables in those spaces. We also have the Saturday night reception where there will be tables and people get to meet the moderator candidates and the stated clerk candidate. Then they will also have the opportunity Sunday afternoon when people are coming in to have tables near where the actual plenary is going to be. This year, we’re in Salt Lake City. Utah Presbytery has 20 churches. It’s a much smaller Presbyterian presence. There’s the reception and folks are going out to the churches on Sunday morning to be the church together that way.

Also, this General Assembly could say: we want something different to happen in four years.

Teri: Yes, in 2028.

Bronwen: Two years ago, when the General Assembly voted on the format of this assembly, we didn’t know what it would look like this year. If we knew then what we know now, I think the General Assembly would’ve said we’re going to have an
all in-person meeting. But we also have to be good stewards of our resources.

I have heard from our folks that airline tickets are much more expensive this year for commissioners, and hotel rates have gone up. So that all has to be a part of the decision-making. Personally, I don’t think that the exhibit hall’s gone forever. I don’t think it has to be. But it might need to be re-envisioned.

Teri: I’m curious about who’s been invited to participate in the conversations about General Assembly engagement. I hear you saying that there are going be some tables for national agencies. And you know there are independent organizations serving the Presbyterian Church that would be willing to pay and come and be present. I’m wondering how those independent organizations can be a part of the conversation about the opportunities for engagement at the General Assembly?

Another comment from the thread about the GA exhibit hall noted that when you don’t have these outside organizations, you don’t have the diversity of engagement there for the business at hand. So it’s also a question of who has access to the business at hand, and what kind of access. Some have noted an outsized representation, or a privileging of national staff, national offices, national agencies who have on-site access. When the outside, independent organizations can’t have a presence, then they can’t have the conversations in the hallways, or advocate on GA business in person.

Bronwen: I guess I see that happening more with committees. And we’ve been working hard to make sure that we resource the people in those committees, and that’s all online this year.

So, nothing’s perfect. And nothing’s going to be what everyone wants. It is my understanding that an email was sent to folks who had participated and hosted events in the past that said, here are the hotels. Here are the times that would work, and you can set it up. We’re not going to sell your tickets for you for events or lunches. But you’re
welcome to come and do these things.

And yes, I am hearing what you’re saying about accessibility. But we’re also having these same conversations about the connectional needs of the church at mid councils, asking “When do we get together? How do we get together?” And it would be interesting to know how many of those asking for access were pastors or mid council folks who normally go to General Assembly because they have it in their budget. On our end, what we need to be doing is making sure our commissioners have the access.

We’re going to learn from this. The last General Assembly (225th in Louisville) said the 226th in Salt Lake City and the 227th in Milwaukee are structured the same. But we’ll do evaluation after this General Assembly. Then recommendations can come to the next General Assembly with far more information about how we’ve gathered with the four differently formatted assemblies. And [we will] be able to say to the 227th General Assembly, here’s all the information, what do you want to do as we move forward?

Teri: We are learning a lot. And I am not one of those people who believes we need to be in person all the time. I appreciate the new and beautiful ways that we can connect through technology, and that has improved accessibility in many ways. But, when we talk about ourselves as a “connectional” church and we value opportunities for community building, I think people are wondering if we can invest in our gatherings as an important aspect of being Presbyterian.

Bronwen: As the budget process for this unification is coming together, we’ll be sharing more widely how it was all done. We’ve been going back and looking at all the restricted funds. There are some that are tightly restricted, then there’s some with a little wider room, and then there’s just general funds.  And we’re looking at how those funds are distributed, because a couple of people have said, we have money. It’s just how it’s used. Or how we can use it.

We’re taking time and looking at all of these things. There’s a lot of moving pieces. I would like folks to have grace with each other in all these things.

Teri: We do need more grace. That’s for sure. Tell me, what are you looking forward to? What do you hope will come out of this General Assembly?

Bronwen: I do hope that many will be feeling more of that connection. The fact that we are together in plenary will help with that. I know people have always talked about committees being the high point for them, but as a plenary we can experience our presence in a much bigger way. Our brothers and sisters in Utah are looking forward to having the large presence of the Presbyterian Church there.

Teri: Thank you, Bronwen. I appreciate your time and this conversation. And thank you for filling the very important seat of acting stated clerk. We needed you, and you said yes. I thank you for that. It’s very important work that you’re doing and on behalf of us all.