Commissioners and advisory delegates to this summer's 219th General Assembly expressed high praise for the Assembly's leaders and said their committee work, worship, informal discussions with other Assembly participants and the sense of community they developed during the July 3-10 Assembly were the most meaningful experiences for them.

Those findings — from 732 respondents to a post-Assembly survey conducted by the denomination's Research Services — were reported to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) today (Oct. 28) by OGA Director of Operations Tom Hay and General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons.

Roughly 80 percent of the 712 commissioners and 200 advisory delegates responded to the COGA survey. More than 80 percent of them were first-time voting members of the General Assembly.

They liked their leaders. Ninety-nine percent said they thought Moderator Cynthia Bolbach was effective and 98 percent said she moderated the Assembly impartially. Ninety-seven percent expressed that opinion of Vice-moderator the Rev. Landon Whitsitt. And 99 percent said Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons was effective and 97 percent rated him "impartial."

The three most important issues confronting the Assembly, according to voters, were the proposed amendment to replace G-6.0106b of the Book of Order — which requires ordained officers of the church to practice "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman" — with language that ties ordination decisions more closely to the ordination vows of the church; the new Form of Government; and the report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage.

Parsons said he was surprised that a controversial report on the Middle East didn't rank higher, but noted that the Assembly substantially reworked the paper and then passed it by an overwhelming majority, thus defusing most of the controversy.

Commissioners and advisory delegates seemed unthreatened by potential divisiveness. Asked what four elements of the Assembly were most important to them, they answered: committee work (where most of the heated debates occur), the sense of connectionalism, the diversity of opinion, and participating in the denomination's work.

By overwhelming majorities, they said the issues in their committees were "important to the work of the PC(USA)", that resource persons "provided appropriate assistance without undue influence," and that their committee leaders were effective.

The General Assembly News — the daily newspaper produced during the Assembly — was the most followed source of news about the Assembly. Eighty-three percent of commissioners and advisory delegates said they relied on the paper "a fair amount" or "a lot." No other news source "even came close," Parsons said of the survey responses.

Lessons for future Assemblies

Based on the survey results, Hay said a number of features tried for the first time at the 2010 Assembly will continue at future Assemblies.

For instance, "Riverside Conversations" — pre-Assembly conversations designed  for commissioners and advisory delegates to informally discuss major topics prior to the formal consideration of them by the Assembly — proved very popular and will be scheduled at the 220th General Assembly (2012) in Pittsburgh.

Two-thirds of the respondents said they attended Riverside Conversations. Eighty-seven percent said the conversations "helped me better understand the issues" and 88 percent said they should be repeated in Pittsburgh.

Beginning each plenary session with opening music garnered 80 percent approval. "Clearly, Assembly participants would rather begin business sessions with a song than with a gavel," quipped COGA Moderator the Rev. John Wilkinson.

And nearly all participants (95 percent) said PC-BIZ — the online communication system for listing and tracking all Assembly business — "helps make the General Assembly run more smoothly" and makes it easier for committees (88 percent) and plenaries (95 percent) do their business.

Opening worship will change in Pittsburgh

In response to a request from Pittsburgh Presbytery and its churches, Sunday morning worship in 2012 will occur in local congregations rather than in a central location at the Assembly site, restoring a practice that was abandoned more than 20 years ago.

It will also enable the Assembly to hold opening worship at its opening plenary rather than on the second day of the Assembly and will allow Assembly participants to experience Sunday worship in the congregations of the host presbytery, Hay said.

An additional benefit — though not the primary reason for the switch, Parsons said — will be a substantial financial saving. The cost of contracting for arena space large enough to hold 10,000 Presbyterians for a mass worship service on Sunday morning, he said, is about $100,000. "That's a nickel in per capita," Parsons noted.

Themes for future Assemblies chosen

COGA adopted the themes for the next three Assemblies, all based on the biblical concept of hope. They are:

  • 220th General Assembly (2012) in Pittsburgh: "Walking, running, soaring in Hope" —

            "But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:31, NIV)

  • 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit: "So that you may abound in Hope" — "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13, NRSV)
  • 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Ore.: "The Hope in our Calling" — "So that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God's glorious inheritance among the saints." (Ephesians 1:18, NRSV)