Some congregations have co-pastors. Presbyteries can elect co-moderators. So why shouldn’t there be Co-Moderators of the General Assembly?
Now, for the first time, there can be, thanks to a little-noticed action of the 221st General Assembly (2014) (Minutes, 2014, Part I, Item 03-04, Recommendation 8, pp. 12, 21, 184). Commissioners approved a change in the Standing Rules of the General Assembly that allows two people to stand for election as Co-Moderators and serve together as a team.
Both candidates would have to be commissioners. They could be from different presbyteries or the same presbytery. They could even be spouses, said Thomas Hay, director for assembly operations in the Office of the General Assembly.
Theresa Cho, who served on the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies, which recommended the rule change, said, “It’s a reflection of what’s already happening in our denomination.”
Many congregations and mid councils are already used to team-leadership models. And Cho cites a movement toward more collaborative forms of handling church business—replacing win-lose debates and voting with consensus models of decision making.
Matt Schramm, another member of the review committee, stressed that the committee’s intent was not to mandate a change to Co-Moderators. “We just thought it was an interesting possibility and the rules didn’t allow for it,” Schramm said. “We wanted to open the possibility.” Cho agreed, saying, “It was about creating space for more options.”
The move to biennial assemblies in 2004 brought with it a two-year term for Moderators—a daunting commitment, particularly for people with jobs and families. Potential candidates have told Cho they might consider standing for Moderator if they could share the travel and other responsibilities with a partner.
While Moderators already rely on their Vice Moderators for assistance, a Co-Moderator team could divide up tasks and speaking engagements more equally. The change to the Standing Rules eliminates the Vice Moderator position if Co-Moderators are elected.
In making its recommendation, the committee also recognized that serving as Moderator requires two very different skill sets. “There really are two roles for a General Assembly Moderator,” said Schramm. “There’s the week of the assembly, and there’s the rest of the time.”
To lead business sessions at the assembly, the Moderator needs to know parliamentary procedures and to be a facilitator—“someone who is skilled at seeking the Spirit in a contentious environment,” Schramm said. Once the meeting is over, the Moderator becomes a traveling ambassador for the church. Between them, Co-Moderators might bring to the office a broader set of skills.
Cho, who is co-pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, has firsthand knowledge of the benefits and challenges of a team ministry. She and her co-pastor, John Anderson, have found that communication is one of their biggest challenges.
“We meet quarterly with the equivalent of a marriage counselor to talk about our relationship,” Cho said. Their “counselor” is a retired minister with experience as an interim presbytery executive and as a co-pastor.
Potential candidates for Co-Moderator of the General Assembly need to work on their relationship ahead of time in order to avoid power struggles, Cho said. They need to talk about disagreements or competing visions and think about how they are going to make decisions.
If candidates for Co-Moderator step forward, said Hay, the assembly should be prepared for unexpected consequences. Adjustments will need to be made in the election procedures—for example, in the question-and-answer process—to ensure fairness for all candidates.
If Co-Moderators are elected, he continued, “the worst scenario would be that we simply double the amount of work they do.”
Whether Presbyterians will embrace the vision for assembly Co-Moderators is an open question, Schramm said. “It may be something that people latch on to. Or it may be something that never happens.”
Whatever occurs, he said, the primary goal is “that people who are skilled and gifted will want to serve.”