‘nFOGging’ the General Assembly
Biennial Review Committee proposes changes in how leaders are selected, business is conducted
If you’re a “GA junkie,” book now for the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Portland, Ore. in 2016. It will be significantly different from its 221 predecessors if changes to the Standing Rules being proposed by the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies (CRBA) are approved by this year’s Assembly in Detroit.
Among the committee’s recommendations ― which will go the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) in mid-February for review and adoption before going to Detroit in mid-June for final approval and implementation in 2016 ― are:
- The option to elect co-moderators of the General Assembly (currently a moderator is elected, who then appoints the vice-moderator, subject to confirmation by the Assembly)
- The option to appoint a limited number of assembly committee moderators who are not current commissioners but who have been commissioners to one of the three previous assemblies.
- The option to not assign all commissioners to assembly committees.
With the denomination’s new Form of Government (nFOG) in place ― which emphasizes greater flexibility and openness in how the PC(USA) conducts its affairs ― the CRBA at its Jan. 6-7 meeting here polished recommendations to the Standing Rules of the General Assembly that committee member David Van Dyke of St. Paul, Minn., called “the nFOGging” of the church’s top governing body.
“These proposals don’t require anything,” said CRBA chair Carol McDonald, synod executive for the Synod of Lincoln Trails. “They just open up GA for more, different possibilities.”
They represent “a basic logical progression of entities writing new manuals in light of nFOG and the new spirit of freedom and flexibility,” added Matt Schramm, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bay City, Mich. and chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board:
Other CRBA recommendations would reduce the number of theological student advisory delegates roughly in half from 23 to about 12; reduce the speaking time for commissioners and advisory delegates in plenary from three minutes to two; and expand the use of the consent agenda to handle non-controversial business.
Other changes ― such as beginning the entire Assembly with worship, retooling commissioner orientation, and slating one plenary for informal discussion of major issues rather than formal debate ― will be implemented at the Detroit Assembly.
The CRBA has also prepared a “values” statement ― a form of which it wants incorporated into the Standing Rules as a preamble. The two core values:
- That the common life of the whole church, as evidenced in our meetings, will reflect the mind of Christ, demonstrating consolation, spiritual sharing, compassion and sympathy, and doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves. We will be in full accord and strive to model the faithful, obedient, humble and self-emptying of Jesus Christ.
- That our engagement with one another in the ministry of the gathered church will reflect the transforming love of God, enabling us to discern God’s will together. We will use our gifts on behalf of one another and the world, giving glory to God. We will love genuinely and hold fast to all that is good. We will rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering and persevere in prayer. We will live in harmony with one another and overcome evil with good.
The values statement is clearly key for CRBA members.
“They are not new,” Van Dyke, said, “but are being named here.” Kathy Lueckert, participating by phone from her Seattle home, added, “They are expressed in more direct language.”
Acknowledging the acrimony that sometimes surrounds Assemblies, Schramm said the values “are aspirational, not descriptive. Added McDonald: “They represent a vision to live into, not a standard to live up to.”
The core values are accompanied by six “central commitments”:
- Reflect the body and seek the mind of Christ
- A broad context for Christ’s broad world
- Expansive and spiritual deliberation
- Order and flexibility
- Reunion and affirmation
- Faithful stewardship.
Practical considerations drive some the recommendations. Since the move to biennial General Assemblies in 2004, for instance, the two-year commitment of time required of moderators has discouraged some potential candidates, particularly ruling elders, said Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly.
Providing for co-moderators would open the office to those who could stand for election knowing they would “share” the job. Under the proposal, co-moderator candidates would run as a slate, as would traditional moderator/vice-moderator pairs.
The proposal to not require every commissioner to serve on an assembly committee would reduce expenses, Hay said, because those commissioners not serving on committees could come later in the week. More importantly, he added, “it helps make demographic younger,” because young ruling elders would be more likely to be able to take a few days off work rather than an entire week.
The proposal to permit the appointment of committee moderators who have been commissioners to previous assemblies would expand the pool from which leaders could be drawn. “Sometimes leaders emerge during the course of an Assembly,” McDonald noted, “after its too late for them to moderate a committee at that Assembly.”
If approved by COGA, the Detroit Assembly will feature a 90-minute Thursday morning (June 19) plenary that will be given over to prayer, small group discussion and questions-and-answers about potentially controversial business items rather than parliamentary procedure and debate.
CRBA member Glenn Bell, a Sarasota pastor, said the session “should streamline debate and give committee leaders to outline their work informally and pastorally.” The idea, said Hay, “is to model thoughtful, relational behavior in advance of the debates.”
Based on its initial analysis of Assembly business, committee members speculated that marriage issues, the Middle East and proposed changes in the Board of Pensions benefits plans are the three issues most likely to be chosen for the informal plenary.
“We’re just trying to model what we want General Assembly to become: a place of dialogue, respect, prayer and discernment,” Van Dyke said.