The countdown continues to the 224th General Assembly (2020) currently scheduled for June 20–27. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) has been working closely with OGA staff to come up with a plan to host the event virtually in light of the COVID-19 virus.
In a virtual call Thursday with staff, COGA heard a proposal that addressed everything from a short agenda to a realigning of commissioner training and adjusted schedule for electing a Moderator/Co-Moderators.
The latest proposal calls for a two-day General Assembly on June 26 and 27. The meetings would begin each day at 11 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time and end at 6:30 p.m.
“This gives us another week for planning and getting things prepared. If we go with a reduced schedule, it eliminates all committees except for Business Referrals,” said Julia Henderson, OGA’s interim director of assembly operations. “We would form committees for community building and small groups.”
A shorter assembly would also mean a shorter agenda. COGA Member Wilson Kennedy presented a list of 37 total items of business.
“Of the 37 items, at least 14 core items would be taken up individually or as a group,” said Kennedy. “At least 23 items could be offered through a consent agenda.”
Core items selected include:
—Standing Rule votes (suspending, adopting temporary rules, etc.)
—Stated Clerk Election
—Per Capita Budget
—Administrative Services Group (ASG) Budget
—Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) Work Plan
—Actions related to special committees
Henderson says the abbreviated schedule would provide for commissioner/participant training on five days leading up to the opening of the assembly. It would also allow interested Presbyterians to participate in virtual events such as the Poor People’s Campaign, scheduled for Saturday, June 20, and Bible study on Wednesday, June 24.
“There are a few events the Stated Clerk would like to continue such as a concert to benefit Hands and Feet and a Youth Rising Event. There are some ideas for a virtual event that we need to look at,” said Henderson. “The clerk feels there are a number of issues going on in the city of Baltimore that would continue beyond this current situation and we want to continue to lift up their concerns.”
This year’s General Assembly is currently scheduled to be held in Baltimore, but the convention center has been set up to receive infected patients. Convention officials have yet to cancel contracts on events scheduled in June.
Another proposal is to offer a virtual town hall for candidates seeking to become Moderator/Co-Moderators prior to General Assembly. The Moderator election would be held during the final plenary toward the end of the assembly. That would leave the responsibility of moderating the event with the Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Reverend Cindy Kohlmann.
“Whoever moderates in this virtual format will need training and time to get used to this. Trying to coordinate between a Moderator and Stated Clerk in different towns would be stressful,” said Henderson. “It would be a reduction in stress to let the current Co-Moderators lead us through this assembly and turn it over to the new Moderator/Co-Moderators at the conclusion.”
There was discussion over Moderator elections and training for the candidates as well as whether to include other events such as concerts and planned group gatherings.
“I don’t see how concerts and virtual exhibit halls are critical. I see that we want to create a virtual GA experience,” said COGA Member Eliana Maxim. “But things are not the way they were. We need to do something totally responsive in this unprecedented time.”
“We are in a time of lament and how we live that out is both helpful and hopeful for General Assembly,” said Warren Lesane, PMA Board representative to COGA. “We spend time crying out lament, but it might be important to have something that offers some hope, something that is a little bit different. That might be the concert or something else.”
The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), says the church needs to look at this assembly as a turning point for the church.
“We are not just talking about this assembly; we are talking about a major transformation in assemblies going forward and not just through technology. The kind of money we spend now in assemblies, we won’t have in the future unless we see a change in the minds and hearts of leaders and this whole system of per capita and how we are budgeted,” he said. “Having to make adjustments in this period is a Godsend for us because we can’t continue at the rate we are going.”
Nelson says it has to be an “assembly of recognition” that no matter what COGA decides, the church will be changed forever in how it conducts assemblies and other meetings.
COGA will hold its regular spring meeting next week, April 15–17, and will make a final decision on the best course of action to take.