As the dates of the 224th General Assembly (2020) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) draw closer, church officials are weighing their options on the best way to proceed. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) heard Thursday about one option that would allow for the entire assembly to take place virtually, with modifications to the agenda.

“The continuing spread of the coronavirus has left us in limbo as to how we could proceed with a General Assembly in Baltimore. We are hearing how field hospitals are being set up at the convention center and one of the nearby hotels,” said the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). “Obviously we have no control over the situation, but we are still mandated to hold General Assembly, so we are having to determine how.”

Staff from the Office of the General Assembly, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the Administrative Service Group have met for several weeks now to consider how to conduct an assembly in light of the pandemic. In doing so, the group has identified several values:

  • Focus is on the health and well-being of commissioners, advisory delegates, and all other attendees.
  • Guided by the Constitution of the PC(USA) as these unprecedented times allow.
  • Provide for the broadest inclusion and representation as possible.
  • Allow for as full of an experience for commissioners and advisory delegates as possible.
  • All business proposed to the assembly, regardless of the source, is important and deserves consideration.
  • The General Assembly is more than a meeting of Presbyterians —it is a way in which the church engages a community and provides a broader witness to the place where we gather.
  • We are in the midst of an unprecedented time. Our response may also need to be unprecedented.

The options under consideration have varied from a mixed in-person/virtual gathering to a brief/all virtual assembly.

  1. Call a special meeting of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) (with commissioners who already served in St. Louis) and ask them to adopt rules allowing for a delay in the 224th General Assembly (2020) until a later time or enable a virtual meeting.
  2. Continue current plans for the 224th General Assembly (2020) in Baltimore for June 20–27, 2020.
  3. Convene the 224th General Assembly (2020) with at least a quorum. With this option, the church could follow one of several possible paths, including: conducting only essential business and refer nonessential business to the 225th General Assembly (2022); conducting only essential business and a second session of the 224th General Assembly in 2021 to finish the nonessential business; sending everyone home and conduct all other business virtually; continuing the live meeting for those in attendance and bring others in virtually; electing an administrative commission, charging them with completing the business on behalf of the assembly, and adjourning.
  4. Delay the convening of the 224th General Assembly (2020) until sometime in the fall of 2020.
  5. Plan for an entirely virtual assembly, with all actions requiring ratification by the 225th General Assembly (2022).

Today, staff proposed conducting the General Assembly over a one-month period. Highlights include:

  • The assembly’s work would be spread out across a month, beginning Friday, June 19, with adjournment scheduled for Saturday, July 18 (skipping the week of June 29, which includes the July 4 holiday).
  • There would be four Friday/Saturday plenary sessions. The dates would be June 19–20, June 26–27, July 10–11, and July 17–18. June 19–20 would include opening worship, a proposal to set aside certain standing rules and adopt new rules for the remainder of the 224th General Assembly (2020), the election of the Moderator, the election of the Stated Clerk, and other business not requiring the attention of an assembly committee. Subsequent Friday/Saturday plenary sessions would include worship, Bible study, reports from assembly committees, and other special events.
  • Eleven assembly committees would each meet a different day between plenary sessions so that no more than one committee would meet at the same time. Committee 05 (Financial Resources) would meet again after all the other committees have completed their work in order to prepare the final budget report including all additional financial implications.
  • The newly elected Moderator/Vice-Moderator/Co-Moderators will preside over the meetings upon election. They will receive additional training and support once elected and before the second weekend of plenary sessions.
  • Committee meetings will include open hearings, as well as opportunities to hear from resource persons, overture advocates, and others as necessary and as allowed.

Nelson told COGA that the pandemic offers the church an opportunity to move forward in the 21st century, utilizing technology and considering a new way of conducting the General Assembly.

“This is a God moment, an opportunity to really begin looking at a new trajectory of change in the life of the assembly,” he said. “We’ve been using the same model in assemblies for well over 60 years. We have now moved into a new era and we need to re-think what the assembly is about.”

Nelson says the full, all virtual agenda would put the church “ahead of the curve” with regards to denominational work and how to hold future meetings like the assembly.

“Technology is advancing quickly because of this dilemma and is it not the time for the church to catch up with something that is already being utilized?” he asked. “It is now time for the church to make a shift from where we have been and begin the possibility of a new way forward in this new century and have a General Assembly that will help us cut costs and become an intergenerational church.”

While thanking staff for “out-of-the-box” thinking, several COGA members expressed concern about trying to do a full agenda online.

“I think it’s too long and I’m concerned about the impact on staff and volunteers,” said Andy James. “This is four weeks of time, dealing with the same level of work we would do in 10 days. I’m not sure it is possible, feasible, or doable.”

The Reverend Cindy Kohlmann, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), said she’s concerned about the commissioners she knows and the time they’ve set aside for both the assembly and personal time.

“I’m concerned about commissioners and advisory delegates who don’t have an easy time getting off from work. We live in a 24-hour culture and not everyone works an eight-hour shift Monday through Friday. This creates work challenges for some,” she said. “I’m also concerned about those who are furloughed and laid off who might be going back to work in June and would be asked to take off for this.”

Others expressed concern over potential technical issues including internet stability and availability.

“I don’t think rapid re-thinking of an assembly would have been on the table had we not been forced to by this pandemic,” said Nelson. “How do we use our sanctified imagination to have an assembly that is representative of not just who we are, but who we intend to be as we make this walk of faith? This is uncomfortable. We either take risk in some way or remain the same, survive but not healthy.”

COGA leaders have appointed a smaller group to work with OGA staff over the next week to determine the best course of action. The committee will reconvene on Thursday, April 9.