With the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s first online General Assembly in the history books, members of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) say they are pleased with how the complex technical setup came together. But if this is a sign of things to come for future gatherings, some improvements will need to be made, leaders say.
COGA met last week before the holiday weekend to assess the assembly and hear from Office of the General Assembly (OGA) staff.
Julia Henderson, interim director of assembly operations with OGA, reviewed analytics from the livestream broadcast of the 224th General Assembly (2020).
“Our strongest engagement online was during the Co-Moderator election and the Youth Rising presentation,” she said. “We also had as many visitors to the General Assembly website during this shortened assembly as we did for the entire 223rd General Assembly in 2018.”
Henderson specifically lifted up the technical support for the 224th General Assembly (2020).
“Technical support was phenomenal. We actively reached out to commissioners as much as 10 times to make sure they were ready to participate and it paid off with high engagement,” she said.
The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), says it was “all hands on deck” to make this online assembly come together.
“I was in as much amazement as anyone else to see people working, but to see everything come to fruition was wonderful,” he said. “We just moved, folks made it happen and got it done. I was as much of a spectator as I was a participant. It came together in ways I could not have imagined.”
Nelson says he’s heard a lot of positive comments from a number of colleagues in ministry who were watching the assembly online and from some leaders in other denominations who have inquired about the technology for possible use in their own church gatherings.
Other COGA members weighed in on their reactions to the online meeting.
“My favorite moment was when the new Co-Moderators were elected. It brought tears,” said new member Blythe Keiffer, ruling elder from Springfield, Illinois. “What I most appreciated was the tenor of the Co-Moderators of both the 223rd and 224th General Assemblies, their sense of holy indifference and receiving every additional ask for revisions, requests, and motions. I was moved by this generous, gracious sense of God’s Spirit, accepting and affirming whatever people wanted to put forward.”
“My favorite moment was opening worship. I sobbed through the service and it hit me about how much we had to grieve on so many levels,” said COGA member Sallie Watson. “Whoever chose the theme ‘From Lament to Hope’ did the right thing. It was so appropriate.”
“My frustration was for the folks in Baltimore,” said Warren Lesane. “That sense of mourning for the presbytery and the investment they made for the 224th assembly.”
COGA’s Andy James says more needs to be done to engage the young adult advisory delegates (YAADs) in the General Assembly.
“YAADs were marginalized in the conversation. We watched in each plenary as the number of participating YAADs dropped after each one,” he said. “By the end of the assembly, we had approximately 60 percent of the YAADs that had registered and that’s deeply disappointing. We’ve got to look at different ways to engage our young adults in the life of the church.”
Looking ahead, COGA’s new vice moderator, Eliana Maxim, said challenges for future assemblies remain.
“Despite the technological advancements and wizardry of General Assembly, I personally left feeling disheartened and defeated. There was a significant amount of woundedness that impacted a lot of people. There was a lot of conversation of Indigenous and people of color who are very hurt, and we need to own that,” said Maxim. “We are all complicit in the way we allow our standing rules, Robert's rules, and policy that keep us in order, but also allow us to continue to support the white supremacist structures.”
Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart, Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020), said it is important to have serious conversations with any future stakeholder in assembly gatherings.
“What orientation takes place at the mid council level? What are the priorities?” she asked. “There should be an understanding of the guidelines of reports being presented at GA.”
COGA’s new moderator, Stephanie Anthony, said there was a lot to celebrate, but a lot to learn as well.
“We had some hard moments that were difficult, and we see a lot of conversation around the church that can be hard but seeing the way white supremacy is baked into our denomination has been laid bare in raw and honest ways,” she said. “If we are stewards of process, we need to do some serious work to evaluate what our processes are doing. We need to think about what values our processes uphold. We like to say we stand against racism, but we haven’t done anything to put those statements into process and action without procedures.”
During the meeting last week, COGA also said farewell to a few members while welcoming some new faces to the committee. Outgoing Moderator Barbara Gaddis, Margaret Elliott, and PMA Board representative Lesane are rotating off. New members include Teaching Elder Dave Davis of Princeton, New Jersey; Teaching Elder Keiffer; Ruling Elder Luci Duckson-Bramble of Hempstead, New York; Ruling Elder Robin Pugh of Palo Alto, California; and PMA Board representative the Reverend Shannan Vance-Ocampo, of Chester, Connecticut.