The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) has begun another two-year term with some new members. Luci Duckson-Bramble, Blythe Keiffer, Dave Davis, Robin Pugh, and Shannan Vance-Ocampo are the newest members to fill vacancies on the committee.
These five new members join at a time of great challenge for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) as it deals with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on churches and programs in the national office, including how to move forward with declining revenues.
Their first meeting with the entire committee was held in July. At that time, COGA formed three working groups: Innovative Discernment, Merger and National Unity, and Upcoming General Assemblies. Members agreed to serve in specific groups.
Ruling Elder Luci Duckson-Bramble is a lifelong Presbyterian in the Presbytery of Long Island. She is very active at Christ First Presbyterian Church where she served for 17 1/2 years as clerk of session, stepping down last January.
As active as she has been with her local church, Duckson-Bramble says it was the 223rd General Assembly (2018) that changed her outlook on service to the church.
“I was moderator of Committee 9 [Peacemaking, Immigration and International Issues] at General Assembly in 2018 and it was life changing for me spiritually. I came back a different person,” she said. “I’ve always loved the church, but the experience was very powerful, and I wanted to do more.”
Duckson-Bramble says that General Assembly experience of seeing how the church is moving motivated her to get more involved followed by the Stated Clerk’s efforts to make the church more inclusive.
“When I became clerk at my presbytery, I felt isolated; there weren’t many people of color at presbytery meetings, and there was not a lot of young people,” she said. “I felt something had to give. We’ve been able to create much more diversity now and with that in mind, I’m hoping we can continue to do this.”
Duckson-Bramble is hoping her next two years on COGA will help change that.
“People say young people are our future; actually they are here and now. We can’t wait for a future time to figure out how to meet them where they are and engage,” she said. “It really means doing things differently. Some want to put off young people because their ideas may be too radical, but that’s what we need right now to move forward. We just have to be willing to include them differently and listen to what they’re saying and be open to where their needs are.”
Duckson-Bramble is serving on the Innovative Discernment subcommittee.
“I also think that as we look at our financial issues, we need to look at other opportunities to raise dollars to support the church to do the vision work that we need to do across the world and deal with some of the issues here,” she said.
When not working with the church and COGA, Duckson-Bramble serves as chief fund development officer at Girl Scouts of Nassau County.
The Reverend Dr. Blythe Denham Keiffer is lead pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois. She describes herself as a worker bee and says she hopes to bring a creative structure to her work with COGA.
“I am a person that tends to focus on details, and I can also look at the big picture. I think I can help the committee to do what we need to do to move forward,” she said. “If we have a creative plan on how to go forward, we need to be sure to cross our t’s and dot our i’s.”
Like many of her COGA colleagues, Keiffer feels this is a turning point for the denomination.
“I feel the PC(USA) is an incredible denomination and I think we, as leaders, are on the cutting edge on many issues such as race, equality, gender and sexual orientation,” Blythe said. “I believe the Spirit is alive and well in our denomination. We have a lot of work to do.”
Structuring the next General Assembly will be a major focus for her moving forward.
“I just agreed to serve on a subcommittee that will focus on what the next two General Assemblies will look like,” said Keiffer. “I’m hopeful there will be certain aspects of it to be held in person.”
Keiffer says she recognizes that the church is facing some serious financial challenges and believes it will be important for all church agencies and entities to work together for a common solution.
“I know that we have gone from a larger denomination to a smaller one. I also think part of that is based on some of the progressive decisions that we’ve made,” Blythe said. “I think we can surely work together in a way, across all agencies and entities, so that we could move the church forward.”
Keiffer served for six years on the Board of Pensions prior to coming to COGA. Her term will end in 2024.
The Reverend Dr. David A. “Dave” Davis is the senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.
“I think in light of this summer’s realities, COGA is going to have to wrestle with the reality of what future assemblies will be and adapt to that, not only the pandemic, but what lessons can be learned from the most recent assembly,” he said.
Like Keiffer, Davis says a lot of work will need to focus on how to structure future General Assemblies.
“First is the balance of what a virtual and in-person assembly might look like. Every institution, whether in medical conventions or gatherings for other specialists, people are going to be examining cost and safety of these large gatherings for a long time, so finding a balance of virtual and in-person is first,” he said. “I also think that determining how to balance essential business so voices of the church can be heard is another priority.”
Davis will be serving on the Merger and National Unity subcommittee.
“I served on the all-agency review committee for two years after finishing a term on the Presbyterian Foundation Board. That gives me 10 years of experience at the national level,” he said. “I worked closely with the Way Forward Commission, so I feel like it gives me a leg up because I was a part of that. I feel confident about a future merger in part because of the strong working relationship between Diane Moffett and J. Herbert Nelson. I feel the possibilities are good.”
Davis will serve on COGA for four years.
Robin Pugh is a full-time instructor with City College of San Francisco. She teaches vocational training and job skills for adults.
“Approximately 98 percent of my students are immigrants. They are mostly looking to change careers, and many are still working on learning English,” she said. “I hope I don’t offend anyone, but I have the best students in the world.”
When she’s not teaching, the mother of three volunteers at Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Presbytery of San Francisco. She has also volunteered to work at several General Assemblies, but was particularly moved to get more involved at the national level after the 223rd General Assembly (2018) in St. Louis.
“I felt like this was the time for us to stop spending so much time fighting and start working together to do good,” she said. “I didn’t get to go to St. Louis, but I watched online. I was so proud to see what was done both on the assembly floor and outside the building. That’s what made it important to me.”
Two years later, Pugh is one of the new members of COGA. One of the things she hopes to impact is the belief that the PC(USA) is dying.
“The aftermath of everything that has happened since March is going to be very important going forward,” she said. “We can’t ignore a rapidly changing world. We can’t just redecorate the outside without looking at all the changes we need to make in order to be relevant to people. We can’t just keep complaining that people aren’t coming to us where we are. We have to go where they are.”
Pugh says she thinks the pandemic and Black Lives Matter have demonstrated that the church needs to look at what part it plays in dealing with all struggles. To help do that, she will be serving on the Innovative Discernment subcommittee.
“I feel I am fairly connected to groups that are not very well represented in our church. Hopefully, I can bring those experiences and perspectives to COGA,” she said. “We should always be mindful of the voices that are not being heard.”
Pugh will serve with COGA for four years.
The Reverend Shannan Vance-Ocampo is vice chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and is its newest representative on COGA. She currently serves as the general presbyter for the Presbytery of Southern New England.
“I see my number one role as being one of collaboration, information sharing, collegiality, and shared missional priorities. Both the PMA Board and COGA are key leadership bodies for the PC(USA) and being sure we have strong relationships in this time is important,” she said. “Warren Lesane, who is the PMAB chair, and myself as vice-chair have committed to regular meetings with Stephanie Anthony (COGA chair) and Eliana Maxim (COGA vice-chair), and have already begun those conversations.”
Vance-Ocampo says she sees her focus over the next two years on working collaboratively with the other agencies within the PC(USA) in the midst of COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 realities and shifts. She also wants to be a part of the change in how OGA works with mid councils and congregations as well as communicating the essential nature of the ministry of the Office of the General Assembly.
Vance-Ocampo also sees the church moving forward with what it has been charged to do — providing the message and ministry of Jesus Christ for this time.
“Oftentimes, I think we get stuck in the PC(USA) in negativity or conflict; it sometimes feels like our default. This causes us to miss what the Spirit is doing with us. We have a lot of work and a lot of ministry to do. Prophetic evangelism must be the order of the day,” she said. “God’s preference for the peace that comes through transformative justice must be what we focus on. We can look at this time negatively, consider what feel like ‘losses’ from our place of incredible privilege, or we can go another direction and look at this time through the lens of opportunity for ministry and reformation.”
Vance-Ocampo says she feels the path the church has chosen at this time is going to be a “make or break it” for the long-term future of the denomination.
“The Matthew 25 initiative gives us the space for this work in the PC(USA) as we focus on antiracism, poverty alleviation, and congregational vitality,” she said.
She will serve on COGA for two years.