Like other Christian denominations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has had to learn to rely on technology and other means to be church in the 21st century, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, the Office of the General Assembly has heard from numerous presbytery leaders and churches on how the virus has prompted them to find new, creative ways to conduct ministry.
Since the conclusion of the PC(USA)’s first-ever online gathering of the 224th General Assembly last year, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) has been working to transform the assembly in ways to serve the Church in a new era.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), has been sharing his vision with COGA, calling on Presbyterians to “live into fullness of being the church in the 21st century.”
Nelson wants the Church to embrace creativity and openness that he hopes will lead to relationship building among commissioners, committees, ecumenical and interfaith partners, and church members.
He adds that how the Church conducts business needs to change in a way that is more inclusive and less combative, opening opportunities for educating and talking with commissioners and advisory delegates.
“We need to look at how we hold conversations that allow people to be educated at assemblies. We assume too often that many of our commissioners are fully prepared,” he said. “How do we have those conversations on an ongoing basis, utilizing technology in a forum other than coming into a hotel ballroom and trying to hash out what many people haven’t had a chance to talk about?”
Nelson envisions an assembly that engages scholars and seminarians so they can be connected with the ongoing work, devoting more time for conversation with commissioners to help understand what will come to the assembly floor.
“How does a person from New York connect with someone from Idaho, recognizing that their cultures and lifestyles may be different?” he asked. “Can we utilize this as a place of being in relationship with one another, so it’s not a shootout at the OK Corral, but actually taking time to listen to the breadth and depth of what’s going on?”
The Stated Clerk’s vision also includes:
- Empowering all voices, exploring revisions to the Book of Order and Standing Rules, and supporting minority participation in all aspects of the Church
- Seeking community partners across the denomination while offering easily accessible and effective resources to all Presbyterians
- Cultivating commissioner commitment that impacts community while incubating innovative and creative ministries
- Upholding a faithful theology and practice of stewardship: care for the Earth, health and safety of all in light of the COVID-19 virus while providing space and freeing funds for innovative ministry rather than convention-style gatherings.
“I’ve learned things at this table about people and where they came from. There are people who live in other ways, but their ways are not wrong. Their way of understanding life is driven by it,” said Nelson. “I hope to see that come out of General Assembly and ultimately the real issues of inclusion being addressed, not just by overture. How do we model an assembly that demonstrates love for everyone as well as openness?”
COGA has also updated and created some additional workgroups to help pull the Clerk’s vision together for the 225th General Assembly (2022), such as a design team, assembly events, discernment and process, and communications.
“The design team will not work on executing and logistics for the assembly, but think on the high level, referring back to the vision, helping those who are planning the nuts and bolts, to think about a new way of doing General Assembly,” said Wilson Kennedy, COGA member.
Kennedy says the assembly events workgroup will focus on what worship during the assembly will look like, Bible study and Hands and Feet work as well as fellowship in a hybrid environment. The communications team will create a plan for sharing the work with the greater Church.
COGA also sought input from representatives of both the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC).
“Presbyterians speak often about being a connectional church, and many believe that in-person assemblies gather to discern the will of God,” said Forrest Claassen, moderator for the ACC. “A hybrid option would need to be authorized by standing rules, but then we get into a tangle on how to authorize things.”
COGA voted last December to move toward a hybrid format for the 225th General Assembly. The plan calls for in-person committee meetings over a two-week period, followed by online plenaries.
In other business, the committee received an update on uncollectible per capita. In 2019, mid councils came up approximately $1.31 million short. The pandemic was expected to hit per capita giving even harder in 2020, but OGA says year-end numbers aren’t as bad as they had feared.
COGA continues its meeting on Thursday.