Last year at this time, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was scrambling to pull together a completely virtual General Assembly gathering. They had four months to do it. While a large part of the scheduled business was delayed two years, the Assembly was held, and the church moved on.
Now, leaders from the Office of the General Assembly and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly are moving forward with plans for a hybrid gathering that includes in-person committee meetings and virtual plenaries.
Both COGA and OGA leaders have been seeking feedback from mid councils and have received mixed reactions to the plans. During Tuesday’s COGA meeting, discussion continued about next year and beyond.
“The changing format creates a sense of loss, grief and anxiety among siblings in the denomination. We pulled together the last Assembly in four months and we’re doing this now a year in advance,” said Luis Ocasio, who serves on the COGA Events Team. “I’m still nervous, but it makes me anxious and I think we are in a good place to be in this present time with the data we know.”
The Design Team shared concerns from organizations that are used to holding dinners, luncheons and other gatherings during General Assembly and question how that can continue under a virtual plan.
Some have suggested taking a new look at Big Tent as a possible avenue for these types of fellowships.
“I think the key is to look at cross-agency collaboration and look to possibly revitalize a Big Tent-like gathering that allows for personal connection and places for training and collaboration, to teach and equip one another in this moment,” said COGA’s Wilson Kennedy. “There is no better setting for seminary lunches and catching up as well as the necessary training to live into the Stated Clerk’s vision.”
Kennedy adds that if this is the direction the church moves in, it must be an all-agency collaboration.
“It shouldn’t be OGA’s responsibility or something one agency does for everyone,” he said. “We should all work and grow together and figure out ways to be the church in this moment.”
Events Team leader Dave Davis adds that through it all, the church has to be transparent.
“The kind of collaboration we want is to reduce the burden on per capita, but not sacrifice the equity of presence,” he said.
“We want to help people understand we have not lost the commitment to what this denomination is about. We are still doing the work required for General Assembly,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). “People will still be involved in the process. We hear their voices and their voices matter. We have not abandoned the ethos of who we are. We are still going to be a family and look for ways to gather as family, just not always the way we’ve done it.”
One of the main questions in Tuesday’s conversation was whether the 226th General Assembly in 2024 would be held in Louisville or elsewhere. Nelson says there’s a lot to be considered before that decision is made.
“If the model works, it might something we can use in the future and there may be a need for us to look at other opportunities for fellowship and relationship-building that may be absent in this one,” said Nelson. “The concern I raise is the issue of future sustainability. The model we have used in relation to per capita we can’t continue unless we find a way to continue to support the work we’ve done in the past.”
Nelson adds that the conversation around a new way of ministry and business in the church began long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the reasons I supported changing the format is this is a cultural shift, not a crisis shift. We are in the process of breaking down scaffolds that have been harmful to the church that have prevented us to live in the fullness of our being,” said Kennedy. “Presbyterian people come together to discern the mind of Christ and we need a strategic vision on how to move back. It’s going to be a pivotal Assembly in the life of the denomination. I hope and pray we have a strong vision on how we conduct the meeting and I hope we can get the work done.”
COGA’s spring meeting concludes Thursday afternoon.