By a 6–5 count, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) has voted to ask the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to waive the travel ban and allow the group to hold a hybrid gathering for its fall meeting. The meeting is scheduled for Sept. 27–29. If given permission, those who choose to participate in person will travel to the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, while those who choose to stay home will connect virtually.
“We’ve moved forward as a country with fast vaccination rates and we felt it is time for us to be able to work together face to face as much as possible while not forcing folks to come if they don’t feel it is safe,” said the Rev. Stephanie Anthony, COGA moderator. “This will give us a chance to test out some of the technology we will be asking commissioners and moderators to use and get a sense of what it is like to practice meeting and discerning together in this way.”
For the past 15 months, the PC(USA) has altered the way it conducts church business because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to holding its first-ever online General Assembly last year, the Presbyterian Center issued a travel ban, required employees to work remotely and produced a series of guidelines to assist churches in conducting worship and other activities outside of church buildings.
As vaccinations have gone up, state and federal guidelines have been relaxed, prompting many COGA leaders to decide to test the waters.
“It is important to begin modeling the practices and expectations through a hybrid meeting while still allowing those who don’t feel comfortable with in-person meetings to participate as fully as possible,” said Teaching Elder Wilson Kennedy. “As early as September, we can begin using these meetings as a test case to see if policies need to be refined and ensure we are doing what we need to do in the best way to get full participation.”
“It is important to emphasize this is not a requirement or mandatory. This is for those who feel comfortable in the context that feels right for them,” said Teaching Elder Eliana Maxim. “We are modeling what many congregations are doing, because not all congregations can get back together. There are parts of this country that have not been blessed with good access to vaccines.”
While PC(USA) agencies have differing views on relaxing guidelines in the Center, Kerry Rice, Deputy Stated Clerk with the Office of the General Assembly, says OGA staff are planning to stay the course on COVID-19 guidelines.
“We’re not allowing staff to gather for in-person staff meetings and are still following the travel ban,” said Rice. “We are also re-instituting the mask mandate for our floor because of health concerns expressed by a number of staff.”
Rice said staff would be given the option to participate virtually for the fall meeting.
COGA members attending Thursday’s meeting were nearly split on the idea of a hybrid gathering in September.
“I’ve always been on the edge and felt I pushed hard to go to a new frontier,” said Sam Bonner. “In this particular case, I’m still concerned that we don’t have a complete hold on this virus yet.”
Ruling Elder Robin Pugh is an educator and she’s concerned about an in-person meeting this soon.
“My students may not be vaccinated, and these are people I spend multiple hours a week with,” Pugh said. “Would I feel OK about traveling and possibly bringing that to a group of my colleagues with the small possibility of being a carrier?”
“I want to be with all of you and supportive of a hybrid meeting,” said Teaching Elder Dave Davis. “I wish we didn’t have to request permission to do this and it’s disappointing there’s not consistency among the agencies.”
COGA has also been discussing the future of Big Tent, the church gathering that was held every other year from 2009 to 2019. Last year, COGA canceled plans for Big Tent 2021 because of the pandemic and major budgeting issues.
Committee members have been discerning the idea of bringing the event back and allowing other agencies to participate, sponsor and/or co-host. However, interest is not there, says Maxim.
“We saw this as an opportunity to come together at GA to do the work of the church and have another opportunity to come together and be the church through a Big Tent,” said Maxim. “There is no way we can make a decision on this soon, but we need to be thinking about this, especially what future General Assemblies look like. What’s the purpose of getting together? What do we retain or let go?”
“I don’t see a way to do it by ourselves. Having said that, I’ve discovered it is sometimes good to let something die and see what rises up in its place,” said Teaching Elder Sallie Watson. “Maybe we say farewell to this Big Tent concept and see what needs arise and how we can do it differently in the future.”
Maxim added that no decisions about future Big Tent specific events need to be made now, but conversation will continue.
In other action, work groups assigned to all aspects of the 225th General Assembly provided updates.
The team has had a few conversations with Jason Raff, manager of Global Language Resources for the Administrative Services Group at the Presbyterian Center. The team hopes to have all materials that are provided to commissioners and advisory delegates in any language needed. More conversation will take place before a final recommendation is made.
The team recently met with advisors to Young Adult Advisory Delegates as well as Anna Kendig Flores with the General Committee on Representation. The conversation centered on questions around the nature and purpose of the advisory delegate system as well as expectations and participation of young adults in the GA process.
Other team conversations have centered on cultural humility and implicit bias awareness and what types of training might be available for committee leadership and Assembly staff.
Recent meetings have centered on a number of issues, including agency access to commissioners as committees meet, technical and renovation updates for the Presbyterian Center, as well as conversations with Mid-Kentucky Presbytery on responsibilities of volunteer Assembly hosts. The team has also met with the Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly to discuss worship planning for next year’s Assembly gathering.
Process & Innovative Discernment
The team continues to work on recommendations for overture advocates as well as explore what it will mean for commissioners to be elected to two-year terms.
The team reports that the monthly newsletter “On the Road to GA” continues to grow in readership and engagement.
COGA will meet online again on Thursday, Aug. 19.