The PC(USA) meeting team that hosted the first online General Assembly last summer has now helped two other Reformed denominations with major online gatherings: the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) General Assembly 146 and the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod 33.
In addition to strengthening ecumenical ties, the team has gained valuable additional experience that is helping it stage PC(USA) national meetings, including last week’s Presbyterian Women’s Online Gathering Event and Business Meeting and next summer’s 225th General Assembly.
GA225 will be another COVID-19-era first for the PC(USA): a hybrid online and in-person gathering, with committees meeting in Louisville and plenary sessions convening online.
Fee-for-service support from the PCC and UCC defrays the cost of developing improved meeting tools for the PC(USA), and moves it toward the ultimate goal of a fully inclusive and user-friendly General Assembly for all commissioners, delegates and visitors. That’s true for 2022, but also 2024 and 2026, when digital platforms will continue to shape the way Presbyterians gather to conduct business, enjoy fellowship and worship.
PC-Biz, online registration
Vicente Guna, Associate Director for Technologies in the Office of the General Assembly, directed the modification of the church’s workhorse business application, PC-Biz, for use by the PCC and UCC.
For the PCC assembly in June, PC-Biz facilitated the business meeting for 250 participants, with “all reports, recommendations and general information” being “posted to PC-Biz,” according to the PCC.
For the UCC general synod in July, Guna’s team expanded PC-Biz to accommodate 900 UCC members for their online business meeting. The modified platform, meet.ucc, also connected to digital workshops and an online exhibit hall.
Before the meeting, the UCC delegates used a version of the PC(USA)’s registration interface, a time-intensive process overseen by Deb Davies, Manager of Meeting Services for the Office of the General Assembly. More than 2,700 UCC members participated online throughout the general synod in more than 100 activities, livestreams and worship services.
The UCC contacted the PC(USA) meeting team more than a year ago about collaborating; the PCC reached out later in 2020. Last summer, the PCC canceled its yearly assembly because of COVID-19.
Guna said that without PC-Biz, “It would have been very difficult for the Presbyterian Church in Canada to carry out its business” this summer.
The Reformed heritage of the three denominations means all have related structures for determining church business. “And business,” Guna noted, “really means facilitating the democratic governance of each church.”
Guna says he is proud that PC-Biz made the votes about church leadership and direction possible at the PCC and UCC gatherings.
“This is very cool, and very important work.”
Collaborative inspiration, lessons learned
Julia Henderson, Leader for General Assembly Planning and Business Management, credits the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), with inspiring the team’s efforts inside and outside the denomination.
“The Stated Clerk called us to be innovative in planning and hosting General Assembly 224,” Henderson said.
“Having an online GA made us free to dream about what’s possible. It helped us be creative. … Vicente and Nathan Young” — who produced GA224 and is an ongoing meeting team leader — “are great teammates.”
Henderson identified three major lessons learned during the PCC and UCC collaborations that the team plans to incorporate into GA225 preparations:
- hosting learning sessions for participants in advance of all business and committee meetings;
- continuing to prepare detailed scripts for staff and moderators that can be modified in real-time [the UCC caried out a full paper review a month before their general synod]; and
- increasing accessibility.
Guna noted that ensuring accessibility through innovation and ADA compliance is at the forefront of the team’s ongoing digital design work.
“Folks really appreciate how equitable meetings can be using digital systems,” Guna said. “This isn’t just a lesson for virtual participants. People gathering inside a large plenary hall in the future will be able to speak during floor debates without needing to find their way to a microphone.”
“They will be able to speak using the gateway of their phone” — the same device they could use to cast votes.
Beyond changes to PC-Biz and online registration, the meeting team is developing a one-stop user-friendly site for GA225, a response to feedback about difficulties some have experienced moving between Zoom windows, PC-Biz and other digital platforms. Other online attendees have said they would like more face-to-face contact.
Accessibility assistance, ecumenical promise
The Rev. Mark Jacobs, a UCC delegate who is visually impaired, was impressed by the assistance the PC(USA) team was able to provide him during the general synod.
Sam Shin, who manages the help desk during virtual meetings, wrote a macro program that enabled Jacobs to vote using his keyboard instead of clicking an on-screen button.
Jacobs, Associate Minister for Outreach at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Champaign, Illinois, praised UCC national staff who had been “cognizant from the beginning” of the diverse needs of the synod’s participants. He also praised Shin, Henderson and Jayne Culp, Program Assistant for the Office of the Stated Clerk, for their one-on-one work with him.
“Julia, Sam and Jayne went through the steps I needed to know to navigate through business and voting,” he said. “Julia tuned in well to my particular needs and almost intuited them.”
Jacobs’ outreach ministry includes seven assisted living facilities in Champaign, and four in outlying areas. He likes how online streaming has provided another platform for worship at those facilities when he has been unable to visit them in person.
“One of the important aspects of my ministry is that it is provided for everyone at each facility,” Jacobs said, “regardless of their faith tradition.”