The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) opened its virtual fall meeting on Monday with a lot to discuss. Planning for the 225th General Assembly took up a bulk of business on the first of the three-day meeting.
With an uncertain forecast for the COVID-19 pandemic, OGA staff has been looking at as many six possible scenarios for the Assembly, ranging from the current hybrid model to a full online Assembly like last year's.“We are planning for a variety of scenarios. We’re watching other variants in other countries that haven’t come to the U.S., and a new variant has been reported at a Kentucky nursing home,” said Julia Henderson, OGA’s leader of planning and business. “We thought we had control over our lives and COVID reminds us that we don’t.”
Other possibilities include scheduling in-person committee meetings so that groups don’t overlap or allowing some members to participate in committee meetings online.
“We are trying to be proactive instead of reactive and we are also looking at dates where decisions need to be made and associate any financial implications with those decisions,” she said. “We are in conversation with colleagues in other denominations, getting feedback on what they’re thinking.”
Henderson says OGA is also considering pulling in a third party to provide some “COVID guidance” in determining the best way forward should the pandemic stretch into late next year.
COGA members urged that equitable access to everyone be a major consideration regardless of the scenario.
With the delta variant continuing to wreak havoc across the U.S., conversations are taking place at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville about whether to require all center-based employees to get vaccinated. Kerry Rice, Deputy Stated Clerk with the Office of the General Assembly, says those involved in the conversations are not at a point of consensus, but are closing in.
“All of these are tied together. One action impacts a lot of actions, so we’re trying to figure out and track all of this,” he said.
Some COGA members expressed concern about waiting to make a final decision on mandatory vaccinations, saying deadlines are approaching to finalize who will be serving as commissioners and advisory delegates at GA225. Others suggested waiting to hear from potential consultants, adding that they don’t feel COGA is equipped to make the decision right now without more information.
COGA also received a briefing on a recent survey of mid council leaders and the specific focus on the recruitment of commissioners and Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) for the 225th General Assembly. Those responding to the survey are asking for:
- Continuous communication that clearly explains the time commitment and contributions a commissioner makes for General Assembly
- More information on why the hybrid model is important and how it will impact the denomination
- Updates about the issues/mission happening at General Assembly
- Training that helps people feel confident about participation
- Reduced time on Zoom
- Opportunities for connection, especially for YAADs
- Opportunities for an “experience”
- An atmosphere of the “Big Tent” of the denomination.
“There is a yearning from many for a traditional Assembly experience and not knowing what a hybrid Assembly will be like, it’s hard to describe. The constraints of COVID make this a major challenge,” said the Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig, associate director of mid council relations. “There were frequent questions on how participants might look forward to a meaningful experience when everyone else is wanting something else.”
COGA’s Lynn Hargrove said there are many who believe COGA is not listening to mid council leaders and pursuing its own course of action.
“COGA has six mid council leaders serving and we represent them here,” she said. “We are listening and taking all of this very seriously because it impacts our work as well. We’ve been listening and we’ve invited them into conversations.”
Rice updated the group on construction plans for meeting space on the first floor of the Presbyterian Center. He says demolition plans have been delayed a few weeks due to positive COVID-19 tests among some contractors but adds it won’t delay plans to have the facility ready by late April 2022.
“We are working with an audio-visual consultant to help identify what we need as far as functionality for each of the meeting rooms and production center. The idea is to make it user-friendly, so it doesn’t take a degree in engineering or five people to make it work,” he said. “We also recognize that we don’t need the most expensive, snazzy equipment. We are not setting up a broadcast studio. We need good solid equipment to do the job.”
Rice adds that they’re looking at how to best utilize the space beyond hosting General Assembly.
“We need this renovation for all meetings we host. The world of hybrid meetings is something we would not be equipped to deal with were it not for this project. We will be in good shape to meet the future,” he said. “I’m excited about what it will allow us to do and the generative space it can create for better ministry.”
Several recommendations from COGA work groups will be up for a vote this week, including one that proposes no in-person or virtual exhibit hall at next year’s Assembly.
The virtual meeting continues Tuesday.