A walk through the new conference space at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville looks a lot different than it did less than a week ago. The halls and rooms, once busy with activity, with cables and monitors stretched from one end to the other, are gone now. The reception area is quiet and empty.
For three weeks, the newly designed space was abuzz with staff moving from room to room, commissioners and advisory delegates rotating in and out, meeting, listening and praying. Technical support huddled behind computer screens and monitors, managing the audio, video and online components of the denomination’s first-ever hybrid General Assembly, while additional staff provided advisory, parliamentary and interpretation support among other duties.
During plenaries, the Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly, the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis and the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, sat behind a desk, surrounded by computer screens and monitors to track motions and questions and address those watching online. The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), provided a pastoral presence during proceedings and along with Parliamentarian the Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig, sat for countless hours during plenaries as business proceeded.
“I think General Assembly was a great success on a lot of different levels. People had to learn how to utilize the technology that was available during this Assembly, but we were able to work through any problems or concerns,” Nelson said. “We had a few bumps in the road, but we worked through it, and that’s what we’ve been doing since the pandemic began. We never stopped figuring out how to innovate and that’s what the church of the future is about.”
The online setup during the last week gave plenaries a different feel. The Co-Moderators received a lot of praise for their style of moderating and were compared by some commissioners to hosts of a morning TV show.
“We weren’t sure what we would do; we knew we wanted to start off together but didn’t know if one would take a plenary and the other would take a plenary. But energy-wise, it felt so much more life-giving to share the journey and take turns on particular motions and be an extra set of eyes for each other because there are so many different things happening,” said Starling-Louis. “It was a gift to have my sister next to me and navigating the many pieces together. It felt like a real co-created experience with God in our community. We were trying to listen well. What a gift to have another set of eyes, ears and fingers to do something else so that you can come back with the information. I’m grateful that we had the energy, stamina and desire.”
“What brought us together was commitment, stories of our congregations and theology of flourishing and abundance in a culture of scarcity,” said Santana-Grace. “What I learned about Shavon was that our instinct about one another that began on March 17 was real and I think we bring different gifts in the way we process. I think there’s something very synergistic about Shavon’s openness, I can’t explain it. She has been everything I could hope she would be as a partner. We offered noncompetitive comfort and encouragement. I don’t know where it comes from, but it worked for us. Being in the plenaries together was more energizing than taking an hour break.”
Nelson extended his gratitude to all of the commissioners and advisory delegates who took part in the three-week Assembly.
“Many of us had to learn to adjust to a General Assembly that we were not accustomed to and yet we got the work done that we needed to do. We’ve been able to sit together at the same table and come up with a unified budget,” he said. “We are blessed in so many ways to do what needed to be done and push through with innovation and make things happen. We couldn’t have done this by ourselves.”
Nelson adds that the inclusion and continued growth of Young Adult Advisory Delegates was key to the Assembly’s success.
“We have a powerful future ahead of us and these young people are amazing,” he said. “For them to have collected and donated ... to ending cash bail says something about our young people and what they mean to the life of the church. They are the church now.”
For the Co-Moderators, their work is just beginning and they’re hopeful that the next two years will provide opportunities to meet congregations and presbytery leaders in person when they can.
“There are partnerships we have not been able to visit with in four or five years. If there is space for those meetings to happen and works for our schedules, we are excited to lean into it,” said Starling-Louis. “You can do some good spiritual work and be present with each other from behind the screen. It depends on what you can bring to the moment. We want to be mindful and be good stewards of the environment, of time and energy. I’ve heard the grief from Greg and Elona because they didn’t have that in-person experience. I don’t expect we’ll that have same level of grief.”
The Rev. Greg Bentley and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart, Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly, served during the two years of the pandemic and were restricted in their ability to meet with congregations and church leaders in person.