It was supposed to be nine-to-10-month temporary job, but it turned into more than 2½ years. Julia Henderson, who led the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the planning for two General Assemblies in the midst of the Covid pandemic, has completed her term of service and is returning to the private sector.
Henderson, a ruling elder from Denver Presbytery, joined the Office of the General Assembly in November 2019 as interim director of Assembly operations. She had previously served as a member of the Committee on Local Arrangements for the Denver Assembly in 2003 as well as moderator of the General Assembly Procedures Committee at the Minneapolis Assembly in 2010 and worked the General Assembly docket desk at the St. Louis Assembly in 2018.
Her task was to deliver the 224th General Assembly in Baltimore. But then the Covid pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020, forcing Henderson and staff to rethink the entire event.
“My biggest concern in the beginning was we only had nine months to get everything set for Baltimore in 2020. Little did any of us know that Covid would change everything, with even less time to plan something completely new,” she said. “We knew we had to have a General Assembly to relieve those who were completing their terms of service and to approve budgets and basic operational necessities for the denomination. We brainstormed a long list of options, including writing to the folks at Robert’s Rules of Order to seek a pandemic relief provision. In the end, the best course of action was to put our trust in our GA225 commissioners, that they would ratify the work of GA224. They did so without question.”
Henderson says PC-Biz, OGA’s online business platform, was a natural fit for the denomination’s first online Assembly.
“PC-Biz is an incredible platform. We made a few modifications, paired it with Zoom, and we were ready to provide a fully accessible online experience for our participants,” she said. “Nathan Young and Vicente Guna are brilliant colleagues, and the work would not have been possible without their energy, vision and creativity.”
Henderson also led the effort to market PC-Biz to other organizations, not just churches, including the Washington State Medical Association.
The experience of an online Assembly in 2020 made it possible for this year’s Assembly to be successful. But, she adds, there were still challenges to bringing the 225th gathering to life.
“We tried to think through a number of processes ahead of time, attempting to recognize additional refinements that would improve the experience of our participants. Prior to GA, we held four mock committee sessions and made changes each time,” Henderson said. “Ultimately, we learned the most when our first set of committees were in Louisville. The committee leaders and members provided crucial feedback for improvements while extending grace along the way.”
Henderson says this year’s Assembly participants were “generally open” to new methods of accomplishing the work of General Assembly.
“That openness is key to further advances and efficiencies. Technology will continue to improve around language support, encouraging more leaders who prefer a language other than English to serve in leadership positions for GA and beyond,” she said. “So much of what we did was completely new. The numerous planning teams enjoyed the challenge of finding innovative ways to support the work of the General Assembly and expanding access to those who would normally not have been able to meet us in a convention center. It was a joy to work with them.”
Henderson has generated a lot of fans across the Office of the General Assembly, including its top leaders.
“We knew from day one that Julia’s appointment had God’s hand in the mix. Through her incredible leadership, the Office of the General Assembly was able to single-handedly re-imagine what the 224th General Assembly would look like in less than three months, moving from a completely in-person gathering to a shortened online event,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Her incredible spirit and ability to connect and work with people provided the vision we needed to conduct the 225th General Assembly in a hybrid format. She has laid the groundwork for future church gatherings.”
“Julia was the right person at the right time,” said Kerry Rice, OGA’s deputy stated clerk. “It was clear that she takes God’s call seriously – her openness to the work of the Spirit was exactly what we needed.”
Before leaving, Henderson had a few words of advice for her successor.
“Continue to build on the successes of GA224 and 225 and rely on your OGA colleagues and GA volunteers for guidance about improvements in processes.”