You could start to describe the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) by comparing it to courts of final appeal in the secular world, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just don’t stop there. In conversation with the news service, Flor Vélez-Díaz and Brian Ellison, who together have decades of GAPJC experience, preferred to highlight the contrasts between GAPJC and non-church judicial bodies.
As the preamble of the Book of Order (D-1.0201) states, “The church’s disciplinary process exists not as a substitute for the secular judicial system, but to do what the secular judicial system cannot do.” GAPJC provides clarity and closure to conflicts while affirming the denomination’s wholeness, addressing disputes as it cares for the well-being of church groups and individuals. GAPJC demonstrates its authority not by exercising a wide array of powers and sanctions, but by exercising the few permitted it by Constitution of the PC(USA), each carefully delineated in the Book of Order.
Amendments to the Rules of Discipline section of the Book of Order proposed by the 225th General Assembly would mostly clarify the work of PJCs and GAPJC, not broaden their powers. Together with recent changes to the commission’s hearings and membership training, the amendments could help a pillar of church governance — and other PJCs — be even more responsive to 21st century calls for justice.
Vélez-Díaz, Manager of Judicial Process in the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and a previous GAPJC commissioner, noted that PJCs exist at every level above session, including mid councils, and are governed by majority rule; church sessions carry out their own judicial process. “Most of the cases filed with the GAPJC appeal actions of other PJCs,” she said.
According to an administrative history of early GAPJC records at the Presbyterian Historical Society, the commission was established in 1907 by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Since the early 20th century, GAPJC decisions have been final under church law.
Vélez-Díaz said that in the past 20 years, cases were transmitted to the GAPJC in waves related to issues the entire church was grappling with at the time, including ordination and marriage standards for LGBTQ+ Presbyterians. “Those cases came up because the General Assembly hadn’t changed the constitution yet. It isn’t until later, when the GA changes the understanding of ordination and marriage, that a wave of property cases was triggered.”
That era is over. “The GAPJC hasn’t looked at those kinds of cases in years,” Vélez-Díaz said. [See a list of GAPJC case decisions going back to the 1980s here.] Cases involving administrative commissions are most common these days, including recent cases transmitted to the GAPJC. For that reason, Vélez-Díaz explained, the annotated Book of Order section focusing on administrative commissions is one of the most widely noted.
When asked about the commission’s guiding ethos, Vélez-Díaz mentioned the preamble to the Rules of Discipline, which proposed changes by GA225 (now being voted on by presbyteries) would relabel Church Discipline.
“The GAPJC is meant to provide something that other legal processes can’t,” Vélez-Díaz said. Presbyterians “subject voluntarily to the discipline of the PC(USA).”
She connected the work of PJCs at every level of the church and their shared values. “PJCs are not meant to be punitive but to nourish the person in the community. We talk about offensive behavior, not crimes.” PJCs retain four types of sanctions regarding two types of cases (disciplinary for individual behavior and remedial for council actions or inactions). The ultimate rebuke for an individual is full removal from ordered ministry or church membership. Most of the cases that reach the GAPJC are remedial.
When asked about the proposed Church Discipline section of the Book of Order, Vélez-Díaz and GAPJC Moderator Ellison said most of the changes would clarify existing language. One substantive adjustment provides longer timelines for disciplinary cases involving sexual abuse allegations or the failure to act on such allegations.
For now, it’s hard to know how the timeline changes might impact GAPJC’s caseload. “We don’t know how those will be interpreted by PJCs at mid councils,” Vélez-Díaz said. “Whatever the response, the proposed changes send an important message.
“When communities are harmed by offensive behavior, the trust has been broken. We want to make sure the church provides an opportunity for the believing community to be nourished and the faith of the community restored. The intent of the amendments is to have a broader opportunity for restoration.”
Ellison has served on the commission since 2018, when he was elected a commissioner from the Synod of Mid-America. He served as clerk from 2020 to 2022, when he became moderator.
“Connections between members are important to our work, which we couldn’t do without a high level of trust and cooperation,” Ellison said. “I’m a bit in awe of how it comes together, and that’s because of the relationships in the group.”
The pandemic was especially tricky for GAPJC members, who were forced to discern together online. With each case they begin gathering on a Thursday and meet together each day until Sunday, with hearings on Friday mornings. Their prep work begins months ahead of a hearing and includes small group work in case committees.
“The pandemic posed a real challenge for us,” Ellison said. “So much of our work in trials and hearings is about face-to-face conversations, and listening attentively to arguments before us. Deliberation rules mean you have to be together all the time — from 10 to 12 hours a day.”
Ellison and Vélez-Díaz praised former GAPJC moderator Susan McGhee for keeping the commission’s work on track during the worst months of Covid.
“Susan had to invent a system for something we’ve never faced before,” Ellison said. “We did as faithful a job as we could, adapting our system to a new reality.”
As the pandemic waned, commission members began to meet in the shared physical space of Louisville’s Presbyterian Center, including for worship. This allowed each commission member to shake hands with each member of the case parties, “a ritual that embodies not only the idea of shared justice but an understanding that the church moves together after a decision,” Ellison said. Recent hearings have been video streamed, so that anyone visiting the GAPJC page of pcusa.org can follow along.
“Livestreaming helps with hybrid participation, improves overall access and heightens connection,” Vélez-Díaz said.
The commission’s executive committee meets with Vélez-Díaz most months to discuss cases that might come before it. The committee also conducts cultural sensitivity and implicit bias training for its membership, a point of emphasis in recent years.
PJCs are composed of teaching and ruling elders, with the GAPJC drawing members from the church’s 16 synods. Vélez-Díaz said that “representation of all kinds is key to making sure discernment happens in the best way possible.
“GAPJC has made great strides in recent years about representation — including wonderful collaborations with the GA Nominations Committee. I was a member of GAPJC for a long time, and at one point I was the only person of color.”
Prior to joining OGA, Vélez-Díaz was an elected GAPJC commissioner from the Synod of Boriquén, included service as vice moderator and moderator. She credits Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, who would become co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly, with convincing her to stand for election to the commission. “It was an easy sell! I’d served at every level except the General Assembly. Vilmarie put me in contact with valerie [izumi, Manager for General Assembly Nominations], who did the rest.”
“GAPJC membership comes from self-nomination,” Vélez-Díaz said before encouraging anyone thinking of lending their gifts to the GAPJC in 2024 or beyond to contact her or izumi. “Folks can find out more at the GAPJC membership page.”
Like Vélez-Díaz, Ellison is proud of the cases GAPJC has handled and the access to justice afforded Presbyterians. He is also proud of the ways the commission has grown through the years.
“One thing that is very meaningful to me in this term is serving alongside Scott Clark [Synod of the Pacific],” Ellison said.
One of Ellison’s other calls is Executive Director of the Covennat Network of Presbyterians, a group that stood for years with people brought before PJCs with cases related to ordination and marriage. Clark represented Jane Spahr during her PJC cases.
GAPJC was a group that “for years interpreted the church constitution to prevent openly LGBTQ people like Scott and me from being ordained,” Ellison said. “And now here we are on this commission” — a body that affirms church unity even as it responds to changes in the denomination’s governance.
Learn more about GAPJC at https://oga.pcusa.org/section/committees/gapjc/