Changing General Assembly: Can It be Possible?

The General Assembly constitutes the bond of union, community, and mission among all its congregations and governing bodies. (Book of Order G-13.0103)

A couple weeks ago, I traveled to Indianapolis for the General Assembly Biennial Review Committee. Not the sexiest committee to be on, but as I soon found out, our task is certainly an important one. In 2002, at the 214th General Assembly (GA), there was an overture to form a committee that would fully evaluated the effectiveness of biennial assemblies. At the previous GA, the responsibilities of our committee expanded to evaluating the whole function and form of GA: number of commissioners, election of the moderator, committee work, use of Robert’s Rules of Order, etc.

As daunting as this task may seem, there is also great excitement of the possibilities. For years if not decades, we have come to believe that needed change in the church is too slow and that denominations as a whole are irrelevant to the realities of local congregations and people of faith. One of the most visual ways we see this played out is at General Assembly. Depending on who you talk to, GA is either a reunion of not-so-often-seen friends or a place to politic and be divisive according to any given issue. However if you read your Book of Order, it says in G-13.0103 that the main responsibility of GA is to constitute “the bond of union, community, and mission among all its congregations and governing bodies.”

First of all, I am struck with the word “union.” Now given the fact that this statement was a carry over when Presbyterian Church in the United States merged with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1983, the word “union” carries a different meaning. But today, this word can have a very positive meaning. What would GA look like if it was to successfully build bonds of union – not unity, union. To me, being in union doesn’t mean being in agreement or giving up one’s convictions for another. To me, union is about being in a covenant relationship in spite of diverse opinions, beliefs, and convictions. What brings us in union is our sense of community, our call to mission, and our identity in Jesus Christ.

So, if we were to be more intentional about living out G-13.0103 at GA, what would that look like? That is the task before this committee. How can GA be a place where we celebrate our diversity and speak to the truth of our convictions as well as come together in the spirit of union, community, and mission? I am excited to journey in this process of answering that question. I believe we are at an opportune time to discuss and discern this, especially at a time when larger congregations are being “graciously” dismissed to other denominations on disagreements about sexual orientation; especially at a time when interest in organizing more non-geographic presbyteries based on language, culture, and theology are growing; especially at a time when the overall membership in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is declining; especially as the economy has challenged us to rethink where we put our money; and especially as more and more people are growing tired of the divisive nature at GA that seems to separate us more than bring us together.

Whether you faithfully attend GA annually or have only gone once, how would you answer these questions:

  • What should the meetings of the General Assembly keep doing?
  • What should the meetings of the General Assembly stop doing?
  • What should the meetings of the General Assembly start doing?
  • What message do you want the Review Committee to hear?

We, as ruling and teaching elders, are the General Assembly. It is us who are empowered to voice how we go about doing God’s work? Surely, decently and in order, but even that hasn’t protected us from the weariness of doing God’s business. So your input is welcomed and important.

6 responses to “Changing General Assembly: Can It be Possible?

  1. Theresa, I need to really think deeply about this. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is be sure to keep the exhibit hall (and the free trade market!) open!!!!

    I want to think about where the places are that dialog occurs and why. We need to find ways to foster the “communion-ness” of our faith. The communion of the Body of Christ. Rather than rambling, I will think more about this. What’s rattling around in my brain is unity-community; union-communion.

    Keep posting this request from time-to-time to keep it on the front burner.

    Blessings!

    • Thanks Leslianne for taking the time to think about it. I would love to know your thoughts. I like the parallel you made about unity/community and union/communion a lot. I’m going to let that ruminate in my thinking for a bit.

  2. Dear Theresa,
    I just read your blog. I am not a member of your church, but found it very interesting that your church is having the same problems other churches are having. As a very active church member and a parliamentarian, I have found a right use of Robert’s Rules very helpful in preserving the unity and body of Christ. A version of Robert’s Rules that you might find helpful is “Webster’s New World Robert’s Rules of Order Simplified and Applied.” It speaks to the principles of courtesy,respect and brotherly love. When I preside at church meetings I take Robert’s with me and the knowledge that the Christ is the head of the Church. In my church this is the spirit that prevails. You might find these web sites helpful: http://www.parli.com and Robertsrulessimplified.com. They help people with solving meeting problems.

  3. Excellent questions! A few of the thoughts that spring to mind for this GA “junkie”, in no particular order:

    1. Having the opportunity to gather together and wrestle with important questions about the PC(USA)’s witness and mission and life together is important.

    2. Diversity and difference is important in a connectional church. I would be discouraged if we moved further in the direction of non-geographical presbyteries. We need to find better, more faithful ways to relate to one another and minister together out of our different languages, theologies, etc., rather than self-segregating.

    3. I fervently pray that we will move boldly out of majority-rule, “let’s vote and get this over with” decision-making, into the realm of true dialogue and consensus-building.

    4. I think that YADs and TSADs should have full vote in the plenary. Ecumenical and mission worker delegates perhaps make sense as advisors, but YADs and TSADs should be included fully.

    5. A pivotal moment in my own personal story and understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian came in a grace-filled encounter with a fellow committee member as we waited for our meeting to begin. He and I were of different age groups, geographical regions, and theological perspectives, but we shared a desire to connect with one another’s questions and understandings of the issue at hand (G-6.0106b). I am deeply grateful for his taking the initiative and asking me about why I felt the way I did about the issue. We both shared, and it was suddenly very clear to me that we were both doing the best we could to respond faithfully to our understanding of the Gospel. This was not a person who was a heartless (or unthinking) fundamentalist enemy, this was my brother in Christ who was doing his best to love his neighbor and live out what he understood to be the demands of the Bible. That moment changed my whole attitude and approach, both to GA and life in the church more broadly.

    6. Trying to discourage the campaign atmosphere would be great (no moderatorial buttons, for example). But as far as the moderatorial election, I think some tweaking might be in order (what’s the point of the nomination speeches?) but the general concept and opportunity to really get a sense of how the candidates compare on issues of concern and how they present themselves in front of the body they would need to be leading all week, is significant and important.

    Thanks for posing the questions!

  4. Sarah, I truly appreciate you taking the time to thoughtfully answer the questions. Your comments are worth noting and have heard similar opinions from others. Please continue to feel free to share as other thoughts come up for you.

  5. Hi Theresa – blessings on your work! :) Just a couple things I would mention based upon my experience two years ago. 1) Have G.A. in Louisville to save the costs of transportation for all the staff who attend from Headquarters. 2) Moderator election – some of the questions asked are fluff and non-helpful. So perhaps have candidates respond verbally to 3-4 questions, and then just 2-3 from the floor.

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