The Covenant Network of Presbyterians urges commissioners to choose a plan for future General Assemblies that emphasizes in-person engagement for the entire Assembly and restores the opportunity for the whole church to come authentically together. Here’s why:
In this unusual item of business, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly has put before commissioners four options for how the 226th General Assembly (2024) should be conducted, with implications for General Assemblies beyond that one. The basic options presented are:
- Plan Alpha: Committees in-person / Plenaries online (similar to this year)
- Plan Omega: Committees online / Plenaries mostly in-person (but reduced from past assemblies)
- Traditional Assembly: Everything in-person
- Online Assembly: Everything online
The Covenant Network of Presbyterians strongly urges the Assembly to restore a primarily in-person General Assembly, ideally through the “traditional” model. If commissioners deem it necessary to make a change for financial reasons, “Plan Omega” is preferable in that it provides an opportunity for a mass gathering of the church with participation and input from a broad cross-section of the church.
The 224th General Assembly (2020) – and in some ways already the 225th – have demonstrated the shortcomings of a structure that focuses on connecting people across computer screens rather than bringing us truly together. The new format imposed by the Office of the General Assembly has—perhaps unintentionally—ensured that commissioners and advisory delegates hear only mainly from denominational staff, excluding all but a few resource people from having access to commissioners before, during or after their proceedings. Open hearings have been reduced to pre-recorded videos, for which the deadline has already passed, with almost no participation across the broader church. Groups across the ideological spectrum (including the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship Community, More Light Presbyterians, the Association of Mid-Council Leaders, and more), who have been deeply invested in the church’s mission and ministry, have been deprived of their usual access, given no way to meet commissioners coming and going, to host special celebrations or meals, to publicly voice agreement or disagreement with GA actions, to hold information sessions, or to engage in conversation in an exhibit hall.
The General Assembly was never about having a few, efficient business meetings. It has always been about bringing people together – and not just commissioners and advisory delegates, but a cross-section of the whole church. Other efforts to create these spaces (like “Big Tent” or the National Pastors Conference) never really worked to draw in this diverse, representative, highly engaged group. And General Assembly (pre-pandemic) did this very well – even as the church changed, G.A. continued to provide a place where we touched base with each other, renewed and evolved our identity, and did God’s work.
Proposals to alter the General Assembly are trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. Is the General Assembly expensive? Yes, but it is money well spent. Better spent, perhaps, than on other things. The General Assembly meeting is a hallmark of who we are. It was the original sole purpose for the collection of per capita. Many of the financial implications listed for “returning” to this model—a model the Assembly itself never voted to depart from—relate to finding alternatives to the newly renovated Presbyterian Center (which was remodeled without the Assembly’s approval). While there may be some financial waste associated with now not living fully into those “sunk costs,” the responsibility for that would lie with those who made those costly decisions, not with this General Assembly, which now must discern what is best for the church going forward.
We also strongly disagree with the characterization and description of the “Traditional Assembly” option in the materials provided to commissioners. The reduction of the benefits of the historic model to “There is comfort in the familiar” (“Possible Formats for GA 226” document, page 4) feels frankly patronizing, and insulting to the tens of thousands of Presbyterians who have experienced the risen Christ in the processes of discernment that occurred in the first 223 General Assemblies. The learning and conversation of the exhibit hall, the awesome feeling of sharing in large-scale worship, and the array of diverse events were a profound coming together that gave shape and texture to our ministry, strengthened the unity of the church across our geography and bore witness to the world of Christ alive and at work in our various ministries.
Beyond the non-legislative experiences, the ability of any person to walk into a committee room and testify informed, challenged and strengthened our deliberations. The sharing of space over meals and in many a hotel lobby into the wee hours of the morning build relationships that resulted in discernment, calls to ministry, and transformation into a more inclusive and generous church. Groups calling for prophetic action and a more just church and society were able to bring transformation through their faithful presence.
The General Assembly was about this coming together; proposals which reduce our ability to come together will destroy this, all with the disparaging dismissal of finding “comfort in the familiar.”
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as we know it is dis-integrating. People feel less connected to each other. Congregations – especially larger congregations – already feel less and less identification with or dependence on denominational programs and mission emphases. Presbyteries rely less and less on the General Assembly for guidance and direction. The General Assembly is one place – and surely the best place – where we all came together and remembered who we are … together. The 224th General Assembly did very little to make us feel united; indeed, participants experienced several moments that reflected how divided we were without opportunity to remedy those divisions face to face. Our hope of restoring unity and shared identity and purpose seem very limited if we keep diminishing our opportunities to come together physically, informally and regularly.
Of course, the church is changing—smaller in membership and more advanced in technology. But technology does not preclude an in-person meeting, and smaller size does not automatically diminish the value of in-person gatherings. Technological benefits like the use of video testimony could augment an in-person meeting without needing to replace it. We urge commissioners to restore General Assembly to the traditional model or one that includes a significant in-person component that provides time and space for all to come together.
More information on the Covenant Network of Presbyterians:
The Covenant Network of Presbyterians is a national organization of nearly 400 congregations and thousands of Presbyterians. For 25 years, we are seeking to strengthen the church by educating, engaging and equipping it to be more welcoming and affirming of LGBTQIA+ people. Year round, work directly with individuals, congregations and councils across the church, and every two years, we advocate at the General Assembly for outcomes that are faithful and just.
To receive regular updates by email before and during the 225th General Assembly, or for questions about specific issues of items of business, email Executive Director Brian Ellison at [email protected]. You can also follow us on Twitter (@CovNetPres) for up to the minute information on issues before the Assembly.
To learn more about the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and its work helping the church live into its promises of equity and justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, visit covnetpres.org, or follow us on Twitter (@CovNetPres) or Facebook.