A view from the back of the room

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has ended and a time of decompression for those who attended has begun. The first week after General Assembly ends is oftentimes an opportunity to reconnect with those we left behind at home. It is time to reflect upon a week that some will call historic and others have decried as another moment of our denomination’s decline and demise. This post skirts the in-depth analysis of the major issues to give you the perspective of someone who sat at the back of the room – a Presbytery Executive.

1.  Exciting…no, wait…’just sit there and be quiet’ news:  In the category of surprises at this Assembly were two motions from a commissioner.  One was a motion that Presbytery Executives be appointed as Advisory members at this Assembly – motion defeated.  The second was a motion that Presbytery Executives be named as Corresponding members with voice but no vote at this Assembly – again, motion defeated. In truthfulness, an advisory vote would be preferential to status as corresponding member.  Alas, maybe next time!

2.  GA Floor:  Commissioners and Delegates to this Assembly were treated to the most creative orientation ever.  Matt Schramm, moderator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, created and produced a video (now viral among Presbyterians) titled, GA Floor and based on the music of Les Miserables.  Even if you didn’t attend GA, I recommend that you watch it.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0iYniL2WKg

3.  Back to the Future:  This Assembly, while envisioning the future of the PC(USA) also did quite a bit of looking back.  The Committee on Biennial Assembly reminded us that in many of our structures for General Assembly we are relying on an organization that existed in 1983, the year the Northern and Southern streams of the Presbyterian Church reunited.  The image of our denomination still driving around in a 1983 Cutlass Supreme automobile, the most popular car of the year, while all around us we have more efficient, smarter cars (ways of organizing ourselves) from which to choose.

Then, in a real challenge to our place in the new millennia, we found our electronic voting to be inadequate to the task.  Originally the idea was to have commissioners and delegates log in through a designated voting site – that was soon fried and abandoned; out of the boxes came the clickers – wireless remotes – which needed to be synced to the GA computers.  What’s a GA to do next?  Paper ballots.  Yes, in a real Throw-back Assembly (1987) moment commissioners resorted to using paper ballots.

Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA commented, “since we gave up the flannel graph, its been down-hill ever since.”  It is a comment that only those of us alive in 1983 might  understand.

4.  Mode-Rada:  Ruling Elder Heath Rada was elected Moderator of the 221st General Assembly on the first ballot.  Heath is a former President of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (one of my grad schools) and former CEO for the Greater Richmond chapter of the American Red Cross.  Heath led the Assembly in a congenial manner.  His choice as Vice Moderator, Larissa Kwong Abazia, was excellent.  Both the Moderator and Vice Moderator rocked at leading the Assembly in plenary.

5.  Motor City rep and rap:  Detroit is a city that historically has a bad reputation; plagued by economic dependence on a single industry and unfortunately, a spate of political corruption.  It is the largest US city to file bankruptcy and is now awaiting disposition in the courts.

Despite the “bad” we hear about the city, it was graciously welcoming and a pleasant surprise to see a downtown that is rebuilding and far from the images of Detroit that we might carry in our heads. Much work remains for the Motor City but what a wonderful mission has evolved as civic, business, and religious groups work together to restore a once proud city.

6.  Speaking of Detroit Presbytery folks:  One of the best things about the 221st General Assembly for me was the reconnection with friends and colleagues in the area.  I served the Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church for four and a half years.  I was an active participant in the Presbytery of Detroit and formed many lasting friendships with people there.  It seemed that every where I went I encountered familiar faces and recalled many memories of my time with them.

Truly we are a connectional church…if you question that statement, go to a General Assembly meeting!

7.  By the way, we also did some business:  Unless you have foresaken all access with the outside world in the past few weeks, you’ve most likely heard news about one particular item from this General Assembly – divestment.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) action to divest our stock holdings in Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard made the news circuit including the New York Times, CNN and NBC’s Meet the Press.

The spin (incorrect) is that we are divesting from Israel.  The spin (truth) is that we are divesting from three U.S. companies whose business practices include activities that are contrary to the values and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  This action was not an impulsive one but came after attempts at dialogue with these companies for a decade (yes, 10 years – Presbyterians rarely move quickly! Except…).

This Assembly also approved an Authoritative Interpretation of our Constitution (a binding interpretation issued either by a General Assembly or the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission) that allows pastors to officiate at same-gender marriage ceremonies in states where law permits such marriages.  This AI also gives Sessions (Ruling Elders and pastors) the authority to determine if church buildings may be used for same-gender marriages.

A proposal to change the language within our Book of Order regarding the definition of marriage is being submitted to the 172 presbyteries for their vote.  This vote will take place late this year or early next year with a final determination by summer 2015. These are two of the business items.  There were many more.

I commend a summary page prepared by the G.A. Junkie for more information about this Assembly.  http://www.gajunkie.info/GA221BriefSummary.pdf

8.  Worship-la-palooza: Like every General Assembly worship was at the center of our gathering.  If you were/are able to live stream any part of a General Assembly I recommend that you do so when its time for worship.  You will hear fantastic music, powerful messages, and experience elements in worship that aren’t a part of many local congregation’s weekly services.

9.  Those amazing YAADs:  Those church leaders/consultants who mourn the “greying” of the Presbyterian Church (USA) haven’t attended General Assembly.  Every presbytery elects a YAAD (Young Adult Advisory Delegate) and this group gets the GA stamina award.  These young adults arrive a day before their commissioner counterparts for a full day of orientation; participate each day in committee and plenary meetings; and then even after plenary ends at midnight, they gather for energizers, discussion and sharing, and prayer; repeating this pattern for the entire week of General Assembly.  They motivate their elder commissioner and fellow delegates with “plernergizers” and speak with a wisdom that far exceeds their age in plenary.  By their advisory vote they also determine the course of the vote and direction of our denomination.

10.  See you in Portland?:  The General Assembly meets every two year and the 222nd General Assembly will be held in our backyard – Portland, Oregon – convening on June 18 and concluding June 25.  Our sister presbytery, Cascades, will be hosting this event and our synod, Synod of the Pacific, will be partnering with them in this endeavor.  We, in Boise Presbytery, have an opportunity to join with them in providing hospitality to the attendees of GA.

This will be a great opportunity for those of us in Boise Presbytery to attend.  I know that I’ll be there…just look for me in the back of the room.  After all, its where you get the best view!

P.S. A tremendous thank you to those who attended this General Assembly from our area:  Karen and Daryl – commissioners; Jon – YAAD; Ruth – Stated Clerk; Marci – a committee assistant;  Pam – representing Presbyterians Pro-life; John and Phil – observers extraordinaire; and Mathew – representing Pittsburgh Seminary’s Summer Youth Institute and my roommate and partner-in-GA fun! 

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