GA BLOG: Wrap Up & Pack Up

10 Jul

(This post will go up soon on The Outlook website, but I’m traveling so can’t link there immediately.  Feel free to read and comment here, but also check out all the awesome General Assembly coverage over at The Presbyterian Outlook.)

And Friday night, at the General Assembly, the commissioners were tired, the energy level was low, and the most controversial items had already been considered. So, first a few funny recollections from the week:

  • The Stated Clerk, Gradye Parson, has a suave-looking John Calvin bobble-head on his desk. I covet.
  • Moderator Cynthia Bolbach’s fun sense of humor kept the assembly in good spirits throughout the week. Perhaps her best crack cams during the moderator election when she, and elder said, “Ministers going on tangents…who knew?”
  • The chairs in the assembly hall, when scooted back or forth, sound like vuvuzelas. It’s hilarious.

More seriously, my read of the assembly is that it was a perfectly fine one, one that wrestled with tough issues conscientiously and sought the Spirit in its work. Many hugely important changes are proposed to the PC(USA) constitution, including the addition of the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

But, as I prepare to go back home, I’m also struck with a questioning sense about whether this formal, costly, somewhat unwieldy church structure is the most faithful way of conducting business at a national level. At 27, I’m too young to be a hardened cynic, but many times this week I thought, after a beautiful policy statement or theological document passed the assembly, “How much did we spend per word to make that document? And, how many Presbyterians – let alone others – will ever read it?” When I closed my eyes and listened to debate on the plenary floor, I wondered how much —really, how little— the basic way we govern ourselves has changed in fifty years.

Several folks, on both sides of theological divides, pointed out that if the rate of membership decline in the PC(USA) continues as it has in recent years, the PC(USA) will cease to exist in roughly 40 years. Sophisticated statisticians would surely add some complexity to that model, but even a simpleton can see we have a huge problem. So, I leave confused and saddened that the report of the committee on church growth and evangelism flew by so quickly, and with so little discussion.

Another systemic issue to raise my hackles this week was the fact that, in so many floor debates, we spoke to the surface-level of issues before us rather than to a deeper level, often the reason the issues were so controversial in the first place. For instance, our debate on sex and sexuality directly connected to many more pieces of business than the headline grabbers—ordination standards, marriage, and pension policies. But when such issues came up, we tended to argue in polity wonk language rather than actually talk about what was behind the arguments (e.g. the main motion and substitution motion regarding the General Assembly, Permanent Judicial Commission, the Bush case, and all the complexity). I’m all for our polity, but I’m also for truth telling.

This kills me at presbytery often as well, so maybe it’s just a bad Presbyterian habit: we argue over surface-level questions rather than converse about the real foundational issues underlying them that make the surface-level questions tricky in the first place. We are struck in a dualistic way of doing things – vote yes or no – one that gets us a “conclusion” when a majority votes, but really doesn’t solve a thing.

Next, just an observation without too much analysis: the Young Adult Advisory Delegates totally impressed us all this week, as usual. Our young people are extremely talented and fantastic church leaders. Also noteworthy is the fact that, on the big sexuality questions, they consistently voted more liberal than the assembly by MANY percentage points. If we don’t scare these youth away with our bickering, their minds don’t change, and they are somewhat representative of the young adults in the larger church, it’s difficult to imagine the hot-button sexuality questions not eventually turning more progressive (for want of a better word) in a few years’ time.

But here’s the thing, whether that scares you or excites you, it can lead us away from the point. I played a game with friends last night in which, before the evening assembly, we each chose key words for which to listen in the evening plenary. Each time that certain word or words were spoken, we took note, promising to donate a certain amount of money per word to our seminary. One of my friends listened for the phrase, “Jesus Christ.” Let’s just say she won’t be writing a big check.

So we continue the conversation. We continue our prayers that the Spirit might guide the church so that we might be more faithful, conduct our business more wisely, and make us good stewards of our gifts. General assemblies are our human attempt to do just that. I’m grateful God showed up, so grateful, but also I’m praying God’s got something new in mind real soon.

image by Erin Dunigan

13 Responses to “GA BLOG: Wrap Up & Pack Up”

  1. Steve Hayner July 10, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Having been here at the GA, I’ve appreciated both your news and comments. Thank you! This article is a good example, especially in some of the less formal observations. Quite accurate, by the way. Good work!

  2. Forrest Palmer July 10, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    Adam–

    Thanks for your thoughts and reflections. I totally agree with you about your YAAD comments. As a Committee Assistant to the FOG Standing Committee, the YAADs were totally engaged, insightful and were equal partners with the (adult) commissioners in the consideration of the issues at hand. The YAADs were awesome, and this church needs their thoughts and perspectives. We are stronger because of their input.

    As a person coscious of stewardship, I too wrestle with matters of expense; therefore I did what I could to cut the expense, such as getting groceries and eating in my room, rather than going out to expensive restaurants. While I think about the expense of a General Assembly, I also see the value of community, in gathering the generations together for a face to face, person to person experience.

    Forrest

  3. Emmy July 10, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    Adam – Thanks for all your updates. As one entering seminary this fall, and as a member of the ELCA (a full communion partner with PCUSA), I’ve been blessed to keep up with GA219 through your eyes.

    The focus in the most recent issue of Word and World (the theological publication out of Luther Sem) is on e-dentity and on a larger scale the internet revolution and the Church. One article, “Social Networking and Church Systems,” by Dwight Zscheile, talked about the decline of bureaucracy and the rise of networks in its place – we see this in grassroots organizing, house church growth, the emerging church, etc. I wonder if we’ll see that kind of change on the national, churchwide organization level in our lifetime.

  4. Ashley July 10, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    I watched GA from afar — but with totally rabid fascination. (Polity wonk via twitter and Webcast) and I’ve got to say, I love your points. As a young adult, it was sometimes disconcerting to see some of the “big issues” weighed down by inaction, particularly at a time when falling membership makes inaction such a scary and possibly damage concept. But I have faith in my peers and hope they are smart enough to stick around (and help us grow our numbers, too.) For all its faults and polity that prevents real discussions, a future without PCUSA isn’t one I’m ready to accept. So here’s to GA220!

  5. robert austell July 10, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    Adam,

    I enjoyed your blogging – thanks for adding your voice and for the virtual friendship! Have safe travels back.

    Robert

  6. Sarah Erickson July 10, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    Adam – have really enjoyed following GA through your posts. You raise good points – share pertinent observations – I get a “picture” and “feel” for what happened. I thought about your comments today about the expense of the gathering – musing about how discernment in community is such a part of our heritage/polity/practice. Thought about the “life of the denomination” comments and my mind went to Tony Jone’s ideas about denominations/bureaucracy and the Good Newsl There is much about our polity – how we order our life together – that is good and helpful. And I love being part of our tribe. But I never want it to get stuck in self-perpetuating idolotry for the sake of “the denomination” – would hope that we find it helpful to work together in ways that work that respect one another and are faithful to the One who we seek to follow and serve.

    Maybe someday I’ll attend a GA and see/feel for myself what it’s like – until then, I enjoyed the Twitter #ga219 traffic and Meg F’s blog and yours and the live feed. The sense of community was profound for many of us – thanks for being one of the links.

    Sarah

  7. Bob Miller July 11, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    thanks for the posts during GA. I found that you could watch it on line and have to admit that there were several nights that I was glued to the computer screen. I even got to see a friend of mine who was a commissioner from her presbytery speak from the floor on the ordination debate, she was on that committee.

    (Utica, NY, she is the current moderator and also was blogging @ http://leaningdownstreams.blogspot.com/

    As one who was parlimentarian of my high school FFA chapter, I love watchng the process. We certianly are decent and in order. I finally figured out the very high tech red, green and yellow things people held up, particularly the picture above. I guess if you got borred you could have had a spontaneous game of badmitton in the aisles.

  8. matt schramm July 12, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Adam,
    Though we didn’t get a chance to meet in person, I have really enjoyed your insights on GA. Your voice is an important one for our part of Christ’s church as we move into the future, and your thoughtful and nuanced reflections are deeply appreciated. All the best.

    matt

  9. jackjenkins July 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    Adam,

    While I enjoyed your post, I’m confused about your statements concerning the presbyterian form of government. More specifically, I am not entirely sure how you draw a direct line between our form of government and the decline in membership. If anything, our form of government seems to have made us one of the most maleable denominations in the country, and – while I, too, am often frustrated with the slow pace of it all – we have moved far quicker than most other instituions.

    I suppose, then, that I would like some clarification as to what would be a “better” form of government? Obviously episcopal polity has the ability to make great changes quickly, but often the reverse happens (i.e. – the Catholic church) or there are problems that arise from changing very rapidly (i.e. – the Episcopal church). Congregational polity, by contrast, doesn’t necessarily maintain a cohesive denominational identity – which may or may not be bad – but can also be just as prone to lack of change.

    Moreover, you distaste for voting “yes” or “no” on subjects just seems odd. The fact that presbyterians get to vote AT ALL is a pretty rare thing, and it has to do with empowering people. Also, I’m not entirely sure what the alternative would be to a “dualistic” mentality – when running any organization, one must make decisions, and compromises are usually formed in committee (just like the American government, which doesn’t seem to be running out of citizens anytime soon).

    All in all, while I understand your misgivings with our polity, i’m not entirely sure THAT is the reason people are leaving churches. I would – again – be open to new suggestions as to how we could run things better, but you don’t offer any in your blog post. What is the better way?

  10. Adam J. Copeland July 14, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    Thanks for the comments and questions, Jack. Let’s see what I can do here…

    I didn’t mean to draw a line of correlation from our PC(USA) form of government to our decline in membership, but rather point out that at GA this year we sometimes seemed more interested in polity fights than truly making the church stronger. It’s not that our polity leads to decline, but that GA, as we have done it recently, doesn’t lead to deep wrestling with decline in very helpful ways.

    Don’t get me wrong, at a basic level I’m all about our polity which I do see as having enormous benefits over other denominations. But, on the other hand, we can miss the polity forest for the trees — or something like that.

    Re your yes/no question, here’s an example. When I moderator session meetings I do so not with a planning a discussion about, simply, whether we do something or not, whether we say YES or NO. Instead, we discuss, we pray, we listen to each other, and often other opportunities present themselves that wouldn’t have if I took a very hardline approach: we must answer this question with a strong YES or NO.

    Sure, GA is really tricky in terms of its size, but there are alternative ways of meeting. To begin with, what if we met in round tables instead of rows? What if we really got to know one another, especially those with whom we disagree, rather than just stand at mics and disagree first? What if we emphasized more of our core values and common calling than the questions that divide us? What if we had communion and worship in the plenary hall? What if we weren’t overcome with deadlines and late nights? What if interest groups stopped writing delegates’ speeches?

    I don’t know the answer. But here’s the thing: I think we must think of better ways to make the assembly a more supporting, spiritual, more faithful less political event. So, I guess I’m not arguing for a better form of government (though, actually, the new Form of Government is much better), but a new way of working together within our polity. And, by the way, I think these are issues many presbyteries are wrestling with and they are making changes in how they conduct meetings. I’m just waiting for GA to catch up.

    • Bob Miller July 18, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

      Ah, the struggles of planning a meeting (session, presbytery, GA)!
      I just spend this past Tuesday moderating a meeting of my presbytery’s Meetings and Worship committee planning for our July meeting. One of the members, who is committed to new and better ways of doing things, much like you talk about, wanted to have time during the report of the first three of our 10 commissioners on GA to allow for a question time. Immediately, there was a look of terror in several of the longer time members of the committee. We will have spirited / heated debate over the Book of Order things, and they did not want to start on this conversation just yet. We talked long on both the virtues of opening up communications, particularly in a presbytery where there are some strong feelings of animosity towards GA, but also how to engage in such a conversation. In good presbyterian form, we put it off until our September meeting. At least we are trying to have the converstions to build up the church, not always an easy thing to do. One of the good things is that the committee member who brought up the idea will not let it slide.
      We have made consious attempts to gather around the table, now at every meeting. When we voted on the last round or Book of Order things, we split worship into two parts, a beginnig we we sought understanding and forgiveness for our frequent lack of compasion and discernment. We spent time in small groups talking about how we felt and what we were afraid of if things went one way or the other. We had the usual discussion from the floor, we voted. While votes were being counted, we finished up a few minor details of the meeting. When the Moderator was handed the results, before looking at them or announcing them, he put his robe on, took the results to the table, did a brief invitation to the table, read the results and went right in to the prayer of thanksgiving. it was one of the most “holy” moments I have ever wittnessed in a presbytery meeting.
      We did something similar as we voted to dismiss a congregation from the presbytery, not saying good riddance, but rather we accept that we are being called in different directions, but we are still brothers and sisters in Christ.

      Some day, some day. . .

  11. jackjenkins July 14, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    Adam,

    Sound responses – this clarification helped.

    Your suggestions for GA surprise me, actually – I assumed these things already happened! I have yet to attend GA (in a non-digital sense, that is), but I assumed that worship and business, for instance, happened in the same space. If that is not the case, then I certainly agree – that is an excellent suggestion! So too with roundtables, etc – all excellent ways of getting people to interact with one another rather than check in and check out.

    My one further question, however, is this: you said that people were “more interested in polity fights than truly making the church stronger,” but aren’t these polity fights exactly that? If not, then what would help the church be “stronger” in this sense?

    Sorry for pushing you on this, but I love a good Presby convo. ;)

  12. Adam J. Copeland July 15, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Ok, here’s an example. I’ve hesitated to use it before because I’m not certain of the details. Perhaps the blogosphere could fill some in. But… there was a good piece of business regarding AIDS/HIV testing, policy, and the church response that came through committee and got to the floor of the assembly. I don’t remember the details, but it was some important business and would have address AIDS/HIV in a strong way. Then, somebody from the floor of the assembly, moved that each time the phrase “AIDS/HIV” appeared in the overture, that “and Hepatitis B & C” also be added. This passed — because who wants to vote against addressing horrible diseases. There was no discussion or debate on the amendement. The overture passed, as amended. And, as I understand it, the point of the overture is now almost completely impossible to implement and the good work of AIDS/HIV prevention cannot go on, due to the amendment.

    Now I have no idea of the intentions of the person who offered the hep B & C amendment. I have no reason to believe it was not in good faith. BUT, the process led to screwing over a good piece of business. If there could have been more discussion with the folks who brought the original overture, or the maker of the motion, or smaller groups, or more time etc. than we might have avoided what ended up to, in effect, the killing of a lot of good work that had been done for AIDS/HIV.

    So, sure, perhaps it was all intended to make the church stronger. At the end of the day, i’m not sure it did, however. Hopefully, as we learn from these experiences, we will continue to make the church stronger as we address the policies that hold us back.

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