Reflections from the Rev. Skip Noftzger
Executive Presbyter at the Presbytery of Redstone
FRIDAY, JUNE 24
With a late night session followed by a morning session this morning, you would have thought that most people would be “dragging.” As I entered the convention center meeting, I expected naturally to see commissioners entering with “dread” on what awaited them. Yet, no matter the lack of sleep, they filed in ready to take the charge, smiling and greeting their table mates as they arrived. Certainly, the coffee lines were longer, but the renewed energy was evident as they came to express the “hope of their calling.”
Throughout the day and into the late evening again on Friday, the dedication and commitment of these commissioned volunteers is impressive. Their desire to serve Jesus Christ and their church in this way warrants the honor and respect of all of us.
Election of the Stated Clerk
After a period of speeches by both candidate, followed by questions posed from the floor of the Assembly. Both candidates spoke of their visions for the denomination as well as their previous experience that would qualify them. As a result, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson was elected by a vote of 447 to 112. J. Herbert noted that to “only think about the survival of the church is to set our aim too low.” His reference was to the kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus the Christ which transcends preservation of an organization. At the same time, he expressed hope for the PCUSA with the words of affirmation, “we are not dead, we are reforming.”
Late in the evening on Thursday, the General Assembly considered an action initiated by the New York Presbytery of expressing an apology to the LGBTQQ as a result from past actions. The Committee disapproved that overture and instead offered an alternative resolution that changed the language from apology to regret over the pain caused to the those based upon sexual orientation. On Friday (next morning), there was a motion to reconsider the action and to restore “stronger” language, but this motion failed.
Church Polity and Ordered Ministry
The Church Polity and Ordered Ministry attempted to expedite matters by consolidating a number of their actions under a “consent agenda.” A couple of these matters were “pulled,” but the rest were approved. Those approved by consent included;being a little less prescriptive on ratios of teaching and ruling elders on committees of councils higher than sessions, addition of the Administrative Personnel to possible Certified Church Service and additional sections on Ecclesiastical Officers.
An overture was submitted and was approved by the Committee to change the labeling and language in the BOO from “teaching elder” back to “minister of word and sacrament.” While there was an affirmation of the parity in the ordered ministry, there was discussion about the confusion that this caused our ecumenical partners. As a result, an amendment was included and passed to include both terms. This will be proposed to presbyteries for ratification.
In 2014, the GA passed a proposed revision in the Book of Order that made clear that a person who had “renounced jurisdiction” could not become part of a congregation and serve in a volunteer or paid capacity. As a BOO revision, it required approval of a majority of presbyteries which subsequently, it did receive.
In this GA, the Committee responded to an overture to rescind that action, by disapproving it, but offering additional language (06-07) that retained this, but provided the means by which restoration might occur. Their motion failed in the General Assembly. After efforts to refer it to the next GA were defeated, language was approved that would require teaching elders who “renounce jurisdiction” during disciplinary proceedings to resubmit to the disciplinary process of the church in order to serve in voluntary or paid ministry under the jurisdiction of the PCUSA.
An overture to alter the BOO on preparation for ministry for seminaries to teach evangelism was disapproved by the Committee and the Assembly. There was a possible comment on the proposed, but it failed by just a few votes.
Although there was substantial debate on the proposal from Synod of the Northeast concerning making clear the option of electing and commissioning ruling elders without necessarily participating in session. In the end, not only was the committee motion to disapprove not approved, neither was the original proposal from Northeast approved. Consequently, the Assembly referred the matter to the Committee on General Assembly for consideration.
Middle East Issues
A controversial area through several iterations of the General Assembly has revolved around issues in the Middle East. Although disagreements still remain on how to pursue peace and justice in this area as in the past, this General Assembly did pass some statements including advocating and witnessing for the human rights of children in Palestine and Israel.
Also, a theological and comprehensive statement and assessment on human values in the Middle East. This report prepared by Assembly Committee on Social Witness Policy was augmented by an amended preface including the ongoing affirmation of the two-state solution.
The Committee on Middle East recommended disapproval of an overture calling for a boycott of all HP products. This disapproval was confirmed by the General Assembly by an overwhelming vote.
Immigration and Environmental Issues
Approved by voice vote a collaborative agenda on environmental stewardship among the six agencies of the PCUSA. “Our Common Call to Care for God’s Creation” notes the current practices, but also calls for additional action by both individuals and agency practices within the denomination.
Approval of the overture to revise G-1.0304 in the Book of Order under the category of the “Ministry of Members” to also include “Caring for God’s creation” within this list of faithful responsibilities. This constitutional change will be forwarded to presbyteries for voting in order to approve this change.
Of the more controversial items, the overture from San Francisco called for beginning the divestment from fossil fuel companies over the next three years while retaining a small investment for shareholder privilege. In a relatively close vote, the Committee had approved this overture. Yet, also coming out of the Committee was a minority report which focused on diversifying the investment portfolio within the energy sector. This Minority Report was amended to direct the MRTI continue an engagement process on climate change issues with corporations, particularly coal and gas companies and report back to the next General Assembly.
Peacemaking and International Issues
By consent, the Assembly affirmed the new vistas and realities possible with the new realities in the relationship between United States and Cuba. Looking forward to a free and open relationship between peoples and churches, the PCUSA rejoices at the prospect of deepening our communion with the La Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Cuba(IPRC). The Assembly received greetings and comments from Daniel Izquierdo, General Secretary Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba.
Also, by consent, the Assembly received the “Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula” adopted by the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches(WCC) meeting in South Korea in November, 2013 and commend it for study and reflection. The Assembly also heard from Lee Hong Jung—General Secretary, Presbyterian Church of Korea.
Affirmed the historic means and particularly, the Presbyterian Church(USA) has engaged in nonviolent witness for the sake of identifying and calling a stop to forms of human oppression in American society and throughout the world.
At the conclusion of a six-year process, this General Assembly voted on the Peacemaking Affirmations as amended by the Committee. You might recall these five Affirmations that we deliberated on and gave comment during our Presbytery meeting last November. Some of the amendments address a few of the concerns that we had as well as others.
In the midst of all our actions and declarations in this General Assembly, we were helpfully reminded of that foundational starting point of it all. Rev. Jerry Andrews drew our attention to the Pauline words that declare our reconciliation to God in Jesus Christ as announcement. Such pronouncements place our own reconciliation within the larger context of God’s reconciling work in the world. We are privileged to be invited to participate in this work as God’s co-workers, yet it is never dependent upon us. It is that vertical reconciliation that frames and motivates our reconciliation with each other and the world.
GROWING IN “GRACE AND GRATITUDE”
Certainly, each of us knows that it is our central desire to know and live by God’s grace. We know that gratitude is our primary response to that saving, sustaining and sanctifying grace. Yet, as one small part of today’s session, we heard a testimony of a young woman who was using the “Growing in Grace and Gratitude” curriculum with her 3rd-5th grade Sunday School class. Both in its theological substance and in the accommodating lesson plans, she testified firsthand of the stories of impact on these kids. If you have not checked out this curriculum for your kids, I would encourage you do so. It is available through the PCUSA store, as well as we have a sample copy in the Resource Center.
A COMPLETE ROTATION
In the Oregon Convention Center, suspended from the ceiling is a 750-pound ball attached to a pendulum cable. Labeled the Foucault Pendulum. In 1851, the French physicist discovered that a pendulum’s swing plane would change according to the earth’s rotation. It appears that pendulum is rotating, but actually the earth is rotating under it. The full 360 degrees varies according to the latitude at which the pendulum is located. In Portland, this rotation is accomplished in 33.5 hours.
When we began this journey, we began with great optimism. Yet, there were times during these past several days when it appeared the pendulum swung back and forth without really moving. As debates waned on, we could easily “tire” of hearing each other, but graciousness was the “norm” and was demonstrated on almost all occasions.
Slowly, but surely, the commissioners worked hard to exhibit and communicate their own commitments to participate in God’s reconciling work in the church and in the world. At times, progress seemed noticeably absent. Yet, beneath all of our actions and conversations, the church rotated along moving the plane of the pendulum cable until the fullness of business was accomplished. When the “business” was done, applause of relief and thanksgiving rang through the hall.
Tomorrow morning is reserved for closing worship before everyone departs for return flights home. Through these everyday updates, I have not been able to capture all of the moments and activities of this General Assembly, but you will be able to review the disposition of all overtures and action items through pc-biz.org.
With the “business” actions taken by this General Assembly having “wrapped up,” I can testify that your prayers for our commissioners and others have been answered. The answers may not have always been reflected in votes that any one of us would have wanted or desired, but in the larger perspective, the “eyes” of their hearts were enlightened, to:
“know the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe..”(Ephesians 1:18-19)
THURSDAY, JUNE 23
On this Thursday evening, the “business” of General Assembly continues to “roll on” with plenary sessions morning, afternoon and and now into the late evening. These are the days when concentration on the part of commissioners becomes critical as one overture and issue follows upon another. While the structure of each session is well planned between reports and debates with separation of more controversial issues into different sessions.
Nonetheless, all of the commissioners remain in need of your prayers as they seek to be diligent in fulfilling their responsibilities on behalf of the church.
One of those commissioners, Colleen Molinaro (TE) offered her own remarks about impressions of the General Assembly.
“What a pleasure it is to experience the vast diversity among the members of our church, all the while serving one Lord. As a member of Ecumenical and Interfaith committee, I had the privilege to hear greetings from brothers and sisters from several countries in South America and Africa. The Spirit has been present in worship, plenary, and in committees. We concluded our work as a committee in the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. Truly, the Church in action.”
As mentioned by Colleen, one of the highlights for me is the participation of the Ecumenical Advisory Delegates. Invited by the denomination to come and participate, I have had the opportunity to personally meet a few of these brothers and sisters and have been impressed that they have taken the time to become familiar with our Presbyterian polity and the issues in preparation for this General Assembly.
Additionally, there are ecumenical and international observers who have also come to this General Assembly to represent their home churches and to witness the discussions and actions of the PCUSA. At each plenary, there are greetings and an invocation offered by members of these other faith communities and we are the beneficiaries of their willingness to contribute to our gathering.
Reports on some of the other agencies were presented this morning. They included the Presbyterian Investment Loan Program (PILP), Board of Pensions (BOP), Presbyterian Publishing and Presbyterian Foundation. Sometimes, we can think of these as some distant group serving someone else, but each of these agencies has served our congregations or presbytery in some ways. Just some examples include;
- Westmont Presbyterian Church recently took out a loan (PILP).
- Redstone teaching elders who received emergency assistance grants (BOP).
- Presbytery investments in New Covenant Funds (Presbyterian Foundation).
- Apportionment increases for teaching elders, active or retired (BOP).
- Curriculum and books in our Resource Center (Presbyterian Publishing)
(Just some of the many items considered/decided)
General Assembly Procedures
Some of the more mundane but necessary matters approved included approving the location and date of the 225th General Assembly (June 25-July 2; Columbus, Ohio). The Assembly elected Beth Hessel (TE) as Associate Stated Clerk. Beth is the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Historical Society.
Additional measures were taken to continue to ensure adequate representation in our agencies. New business also directed the provision of guidance on child protection policies and procedures.
Mid Council Issues
After much debate and numerous attempts at amending the proposal, the Assembly approved an alternative resolution from the committee on dependent care policy (as opposed to including it in the BOO). The assembly also voted to disapprove an overture that would have required development of a national child development policy. Tonight, the child protection policy of the GA and its agencies was approved and could serve as a model to others.
In 2014, the General Assembly passed an overture urging synods to consider shared mission and boundaries in order to reduce to 10-12 synods (currently 16). After two years of meeting about mission, ministry and possible configurations, the synods came back with a report indicating that they did not see a way to change the boundaries without compromising the mission and ministry.
This year, an overture calling for a rescinding of that action was approved out of committee. A minority report was also presented on appointment of a group to consolidate synod boundaries. On the floor of the GA, the majority committee position was affirmed by a vote of 421-158. So, the current configuration and number of synods will remain for the foreseeable future.
The Way Forward
With the number of overtures submitted this year that either addressed major structural and procedural issues related to the functioning of the General Assembly or the two agencies of the Office of General Assembly (OGA) and Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), a new committee entitled “The Way Forward” was assigned the task of taking up these issues.
As a result, coming from the committee was a proposal created as “new business.” This proposal called for a representative 2020 Vision Team.
Additionally, while acknowledging the hard work of many PCUSA staff, nevertheless there was a desire to address structural concerns and issues that were raised of the two agencies (OGA/PMA). The Committee proposed the appointment of an Administrative Commission who would both be able to conduct comprehensive analysis (including using an examination team), make recommendations and implement changes within the boundaries of the current constitution. Mission and structural changes that exceed that authority would be recommended to the next General Assembly. Included in the Administrative Commission will be the current co-moderators and the previous moderator/vice moderator.
No doubt, both of the above responses are attempts to simultaneously address immediate concerns of function, but also to address major questions of our time and how we might pursue “a way forward” as a national church. While acknowledging the great value the “Foothills overtures” provided in stimulating a comprehensive conversation on reform within the denomination, nonetheless, the Committe and the General Assembly believed that they addressed these proposals through the two above measures.
A commission resolution requesting the withdrawal from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was disapproved in both the Committee and the plenary session of the General Assembly.
An overture from Pittsburgh Presbytery seeking a pilot project to address the plight of African-American males in targeted cities in the United States. This overture was affirmed by the Committee and approved by the General Assembly.
The Committee and the General Assembly approved an overture to establish a maximum ratio of 5:1 compensation from highest to lowest paid employees in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
A number of initiatives intended to report on, educate and address issues of race, ethnicity and racism were passed by the Committee and the General Assembly.
As part of the process of pursuing reconciliation, an overture offering apology to Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians for dishonoring actions of the past and to seek forgiveness, healing grace and guidance in toward mutually respectful relationships was approved by the Committee and the General Assembly.
Other items were still being discussed and debated from this Committee as the commissioners worked into the night…
While any one or more of these issues may not seem important to any one of us, nonetheless there are those for whom these concerns are significant. Within our church as we seek to serve and be faithful to Jesus Christ together, we hear from one another and respond collectively. In so doing, we sharpen each other to be open to what God is saying and doing among us even as the context and circumstances of our lives differ widely.
Interrupting the Mid Council issues agenda in the morning, the Assembly paused in planned fashion to focus our attention in corporate worship. With beautiful music, both instrumental and vocal, our praises were lifted before our God. Using the “Good Samaritan” parable, the Rev. Alice Ridgill (Trinity Presbytery) challenged us to hear the call of Jesus to “neighbor” and to be “difference makers.” As is our pattern in GA, we came to the Lord’s Table to be fed and nourished by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Hunter Farrell, Director of World Mission, told of a practice in Haiti where the words of honor and respect are communicated to one another as one comes to another’s property. He spoke of the notions of honor and respect which form the rhythm of our partnership in mission.
In this way, mission co-workers are sent in partnership with the greeting of honor and received with respect. Eleven mission co-workers who were retiring from active mission service in the PCUSA were honored. Their dedication and service to the Lord through mission partnership service with other brothers/sisters around the world.
At the same time, nine new mission co-workers were commissioned to service as part of Presbyterian World Mission. A litany of commissioning was used to send out these mission co-workers in the name of Jesus Christ and on our behalf. In that litany, we promised to support them with prayer, encouragement and resources.
GA……STILL TO COME?
While the coming together of the church in reunion and education is accomplished in other gatherings like “Big Tent,” the General Assembly always consists of a mixture of policy and fellowship, legislation and mission, worship and education. Sometimes, agenda items don’t go as efficiently as some would desire. Sometimes, people feel like we are too focused on the tasks at hand.
Although there was much “business” completed today, there remains much to be reviewed and decided. The Assembly will need to take up these matters expeditiously. I suspect that tomorrow will be another long day.
In any ecclesiastical meetings, there is a delicate balance between completing the items submitted for review, progress reports and the equally important times of fellowship and worship. Each of these type of activities exhibits God’s grace among us, upon us and through us. Please continue to pray for us and for those responsible for the organization and implementation of the remaining components of this General Assembly.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 22
“The bad news is there are no maps for where we are in the Church today and where we are going… The good news is there are no maps for where we are in the Church today and where we are going… therefore, we have to rely upon our God and upon each other in the body of Christ.”
In one of the sessions that I attended today, the person introduced our time with the quote above. It reminded me of the book Canoeing the Mountains book that I have mentioned several times. The nature and rapidity of change in our world and for the Church no longer permit us to plan for the future based upon the patterns of the past.
Consequently, we must look to our God to lead us and direct us to where God has gone before us. We must look to who will we be as God’s people together, hearing from one another, sharing our gifts with one another and growing together in Christ as congregations, as a presbytery and as a denomination.
Church Gathering as a Whole
(through representative commissioners)
Beginning the time with one of the “speak outs,” small groups formed within the larger convention hall to engage in discussing the questions:
- In what ways have your views of the report’s findings and insights changed during your time at the Assembly?
- In what ways will your views of the report’s findings and insights affect your consideration of the business before the Assembly?
Even within the span of five days and because of the shared conversations during that time, commissioners (and others) find themselves thinking, rethinking and thinking again. Now, each will find himself/herself needing to make concrete decisions in hearing additional debate and voting on the overtures brought forward from the committees.
In order to streamline business activity, an extensive “consent agenda” was presented. In order to be included on this consent agenda, overtures needed at least 75% approval rate within the committee voting. After commissioners requested the removal of eight items, the consent agenda was approved by voice vote with fifty-six items and reports included on that list.
New seminary presidents were approved, including David Esterline who is serving as the President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The covenant with the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico was renewed (on a side note, I visited this seminary as part of an accreditation team several years back and in another lifetime).
A memorial minute was conducted by Rev. Craig Barnes in remembrance of the untimely death of Dr. Steven Hayner, former president of Columbia Theological Seminary. He emphasized Steve’s recognition of the pursuit of grace that empowered him to live joyfully, even in the midst of cancer. The Committee on Theological Education also recognized Dr. Craig Dykstra (Lilly) and Dr. Katharine Sakenfeld (Princeton T.S.) for lifetime achievement of Excellence in Theological Education.
Directory of Worship
The Revised Directory of Worship was presented. The last major revision was in 1989, after the reunion. As part of the Book of Order, the document serves as a “compass” which helps us “navigate” between form and freedom in worship.
The revision seeks to integrate theology and practice as well as accommodating new changes in the church. Beginning with the General Assembly in 2006, a directive for revision was offered. A first “draft” was presented in 2014 to the General Assembly. It was recommended for study and comment. In 2015, a second consultation generated a second draft which was presented to this General Assembly. A number of changes have been made including shortening the document while retaining central Reformed emphases.
Although amended in committee, the amended version was approved by the Assembly. Additional amendments were offered on the floor, with only a couple of them approved. As a Book of Order change, this Revised Directory of Worship will be presented for approval by a majority of presbyteries. I encourage you to read it and consider its usefulness for our future worship lives and practices.
Statements on Creation, Evolution and Science
An “Affirmation of Creation” was presented from the committee on Theological Issues and Institution. Some commissioners expressed the concern that some of the language was too specific. In a tallied vote, the statement passed (after several votes resulting from difficulty with the voting devices) in a close vote. The Assembly also voted to endorse the Clergy Letter Project and the Christian Clergy Letter expressing the view that “the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.”
Prayer for Persecuted Christians
In response to a commissioner’s resolution, the Assembly approved by voice vote a call to pray for persecuted Christians within the world. At the conclusion of the vote, Juan Samarsiento led the congregation in prayer.
Many of you will recall that at the 2014 General Assembly passed the inclusion of the Confession of Belhar within our Book of Confessions. This confession focused on reconciliation and unity as both a “gift and obligation” for the church. It was written in the context of racial apartheid in South Africa.
As a revision to the Book of Confessions, such action also required approval by 2/3 of the presbyteries (achieved in 2015) and ratification by the next ensuing General Assembly (2016). The overwhelming vote today confirms this confession which will be included in the next publication of the Book of Confessions (2016).
We were greeted and thanked and joined in celebration by the Godfey Betha and Alan Boesak from the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. As the Assembly broke out is song, it was an emotional moment throughout the convention hall.
CELEBRATING MINISTRY OF
STATED CLERK GRADYE PARSONS
Among other events at this General Assembly, there were several acknowledgements of the imminent retirement of Gradye Parsons. Tonight, I was privileged to attend a dinner celebrating the ministry of this servant of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Additionally, Gradye was recognized by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for his work as the ecumenical representative of the PCUSA and received an ovation from the Assembly.
While no doubt, there is some status in fulfilling such a role on a national stage, the reality is that in many ways it can be a “thankless” job where there is always somebody displeased no what you say or decide. In my own view, while I have not always agreed with him, I believe that Gradye has served the church well with grace and humility.
As an ecumenical service, we were privileged to hear the proclamation of the word from Bishop Reginald Jack, Prelate of the Twentieth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His message focused on the “conflicting voices” even among faith leaders. Rev. Jack called for us as faith leaders to be faithful through prayer, to not be fooled by the numbers and continue to speak truth to power and to know God. As with each worship service within the Assembly, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated.
PRESBYTERIAN WORLD MISSION
Earlier this morning, the Mid Council leaders (EP’s and Stated Clerks) met together with some of the staff members of the Presbyterian World Mission. In that gathering, we shared best practices and innovations about the ways in which both local and world mission is promoted and implemented in presbyteries across the country. As a presbytery, we remain committed to supporting both shared and designated mission and to encourage congregations directly to engage in support and partnership with mission local, national and international.
So, I close this day’s description of our work with a quote from the document, “Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership(2003)” that characterizes not only our understanding of mission, but our understanding of unity and being connected to one another(whether in this Assembly or with brothers/sisters around the world).
“We understand “Mission” to be God’s work for the sake of the world God loves. We understand this work to be centered in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and made real through the active and leading power of the Holy Spirit. Recognizing our human limitations and because of our fundamental unity in Jesus Christ, we believe we are called to mission through the discipline of partnership…..
As heirs to God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and joint heirs with all who confess him Lord, we affirm our place as Presbyterians in the whole Body of Christ, the Church. We give visible recognition of our belonging to one another as one denominational family. We give this recognition as Presbyterians through our connectional system of congregations, presbyteries, synods, General Assemblies and related institutions. The one table around which we gather is God’s table and the one mission to which we are called is God’s mission…..Whenever and wherever one engages in that mission, one bears witness to the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. Through this love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, all are made one. This unity is a gift of God’s grace that extends across cultural, linguistic, economic and other barriers that divide us within the Body of Christ and across the human family.”
TUESDAY, JUNE 21
PRACTICE OF LISTENING… PRACTICE OF VOTING
On this day of the General Assembly, the intensive work of committees becomes the focal point for commissioners and observers alike. Much of the discussion and deliberation which began on Sunday evening must come to closure as committees vote on the overtures (or amendments to them) that were assigned to their committee.
Each committee has heard presentations from relevant resource people and “overture advocates” who are fellow ruling/teaching elders interested (for/against) in the particular issue. For most of the commissioners, this is a long day within the formalities of debates and parliamentary procedures.
Ultimately, each person finds himself/herself in the position of having to vote one way or another based upon God’s leading of his/her conscience. More about some of the overtures and their results in committee are listed below under the committee section.
Part of understanding the General Assembly is also to “see” it through the eyes of the commissioners who are here representing the Presbytery of Redstone. Some of the comments from these people include the following:
Mandi Pascarella (Young Adult Advisory Delegate) — “I was impressed with the two women who would be elected co-moderators. When they spoke to the YAADs, they talked about their view on how to bring young people to the church. I was pleased to find out that they believed churches should be less focused on the quantity of people and more focused on educating and pouring into one another.”
Curtis Paul — “The conversation this morning revolved around how the outside world may interpret our nonviolent practices of using boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Nonetheless, we affirmed nonviolent ways to stop human oppression.”
Tom Shipley — “Serving on the General Assembly procedures committee has focused on areas of operations for the General Assembly. Among other items, we approved Columbus, Ohio as the site for the 2022 GA and were engaged in substantial discernment on new wording to ensure that all perspectives and sides on issues are heard. I found the discussion to be educational. Although representatives of the OGA appeared opposed to such openness, yet, I’m glad to say we moved toward ensuring more open and honest discussion and the presentation of diverse positions. Although we did not go as far as I would have liked, but it was movement in the right direction. Additionally, I would not that the YAADs are real assets to our committee and provide valuable perspectives.
As part of the gathering, I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Presbyterian World Mission. With the opportunity to hear from Hunter Farrell, Director of Presbyterian World Mission, he spoke of the partnership in world mission initiatives. We also engaged in table conversations based upon the following quote from Matorofa Mutonganavo, Moderators of the Presbytery of Zimbabwe (Ecumenical Advisory delegate to GA).
“The most significant thing is the exchange of cultures… [There is] a whole lot of cultural learning. And we have been changed. We have been transformed. You know there is a saying: “When you meet the other, you get “othered.” That is very important. The fact that we met the other and we were influenced in one way or another by the other. They were influenced. I don’t think Denver is as Denver was before they were in partnership with Zimbabwe. Because they got “othered.” And we also, we are not the same, because we got “othered” by our partnership with Denver.”
You recall that Redstone has a partnership with the Sudan/South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. While we were here in Portland, we received confirmation on the three visitors from South Sudan that we will have in our presbytery in July. I believe that in many ways we also have been “othered” by our partnership with the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.
MORE COMMITTEE WORK
For the commissioners, most of Tuesday was also spent in conference rooms working through the series of overtures for which they had heard presentations. The “harder” work of both discussing and deciding has begun. Not every vote was easy (some were very divided rather evenly), but the deliberations were always both passionate and civil. Maintaining both simultaneously becomes a very difficult task. Sometimes, we know and experience the same difficulty within our own session and congregational meetings, so it is not surprise in a much larger and diverse gathering.
As a result, by tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon, the General Assembly will begin working in plenary session in considering the overtures as they come forward with recommendations for either approval or disapproval. While it becomes necessary for efficiency, many of the overtures which have broad consensus and even unanimous votes within committee will be placed on the consent agenda. The unintended consequence of this necessity makes the focus of plenary sessions on the issues and concerns about which we are more divided (hence, needing more time).
The recommendations of the committee do not bind the General Assembly, so each overture will be decided by the this year’s General Assembly.
SELECTED COMMITTEE RESULTS
(REMEMBER: these and other overtures are recommendations upon which the full General Assembly will need to vote)
- Revised language in the General Assembly manual for ensuring “equitable presentation of different perspectives” in materials and resources to be presented to committees and available as resource material to the full assembly.
- Voted to rescind the action of the 221st General Assembly (2014) that mandated a process for consolidating and/or modifying synods into 10-12 synods.
- Retained the provision on former teaching elders who have renounced jurisdiction, but added language to include measures by which restoration may occur. Encouragement of councils to include a question about renunciation in sexual misconduct or child protection policies.
- Recommended the approval of the Confession of Belhar (approved 2014 GA and by more than 2/3 presbyteries) and its inclusion in the Book of Confessions starting with the 2016 printing.
- Recommended a call for RE/MAX to do everything within its legal and moral power to stop facilitating the sale and rental of property in Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Commend RE/MAX for responding favorably to discussions of this matter with representatives of the PC(USA).
- Because of profound concern about destructive effects of climate change on all God’s creation, recognize the need to shift to a sustainable energy. Call upon the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to stop any direct investment in fossil fuel companies and move within three years away from investment in fossil fuel companies.
- Recognize the importance of the continued presence of Christians and churches in the Middle East. Affirm and encourage the Christian presence in the area through strengthened ties between the PC(USA) and the historic and reformed churches of the region. Call for expanded partnership relationships between PC(USA) congregations and those of our partner churches in the Middle East.
- Approved a report and statement on human trafficking, including an emphasis on restoration and human rights.
As we move to the plenary session, these overtures and countless others will be debated and voted upon by the entire assembly. Additionally, when we gather once more as an entire group, there will be opportunities for worship, electing a stated clerk and hearing reports of God’s work among us.
Stay tuned for updates not only on votes, but on other aspects of this national gathering of the church.
I will offer to you the words in closing that we sang together for the benediction at the World Mission luncheon (authored by Janet Saunders).
Go into the world with faith, trusting God to lead you.
Go into the world with hope, see God’s presence everywhere.
Go into the world with love, loving those who Christ loves.
Go in faith and go in hope, and go out in love.
MONDAY, JUNE 20
COMMITTEES, COMMITTEES, COMMITTEES
In the context of the General Assembly, much of the early work on proposed overtures takes place through the assigned committees. While it does take hours of time, to hear from one another and be challenged by each other in the body of Christ cannot be rushed.
Just as a reminder, overtures are submitted to the General Assembly by a presbytery or synod. Each overture also requires a concurrence of at least one other presbytery. Overtures are discussed and voted upon in the various committees for approval or disapproval before being offered to the General Assembly in plenary session with a recommendation to approve or disapprove. If an overture requires a constitutional change in the Book of Order or the Book of Confessions.
Today, in morning, afternoon and evening sessions, your commissioners and others like them participated in presentations, questions & answers, small group discussions regarding the overtures assigned to their committees. In my own observations, committee chairs worked hard to make these “meetings” genuinely times of openness and discernment.
Often, we forget the “way” we “do” discernment within our tradition. For us, the process of discernment takes place through dialogue, discussion and even debate. Ultimately, in prayerful listening, reflection and finally voting, we express our own sense of the leading of the Holy Spirit through such action.
So, it is “how” we do things. It may not always happen that way in your session or even within the presbytery, but in this context within a national gathering more structure and following an orderly process becomes imperative both for having voices heard and still reaching conclusions.
As mentioned before, you can follow the progress of various overtures through the PC-Biz website here. Please take a few minutes over the next couple days to see the work of your commissioners and people like them from around the country within these committees.
As you read below, my own guest blog entry for Presbyterians Today focuses on this day and the processes we use for discernment.
Besides my own Enews daily updates, perhaps you have been following GA news through other sources on various social media. If not, please permit me to suggest the blog entries generated through the magazine, Presbyterians Today which is edited by our colleague Rev. Sue Washburn. You can read entries offered by Sue and other guest bloggers about impressions and reflections of the General Assembly.
Click here for Presbyterians Today blog entries from GA.
Some of us had the opportunity to participate in a luncheon presentation on addressing the issues of human trafficking. Perhaps, you have been aware of this issue for some time, but somehow thought it did not happen in our area. The reality is that forced labor occurs all over the world, including even here. For the report that was submitted and approved by the committee today, please see PC-Biz.
If you are interested in learning more, I might suggest the following websites as just a selection of some that provide more information.
Additionally, there is a denominational resource as a toolkit at:
Presbyterian Mission Agency on Human Trafficking
And an app and game to learn more here.
Of course, more things happened today than I could ever adequately represent in this Enews. All of us from Redstone thank you for your prayers and your support. Serving our Lord in this way stretches us to think beyond the immediacy of our own daily concerns.
For this intensive period of time, virtually every waking moment is spent in “being the church” in this type of setting. Here the big concerns that face our church and our world are placed before us in ways we can no longer ignore, but need to address in one way or another.
I encourage you to continue to pray for your commissioners. Tonight and tomorrow can be the days when people begin to wear down. When plenary sessions resume on Wednesday, a renewal of energy occurs for a period of time. So, we continue to covet your prayers for “energy, intelligence, imagination and love” as we serve the church in this way.
SUNDAY, JUNE 19
CHRISTIANITY AND THE WORLD
Sunday morning (the second full day of the General Assembly) began with breakfast for myself and several other mid council leaders to hear a presentation by Dr. Phillip Jenkins (Baylor University). Sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation, Dr. Jenkins offered an overview of the many changes in Christianity around the world since the Reformation. Based upon conversions, demographic shifts and cultural changes, he noted the current and projected statistics of Christian churches in both Africa and Asia. The Church, the body of Christ, is tilting toward the increased numbers within other cultures and other parts of the world. For those of us who have become so accustomed to seeing, understanding and sometimes grieving the rise and decline of Christianity in the west, such news reaffirms the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ who has not abandoned his people or his work even though it may no longer “look” like the Christianity of our American past.
Participants in the General Assembly were afforded opportunities to join together with Church in local Presbyterian congregations around the greater Portland area. Personally, I attended the Lake Grove Presbyterian Church in Lake Oswego where I was able to run into a person who was a student at Lewis and Clark College during my time and currently, serves as an associate pastor in that congregation. Other Redstone commissioners participated in a variety of services. You can hear from a couple of them on their experiences through the Presbytery of Redstone Facebook page here.
STATED CLERK NOMINATION
If you did not already know, Gradye Parsons will be retiring from the position of Stated Clerk at this General Assembly after 8 years of service. Because it was announced a number of months ago, a nominating committee was charged with the task of interviewing and recommending a candidate for the position. Earlier this spring, the committee announced their selection of Rev. J. Herbert Nelson. The report of the committee was presented to the plenary session this afternoon. Within our procedures, other candidates who had applied are also eligible to “stand for election” for this position. As a result, Rev. David Baker (Tampa Bay Presbytery) indicated that he would also participate in the election for the position. Because the next Stated Clerk is elected for a 4-year term by the gathered General Assembly, both candidates made presentations to the Sunday afternoon plenary and answered questions. The General Assembly will vote for the person for this position on Friday morning. Please pray for the commissioners as they elect the person who represents the denomination in ecumenical and interfaith relations.
YOUNG ADULT VOLUNTEERS (YAV Program)
A video presentation on the Young Adult Volunteer program (available here) played on the big screens in the convention center in many ways showing the future of the church. Capturing the passion and power of transformation through service in finding God’s calling, the video expressed through words and actions God’s hope in our calling in young adult volunteer participants. Audience members were asked to identify if they were either a former YAV, parent of a YAV or from a presbytery from which a YAV originated. Nearly every hand went up under at least one of these categories demonstrating the breadth of this program. You may know that within the Presbytery of Redstone, Mara Sawdy has served as a YAV this year in the Washington, DC area. See her blog here.
With the evening session on Sunday evening, the work of the committees is initiated. In those committee structures, each group will consider the overtures that have been submitted and concurred by presbyteries throughout the denomination. Solicited by the moderator, a Bible study curriculum was developed for shared use among all the committees. In the first study, the focus was on the life of King David and God’s use of him with all of his blessing and brokenness.
The responsibility of each committee is to review each overture, deliberate on it, revise or not, and vote its approval or disapproval before being passed on to the General Assembly in plenary session. Consequently, each of our Redstone commissioners and our YAAD solicit your prayers for each of them and their committees. The particular person and committee is listed below.
Bernice Adams — Social Justice
Colleen Molinaro — Ecumenical/Interfaith Relations
Mandi Pascarella — Polity and Ordered Ministries
Curtis Paul — Peacemaking and International Affairs
Tom Shipley — GA Procedures
SATURDAY, JUNE 18
With the Moderator Heath Rada preaching a message of reconciliation by God’s grace, he built upon the story of Joseph and his brothers and the “prodigal” who returns home. God’s reconciliation seems to be a family affair. He reminded those gathered to worship that we have been called to be “one” with God and with each other. This will require risk and courage and opportunity to live it out, but God’s grace overshadows even differences and arguments and celebration is our response of gratitude.
Directed and led in worship by the variety of music forms ranging from bell and vocal choirs to more contemporary instruments, our voices joined together in a mighty chorus throughout the convention center ballroom. “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” In remembrance of Jesus, we were invited to the Lord’s table that we might partake together.
FIRST DAY OF “BUSINESS”
(reports, orientation and elections)
Saying “Amen” — “a willingness to let God lead us on to guide our vision and actions.” (Bishop Barnes)
As the Assembly shifted into its initial “business” meeting this afternoon, participants paused to spend time reflecting upon recent acts of violence within our country, whether remembering Charleston, San Bernardino or Orlando, Using the words of Bishop Barnes, offered at a prayer vigil following the San Bernardino tragedy, we also were asked what comes after our “amen?” Both then and now, we were urged to “let our ‘amen’ be a call to merciful discipleship in the name of our Lord Jesus.”
Traditionally, one of the unnoticed, but important elements of the gatherings of General Assembly is the opportunity to hear from ecumenical delegates from around the world. This opening session was no exception with the invocation offered by a delegate from Indonesia, followed by greetings from a person from Bangladesh. In the evening session, all of the international Ecumenical Advisory Delegates from Latin America and the Caribbean were introduced. Then, greetings came from the delegate from Guyana and an invocation leading us in prayer by a Dominican representative. Surely, the body of Christ reflects every tribe and nation.
As his final report, Moderator emphasized the “results” of the conversations that he has been conducting over the past two years and summarizing the survey responses conducted by COGA in the past year. Speaking from the Romans 5 passage, he emphasized that “hope does not disappoint” and focused on four areas of importance in our current church.
- Faith formation
- Congregational vitality
- Justice for all people
In each of these areas, while there have been important historic strengths for us as a denomination, nonetheless, we must remain open to what we might need to change, grow and innovate. This is our gospel imperative both as we are and as we become the church responsive to God’s grace.
Of course, we would not be Presbyterian if we were not acting “decently and in order,” so the commissioners received an orientation on the “nuts and bolts” of conducting Assembly business. For those who were new, it may have seemed way too formal, but with a gathering of nearly 600 commissioners, such protocols become necessary to provide fairness in discussion and debate.
Additionally, instruction on reviewing the progress and status of bills/overtures using PC-Biz (which you can follow at home as well) as they prepare for committee work and plenary sessions. Sometimes, all of this preparation for orientation can become kind of “dry” stuff. Of course, with our Redstone commissioners, I “offered” to give them all a quiz on the various procedures after they were done.
ELECTION OF CO-MODERATORS
With the changes in the manual, this General Assembly was afforded the option of considering candidates who were running as “co-moderator” candidates (vs. moderator/vice moderator). Both pairs of candidates chose to “run” as co-moderators and were presented before the General Assembly in plenary session thereby assuring the historic event of electing co-moderators. After a period of presentation and Q&A, the General Assembly voted on the first ballot to elect Rev. Jan Edmiston (Chicago) and Rev. Denise Anderson (National Capital) to serve as the co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly.
So, the first of many days has wrapped up and commissioners head off to hotels or other places of fellowship. The initial necessary responsibilities of orientation and election of moderators have been processed. Now, we will begin to move on to the other concerns before us. Yet, through it all on this first day, the excitement and energy of God’s people being able to gather together to worship and to begin the work together laid the groundwork for the many days ahead.
This is and will be our task over the next week in fulfillment of the “hope in our calling.”
UPDATES AND REFLECTIONS
In this beautiful city (many may not know that I attended college here a “few” years back), Presbyterians have descended upon the Oregon Convention Center and downtown hotels. On this day before everything gets “started,” exhibitors, commissioners, executives and clerks have begun arriving. Volunteers, clad with black vests representing the Committee on Local Arrangements are scattered on every corner providing directions, insights and helpful encouragement.
By tomorrow, all of the 594 commissioners, the 198 advisory delegates and a host of other participants, observes and friends from around the country and around the world will gather to join in the “worship and work” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). If you would like to observe some or all of the General Assembly gathering in plenary, I would encourage you to connect to the “live stream” (particularly for the opening worship on Saturday @11 a.m. (2 p.m. Eastern time zone). See the link here.
Besides the commissioners and myself, some of the other “Redstone people” sighted at this year’s General Assembly include:
- Rev. Sylvia Carlson (Recording Clerk)
- Rev. Michael Shepard (Fayette City; Little Redstone)
- Rev. Bill King (First, Murrysville)
On the weekend, Rev. Sue Washburn (Reunion, Mt. Pleasant; Presbyterians Today)
If you desire to “track” the ongoing process of overtures, you are able to follow it through the PC-Biz website here. Yet, each and every day over the General Assembly, I will offer to you some reflections on some of the people, events and actions of the day. It is my hope that through my lens and words that you receive a glimpse into what God is doing during this gathering of God’s people who are the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.). Such perspective may not be sensational or make the headlines, but it will be my honest and candid description of God’s work among and with us in its context.
Through this General Assembly council, we ask for your prayers and support for all of us from Redstone Presbytery in order that we might know and testify to the hope of Christ. This year’s assembly theme draws upon that first prayer offered in the Ephesians epistle and expresses our own prayer for you, for each other and hopefully you for us.
“So that, with the eyes of your enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. ..” (NRSV)
Particularly, please remember in prayer your commissioners from the Presbytery of Redstone:
- Ruling Elder Bernice Adams (Westmont)
- Teaching Elder Colleen Molinaro (Third, Uniontown)
- Young Adult Advisory Delegate Mandi Pascarella (First, Greensburg)
- Teaching Elder Curtis Paul (Newlonsburg)
- Ruling Elder Tom Shipley (First, Irwin)
Just as was prayed in that epistle, may we also pray together for hope, for riches, for power that only comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you in advance for your intercession with our God. Accordingly, we anticipate and will expect God’s blessing upon us resulting from your faithful prayers.