Reflections on General Assembly

Every two years, Presbyterian Church (USA) leaders from all over the country gather at “General Assembly.” Seattle Presbytery sends four representatives, and this year, two of those representatives came from Bethany, teaching elder Pastor Doug Kelly, and ruling elder Julia Sensenbrenner.

Below are some reflections from Doug and Julia after returning from the 2018 General Assembly.

Julia Sensenbrenner:

Attending General Assembly (GA) was never on my radar. In fact, my initial thought when asked to be a commissioner was, “I am the wrong person.” But through prayer, the Lord convinced me of the call. Now looking back, I am grateful I stepped out in faith as the experience was much better than I expected. (Yes, I had low expectations!) The eight days were long and intense, but it was stimulating to meet and learn from so many different people. The younger pastors, theological students, and young adult (ages 17-23) advisory delegates I met were passionate, reflective, and full of faith, causing me to come away with more hope for our denomination now and in the future.

Despite being almost a life-long Presbyterian, I never knew much about the broader PC(USA). During GA, it was like drinking from a fire hose. I learned about many organizations, projects, and mission opportunities, and gained a greater appreciation of the diversity of our denomination. (At the end of this post, I have added a list of a few organizations and opportunities Bethanyites might want to know about.) I met commissioners from tiny, mid-sized and larger congregations from many parts of the country, including Indonesian, Korean, Puerto Rican and Black Presbyterian churches. And the GA passed an initiative that emphasizes accessibility by making structural changes to centralize translation (primarily into Spanish and Korean) of all church documents, while also starting to translate relevant documents from other languages into English. The goal: every member and every church should be able to participate fully in the denomination.

Serving on the committee that dealt with issues related to four of the six national PC(USA) agencies, I learned—perhaps more than I wanted to know—about the Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, the Presbyterian Foundation, and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. (FYI, the other two national agencies are the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly.) Frankly, the range of the services they provide to pastors, congregations and Presbyteries are impressive.

Sitting at a table on the GA floor for 3.5 days (and nights!) to debate and vote on initiatives and resolutions that came out of the 13 committees was sometimes tedious but other times extremely interesting. Using Roberts Rules of Order, the GA managed to have a civil debate on divesting from fossil fuel stocks for about 3 hours (but the motion ultimately failed).

The afternoon the GA worked on the Social Justice committee’s agenda left me stunned. The resolutions related to so many of our society’s big issues—including:

  • recommending and praying that more congregations get involved in promoting gun control
  • educating congregations about suicide prevention
  • recommending a moratorium on all executions
  • recommending churches get more involved in addressing and supporting people with addictions to opioids and other addictive substances (and setting up a small grant system to help them do this)
  • advocating for Puerto Rican reconstruction
  • investigating sexual misconduct within the Presbyterian Church
  • studying the disparities faced by black women and girls
  • condemning US racist nationalism
  • stopping the separation of immigrant families

All were passed, most with minimal debate, other than a bit of wordsmithing. And we also approved resolutions relating to South Sudan, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Yemen, Madagascar, Nicaragua, Syria, Iran, Israel and Palestine. This drove home the point that churches and individuals in our denomination are passionate about an amazing range of important social issues. For me, this was a visual representation of the body: we have different backgrounds, interests and gifts, yet all share Christ’s heart and are called to do Christ’s varied work in the world.

On a personal note, as a quiet introvert heading into the GA, I was worried about being overwhelmed in a large gathering where I hardly knew anyone. But each day there were moments when the Lord showed up, met and encouraged me, and directed my steps through time in the prayer room or labyrinth, through conversations with commissioners or local committee members, and through the songs or sermons in our almost daily worship services. The Spirit even provided extra warmth in the cold assembly hall by nudging me to get involved with a service project tying knots in fleece scarves that will go to homeless people this winter through a church in St. Louis.

I came away from the 8-day experience impressed by the way the PC(USA) can pull together over a thousand people to quite smoothly work cooperatively for the benefit of the whole denomination. I am very grateful to Bethany, the Seattle Presbytery, and the Lord for this opportunity to learn, contribute and be stretched.

Projects and Organizations To Know About

1001 New Worshipping Communities: A movement in the PC(USA) to encourage new, diverse and varied forms of churches for our changing culture. The denomination’s goal is to create 1001 new worshipping communities between 2012 and 2022 and provide vital support for these groups as they start up outside of the traditional models of church planting. Hundreds of these communities have already been formed, including Kyle’s Coastal Commons.

Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs):The Presbyterian church has a service program for young adults (ages 19-30) that is an ecumenical, faith-based year of service at 22 sites around the world and US. YAVs accompany local agencies working to address the root causes of poverty and reconciliation while exploring the meaning and motivation of their faith in intentional community. Our young adults should know about this option for a GAP year or post-college!

2020 Vision Team: This team was set up at the 2016 GA to “develop a guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation.” In St. Louis, the team presented its interim report, which is based around a call for the church to be Prayerful, Courageous, United, Serving and Alive. The team will continue meeting for two more years to finalize the vision statement and recommend ways of implementing it.

Hands and Feet Initiative: This was the first year that the PC(USA) decided to work toward transforming communities where the GA is held, which meant cooperating with local churches and organizations to determine their priorities in the community. Mission teams have come to serve in St. Louis throughout the year, hands-on projects were featured during the GA, and some commissioners rallied for immigration reform or participated in a march calling for social, racial and economic justice. They also presented our $47,000 offering to The Bail Project, to provide money to free people held in a St. Louis jail on minor offenses simply because they don’t have the money to pay their own bail. Bethany’s Outreach team allocated $500 of our 2017 surplus to this cause.

NEXT Church: This is a network of leaders at all levels from the PC(USA) “who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful and more agile.” The movement aims to “strengthen the relational fabric of the PC(USA) so that our congregations are strong and healthy enough to be a sustained, effective, faithful and moral voice that is engaged in the transformation of our communities toward the common good.” NEXT Church’s national gathering (which I heard is fantastic) will be held in Seattle March 11-13, 2019. I plan to attend!

Reclaiming Jesus Movement (www.reclaimingjesus.org):  An effort by Christian leaders from many denominations to “consider a response to current politics that is undermining our theology and ask the questions: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ as disciples require at this moment in our history?”

 

Pastor Doug Kelly:

Here are a few highlights of my experience in St. Louis as a Teaching Elder Commissioner from Seattle Presbytery:

  • Opening worship with a 300 voice choir and a 1,000 people.
  • Approval of new Presbyterian Mission Agency executive,the Rev. Dr. Dianne Moffett, a powerful African American leader who appears to be a remarkable combination of Christ centered piety, passion for the world, and key administrative competency.
  • The awe-inspiring organization to pull this event off.
  • The healthy GA floor debate on fossil fuel divestment, even though it didn’t finish the way I was personally discerning God’s leading.
  • My committee’s work on the per capita increase issue, both highs and lows.
  • Marching to the St. Louis courthouse to liberate people held in jail on misdemeanor charges due to unjust cash bail bond policies, and a cop saying to some of us, “This is good.” The night before my hotel clerk said, “Hey, I heard about what you Presbyterians are doing tomorrow. Nobody’s ever come here and done that.  Pretty cool.”

 

As a window into my own personal experience, here is an entry in my daily journal:

6/19/18  7:40 a.m.

This older white male talked too much in yesterday’s committee meetings…  I love the YAAD (Young Adult Advisory Delegate) voices.

I struggle that it seems like we are all rookies on our committee… We haven’t met monthly like a session, or quarterly like a presbytery.   And… it seems like committee members are less familiar with parliamentary procedures than regular presbytery meetings, which limits conversation in that room of 52 people.   Is this the way to do denominational business?

 However, at the same time, isn’t this what makes us unique as Presbyterians.  We don’t consolidate authority and power.  Power and authority must always be accountable to teaching and ruling elders.  On the one hand, I want to say, “Can we stream line this?”   On the other hand, it seems our current way of doing things assures connection all the way back to individual congregations.   In the midst of it all, I am very proud and honored to be in a denomination such as this.

General Assembly had its minor frustrations, but overall it was a powerful reminder of how the Holy Spirit can move within our ponderous ecclesiastical structures to redeem and renew.    Jesus Christ was announced, testified to and manifested in our work together in St. Louis.