Kindom Building for the 21st Century
This scripture verse was the guiding scripture for the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis, which concluded this last Saturday. It’s hard to describe the experience of this past week.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness. – Matthew 6:33
It is remarkable how fast the tone and decisions of the Assembly have changed in the past few years. This Assembly seemed unlike any other before; even Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson I remarked that “even if I’m a one-term Stated Clerk, we’re going to try something different.”
If I had to pick my Top 5 takeaways from this General Assembly, they would be:
- Activism: Perhaps the most visible change-certainly to those outside the Church-was the activism that highlighted this Hundreds of GA attendees marched from the Convention Center to the Justice Center, the city jail in downtown St. Louis. The Stated Clerk presented a check for over $47,000, raised by donations from the GA attendees, to The Bail Project, a non-profit that funds bail for select individuals. There was some education about the impact of the cash bail system, where individuals with minor offenses such as unpaid parking tickets are put in jail because they cannot afford to pay the bail. Because of backlogs in the court system, people may wait for months or even over a year before they are even seen by a judge, which undermines the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.
Earlier that day, a smaller group gathered to speak out on immigrants’ rights. Two areas featured at this rally were Southern California, highlighting the various support activities we participate in, and New Hampshire, where an Indonesian community and Presbyterian church has sustained many deportations, which have been suspended only due to a temporary order by a judge in Boston.
- Spending: This GA seemed to be so happy to enact multiple new initiatives that they did not pay attention to the repeated reminders of the cost of their In some cases, they disputed the estimated cost implications, but at the end of the GA, when the final financial reports were considered, many commissioners commented that they were not properly informed of the financial implications. While the process for informing them (initial estimates made for each overture, updated as each recommendation was revised, summary statements made more than once a day), the impact was not understood, or muted by comments about the wealth of the denomination and the need to share our resources. It also became clear that many commissioners do not understand where funding for these initiatives comes from. By the end, over $1 million was added to the per capita budget, and over $2 million was added to the mission budget, none of which will be covered by per capita. There was a task force formed to look seriously at the per capita system.
- Fossil Fuels: Several individuals walked from the Presbyterian Center in Louisville to Louis in order to raise support for divestment from the fossil fuels industries. After some debate, the GA opted for the recommendation of Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), the PC(USA)’s process for active engagement with corporate boards which is enabled as long as we hold some small amount of investment in those corporations. They are to report back on their progress in 2020.
- A Corp: The biggest controversy coming out of the last General Assembly- and the most tense moments of this Assembly-related to the way administrative services and control over the assets of the denomination are The mission of the PC(USA)-implemented through the Office of the General Assembly and Presbyterian Mission Agency-are represented in civil law by the one corporation called “Presbyterian Church (USA), A Corporation” or “A Corp” for short. The administrative services of this corporation have been managed by the Mission Agency, as it is a much larger institution than the Office of the General Assembly. Due to concerns over mismanagement and unfair cost recovery assigned to the other users of these services (Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Women, and Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program), the management of “A Corp” was moved to a separate board. This action was promoted by what one staff leader called a “public rebuke” of the Mission Agency, which was unfortunate, as the actual target of the dispute was the Mission Agency Board, not the staff, but this was not made clear to the Assembly.
- People: On the other hand, the Mission Agency did present a new leader, Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, who fulfilled the expressed hopes of the church for many years. Rev. Dr. Givens Moffett was affirmed with widespread and enthusiastic acclaim. She made an immediate positive impact at the Assembly, demonstrating her inspirational speaking skills, and reflecting her broad experience in innovative ministry that bridges race, migrant status, and community.
We can be proud of San Gabriel’s many contributions in this General Assembly, including Tom Taylor, who was unanimously affirmed for another term as President of the Presbyterian Foundation; Bong Bringas and my participation in the search committee for Diane Givens Moffett; Commissioner Bear Ride’s leadership as vice moderator of the committee on Mid-Councils; and Young Adult Advisory Delegate Sophia Alecci’s leadership on the YAAD Council, and as an eloquent and thoughtful speaker on the floor of the Assembly. Sophia spoke three times, and each time she made a discernable impact on the decisions made.
One Teaching Elder Commissioner revised his point because “My comment was what the YAAD (Sophia) just said.”
Sophia Alecci and the YAAD Council presented gifts to the GA Co-Moderators. The YAADs raised $1,600 which was split to $533 each to PDA for Cindy Kohlmann, who has advocated for refugees and for her Boston churches in the 20-foot snow storm in 2015; to Puerto Rico relief for Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, a Puerto Rican native; and for use by the Stated Clerk. Following the lead of the YAADs, a freewill offering was taken as participants left the closing worship.
Ruling Elder Commissioner Deborah Owens was an astute participant in her committee on Peacemaking, Immigration and International Issues. And the overture which San Gabriel concurred with-On Responding to the Current Syrian Crisis-was passed unanimously by the Middle East committee and approved by consent agenda. This reflected another historic change in the GA, as the Middle East was NOT a hot-button issue for once; the Stated Clerk noted that this was the first time that all Middle East concerns were decided on by the full Assembly in 34 minutes.
This General Assembly seemed a defining moment for the PC(USA). With such bold actions, I pray that God will continue to guide and provide as the Church seeks to be obedient to actions that are bigger than we are. And as we continue to seek to be a more inclusive church, may we take time to listen to the voices of all our members, and members to be.