Carson’s GA Blog

Sunday, June 26

As I write this, I sit on the plane traveling to Louisville. Well, let me correct that. I sit on the plane traveling to Atlanta so that I can connect to Louisville. It’s Sunday night at 9 PM, and this flight has been delayed. My connection time to the next flight will be about 30 minutes. If all goes well, I’ll touch down in Louisville around midnight. With a prayerfully available and willing Uber driver, no traffic, and a smooth check-in process at The Galt House, I can plan to be asleep and resting for tomorrow by 1:30 AM. Committee work begins just seven hours later. I am reminded that, even on all-expenses-covered church trips, things do not always go as we expect or plan.

I am very excited for the committee tomorrow; I am also nervous, as I think anyone would be. I’m hopeful that God will lead me to say the right things, ask the right questions, and, when the situation calls for it, the wisdom to know when to be quiet! I hope He’ll give me the courage to share unpopular opinions and the wisdom to know what is right. I’m reminded of a sermon from a few weeks ago around Pentecost time that said we should take back the phrase “devil’s advocate”. To be one means to challenge what is popular and advocate for something unpopular. The devil though, of course, does not want this. He wants us to be comfortable in our current positions, to not ask questions or challenge or wonder how we can be better and believe different things than we always have before. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, who is indeed our “advocate”. So, I pray that this Spirit will give me strength to know what to say, do, and vote. Let’s also hope he keeps me awake.

Monday, June 27

First, an update: I got checked in and upstairs at 1:19 AM — eleven minutes ahead of schedule!

The sleep that followed was necessary for the long first day that we had at the Presbyterian Center. After receiving my badge and per diem card and briskly walking to the building from the Galt House (we were right on time), I sat down in my assigned seat in the front row of committee meeting room 1A. My initial observations: I was immediately confronted with the reality of the gravity of General Assembly. Upon collecting my badge, I was told that I was discouraged from wearing it outdoors on my walk to the convention center, as a “safety precaution“. I didn’t think too much of this until, at the end of the day during closing announcements, my committee’s moderator announced a group had filed a permit to protest the PC(USA)’s Israel/Palestine policy and that we should probably take the back entrance in the next morning. Then it hit me, the seriousness of it all. I was reminded that, while 500+ commissioners may seem like a lot, they are making decisions that will affect 1.1 million Presbyterians across the world. And yes, there will be many who disagree with those decisions, some very strongly, both within and outside of the denomination. So, with this reality kicking in for me, this journey truly began.

The Galt House, the official hotel of this Assembly

My committee only has four items of business to consider, and I’ve expected these three days to be slow and tedious. Before we had even concluded opening worship, the committee meeting at the same time in the next room over was already marking up its third item of business. My committee’s moderator acknowledged this fact early, saying that we would have a lot of time for team-building and other activities. I was skeptical at first, especially following the early morning rock paper scissors tournament (yes, you read that right), but my outlook was expanded the more I got to dialogue with the commissioners sitting around me. They all seem great, with great intentions in mind.

We got to work on making a covenant for the group to follow, some ground rules that will serve as our guidelines. Our committee moderator proposed including a commitment that we not use the words “illegal“ or “alien“, but rather “undocumented“ and “immigrant”. Most seemed to agree, but one commissioner stood up and objected, saying that in order to confront the realities of life in a system that needs to be changed, we have to be willing to use words that honestly and accurately characterize individual situations. The moderator asked for thoughts, and I spoke, agreeing with the intent but saying that not using “illegal” was a show of tolerance, and that I hoped it was possible for us to reconcile reality with respect. The committee struck a compromise: it was okay to use the word illegal, just not to refer to people. Other commissioners who spoke reminded us that “no person is illegal“. I approached the commissioner after the closing of that session and told her that I respected her opinion and her willingness to speak her mind. Her blunt honesty was very appreciated and, in a church that I feel is often loath to have difficult conversations at the risk of offering offense, was a needed perspective.

After a polity and technology primer, we had a great lunch. Well, I did. As I have done before at Presbytery meetings, I decided to use the lunch break to explore the surrounding area and see what was out there beyond a boxed sandwich. I happened upon a little joint known as Zombie Taco. Half a block from the back entrance to the Presbyterian Center, you can see the door. It was great; plus I got to sit outside, which was warm, but not Florida hot (and no humidity to be found!) I was a few minutes late for our 1 PM start time because I somehow (I still am not sure how) misplaced my mask, and had to run to my eighth floor hotel room to pick up my spare.

Exploring downtown

1-3 PM consisted of education on “relevant topics” by three staff members: one with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and two with the PC(USA)’s immigration advocacy outlet. They dimmed the lights for this post-lunch session…not a good combination! My committee’s moderator even said that she saw several people asleep at one point. While I was still running on less than six hours from last night and teetered on the brink of a quick rest, I’m proud to say I was not one of them. Part of the reason why, I think, is because the “relevant topics“ were actually quite interesting. I was expecting a detailed presentation, and it definitely was that. I learned a lot. As a Floridian, when I hear PDA, I think “hurricanes“. Not simply so! I learned today that PDA coordinates much of the denomination’s refugee resources. We learned a lot about DACA, Dreamers, and immigration work in the PC(USA). When the appointed hour finally arrived, we moved on to consideration of our first business item, a resolution to establish a network of immigration attorneys. I had a lot of questions about this one that Melana kindly helped me sort through before I left Florida. Listening to the overture advocates and sponsors confirmed my belief that the motion, as written, would serve no productive purpose. I submitted an amendment. My amendment was then amended. And then amended again. And then again (by me). This, interspersed with numerous technical challenges with PC-Biz, invited a full use of the two hours we had set aside for this item. The amendment and main motion both passed unanimously. I thanked the committee staff for putting up with me. 

On the walk back to the hotel, I had a conversation with a commissioner from Utah. I asked him for his opinion on whether GA should hold its next assembly in person (considering of course, it is scheduled for Salt Lake City). He expressed that he feels it will be a lot of work to pull off. Especially after what I saw today, I am sure he is right.

One of the cooler revelations for me today was seeing and meeting people I had only ever seen before on a screen. The stated clerk came in and addressed my committee for a few minutes at the beginning, which was very nice. He’s taller in person.

Tuesday, June 28

The protesters brought a hot air balloon with them and placed it in front of the Presbyterian Center, blocking off Witherspoon Street

I began my morning at 6:30 AM, having an accidental breakfast with my friend from Utah. His invitation to me to sit at his table was generous and kind. I decided to get up early so I could observe the protest outside of the Presbyterian Center that we were told about yesterday. I didn’t know much about it, other than that it was regarding Israel and Palestine. My committee’s moderator and YAAD advisors encouraged us to go around the back of the building to avoid the protesters. Still, I decided to go. My reasoning was simple: these individuals came out seeking an audience; I felt it was only fair that they received one. They were very kind and respectful. After exchanging pleasantries, they politely asked if I was on the international relations committee and, when I said no, they still encouraged me to vote in plenary against an overture labeling Israeli action in the occupied territory as “apartheid” against Palestine. I told them I would check it out.

My committee dealt with three items. The first two were overtures regarding immigration/justice work and the treatment of refugees. Although they had good intentions, the main effect of both was to commission reports and study. One included a request for a $250,000 grant to accomplish this. Other commissioners and I struggled to see how the grant connected to the work. The language was amended to have the money taken from the budget, and with specific things for which it could be used.

Commissioners and advisory delegates used their own laptops or other devices with headphones; all speaking was done through a microphone connected to Zoom so we could listen to overture advocates and others online. It was weird to listen to a hymn only through your earbuds!

We moved to our last overture: to designate the PC(USA) as a Sanctuary and Accompaniment church. After being provided with information about the overture and its effects, a few commissioners raised concerns with some of the “top-down” language, and what it might be asking churches to do. Of particular concern to me: the phrase “encourage churches to…resist action by the government to separate families”. I feel that, perhaps, what happened next could be best explained by Leslie Scanlon’s article the next day in the Presbyterian Outlook. “By a 36-3 vote, the committee passed an amended version of that resolution — but only after some commissioners raised concerns about whether some congregations would object to language in the resolution saying that the PC(USA) encourages congregations, mid councils and members ‘to support immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and their children, and to resist efforts by the government to separate families.’ The committee debated this language. Carson Brown, a young adult advisory delegate from Peace River Presbytery proposed removing some of the more “strict, top-down” language. That way, congregations might see the resolution as more invitational. Janalee Kosowski, a ruling elder from East Iowa Presbytery, said “words like ‘resist efforts by the government’ are not going to be embraced by my congregation. In fact, we may lose members” with that language.”

There were many who disagreed with this. As Leslie Scanlon continued to write…

“It’s so important that we as a national church stand up — that we have a voice,” said Jean Demmler, an overture advocate from the Presbytery of Denver. The resolution allows the PC(USA) to “speak as a national church as to who we are” – to speak prophetically – and invite congregations and presbyteries to decide whether they want to take a stand and join the work, said Ellen Johnson Price, a minister from the Presbytery of Yukon.”

This, of course, came to my exact trouble with the proposed language. By speaking at a denominational level and then leaving an open solicitation for other churches to join, I fear we are almost cultivating a standoffish, “you’re either with us or not” mentality. Of course, the Presbyterian way is never to force a system or mentality upon any one congregation or member, but I agreed with the commissioners who spoke that the language seemed decidedly strong and exclusionary. By not amending it, I feel we may have scared away churches who may be comfortable with exploring the ideas presented, but not in the form in which they were offered. I tried to bring forward what I felt was a compromise, but several commissioners disagreed, strongly arguing that softening the language would leave the national position on the issue considerably weaker, a stance I understand and can appreciate. I just did not agree. In the end, most of my proposed language was rejected, and the overture passed. This, too, is the Presbyterian way — through debate and majority vote of the body. We may not agree with every decision, but we agree with the process by which it was made. As do I.

Tuesday night included a gathering with the other YAADs both in person and on Zoom in other committee groups. We got to share some highs and lows from throughout the day with those around us and online, which was exciting. A busy, but prayerfully successful day, concluded.

Wednesday, June 29

Closing worship in the Immigration Committee. Two commissioners are on the left and center. Our committee’s moderator is on the right. Between the three of them, we heard Scripture and received communion in three different languages — Korean, Spanish, and English!

As we had wrapped up our business the morning before, my committee’s only job today was to gather for worship. We began at 9 AM — a fifteen minute reprieve from our usual start time — which was actually more helpful that you might think. Fifteen minutes can be a lot of time! Worship was not very fulfilling for me, but I think that’s because I was so tired, and also questioning some of our actions from the day before. We are asked to share how we feel the Spirit had worked through us this week; I wasn’t too sure of my answer. We concluded at 10:30 AM.

Me speaking to one of my amendments (that one passed!) They placed me in the front row, right by the microphone…bad mistake!!

Before I left, I was approached by a commissioner who had spoken against my proposed amendment the day before. I was sure she didn’t like me! She reached for my hand, gave me a hug, and told me, “the church needs more people like you. Keep doing what you are doing”. This is when I felt that maybe, the Spirit had worked through me after all. If my role in the week was to ask difficult questions and bring alternative solutions that made us all think a little more, then I feel it was successful.

I decided to spend the rest of my day exploring. I visited Churchill Downs, which has always been a lifelong dream. Lunch at a local cafe was followed by a wonderful dinner with Pastor Bill Teng from Peace River. Our conversation was so spiritually fulfilling, nurturing, and eye-openingly edifying for me. As I consider these past few days before I depart, this dinner may have been the best highlight.

YAAD activities; we built a village consisting of Lego sets with various purposes. There was a message behind this, trust me!

Our last YAAD gathering was bittersweet. I said goodbye to some wonderful people whom I had come to know over the past few days. Meeting them — and the tinge of sadness that came over me when we said goodbye — was a revelatory feeling, a confirmation of my belief that GA is at its best when we’re together in person. I learned this not through the committees or travel or business, but through the people. I’ve been told that it costs more money to have a General Assembly in person, money that might be used better for other mission or ministry objectives. Well, if my experience is precedent, the feelings of gathering in person to do this work and the connections formed are worth far more than a few extra dollars, for it is through these gatherings and connections that we develop, strengthen, and share our passions for mission and ministry. I know that I am returning to PRP with a newfound fervor for the work of God’s kingdom that has been sparked by the connections I’ve formed at these few simple gatherings in-person.

Right before recessing to my room on the eighth floor, I had the chance to meet Brian Ellison, the Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. Melana had encouraged me to look him up; now, I understand why. He is energetic, wise, and incredibly kind.

Thursday, June 30

For reference, here is the Presbyterian Center (the brick/stone building), next to the KFC Yum! Center, the largest arena built for basketball in the nation (22,000+ seats), as seen from the highway. The Center is not small!

Lewis and Clark were here! Tod Bolsinger would be proud.

Time to say goodbye. Today was almost entirely a travel day for me, and I decided to spend it doing as little as possible. I had breakfast in the hotel again, and happened to see my friend from Utah once more. Although this time, he came in while I was already at a table, so I got to invite him to join me just as he had invited me two days earlier. That was cool. I made my way out to the Clark Bridge. It spans hundreds of feet over and across the Ohio River, and provides stunning and beautiful views of middle America. It truly feels like the crossroads of our country‘s history. Historical sites surround, plaques littered with information about Lewis, Clark, their guides, and their adventures. The views of the Presbyterian Center are also magnificent. For anyone who does not know, I’ll let you in on something I discovered this week. The six floor Presbyterian Center, our national headquarters, sets [1]on perhaps the most prime piece of real estate in downtown Louisville. Its banners are immediate to anyone coming across the bridge. It is easily accessible, has ample parking, great restaurants, hotels, and shops nearby, and is directly next to the KFC Yum! center, the major arena of downtown Louisville where the Cardinals play. It is a beautiful building, and I was amazed at how many offices are nestled within it. It gave me a deep and profound appreciation for all of the cogs in the wheel that make the PC(USA) turn and exist. It was something new that I learned that I enjoyed discovering about our denomination. Although you can read about and learn how massive it is and how many staff are involved, seeing it in person is an entirely different thing.

After saying goodbye to the rest of the YAADs, a few of us took the 11 AM shuttle to Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. Most everyone else was heading straight home, but I chose to take a long layover in Atlanta to visit with a friend. By the time I got back home to Fort Myers, and we were right back where we started on this trip, arriving shortly after 1 AM.

I leave the first half of this assembly with mixed feelings. One on hand, I am concerned about how personal the debate felt, how quickly the opinions of others were dismissed or disregarded. It also felt throughout my committee that we were on a “castle in the clouds”, and did not really do too much that would impact the members of our churches directly, or were sensitive to the diverse viewpoints, theological stances, and emotional and Spiritual makeup of each of them. However, on the other hand, my interactions with the YAADs and the energy of the commissioners present in person gave me a renewed hope for our future. I sometimes feel like a unicorn, as more and more young people flee the church in droves. Being with all of those other people just like me, though, is a special thing. It reminds us that we are not alone, that there are signs of life in our future. That is one of the most encouraging thoughts that has ever come to me.

As I travel today, I expand another thought in my mind that I think is worth mentioning to close. It is truly quite remarkable how much work the PC(USA) staff put into converting the denomination’s headquarters to accommodate this General Assembly. When you think about it, it was a lot of work for just two weeks of utilization. However, those two weeks are the spark, fervor, and backbone on which our church will be built for the years to come. I’m excited to see what other meetings will be held in that space in the future. Since I’ve never been to the Presbyterian Center before, I can’t exactly opine on what it used to look like, but the renovations seem to have been a massive undertaking. These were brought about by COVID, of course, and will most definitely now be used for incredible things in the future. It reminds me of how God works in each of us. Hearts and minds and souls are transformed according to His purpose, even when we don’t expect or want that to happen. However, by the time the dust settles, it always looks a lot more beautiful than before.

I told one of the YAADs this morning that I was ready to go home and figure a few things out. I’m still processing my time in Louisville, and am hopeful that I will be able to dissect and understand the experience a bit more before the plenary sessions begin on Tuesday. When they do, I’ll be sure to bring you along. See you then.

Tuesday, July 5

Today was the first day of plenaries. It has certainly been an interesting adventure.

Due to the hybrid nature of this assembly, it seems to be a bit easier to digest business and help look through it after it moves through committee. If you’ve been to GA before, you probably know that few things move through a committee without amendments, sometimes substantial. There were items with, say, six paragraphs that came through committee with only one or two intact, and three new added! It can be an intimidating process. I was reminded today that we were responsible not only for the business of this assembly, but also the backlog of business that was supposed to come before the 2020 assembly. This was a helpful reminder.

Since we, the participants, were literally all over the world (but mainly, it seemed, the country), we needed to begin at a time that worked for everyone. I would’ve been okay starting at 9 AM, for example, but our commissioners from Honolulu probably wouldn’t have been, since 4 AM is an awfully early start time, even for Presbyterians. So, the routine was to be, we were informed, worship (which was pre-recorded) at 11 AM, and business beginning at noon. It was pointed out to me that there was no end time on any of the days’ plenary schedules. Each day was to include an hour lunch break around 2 PM eastern, and an hour long 7 PM dinner break. With this daunting schedule in front of me, I settled into the Christian Education office at Cypress Lake Presbyterian Church. I stopped at Publix on the way to pick up some snacks to help me make it through the week. You know, healthy stuff like fudge cookies and York peppermint thins. It was a tremendous help to me that I was provided a care package by Melana on behalf of the presbytery. This package included some more snacks and all sorts of trinkets to keep any Zoomer entertained. Thank you for this, Peace River!

Wednesday, July 6

If I had to guess how many votes we cast on items of business, amendments, amendments to amendments, and procedural questions, I’d say around 100.

This morning, I saw someone online had made a “bingo card” with many different boxes to cross off for when something had been said at the assembly. Assuming this was safer than a drinking game, I bit. I quickly realized, as I completed my card in the office as I waited for the 12 PM plenary session to begin, that I had hit Bingo in almost every box! From the first day alone, I could check off nearly everything — this list includes “per capita”, “financial implications”, “justice”, “white supremacist”, and a dog barking. I felt ready for day 2 of this five-day stretch.

We did a lot today. Between the Race and Gender Justice, Environmental Justice, and Violence in the USA committees, we covered a lot of ground. The assembly voted to issue an apology to African Americans for the sin of slavery and its legacy, declared racism a public health crisis, began the process for divestment from fossil fuels, called upon the denomination to reduce its carbon imprint, and approved a slew of measures designed to advocate for restrictions on firearm ownership. This last subject was particularly interesting, in part because it was dealt with exclusively after 9 PM. All of the proposed items advocated against the use of guns; one included language calling on the PC(USA) to educate churches on “the myth that guns make us safer”. Whether you agree or disagree, one of the YAADs was quick to point out what felt like hypocrisy: when we arrived for our committee meetings in Louisville at the Presbyterian Center each day, we walked past several armed security personnel, and yet we are taking a denominational stance against guns. Again, no matter your stance on the issue, things like this definitely make you think.

I had intended to speak earlier today on a different overture that was brought forward in the Standing Rules committee report that would change the age range of YAADs from 17-23 to 18-26. I had no issue with raising the upper limit, but the change from 17 to 18, although the rationale of not having minors on site made sense, did not sit right with me. I was prepared to argue that many 17 year olds are involved in their churches and have not yet left for college, and therefore have not yet encountered this substantial barrier to both church and GA involvement. Nevertheless, despite being in the queue to speak, I was not recognized. Especially considering how mapped out my thinking was and how prepared I was to speak, I was shocked that I spontaneously decided to speak on the last item from the Violence committee tonight. Before I even knew what I was doing, my name was in the queue. Then, the co-moderator called on me! Suddenly I was speaking in favor of VIOL-08 and arguing that those convicted of domestic crimes should face stricter hurdles before being allowed to obtain firearms. By the time I was finished, I wasn’t even sure what I had just said, other than that education about domestic violence and its warning signs is significantly lacking in our schools, so that this would be of particular benefit to young people. I couldn’t believe it. Not only was I speaking in front of the General Assembly for the first time, I was presuming to speak on behalf of students and young adults across our church and all over the world. Feeling called to speak at that moment, on a topic I knew nothing about, and suddenly having the words to say, did not come from me; it came from Someone Else. I suddenly understood, in that moment, what everyone says about allowing God to guide our votes and, it seems, our words. The item passed.

Notwithstanding much wordsmithing and semantics on many of the items before us, we did conclude our work for the day. As I listened to the parliamentarian recommend we “change to a different verb” on one item, I checked the clock — 11:21 PM. We adjourned shortly after that.

One thing that kept me going throughout the day was our group chat with the PRP commissioners: Linda Getzen, Clink Belk, Cori Rigney, and Rex Childs, as well as Melana. Throughout the day, we exchanged advice, thoughts, moments of laughter, and even pictures of how we were occupying the time, such as Linda’s play-doh recreation of Abraham Lincoln. (The resemblance, I might add, is truly uncanny; I am going to be speaking with the French authorities about possibly loaning it to the Louvre.) This chat, and the five of them specifically, kept me sane, excited, and knowledgeable about what was happening. I couldn’t have made it through the day without them. I suspect the rest of the week will be like this.

Thursday, July 7

The office GA watch party movie theater

Update: it was! I have continued to find guidance and support in our PRP chat. It has meant more to me than I can describe in words…especially on such a busy and controversial day!

Thursday’s (because I am writing this the following day) work included consideration of the major revisions to the Rules of Discipline, proposed by a special committee convened to consider possible changes. We went through chapter by chapter, proposing several amendments. Thursday is Brenda Harcourt’s day to work at the Cypress Lake volunteer desk, and she came back and joined me in the office to watch some of this. Brenda is a retired Presbyterian pastor and former missionary to Kenya. She has a wonderful perspective on PC(USA) and international issues, so her input here was especially helpful. When she was sitting with me, we were considering an amendment to an amendment to a proposal to make mandatory reporting provisions stricter for pastors. Some argued that it changed the lines of pastoral confidentiality and opened up potential problems in the future. To be honest, it was during this debate that I recalled what Steve Norris — a friend and commissioner to the 2014 GA — had said to me shortly before I left for Louisville: “you’ll be shocked at how political the General Assembly is”. I thought I had at least some idea, but I never could have been prepared for what I experienced. During these ROD revisions, there was a nearly unhealthy exchange of fiery speeches, personal experiences and testimonies, and parliamentary maneuvering. We also debated adding a purpose of church discipline to be “the correction and restraint of offenders”. This alone was a thirty minute discussion that ended in a change of the last word to “wrongdoing” and eventual approval of the overture. The assembly also affirmed the right of “members of new worshiping communities” to be engaged in the judicial process alongside church members, but then promptly voted to reconsider and revoke that action after the Advisory Committee on the Constitution advised that it would essentially declare that non-church members who have not asked to be subjected to our church and its discipline were indeed being forced to do so, labeling people as members of an organization they did not agree to join. I thought my head was going to explode!

We had a hard stop at 5 PM because the Hands and Feet event — a virtual panel featuring Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson and others speaking about cash bail — was scheduled to begin at 6 PM. We were behind schedule so some schedule adjusting by the assembly determined we could be called back into session on Friday at 11 AM instead of noon.

Both nights before this, we adjourned by 11:45 PM at the latest. We were told the reason for this was because the Korean interpreters had contracts that expired at that time. Melana told us that this was the virtual equivalent of “we need to adjourn because the buses will stop running” at an in-person GA. If you’ve attended before, I’m sure you understand.

I decided to take my free night as it was, and did some eating and shopping. Later, around 10:30 PM, I was visiting my mom, when I received a strange message. A Zoom link had been posted in the YAAD group chat, summoning us to a voluntary gathering at 11 PM. I was intrigued. I made my way to my apartment to log onto the clandestine meeting. We didn’t really know the details, but had a vague idea of the subject matter and the purpose. I had heard tales of commissioners meeting with YAADs as a matter of routine in prior years to convince them to support certain items, knowing their support carries weight in plenary sessions (ironic, as it is, that YAADs do not vote in plenary sessions).

Suddenly my “free night” was eroded, and I was on a screen with fifteen other YAADs, along with Neal Presa, the Moderator of the 220th General Assembly, and Laura Cheifetz, the co-moderator of the special committee charged with evaluating per capita based funding and financial sustainability. Before I knew it, we were discussing the specifics of FIN-10, a controversial item set to go before plenary the next day that would establish a team to unify the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Now, let me pause for a moment, because I know what you’re thinking: you’re jealous that you weren’t there, because you’ve always dreamed of attending a secret Zoom meeting at the latest hour of the day to discuss the sultry subject of financial feasibility of a multi-faceted organization…right? Joking aside, of course, if you’re really interested in the polity of the assembly and what our denomination is doing, like me, this question isn’t sarcastic, and the answer is yes. The meeting itself was incredibly interesting. Its purpose was simple: originally, the team making the recommendation, which Laura co-moderated, recommended that a commission be convened to do the work of unifying PMA and OGA. Of course, this would come with commission-like powers, including language that would allow it to assume the governance functions (think original jurisdiction) of the two committees that head both agencies. This substantial suggestion was met with resistance by the PMA Board, Stated Clerk, and other denominational honchos and, heeding those concerns, the Financial Resources committee (which had processed this report) changed the proposal from a commission to a task force, which wields substantially less power. Are you with me so far? Laura and Neal argued for the original language to be restored, and a commission to be convened. They wanted the YAADs to support this.

Linda Getzen will tell you that she has never eaten so many M&Ms as during this GA…the same is true for me!

Suddenly, I found myself asking questions about fiscal responsibility, how they might respond to some of the objections raised in committee, and other random thoughts that came into my mind. I felt like we were at a congressional hearing, interrogating a witness (if congressional hearings involved 21-year-olds, and took place right before midnight). The other YAADs got in on the questions, too. My favorite part was that Laura, in her responses, answered honestly and thoroughly. She used all of the big financial terms. She didn’t attempt to “dumb it down for the kids”. She treated us like adults, and trusted that we had done our due diligence to understand the semantics of the issue. I was grateful for her thinking, and impressed by how well she kept up with all of our questions as we peppered them onto her.

Then came the kicker. I should admit that part of the reason I knew so much about this particular item and the task force/commission debate was because I, too, was campaigning for it to be changed. Let me explain. The assembly voted in other actions to create other special committees, like this one, charged with different tasks. For instance, a special team was created to review and suggest amendments to the standing rules of the General Assembly. On most of these special committees being created, a seat was included in the composition approved by the assembly for a YAAD. On this particular item, no such representation was present. When I discovered this, I scratched my head. The potential unification of the two agencies is something that will undoubtedly affect the future of the church, not to mention the thousands of seminarians, many of whom are young adults, seeking to be ordained to service in the church, including in PMA-related roles. If we are to consider something as major as this that will have lasting impacts on the short and long-term viability and sustainability of the denomination, you would think a voice from the future, representing the ones who will be tasked with seeing these changes through into the future, would be present.

Long before I knew about the clandestine meeting, the YAADs were cooking up a plan to have this changed, working with a very special commissioner who graciously agreed to help. So, I posed a question to Laura: why was a YAAD not included? I wanted to make sure there was no intentional reason for the exclusion. She informed us that there was not. The committee would have no issue with it and the reason it was left out was simple: the particular task at hand involved a knowledge of Presbyterian bureaucracy that could only be attained from being “in the weeds of the polity”. We discussed how having a younger voice unexposed to denominational politics may actually be a really good thing, and she agreed. In our previous discussions, we had been prepared to recommend adding one seat for a YAAD. At this meeting, however, Neal suggested that we should add not just one YAAD seat, but maybe two, or three, or four! He argued that oftentimes being the only young voice can be intimidating, and having another could be vital to fully amplifying that younger voice, which was of course our intent. And then, it happened again! I told Laura and Neal that many of the YAADs would be prepared to support their commission proposal if they in turn supported adding YAADs to the commission. I couldn’t believe it! Here I was, at a meeting I didn’t know was happening thirty minutes ago, bartering and making deals on behalf of people I had no business representing! I clarified that I was not intending to speak for all of us, but the YAADs present spoke up and agreed. Right before midnight, with about as much energy and exhilaration as I’ve ever felt at a church meeting, I logged off for the night and went to bed, ready for the next day. I knew it would be a good one.

Friday, July 8

This “business tracker” was shown frequently. It mapped out how many items were left, and how much time was left in the assembly. On this occasion during the home stretch, it provided a reminder for us all.

Here I was, thinking that Thursday would be the craziest and longest day of the General Assembly. Leave it to the PC(USA) to prove me wrong.

At the beginning of our day at 11 AM, the co-moderators told us to brace for a long day. We still needed to finish the Rules of Discipline revisions, in addition to reports from two other committees that had been pushed to today, and then the three committees that were scheduled to report today to begin with. I thought it would never end. I knew we were still up against the Korean interpreter deadline, so every minute counted.

We got to work quickly, recommending an amendment to the Book of Order adding a minimum of twelve weeks of paid family leave for every pastor each year. We voted on several “big” items: to change the Book of Order so that allegations may be filed up to five years after the “discovery” of an offense (the current language is five years after the offense is committed), to create a standing LGBTQIA+ advocacy committee, to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to designate Israel’s action against Palestine as “apartheid”, to re-elect Diane Moffett as executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned the legal precedent of Roe v. Wade, to advocate for peace in a slew of regions worldwide facing instability, to add more expansive financial questions to Session annual statistical reports, and to change the age ranges in those same statistical reports, breaking the current “under 25” into two categories, “under 17” and “18-25”. Of course, these were the items that felt important to me. Some of them I supported, some of them I did not. Sometimes, I was one of the only YAADs who voted one way. I encourage you again to check out PC-Biz to see the whole list of items considered during this marathon session.

Pastor Cori Rigney (or, as the YAADs call her, “our queen”) offers an amendment to FIN-10.

Right before dinner was set to begin, it felt as though we were suddenly back on track. We had made up so much time and, to be honest, I’m still not sure how. Before I knew it, we were at the consideration of FIN-10, the subject of the midnight meeting on Thursday night. It came time for amendments, and…boom! It happened! To the rescue of the YAADs, and to the defense of young people everywhere, Teaching Elder Commissioner Cori Rigney, a member of Peace River Presbytery, moved to add two YAAD seats to the group. The motion was seconded and, then…it passed! I had to check my screen again. My heart was racing in my chest. I couldn’t believe it. A few days earlier, long before the commission conversation, Pastor Cori had accepted the call of the YAADs to help us with this, and she and I talked several times throughout the week to ready the motion and the language. I had been so nervous beforehand that I couldn’t eat dinner and, out of nowhere, it just happened. After my shock subsided, I was overcome with excitement and joy! Pastor Cori and I celebrated that something we had worked on together was now GA policy. We sat back, our victory accomplished, and watched the commission/task force debate play out. Many important people in the denomination spoke for and against it. Most of the YAADs supported the commission, including me. Ultimately, by a wide margin, the assembly voted to add back the commission language, and the motion was approved. Words here cannot possibly express how thankful I — and all of the GA225 YAADs are — for Pastor Cori. Because of her, a critical voice has been added to an extraordinarily important conversation. We are indebted to her.

If you can believe it, we still had not yet gotten to the biggest item on everyone’s minds yet. That discussion came shortly before 10 PM — a conversation over the format of the 226th General Assembly in 2024. Because of the amount of time needed to plan, the format approved by the assembly will also be used for the 227th Assembly in 2026. A motion was made to conduct the assembly entirely in person, which was defeated. A motion to hold the assembly in a hybrid model, with committees meeting online and plenary sessions in person, was approved. I should note here that I strongly disagree with this decision. Under the plan proposed, committees will meet across a few weeks in May, and plenaries will take place in June. This chosen format, I fear, will almost completely eliminate the ability of Young Adult Advisory Delegates to actively participate, as finding a college student who is available during the day for a week in May is virtually impossible. Academic calendars do not permit this participation, and I am concerned that it was an oversight by the assembly that will have dangerous consequences. Furthermore, due to the elongated commitment necessary (at least two weeks during two different months, much like this year), it will be difficult to recruit willing commissioners. Many working elders do not have the luxury of requesting off work for this much time without sacrificing their own vacation time.

In easily the most humorous moment of this GA, a presenter was caught on a hot mic discussing dinner plans with her spouse. Her recommendation of spaghetti gave many commissioners an idea for what to have on Friday night.

This concern could not be voiced, however, because the debate was cut substantially short. The co-moderators entertained two speakers both for and against, and then called for the vote with dozens left in the queue desiring to speak. This decision, though it had been their practice throughout the assembly and the day, and was largely responsible for us making up so much time, was met with immediate backlash. We quickly adjourned after that vote around 11 PM, and, in the usual nightly YAAD gathering on Zoom, many voiced their frustrations. I felt the politics of GA come alive even more when some of the YAADs began circling a letter to admonish the process and call for reconsideration of the vote. Eighteen YAADs signed the letter. I did not, and I argued against it, feeling that it unfairly criticized the co-moderators and implied we were not appreciative of the process or of them. The letter was picked up by the Presbyterian Outlook and many others, and it looks like someone will make a motion to reconsider today (I write on Saturday).

The 7:30 PM dinner break invariably coincided with sunset each night in Fort Myers. I got some great pictures!

I was invited to attend something called “GA after dark”, which is apparently an informal gathering of commissioners and others interested to discuss the day’s affairs. A few YAADs and I attended this Zoom conversation, which included about two dozen people in bed and dressed in pajamas. I listened and shared some thoughts, including what I’ve written here about the danger of the GA format decision, and then logged off. They were still going strong when I left a bit before 1 AM. I left the office at Cypress Lake at 12:45 AM, definitely the latest I’ve ever done so, ready for another early 11 AM start on Saturday, our last day.

Saturday, July 9

I got in the habit of giving a thumbs up to my screen after each item that passed. Here is my very last one on Saturday afternoon. In true Presbyterian spirit, the last vote we took was to “answer an item with action on another item”.

And that’s all, folks! The General Assembly adjourned today with much fanfare after a week of work, worship, and wonder (and there truly were all of these things). So, one more time, let’s recap the day.

The morning began as you might expect, with three motions to reconsider different items. The motion to reconsider the GA format for 2024 failed. Then, as I was only partially paying attention, a motion was made to reconsider the YAAD amendment to FIN-10! What a plot twist! The motion was made out of a desire to change the language from “two YAADs from this assembly” to “two elders under 25”, afraid that such narrow criteria would not find enough willing individuals to serve. Well, then it happened again — suddenly, even quicker than the first time, I was in the queue, and then, woah, I was speaking! Entirely off the cuff, I argued against the motion to reconsider, arguing that being a YAAD at this assembly would grant a more nuanced understanding of the topic that would be necessary for the work of the commission. Plus, as the assembly had already been informed, there are several ordained YAADs, far more than enough to serve on one commission. The motion to reconsider failed.

Then, we moved to consideration of the financial figures and the budget, the final item of the assembly. The consolidated budget numbers were approved as $88,365,740 for 2023, and $89,557,635 for 2024. The per capita rates were also prayerfully implemented, lessened from their original proposed amounts without the encumbrance of an all in-person GA. The rates were approved: $9.85 for 2023, and $9.80 for 2024. This is, of course, a raise from the current $8.98.

Given the dire condition of our progress yesterday morning, you may be shocked to discover that we adjourned early! In fact, our final plenary session was not even needed, as the assembly acted swiftly to approve the finance figures and wrapped up shortly before 4 PM. We did so with celebration for the work that had been done and, perhaps equally so, for the joy of being finished.

Speaking in front of the General Assembly — I can check that off the “never imagined” list. Neither time I spoke, I knew what I was saying. God always grants the right words.

I could surely write a book about my experience at this GA. I am so thankful to Wayne Largent, one of Peace River’s 2018 commissioners, for his daily blog then, which kept me informed on what was happening, and helped me understand what it means to attend GA. It served me well, and I hope maybe this entry will do the same for someone in the future. The biggest piece of advice I can give to a GA commissioner or advisory delegate is this: so many do not speak up, even when their hearts and minds yearn to. God is indeed Lord of the conscience and, if you feel him calling to you to do or say something that will help his church, do it. You won’t regret it.

While there were many decisions made that I disagreed with, and others that I enthusiastically supported, I carry away moments of celebration and concern, of joy and worry, of faith and doubt. God works in many unique ways, and I am sure that each of these decisions — even those I strongly disagree with — will serve this church in some way, whether for good or growth. In the spirit of the theme of this GA, I carry away both hope and lament. I lament that free and well-meaning debate was often quashed, and that the assembly did not seem to care to address some of our larger and more systemic issues that are causing significant losses within the denomination and disillusioning pastors and congregations. I also felt that some of the items passed parroted a rhetoric that will seriously isolate many churches who disagree with them. The mentality on many items seemed to be “all or nothing”, “you’re either with us or against us”. There were times where it did not feel like a very big tent. At the same time, I leave with hope. I am hopeful for the many seminarians and young people who care to serve this denomination, for the dedicated PC(USA) staff and the complexity of our international organization, the depth of which I did not understand until I was in person in Louisville, and for the desire for change that was shown through votes like FIN-10. I am hopeful because of how many times the co-moderators paused and invited us to prayer before votes. I am hopeful that our denomination still welcomes the invitation of the Holy Spirit to move within us and grant us a vision for our future. I do hope, too, that we will tune out that which does not matter to concentrate on that vision, that we might silence the noise of each of our voices so that we may hear God’s clearly.

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to attend the 225th General Assembly of the PC(USA). Thank you for coming along this journey with me, as well. If you’re still here, I’d like to say thanks by blessing you with this collection of items made by your Peace River commissioners during the plenary sessions…thank you, Melana, for the tools! Check out the next two pages for these masterpieces.

– Carson Brown, YAAD and ruling elder at Cypress Lake

1 reply
  1. Luceal Curry
    Luceal Curry says:

    Afternoon from my neck of the woods, Florida. Wow, I really enjoyed reading your blog. You blog took me alone with you on this GA225 and the structure of those that sits at the to top of Presbyterian Organization. I really like your thought of exploring your surroundings. I usually take the same opportunity. Okay, so the back door has a new meaning for a new era. Safety! During Civil Rights Years, “back door” often referred to services rendered to the marginalized race of people. Have a wonder experience at the General Assembly.

    Elder Luceal Curry
    Burnt Store Presbyterian Church, Punta Gorda, Florida


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