Tag Archives: PC(USA)

Wrap Up And Reflection On The Fourth Day Of General Assembly

It was an interesting day at the 222nd General Assembly on a number of levels. Like one of my previous wrap-ups I am going to take this in reverse chronological order.

I write this from the convention center as the hour grows later and Committee 4 – The Way Forward continues their work. In my wrap up from Sunday I was partly right and partly wrong in my assessment. What I got right is that they are working late on Tuesday night – to my knowledge the only committee still working. What I got wrong is that I suggested they might be working through it in a cursory way to get it done. Watching the committee working this evening it is clear that they are taking their job very seriously. They are using parliamentary procedure fairly well, the members of the committee are listening and respecting each other, and they are being very thoughtful and deliberate in what they write. It is a pleasure to watch them work on this, with the exception that the hour grows late. (For the record, they did get to the point where they got the heavy lifting done and could have done some more detailed work but instead did lump a few overtures together to be answered by an earlier action.)

And if you asked about my using the word “writing,” yes they are writing a lot. Part of their deliberative process was to be generative and come up with new ideas to move the church forward. They have discussed some interesting ideas, wrestled with the polity constraints, and will be bringing something interesting to the plenary. I am not going to expand on that at this time since it is not finished yet, but it will be interesting to see what the whole Assembly does with it.

I spent most of the rest of the day observing the Committee on Mid Councils. Today they were dealing with the question of synods. They were instructed early on that the actions of previous Assemblies were not binding on this Assembly. Therefore, if the 221st had asked synods to find a way to restructure themselves, this Assembly did not have to follow through with that. In brief, they did not. After hearing from a lot of people for and against, after discussion in the committee about options, after advice from the ACC they chose to recommend rescinding the actions of the 221st and leave synods alone. There were whispers of “minority report” and we will see what comes to the floor. Both this and their decision on non-geographic presbyteries rub some people the wrong way so it will be interesting to see how the different dynamics of the plenary play out.

On the one hand, a lot of time, effort and money have gone into two Mid Council Commissions over the last five years. I have heard some reaction that after all that work it is being undone. On the other hand, the process of the last two years with the synod consultations has happened, they came back with a recommendation and this committee basically took that recommendation.

The Mid Councils Committee closed their work considering a request for an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) about the inclusive nature of the church and its leadership and whether non-ordained leadership from church plants could be given a seat at the table in presbytery with voice and vote. The original motion from a member of the committee was to do that but when it was explained that if they wanted to have an AI they would have to provide it. No one felt like they had the necessary words, or maybe the time, and without much additional discussion the request for the AI was denied. I bet if that had not been the very last item on the docket a writing team would have put something together for consideration at the end. But so goes business at the GA.

Finally, please allow me to tell my best story of the day – maybe of the whole GA.

Before the Mid Councils Committee began today Jana Blazek from the Outlook and I were setting up at the press table. Todd Freeman, the Moderator of the committee came over and was chatting with us. When I introduced myself he recognized my name but not from this blog. It took him a moment but remembered that I was the author of the Outlook article looking at the overtures related to synods. He explained that he wanted to read from it but left that copy of the Outlook in his hotel room. “We can fix that” we told him and helped him call it up on his tablet. Thanks to Jana for the picture of me and Todd with his table showing the Outlook article.


He then proceeded to open today’s meeting by reading to the committee the first paragraph of my Outlook article on synods. I am humbled to say the least. My thanks to the Outlook for the opportunity to write it and for them publishing it.

And with that, I am going to crash. No writing time tomorrow morning as I will be meeting with people but will be back to live blogging as the afternoon plenary begins at 2 PM PDT.

See you then.


Wrap Up And Reflection On The Third Day Of General Assembly

It was a very interesting day on a number of levels. As I wind down my day let me reflect on three of them.

First breakfast was great. Thanks to the night clerk at my hotel when I asked for a local suggestion for breakfast and he recommended Pine State Biscuits. The nearest location a few blocks from the convention center is a storefront in a commercial area. Pretty unassuming.


Now the important thing to know is if you are not into biscuits, this is not the place for you. Go back later in the day when it becomes a pizza place. Now, the biscuits with mushroom gravy were great and the coffee was just fine as well. But I was most energized by being able to sit at the counter next to the open roll-up window looking out on the street and the old church across the street and decompress (yes, even first thing in the morning). Great food, great coffee and great quite time to center for the day.

In fact, while I pushed myself hard today I tried to exhibit a bit of self-care and not push constantly. The opportunity to finish a piece, hit save or publish, and then walk away made all the difference in how today went. Yes, I missed a bit of GA and I did make an embarrassing online mistake this morning, but all in all it was a good day.

As for the GA itself, as the day wore on into the evening Twitter comments began to show significant frustration by commissioners on some committees. There is a group dynamics model that has the group go through the stages of forming, norming, storming and preforming. It was clear that some of the committees had reached storming and may have gotten a bit stuck there. This was not storming as in the committee lost its sense of decorum, although there was enough frustration that a tweet said someone was ready to walk out. This was a sense of frustration, lack of communication, and confusion that lead to a sense of helplessness and questioning “why am I here?”

There were signs late in the day that at least one committee has successfully moved on to preforming and business was moving along nicely. We can hope that a good night’s sleep will help the others move on. And it was good to see committees finishing up on time this evening as it could certainly be a late night for some tomorrow to finish their work.

Having said that, it is important to remember that plenary is a second chance for some items of business. The dynamics are different and there can be more time for an in-depth discussion of a business item. We will see how many get minority reports and how many have opposition organized between now and then. There are a couple of pieces of business that some outside the committee expressed strong surprise that they passed. We will see if any of that plays out differently in plenary.

And sometimes as you are sitting in committees you wonder to yourself, or the person sitting next to you, “tell me again why we do it this way?”

This moves me into the third thought for the night…

It has been a pleasure to have the Rev. Derek Browning with us at this GA. He is the Business Convener for the Church of Scotland General Assembly and I have studied their GA and systems well enough to know that while our two branches share a basic Presbyterian philosophy and framework, there are a lot of differences between our systems. If you had to identify one core point to that difference it is that the Church of Scotland developed as a national church and the source of authority is at the top. American Presbyterianism developed from presbyteries and we still recognize that they are the ultimate unit of authority in our system. This leads to a bunch of differences and approaches to doing the work. One consequence of that is the Church of Scotland does not have committees of commissioners but is in plenary the whole week it meets. Committee reports come from national standing committees that prepare their work during the year and have it ready for presentation. This in contrast to the American system where the committees that present are made up of commissioners who meet for a couple days and are expected to do careful, discerning work on a ton of business items in that time.

All that to say, It has been a wonderful opportunity to discuss the fine points in each of our systems and critique the 222nd with a knowledgeable outside observer of our organized, or maybe not so organized, chaos.

And with that I wish you a wonderful evening and I will try to catch up on my sleep. Tomorrow’s business could go late.



Commissioner Resolutions To The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA)

The deadline for new business passed about 24 hours ago and the Bills and Overtures Committee has looked them over and referred those that are in order.

Thanks to the Office of the General Assembly for letting me know that in total 12 Commissioner Resolutions were submitted. I hope that later in the meeting that the full list will appear on PC-Biz.

UPDATE: The full list is now in the Bills and Overtures report. One of the declined items was related to a two state solution in the Middle East and was declined without explanation. The other declined report asked for the release of the investigation report into using New Worshiping Communities money to set up a California non-profit corporation. Declined because civil action is ongoing and because a predecessor denomination said the GA would not be an ecclesial court.

Ten of these Resolutions were found to be in order and were assigned to committees in whole or in part. Here is a quick rundown of those ten:

  • [06-17] Seeking Support for Settlements of Disputes Regarding Church Property: Three of the four points of the CR were retained. It asks for recognition that the legal challenges over property are a challenge to presbyteries and they are “working to adapt to a difficult and changing legal landscape.” It asks for prayers and “conversation about the long-term implications of court rulings that property is a legal issue and not an ecclesiastical issue.” [Editor’s note: For some context, the CR is from two Texas commissioners who’s presbyteries have been engaged in legal cases that involve neutral principles but find that in the civil courts that line between legal and ecclesiastical can get quite fuzzy. A while back I wrote about one of the legal decisions that has been an issue.]
  • [07-04] “Prayer for the Persecuted Church”: This CR asks for “Encouraging all Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations and councils to make prayer for the persecuted church around the world a regular part of their common life,” and that at least five minutes be set aside in the committee report for these prayers as well.
  • [07-05] Recognition of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: Invites churches and all councils in the PC(USA) to (1) study the historical significance and individuals involved; (2) to find occasions to “emulate the zeal of the early reformers” in study of scripture, practice of worship, re-invention of church structure, and expansion of mission; (3) acknowledge where reformers fell short and contributed to error or abuse; (4) invite PMA to provide a list of existing resources; (5) consider adding a component to scheduled events; and (6) encourage ecumenical conversations.
  • [08-08Standing for Reconciliation and Ending Affiliation with Divisive Coalition: That the GA shares the concerns expressed by the 2016 United Methodist Church General Conference and calls upon all PC(USA) church entities to refrain from financial support and affiliation with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation due to its opposition to peacemaking tactics that can create a lasting peace for all people in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
  • [10-16To Withdraw the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) from Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC): would have PMA and other entities withdraw immediately.
  • [12-11Reaffirming the Ministry of Sanctuary by Congregations: The CR reaffirms the support for Sanctuary expressed by previous Assemblies and the ethical responsibility of congregations to defend the unity and integrity of families with a member threatened by deportation. It calls on congregations and individuals “to provide hospitality, accompaniment, and sanctuary” and “recognizes that offering sanctuary is one way in which Presbyterians are living out the Gospel call to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger.”
  • [12-12On Affirming Principles of Sanctuary in Response to the Global Escalation in the Number of Displaced: This is the longest CR but it basically reaffirms the principles of response to refugees and calls on the PC(USA) to work for a humane response to migrants in our borders, socially and politically. [Editor’s note: This is interesting language as the idea of Sanctuary appears primarily in the title and only once in the rest of the official language.]
  • [12-13Peace, Justice, and Reunification in the Korean Peninsula: Another long CR but the heart of it is affirming the World Council of Churches “Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula,” and advocating, praying and providing resources to help unify the Korean Peninsula. It specifically asks that the Sunday before August 15 be designated as the “Day of Prayer for the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
  • [13-08On Creating a Special Committee to Conduct an Administrative Review to Assure Compliance with Donor and General Assembly Restrictions on the Administration of the Jarvie Service: The Jarvie Service is an old age and relief service for people in the Greater New York City area operated from a trust. This CR asks that the recent restructuring of the Jarvie Service be investigated to be sure the new structure is in compliance with the Trust Agreement and to pay for the investigation from the trust.
  • [14-15] “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity“: To call to the attention of the church this section of the Book of Order and to help councils better access, understand and use this section. [Editor’s Note: Seems like a tough sell if there will also be a new Directory for Worship sent out from this GA.]

There you go. We will see how these fare.

Wrap Up And Reflection On The Second Day Of The General Assembly

As I consider a review of the day I decided to take the three items that jumped out to me in reverse chronological order.

Let me begin with the committee meeting in the evening. I sat in on The Way Forward, Committee 04, this evening. Besides the fact that I expect to spend a lot of time tracking that committee over the next couple of days it was also a good committee to sit in on because they actually began work before GA convened and all the preliminaries were out of the way and they were deep in work.

This evening were the reports of the review committees of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). There were also questions from the commissioners on the committee and responses from the entities being reviewed.

The review of the PMA is strongly critical, some might even say scathing. In brief, and certainly not doing it justice, they found an agency that was not transparent, siloed and territorial and with trust and moral problems. They also found the board structure to be unwieldy. In the response from the board they emphasized that they know about the board being unwieldy and are already preparing proposals. They also felt many of the other criticisms might be too strong if you considered the agency over a broader period of time. They felt that the review was conducted at a particularly confusing and stressful point for the agency and is not reflective of the overall workings of the agency. The reviewers emphasized that the PMA does wonderful work but the processes by which is does the work is flawed and these are not one-off issues but system to the agency.

The review of the OGA was much different. They found the agency was doing satisfactory work and there were few issues. One of the few issues they did find is that as the structure in the mid-councils of the PC(USA) shrinks a significant amount of work they did is being picked up by the OGA without additional resources for the added workload.

The two review committees are jointly recommending that a committee be created to study whether merging the two entities would be an appropriate way to go. They emphasized that this is not a recommendation to merge but a recommendation to study it. Each of the agency respondents argued against it, in one case saying that if form follows function much more work needs to be done on function before we are ready to talk about form. And one of those reporting summed up that these entities, and the PC(USA) by extension, is not in crisis but at a cross roads.

One of the things that struck me watching the committee working this evening was that even though they have already been meeting, there is a lot of work and discernment ahead of them and they will be hard pressed to formulate well considered decisions in the time they have. They may be working late on Tuesday night just to get through the business in a cursory way.

Stepping back to the afternoon plenary, the big item of business there was the nomination of candidates for Stated Clerk. The Nominating Committee presented their work and put forth the name of J. Herbert Nelson as their clear consensus nominee for the position. In addition a second nomination for David Baker was made. Watching the presentations and talking with delegates afterwards the two nominations present an interesting choice. While Rev. Nelson is widely respected and known in the church, and has worked in a significant leadership capacity in the Washington office, more than one delegate I spoke with specifically considered that he had a lack of clerk experience. On the other hand, while Rev. Baker has the clerk experience his level of service has been more limited with primary experience on the presbytery level. It will be interesting to see how they each do in presentations and questions in the election process Friday morning. Based on past experience – which is admittedly limited – the Nominating Committee’s selected candidate will ultimately prevail.

Finally, I want to thank the saints at Tualatin Plains Presbyterian Church, known locally as Old Scotch Church, for a wonderful morning of worship and fellowship. Our group was warmly welcomed into worship this morning and we got a great introduction to the history and facilities. First, they all acknowledge that the Old Scotch Church is linguistically awkward as it should be Old Scots or Old Scotland Church, but time has a way of making things permanent and so by now it is what it is. The church is one of the oldest Presbyterian Churches west of the Cascades, it was founded by Scottish immigrants and they brought their first pastor and their stained glass windows over from Scotland. Lots of fascinating stories that might find their way into the blog some time. In addition, wonderful stories from my fellow sojourners who make the trek together out to the church. It was a morning of connectionalism at its finest!

IMG_20160619_120959_hdr  IMG_20160619_112433_hdr

So good night. Tomorrow brings committee meetings and so running comments will be on Twitter. Will post on the blog as appropriate.

Good night from Portland

A Wrap-up To The First Day Of The General Assembly

Following the adjournment of the Assembly for the evening the new Co-Moderators got to meet the press…


A couple of the burning questions were about “how do you do this co-moderator thing?” The short answer, we don’t know and we will have to figure it out. But Jan Edmiston added that the co-moderator position allows them to “model a new way to be church.” When asked to unpack that she talked about how when visiting presbyteries everyone wants the moderator as opposed to the vice-moderator. Now they will get a moderator, they will just have to figure out which one. It also models shared leadership within the denomination between very different people.

One of the prominent issues this week will be issues of race. They talked about hearing each other’s stories, a systematic program of understanding privilege, and how listening is not just waiting for your turn to talk. It is not just about the stories you remember or hear but those you don’t.

In a similar topic, Jan was talking about how the COGA survey reflected older, white and experienced Presbyterians. The denomination needs to have conversations about who was not responding and therefore not being heard in that survey.

And now to bed. Plenty of excitement tomorrow as I travel out to hear a pastor who was under care of our church preach in their church. Limited PC(USA) action tomorrow but I will be starting to look at some of the other GA’s that are going on.

Good night

Election Of The Co-Moderators Of The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA) – Live Blogging

Good evening. I am comfortably seated in the press section and the house band is getting rolling and encouraging us to sing. Launching into Soon and Very Soon now.

The live blog system I was using had technical issues that may be related to the WiFi system here. Not sure but not troubleshooting for this particular session. So, sorry, but please hit refresh to stay current.

Opening Presentation

7:04 PM – And we come to order. Don Shaw and Linda-Jackson Shaw open us with their story about their work in creating diversity and racial justice. They read from a bit of the Confession of 67 (first appearance in business sessions of that) and conclude with the opening prayer.

Introduction of Ecumenical Delegates from the Caribbean and Latin America

7:15 PM – Introduction of delegates, greetings from the Guyana Presbyterian Church delegate, and prayer from the delegate from the Dominican Evangelical Church

Presentation on the Role of the Belhar and the Book of Confessions in the life of our church from the Presbyterian Historical Society

7:24 PM – In the UPCNA 1967 was a milestone as C67 was approved and the church adopted a Book of Confessions as its confessional guidance.

Election of the Co-Moderators

We have reached the Order of the Day

Taking a few moments to reset the platform for the election process.

7:35 PM – Margaret Elliott, Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, announces that the candidates expense reports have been checked and are in accordance with the Standing Rules.


7:36 PM – The floor is open for nominations. Julia Hill makes the nomination of Adan Mairena and David Parker. Karen Sapio makes the nomination of Jan Edmiston and Denise Anderson.

Candidate speeches

7:40 PM – Candidate Speeches – Parker and Mairena go first and Adan Mairena speaks first.

Adan speaks of his parents coming to the US from Honderas and first his father and then his mother going to McCormick Seminary. The Presbyterian church supported them and helped them. The connectional nature is important and the ministry to the marginal.

David speaks briefly about his being a lawyer and “only a ruling elder.” [Sorry, there is no such thing as only a ruling elder.] He also speaks about his service as chairman of the NC state Democratic Party and his experience moderating conventions larger than this.

They conclude by tag teaming, at times finishing each others lines, and speaking about their differences and how the church must mirror very different people working together.

7:46 PM – Edmiston and Anderson are up. Denise begins speaking about how there are 104 weeks until the next General Assembly and they pledge to work throughout it to reflect the actions and decisions of this assembly.

Jan speaks about the uncertainty and changes in the PC(USA) this week and in the time ahead. But says it is out of times of chaos that the greatest opportunity arises.

Denise concludes talking about working together.

Questions to Candidates

Note: I will be using their initials – JE, DA, AM, and DP – to make my blogging speedier.

7:51 PM – Gradye tells the process. Importantly each team can decide who will answer each question for them.

Q1: If you had the opportunity to speak directly to pastors, elders and churches considering leaving the denominations.

DP: This is one of the few places you can speak directly and honestly. Please stay because you can not hear the will of God without a voice of disagreement.

AM: We are a people of relationships and we have to keep relationship going.

JE: One of the recently dismissed churches in Chicago is a Japanese American Church that has a strong history and was sheltered by Fourth Pres during the internment in WWII. Need to maintain relationship and maybe they will come together again.

DA: Sometimes congregations discern they have to go another way. The important thing is that Christ be glorified. We can dismiss and remain in relationship

Q2: Is Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?

DA: YES! (emphasis hers)

JE: It is what the Gospel of John says. But there is also a passage that says there are other flocks. The good news is that God gets to sort it out.

AM: Yes, Jesus is my Lord and Savior. But we live in a different time.

DP: I am a lawyer. I have a lot of clients that are Muslim. And a business partner is Jewish. I believe Jesus is the only way. But I have talked with Muslims who are sincere and it is a challenging conversation. We need to be respectful of reach other.

Q3: It is often in time of struggle that we learn the most. Tell us about a time you failed.

AM: As an intern at Bryn Mawr I learned a lot and had a great mentor. I then went to Kensington which is a place of scarcity. I went around in a suit and tie. My mistake was not being relevant to those to whom I wanted to minister.

DP: I can not tell you about my failings as a lawyer because of client confidentiality. What a convenient excuse. But with the Democratic Party I led change that was probably too rapid and tendered my resignation but it was not accepted.

JE: I have failed so many time. Scripture “You intended it for ill but God used it for good.” Was personnel chair for the presbytery and had to fire as many as eight people and did not do it well.

DA: Said so many things I regret. But biggest is I have failed myself.

JE (again): Did not show up for a wedding due to misunderstanding about date of wedding.

Q4: I struggle with patriarchal language of our church. How do you blane and how should we treat it going forward.

DA: In my life I appreciate the masculine language but God more often has appeared to me as the feminine. Need to alternate or use gender neutral.

JE: Need to understand scriptural feminine references but use language a church may be comfortable with.

AM: Fortunate to be in a family that did not have traditional gender roles. Need to understand God is neither and God is all.

DP: God has no gender but we can say God has every gender. God is all things. Need to preserve political gains women have made.

Q5: Why is the Belhar important to you

AM:  Written from a context of people of color were suffering. (That was all he said)

DP: Belhar is a compliment to C67. C67 says go out into your neighborhood and love your neighbor. Belhar goes beyond and says we need to forgive our neighbor.

DA: Wrote a piece one year ago related to Charleston shootings about people remaining silent afterwards. Belhar reinforces our commitment to stay in the fight so the playing field is level.

JE: Honored to be in a denomination that accepts Belhar. We need to remind ourselves that racism is systemic and needs to be dismantled.

Q6: How do we be a church that is welcoming and encouraging of all ages, particularly younger members

DA: We need to respect them. Youth ministry is not to be babysitting.

JE: Have to take each other seriously and listen to each other. Co-mentoring – learning from each other in relationship.

AM: Don’t treat them as empty cups where my teaching gets poured in. Need to read scripture together. Don’t just give them pizza. They are hungry for opportunity and relationship. Value them.

DP: I am 61 and in the younger half of our denomination. What everyone else has said is that it has to do with mutual respect. When we have mutual respect everyone does better. Need to address the question of who will remain behind and what will the church look like in 25 years.

End of questions.

Heath thanks them for “putting themselves out” for the call to this position. Standing ovation.

The candidates are dismissed.

[Personal note – it is a tough call after the speeches and questions but if I had to handicapped it I am leaning to Anderson and Edmiston as having made a better presentation.]

We move to voting:

Young adult advisory delegates: 115 to 26 favoring Anderson/Edmiston. If they are the predictor as they usually are we know the result.

The commissioners have voted. The result is: Anderson/Edmiston 432, Parker/Mairena 136

The election is declared

A bit of a wait before the Co-Mods are escorted back into the hall. Includes singing of the Doxology.

The Co-Moderators and their families are escorted back into the hall to a standing ovation. While they are being greeted at the platform Spirit of the Living God is sung spontaneously by the Assembly.

Installation of the Co-Moderators

8:45 PM – The installation service progresses with the regular liturgy and including the singing of Called As Partners In Christ’s Service, the recitation of the six Great Ends of the Church and the questions.

Prayer for the Co-Moderators by The Rev Fred C. Lyon II (husband of Jan Edmiston) and declaration of their installation.


Passing of the signs of the office: There is only one moderator’s cross so handed to both. Each is given a moderator’s stole.

Microphone is passed to them and Denise says “We haven’t talked enough?”

Denise also points out that on this 60th anniversary of the ordination of women in the mainline Presbyterian church it is the first time that there has been a moderatorial team of two women.

Heath and Larissa are thanked and given mementos of the office.

And now Gradye is coaching the new Mods through the process.

Very brief announcements – just to leave the voting pads at the turn-in tables for recharging.

Denise closes the session with prayer. And we are adjourned.

Thanks for following along. I will probably live blog tomorrow afternoon again and then it will be articles related to the committee meetings for a few days.

Prelude To The Election Of The Moderator

For a variety of reasons I did not get my formal moderatoral candidate posts up this year. One reason is because there is a new process and I was a bit indecisive in trying to navigate it.

Specifically, this is the first year that that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has had the option to have Co-Moderators as well as a Moderator/Vice-Moderator team. Both teams have chosen to go the Co-Moderator route. In addition, since there are only two teams we will have a decision on the first ballot.

To help navigate the process I would first refer you to the Moderator Candidate Booklet on the OGA web site. I will add the editorial comment that I wish the Moderator Candidate Book was listed ahead of the Stated Clerk Candidate Book but that is my own preference based on a recognition that the Moderators are called out to give of their time and energy above and beyond their day jobs while the Stated Clerk is a career position in and of itself.

The first team listed in the book is Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston. Denise is a teaching elder in National Capital Presbytery and Jan is a teaching elder in Chicago Presbytery. Each of their presbyteries endorsed them as a co-moderator team. The book has their statements and answers to questions and we will hear more tonight. Both are very active bloggers and on Twitter. Jan blogs at A Church for Starving Artists and is on Twitter at @jledmiston. Denise’s blog is Soula Scriptura: To Be Young, Gifted and Reformed and she tweets at @thesoulstepford. They also have a moderatoral candidacy web site.

The second team is David Parker and Adan Mairena. David is a ruling elder from Salem Presbytery and Adan is a teaching elder in Philadelphia Presbytery. David is a lawyer by profession and a web site at Salem Presbytery offers more information about him. Adan does a lot of his ministry with the West Kensington Ministry and the book points us to his staff page at the ministry web site. It is interesting that the endorsement letter for David only lists him as a moderator candidate and Adan was endorsed relatively recently (18 May) for Co-Moderator with David. David has a Twitter account with limited activity at @DavidPParker. Adan has a very active Twitter presence at @elburque.

So let’s get ready in the Assembly hall for this precedent setting election process. I will be live blogging but with the old technology so you will have to do refreshes of the screen. And you can follow the live stream with the viewer on the GA 222 home page.

222nd General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

It is safe to say that in the coming week most American Presbyterians will have their General Assembly in session. Pardon the alphabet soup, but this next week will see the General Assemblies of the PC(USA), a concurrent GA by the CPC and CPCA, then the PCA, the EPC, and the RPCNA. (Technically that last one is a General Synod.) There is also the distinct likelihood that there will be three live streams going at once so figure out your viewing schedule now.

logo+pcusaFirst up is the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Portland which begins on Saturday 18 June and finishes a week later on Saturday 25 June. There is no question that this will be a momentous and memorable meeting. Even before a single vote is taken we know that the denomination will come out of the meeting with their first Co-Moderators, a new Stated Clerk, and a road map – if not solid decisions – related to reorganizing the national offices to reflect the changing reality of the church in these current times. In addition, it is anticipated that the Belhar Confession will be added to the Book of Confessions and the celebration will begin for the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Confession of 1967. And that does not even begin to scratch the surface of all the other business that is out there.

The source for information on all this business is, as usual, the on-line PC-Biz system. However, it has been given a new look and a bunch of us have been putting it through its paces and helping to squash bugs. (You are welcome.) And the tech wizards behind it have been very responsive to our reports. Now we will see if it can handle a couple thousand simultaneous users.  And the PC(USA) event guide for the Guidebook App  is back as well. There are Android and iOS apps and it can be viewed in a web browser.

There is a docket posted and you can also find the schedule, reports overtures/business items on PC-Biz as well as all the Constitutional documents, the Manual of the General Assembly, and other useful items on the PC-Biz Resources tab.

ga222-circle-colors-vector-fin_small150The Assembly will begin with the usual formalities on Saturday, but this year in the morning. The opening worship with celebration of the Lord’s Supper is scheduled for 11 AM local time and will be live streamed. Congregations are encouraged to gather in their churches and join in the worship. Formal business will begin at 2 PM in the afternoon followed by the election of the Moderator Saturday evening. Sunday is worship in churches throughout the Portland area and a plenary session and receptions in the afternoon. Committee work begins in that evening and it will run through Tuesday evening. During that time PC-Biz is the place to find out what the committees are doing with the pieces of business near and dear to you.

The meeting moves back to plenary on Wednesday afternoon and then it is a mad push to get all the business done by Friday night or in the wee hours of Saturday morning. But one of the realities is that there is no real schedule of when particular committees report until later in the week when committees have finished their business and they are assembled on the docket like a jigsaw puzzle. The final Saturday morning session is highlighted by worship and the closing business formalities.

Opening worship and plenary sessions should be live streamed and the viewer can be found embedded in the GA 222 Home Page.

The tracking utility on PC-Biz is the best place to follow business. While the PC(USA) does have a general Twitter account (@Presbyterian), the General Assembly feed (@presbyGA) usually provides more play-by-play. There is also the Presbyterian News Service on Twitter (@PresbyNews). The hashtag for the meeting is #ga222.

News items will also appear on the GA222 web page as well as the Presbyterian News Service feed. There is also a Facebook page, and the daily news sheet is now electronic.

There are numerous entities of the PC(USA) that have Twitter accounts and you might want to watch the hashtag or check the list I compiled in a post a while back.

For individuals of note let me start with the two Co-Moderator teams: Jan Edmiston (@jledmiston) and Denise Anderson (@thesoulstepford), and David P. Parker (@DavidPParker) and Adan Mairena (@elburque). The other office to be decided is for Stated Clerk and you can follow J. Herbert Nelson (@jherbertnelson). The other candidate is the Rev. David Baker and while he promotes himself as strong in social media in his LinkedIn profile, I can not find a Twitter account for him. I will keep looking. Moving on to Moderators of previous assemblies we can begin with Bruce Reyes-Chow who tweets at @breyeschow and @brc_live. The immediate past Moderator, Neal Presa, can be followed at @NealPresa. And the Moderator finishing up his term, Heath Rada (@heathrada), is there as well. And the current Vice-Moderator, Larissa Kwong Abazia can be found at @LarissaLKA, and a previous Vice-Mod, Landon Whitsitt (@LandonWhitsitt) would definitely make the list. And not to be overlooked is the Executive Director of PMA Tony De La Rosa (@tonydlr). In this list of individuals let me throw in the Director of Operations, Thomas Hay (@DirOfOp) and also a true GA Junkie in his own right, Andy James (@andyjames). And fair warning that both of them are heavily involved in the Assembly so it is entirely possible their time will be spent on things other than tweeting. Finally, the Church of Scotland ecumenical delegate is the Rev. Derek Browning (@DerekBrowning2) who, besides being a parish minister, is also their General Assembly’s Business Convener – something like an associate stated clerk – and therefore a polity wonk in his own right. I am looking forward to his insight and dry wit. He will also be tweeting at the curated account @churchscovoices.

UPDATE: For live tweeting you might want to check out L3 UMD. For color with a degree of snark (yes, some of us need this during the meeting) you can follow Jodi Craiglow.

Out in the press corps, keep an eye on the Presbyterian Outlook on their website (pres-outlook.org) and Twitter (@presoutlook) as well as their special correspondent Leslie Scanlon (@lscanlon).

I will be at the meeting as well. I plan to live blog the plenary sessions here as well as posting more information about specific areas of business. The Outlook has posted three articles I wrote for them on business coming to the Assembly related to Elders and Councils, Non-geographic Presbyteries, and Synods. I do plan to tweet extensively but not completely during the Assembly. So here is my plan: My regular Twitter handle – @ga_junkie – will be used to cover major events at all the Assemblies and the Synod that will be under way. So read carefully as to which meeting the hashtag is for. I will use my secondary, and confusingly named @gajunkie handle (note – no underscore) to cover the PC(USA) exclusively. And if someone is planning to live tweet the Assembly let me know and I will point people in your direction.

button222Finally, my bit of levity. First, I will once again be passing out my “I’m A GA Junkie” buttons. Find me if you want one. Also, the Bingo Card is available for the meeting. In addition, I have targeted four concepts that I will keep a score board on how often they are mentioned in plenary. While giving away the phrases and concepts might bias the results and/or encourage people to use them, I will put them out anyway. They are:

  1. Any reference to the Rev. Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers
  2. Misquoting the recent When We Gather At The Table Report. (You can see my caution in the related blog post.)
  3. References to the membership decline in the denomination.
  4. Comments about a certain presidential candidate as a Presbyterian, or not.

And so I am looking forward to an exciting week in Portland but wishing the important action around American Presbyterian branches got spaced out a bit more.

So time to finish packing and see you in Portlandia in a few hours.

Portland Between Scylla and Charybdis

MtHoodOutlookOn my return home from work yesterday I was greeted by the cover of the of this week’s issue of the Presbyterian Outlook with a beautiful shot of Mt. Hood from the south. Not often we get a literal active volcano on the cover of the Outlook.

But it serves as a reminder for those of us going to Portland for the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that from a natural hazard point of view Portland lies between Scylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place, or to be geologically specific the Cascades and the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

To be very specific, the geologic hazards are dominated by a chain of active volcanoes on the east and one of the world’s great mega-thrust subduction zones on the west. Think Mt. St. Helens (which is not that far away) and the 2011 Fukushima earthquake. In particular, the Cascadia earthquake potential got a lot of publicity from a New Yorker article almost a year ago.

If you sense a certain amount of interest and enthusiasm on my part it has to do with the fact that these are the types of things I deal with in my day job as a geologist who specializes in seismic hazard analysis.

So what are we looking at? Well, the US Geological Survey has put together a nice little schematic cross-section of the Pacific Northwest that goes right through Portland and Mt. Hood.

subductionBasically, the sea floor is going down under Pacific Northwest and as it goes down the rocks heat up, magma is produced and comes to the surface in the Cascade range. As far as the volcanoes are concerned, they are clearly active. In Mt. Hood’s case it appears that Lewis and Clark missed the last big eruption by a bit over a decade, but reports of smoke and clouds later in that century are considered to be small eruptions from the mountain.

The good news, is that based on the current volcanic hazard assessments for Mt. Hood the mountain is far enough away that the most energetic products of a future eruption – lateral blast, pyroclastic flows, lava flows and lahars – would probably not directly affect Portland. The city would almost certainly get covered in airfall ash however.

And in case you are wondering, Portland is not unique. Here is a diagram of the last 4000 years of volcanic history for the Cascade Range from Wikipedia (and yes, I can say professionally that this chart is pretty good).

Cascade_eruptions_during_the_last_4000_yearsSo that is Scylla – the rock. What about Charybdis? What lurks in the deep blue sea?

The answer is a subduction zone capable of generating great earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis. The zone is long, it is wide and it is shallow – perfect conditions for a giant earthquake of around magnitude 9. We know because, among other reasons, one of these hit in January 1700. The indigenous peoples have legends about the earth shaking and the sea rising and inundating their villages. And while those accounts and geologic evidence give a narrow date range, the exact date of the earthquake on January 26th comes from Japanese records of a surprise tsunami that arrived with no shaking felt on those islands. Overall, there is evidence of seven great earthquakes in the last 3,500 years with a recurrence interval of between 300 and 400 years. And yes, with the last event 316 years ago we have entered that interval.

But what are the chances in a one week interval? Pretty low for both.  Doing a rough calculation including not just the mega-thrust but also the local faults around Portland, I get a probability of about one chance in 10,000 of damaging shaking during GA. And yes, one fault, the East Bank Fault, runs very close to the convention center. But if you want to be prepared, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management does have their Survival Guide to the Big One online.

As for Mt. Hood – enjoy the great view. While there has been some recent new earthquake activity, it is minor and is not accompanied by other signs of impending volcanic eruption. Any critical activity would come with enough warning for us to get out of town before something big happens.

Now, if you want to use any of this natural activity and hazard as an analogy, metaphor or allegory for what might happen at the meeting well that is left as an exercise for the reader.

And if you need a final assurance that major geologic activity has a low probability of occurrence, you can look for me in Portland right there with you.

Have fun!

A First Look At Some New PC(USA) Numbers

Over the last couple of weeks the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has released two sets of data that will be the focus of attention at the upcoming General Assembly. At some point in the next few of months I hope to really drill down into the data some more, but to do that there is a third report that I am waiting for so a detailed analysis will have to wait for its release. But because they will be the focus of attention in a couple of weeks, here are some initial comments.

The first one I will look at is the annual report of the summary statistics for the denomination including the 2015 membership data. To some degree this is either “move along, nothing to see here” or a case of Alfred North Whitehead’s famous quote “It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” But here we go anyways.

The money quote is always the totals so the PC(USA) finished 2015 with 9,642 churches, 20,077 teaching elders and 1,572,660 active members. That is a 1.9% drop in churches, fairly consistent with the 2.1% and 2.2% in the two preceding years. The number of teaching elders declined by 1.5% after declines of 0.9% in 2014 and 1.4% in 2013. The membership decline has been rising slightly with a 4.8% drop in 2013, a 5.3% drop in 2014 and then a 5.7% drop this past year.

Often times the story is “look how many churches and people are leaving the PC(USA) for more conservative denominations.” Now I will not deny that is an issue in these numbers but let’s add a little perspective here. The statistics show that in 2015 the PC(USA) dismissed 104 churches to other denominations. In the same year they dissolved/closed 91 churches. In general, over the last four years the number of churches dismissed has typically been roughly the same as the number closed. (2012: 86 closed, 110 dismissed; 2013: 74 closed, 148 dismissed; 2014: 110 closed, 101 dismissed) Over those four years there have been 13, 24, 15 and 14 churches organized.

It is the same story with membership losses. While the church lost 47,728 members by certificate of transfer in 2015, 27,469 joined the Church Triumphant (death) and 79,002 were lost to “other”, i.e. walking out the door and being dropped from the rolls. In general, the number of members transferred has been about half the number in the other category over the last several years. For perspective, the total gains by profession of faith, transfer, and other over the last year were 59,092.

In case you have not picked up where I am going with this my point is that dismissals are only part – roughly half – of the problem. Even ignoring dismissals of congregations and members the replacement rate in the PC(USA) is still well below the losses to dissolutions, deaths and disappearances.

There is another important component to keep in mind and that is the statistics use an old model and do not reflect a new paradigm. The major development emphasis in the PC(USA) right now is the 1001 New Worshiping Communities and as most of those are not chartered and do not have regular members they are not in these numbers. I could not find a specific current number but the number of 1001 NWCs appears to be between 250 and 300 at this time.

One piece of good news in the numbers is that for 2015 the total giving was up by 0.5%. With the decrease in membership this means that the per member giving rose 6.6% from $1043 to $1112.

The second report that was issued is the final report on The Church In The 21st Century. This resulted from a church-wide consultation and conversation on the denomination’s identity and where the PC(USA) should head. The report itself focuses on an online survey to which over 3000 members responded. There are two versions, a report only version with OGA annotations called When We Gather At The Table, and The Church in the 21st Century report from Research Services that has the appendix with detailed statistics. While the narrative is very similar, and in places identical in the two reports, I will be working from the latter one for the detailed statistics.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about this report is that it is self-reporting and not a random sample. Here are the two important paragraphs printed in both reports (page 6 of the detailed report):

Because this project invited the input of any and all people and entities of the PC(USA) (individuals, congregations, seminaries, mid-councils, and various affiliated groups [e.g. new worshiping communities, immigrant fellowships]) within a short time frame, creating a probability sample to ensure a representative group of Presbyterians was not feasible. Instead, a convenience sample (that is—a sample of volunteers) was used. As such, we cannot calculate a response rate.

Findings from the resulting convenience sample will not be as generalizable as findings would be if they had been taken from a (random) probability sample. However, an analysis of the demographics of those who participated in the study reveals that the sample somewhat matches the known demographics of Presbyterians as a whole. Exceptions are noted in the Demographics section, which follows.

So here is the caution: You can not take the numbers in this survey and say “According to the survey we know X about the PC(USA).” You can say that we know X about those that responded to the survey.

So does this mean that the survey is not useful? μὴ γένοιτο (by no means) But to consider what it does represent let’s take a look at a couple of points about who responded.

The report in Appendix A gives the results of each question. While I wish they would give the raw numbers we can work with the total responses and percentages of each question. To begin with, there were 3,427 responses and 98% were PC(USA) affiliated so that would be about 3358 PC(USA) individuals. Now, 3,055 submitted an answer to the question of whether they were ordained. Of those, 30% said they were teaching elders so that is about 917 meaning the other 2138 are members of churches. Considering those numbers, that means that 4.6% of teaching elders responded (based on the 2015 numbers discussed above) and 0.14% of members responded.

Let’s drill down on those members for a moment. Of the total of 3,055, 41%, or 1253, are ruling elders. Converting that into percent of members of churches, 59% of those who respondents who are not teaching elders self-identified as ruling elders. For comparison to a more controlled sample, in the 2011 demographic profile of the Presbyterian Panel 36% of members surveyed said they were ordained ruling elders.

In the new report participants were asked to rate their social orientation and theological orientation on a scale of 1 to 7. Based on the responses the report categorized 62% of all participants as socially liberal, 9% neutral and 29% conservative. The question was also asked for theological orientation with 54% liberal, 11% neutral and 35% conservative.

There is no perfect way to compare these results to the denomination as a whole. The question about social orientation has not been asked in previous surveys but the report makes a comparison to a question about political party affiliation in an earlier, more controlled study. A similar theological question was asked in the 2011 demographic profile with 19% of members saying they were liberal or very liberal, 39% saying they were moderate and 39% saying they were conservative or very conservative. The problem is that the earlier numbers are for members while new survey also includes teaching elders, who – based on that same survey question – are known to identify as more liberal, and there is no cross-tabulation or analysis of variance information to back out member versus ruling elder versus teaching elder groupings like the demographic profile does.

Has the denomination grown more theologically liberal? The departure of conservative congregations has almost certainly made this the case. But by 35%? That seems like a stretch. Similarly, has the middle shrunk by 28%? Maybe, but that is hard to understand as well.

Instead it seems more likely that the respondents to the survey are those that are the most connected and care the most about the PC(USA) — a fact that the survey acknowledges. The high response rate of teaching elders and ruling elders relative to members in general certainly seems to show this. By extension then it would follow that those on the theological ends are also more concerned and interested in being heard and those in the middle did not have as great an interest so they have a smaller response rate.

So what this survey says is that a lot of hard-core PC(USA) folks care about the PC(USA). Is it no wonder that when asked why it was important to a respondent to be part of the PC(USA) the top three answers were Theology (41%), Polity/Governance (29%), and Thinking Church/Educated Clergy (24%).

So that is what well-connected and involved members of the PC(USA) care about and see as the denomination’s identity and strengths.

But let me end this with this caution: While the study is a great snapshot of the identity and thoughts of the PC(USA) at this time it is biased towards those that know and care the most about the church. In one sense that is OK, because they are the ones who will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting related to restructuring in the years to come. But in another sense it is a problem because it reflects the status quo. If the PC(USA) is looking to recover and move forward it needs a close examination, more than can be done in one week at GA, ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions. It is not just closing ranks around what it knows and understands but challenging some of the strongly held beliefs reflected in this report and possibly develop a new identity.

We will see where this goes. Stay tuned…

Postscript: I do want to acknowledge that there is a lot more material in the new identity reports and if you care it is worth a read. While I found it frustrating that more raw data was not released with it there is a lot of interesting info in there. Due to my intended focus of this article, as well as time constraints, I won’t be diving into it more now I may return to it later, probably in regards to how it is received by the General Assembly.