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Our reports about the 219th General Assembly, July 2010

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219th General Assembly

Click here for our index page on GA 2010

PVJ's letter to commissioners and advisory delegates

To Commissioners and Advisory Delegates to the
219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
July 3-10, 2010, Minneapolis, Minnesota

[posted here 6-2-10]

If you have comments, suggestions for changes in the letter, or anything else, we'd be happy to hear from you.  Please just send a note to


We congratulate you on your election as a commissioner or advisory delegate to this year's General Assembly. It will be an exciting time for all of us in the church.

At some point you may begin to feel that you are receiving too much mail about the General Assembly. But we hope that this memo will help you understand some potentially confusing aspects of the Assembly and enable you to participate more effectively. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.


A computer has assigned you to an Assembly committee by random selection. In preparing for the Assembly you will want to read the reports and materials assigned to your committee. We hope, however, that you don't focus on these to the exclusion of the other materials mailed or e-mailed to you, since you will eventually vote on all the matters that come to the Assembly floor.


The cast of characters for the General Assembly drama consists of (1) commissioners and advisory delegates; (2) staff and elected members of the General Assembly Mission Council, its committees and divisions, and Special Committees; (3) "camp followers"; and (4) affinity groups.

1. Commissioners have the power to speak and vote, both on the floor and in the committees. The committees debate the overtures and reports assigned to them, then recommend action to the entire Assembly. The pace can be fast and furious, and it's easy to feel lost amid the maneuvering. Commissioners are not to be "instructed" by their presbyteries on how to vote. But they are often subjected to arguments as various sides vie for their votes.

Sitting with the commissioners are Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) elected from the presbyteries, and Theological Seminary Advisory Delegates (TSADs) elected from the seminaries, as well as Ecumenical and Missionary Advisory Delegates from abroad. In committees, advisory delegates have the right to speak, and usually to vote. On the floor of the Assembly, they have the right to speak; their vote, which is taken first, is advisory to the Commissioners.

Corresponding members come from the elected or appointed membership of the General Assembly Mission Council (GAC), its committees and divisions, the Special Committees, other churches in communion with the PC(USA), and moderators of past Assemblies. They are seated on the floor and may speak to matters related to their areas of expertise, but they may not vote. Moderators of earlier General Assemblies do not speak frequently; but when they do, they can be very important to the course of the debate. (They are not "former" or "retired"; each remains Moderator of a General Assembly with its own number.)

2. Staff and elected members of the GAMC, its Committees and Divisions, and Special Committees are those who implement the policies of the General Assemblies, year in and year out. The ongoing activity of the PC(USA) and its national staff is governed by these various boards, agencies, and committees whose members are elected by successive Assemblies — more than 200 positions each time. The General Assembly Nominating Committee (GANC) carefully vets the people who are nominated, with attention to diversity — geographic, gender, racial ethnic, age, proportion of ministers and elders. Nominations can be made from the floor, and each year some alternative candidates are proposed, but the GANC's recommendations are usually followed.

Staff members are our "institutional memory." You'll recognize them by their red name badges. They can tell you what has been done, indicate pitfalls, and define alternatives. They have accumulated wisdom and savvy from previous Assemblies and are valuable sources of information and ideas. They work for the whole church (including you), so feel free to consult them. Staff do not make policy. The "advice and counsel" memos that you will receive, commenting on various proposals before the Assembly, have been approved by the various committees, all of them elected by past General Assemblies.

3. "Camp followers" are those who are "just visiting." Many accompany the Assembly year after year as it moves around the country (you yourself could find the Assembly addicting!). The "camp followers" add a family flavor to the Assembly. They fall into three general types: (a) pastors and church staff, who are trying to understand the church better (the Assembly is the PC(USA) in its national and in fact international role, and there's no substitute for experiencing it firsthand); (b) people who attended GA in the past and got hooked on it; and (c) spouses and friends of commissioners, who occupy the gallery seats and provide spontaneous responses to speakers they know (their responses aren't always reflected in the voting of the commissioners).

Then there's another important group, although they aren't just visiting. They are the local folk, proud to have an Assembly in their region and now acting as gracious hosts. Those on the Committee on Local Arrangements (COLA) should be thanked lavishly and often. Without their many hours of loving labor, the Assembly wouldn't happen.

4. "Affinity" or "special purpose" organizations are not new to the scene. The concept dates back to 1902. Special organizations help to inform and educate commissioners and advisory delegates. They often testify before Assembly committees. They try to influence the decision-making process. Consequently some people perceive them as a threat rather than a resource. They can be both, depending on your point of view — and the methods they use. It is important to remember that these organizations are made up of Presbyterians; they are insiders, not outsiders. They manifest the church's pluralism and diversity.

If you go to their booths with your commissioner badge, you will get a royal welcome and receive lots of information and talking points on their issues. Special purpose organizations are interested in working with you to give "background" or help draft motions. We hope you will have many positive contacts with these organizations during this year's GA. Most, including Presbyterian Voices for Justice, have rented booths in the Exhibition Hall, where they welcome inquiries from you. We think you will find these exhibits some of the most informative and lively at the GA.


The drama of the Assembly has several acts. The avalanche of the printed (or now electronic) word hits even before you leave home. The Manual of the General Assembly serves as the bible for those who want to know procedures. The Manual for this Assembly was approved last year; you will be asked to approve the Manual for the 2012 Assembly. The Reports to the 219th General Assembly (2010) will be sent to you in multiple parts. When you arrive you will be given a Worship Book, which contains the services for the Assembly, and an updated program book for the Assembly, which contains seating charts, locations of meeting rooms, detailed dockets, the list of commissioners and advisory delegates, and other helpful information. The final deluge of paper or electronic information comes in the form of reports distributed to your seat (or laptop) in the Convention Hall, starting even before you sit down. It is a dearly beloved GA tradition to complain about the blizzard of paper (or of digitized data) you are expected to weather. Complaining about it — or reading it — may help to pass the time during the play's boring moments.

We encourage you to come to the Presbyterian Voices for Justice Commissioner Orientation Breakfast on Saturday, July 3, 7-8:30 a.m. What do Presbyterian progressives need to know in order to be effective participants in the Assembly? This wake-up call will include a continental breakfast, interactive shring, worship, and information about GA issues. It will be in the Hilton Hotel; tickets are $27.

We regret the cost of this event. Commissioners who attend will receive $10 cash back. Please fill out the coupon below:

Commissioner's Name ______________________________________

Commissioner's Presbytery ________________________________

Local phone connection ___________________________________

The curtain will rise on Saturday afternoon. After various housekeeping actions there will be reports, some of which may cause wailing and gnashing of teeth over budgets and membership numbers.

Act I takes place on Saturday evening with the excitement of a political convention. Candidates for Moderator are nominated with speeches; commissioners get a chance to question the nominees, then the voting takes place. When there are more than two candidates, voting can go into a second or third ballot (all candidates remain on the ballot). The newly elected Moderator leads the Assembly in prayer and takes office immediately following the election, then appoints the Vice-Moderator. 

Act II consists of several days of Assembly committee meetings. Each committee has a moderator and a vice-moderator, as well as an assistant from the office of the Stated Clerk to help the process flow smoothly.

Your committee will receive reports from the relevant agencies, which may also present draft policy statements that were called for by previous Assemblies. Pay careful attention to their reports and especially the "background" information they supply; there's usually a good reason for dealing with these topics, and the reports have been prepared with the help of other Presbyterians who are knowledgeable about the issues.

Other proposals will come in the form of overtures from presbyteries. And you can introduce new business through a Commissioners' Resolution signed by two or more commissioners. A deadline will be announced (probably on Sunday). Recently the Office of the General Assembly has required the commissioners to appear personally and sign the document.

You may feel impatient with the amount of material you are expected to read, and then ask how the Assembly could ever make judgments about so many issues. Listen to the testimony from those who have worked on the studies — and to those who have signed up for the open hearings.

Assembly committees have more options than simply to approve or disapprove, even though that might be your first instinct when you arrive as a green commissioner. They may amend any document before them, or approve with comment, or combine wording, or substitute completely new wording of their own, or refer to a GA entity or a future Assembly. Please don't start off with a motion to disapprove; that will only create confusion and block fair discussion. If that happens, raise an objection and offer a substitute motion to approve, so that the issues can be discussed fairly.

The committee can set its own operating rules and change the agenda drafted by its moderator; it can appoint drafting committees to develop more satisfactory wording; it can break up into sub-committees to examine documents more thoroughly; it can go into the "committee of the whole" mode and discuss issues without the straitjacket of Robert's Rules of Order, giving "air time" to all members of the committee; it can ask to hear from representatives of diverse viewpoints before undertaking its own discussion of complex issues.


Sylvia's Top Ten Tips

Sylvia Thorson-Smith of Tucson, AZ, has watched committees with the hope of achieving better "power-sharing" and "advancement of justice issues."

Questions to Ask

1. Who is speaking and who isn't?

2. Who is moving their agenda and how are they doing it?

3. Is the will of the committee being served?

4. Who needs enabling or helpful support?

5. Whose interests are being served through the "parliamentary mode" and the "committee of the whole"?

Things to Do

1. Be attentive to process as well as content.

2. Don't give up your voice.

3. Identify allies and support each other.

4. Take risks on behalf of love and justice.

5. Make the connections between interlocking issues.

Recently an observer kept count in one committee and found a three-to-one male-female ratio of participation. Males, many of them ministers, have plenty of knowledge and experience; but they should make special efforts to listen for other voices, too. Make sure that the committee moderator has a fair procedure for recognizing commissioners in order and letting everyone speak.

Remember that some persons are authorized to take part in the committee's discussions, while others are not (see pp. 21-22 of the Manual of the General Assembly). Members of the GAMC and staff members of its committees and divisions may comment at any time. Representatives of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution may comment on issues of constitutionality, in an "advisory" capacity. You also have the right to ask for information and perspectives from the "advocacy" committees on social witness policy and on women's and racial ethnic concerns.

Other persons have access only through (1) signing up for hearings before the deadline (sign-up sheets will be posted in the lobby of the Convention Center), or (2) being invited, by vote of the committee, to represent viewpoints that might not otherwise be heard. Either way, it is important to hear all sides of a complex issue. The procedures are intended to help the committee's deliberative process; they should not be allowed to become a filibustering session for one point of view.

The committee will want to arrive at agreement on most issues, and this is often possible. But you and other committee members have the right to prepare a minority report (or even more than one) on any report that comes to the floor. If you take this route, be sure that (1) you declare your intention before the committee adjourns, (2) all the points in your minority report have been raised in committee discussion, and (3) the committee moderator certifies in writing that this is so. Minority reports will be printed and distributed to the commissioners, and they will be discussed along with the majority report in the plenary session of the Assembly. A minority report is sometimes victorious on the Assembly floor; even more often it makes a difference to the discussion and the eventual outcome. So don't be afraid to prepare one and argue for it if you think the majority's perspective is mistaken or too narrow.

Our Presbyterian tradition values the free flow of information, so Assembly committees are open to observers except on very rare occasions. As a commissioner you may want to speak to an issue before a committee other than your own, and you can do that if you sign up before the deadline and get permission from your committee to be absent from its deliberations. And please note that any commissioner or advisory delegate may speak to any issue when a committee's moderator makes its report on the floor of the Assembly.

Don't be alarmed if there is open conflict in your committee; it's a sign of deeply held convictions. Usually the most constructive discussion comes in the committee's deliberations. At times, however, a constructive role can be played in the "backstage" areas where drafts are written and revised or minority reports are prepared.

Some committees with light work loads will conclude their business early; others, like the Laborers in the Vineyard, bear the full heat of the day (including the klieg lights of the news media) and continue late into the night. Bills and Overtures never finishes; it can be called off the Assembly floor and into session at any time.

Let's hope your committee's schedule gives you time to explore the Exhibition Hall, where you will find a veritable cornucopia of Presbyterianism. Virtually every organization in the church is represented — not to mention an international shop with clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts, and miscellaneous goodies offered by SERRV International. This is your best opportunity to experience the breadth, depth, and height of the Presbyterian Church. Many organizations have not only booths but special breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and other events; commissioners and visitors will find themselves informed, inspired, and renewed.

You're invited for ...

Presbyterian Voices for Justice events at GA

The Presbyterian Voices for Justice Awards Luncheon follows Sunday worship. This will be in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Nicollet Ballroom, 12:00 to 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $42. The keynote speaker will be Mary Elva Smith, retreat leader, spiritual director, and staff member for the San Francisco Theological Seminary's Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction. She will invite us to explore the question how, in this season of dis-ease and uncertainty, we might have the courage to be still and listen, to wonder and discern in community what God may be calling us to do.

Two awards will be presented — the Andrew Murray Award to an outstanding PC(USA) leader, the Whole Gospel Congregtion Award to a congregation in the Twin Cities area that exemplifies our commitments to living out the Good News in our society and the wider world.

On Tuesday, July 6, join us for the Voices of Sophia Breakfast. This will be in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, 7:00-8:30 a.m.; tickets are $27. The speaker will be the Rev. Dr. Christine Smith, professor of preaching at the United Seminary of the Twin Cities (UCC) and preacher for the first "Re-Imagining" gathering in 1993. Her theme will be "Re-Imagining Church: De-Centering Privilege as an Act of Global Citizenship."

On Tuesday evening you have the chance to take a break, catch up with friends, enjoy great music, converse informally, and dance the night away at the Witherspoon Party and Dance. This will be in the Hilton Hotel from 9 until 1. Tickets are $20, free for TSADs, with a special price of $5 for YAADs; you can order these in advance or buy them at the door. Please note that alcoholic beverages are out of bounds for minors.

Note that all tickets can be ordered through the GA website,


ACT III begins as the Assembly returns to plenary session on Wednesday morning. Just when you have begun to feel like an expert on your own committee's business, you will now have to catch up with recommendations from all the other committees and learn the arguments pro and con. Usually the issues will be presented clearly by the committee moderator and in minority reports. But you and others may well have new angles. Be prepared to speak, either by raising a question of information or by arguing for or against a motion. Depending on the progress of business, Friday night could be a long session.

The curtain comes down at noon on Saturday. This is one show that never runs late; all the work must be completed or referred by that time. This sometimes makes for less-than-careful consideration and less-than-optimal results. But such is the nature of our play.

You may want to compare your experience at this year's Assembly with the following observations based on past experience:

1. Most committee recommendations will be approved, perhaps with heated debate on some one aspect, or with amendments that are readily agreed to.

2. Many of the anticipated debates don't ever materialize, possibly because (a) the committee did its work well and ironed out the kinks; (b) an agreement was hammered out in the halls; or (c) time and patience ran out. On the other hand, unanticipated debates do occur, sometimes with explosive intensity, derailing the docket and stopping the whole show. Debate is usually accompanied by parliamentary maneuvering. The skill and charm of the Moderator and the "parliamentary calls" by the Stated Clerk are key factors in determining whether things can be kept on track with minimal tension.

3. Although the Spirit often leads commissioners to vote more boldly than they had anticipated, the Assembly can also lose its nerve. Overcome by exhaustion or fatigued by a divisive vote, it may decree, "No faith-risk this year," or, "No more funds," or, "We just don't want to hear any more about it." As a result the Assembly may miss a liberating moment.


Information is available in such massive quantities that shared labor, specialization, and trust are essential. The Assembly simply hasn't the time to act as a committee of the whole (on occasion it does try); the major work is done in the committees, with the Assembly acting as arbiter. Up-to-date, accurate information is one key to being an effective commissioner or advisory delegate (this may also be difficult to obtain, especially while the committees are in session). Feel free to ask for help from your own committee's resource people. They are there to serve you and facilitate the work of the Assembly. Listen, read carefully, ask questions, and take time to reflect and pray. The ability to concentrate and maintain patience for long hours with little sleep is essential for being an effective commissioner or advisory delegate. So, too, are camaraderie, a sense of humor, and help from friends and allies. We hope you will number Presbyterian Voices for Justice among your Assembly friends.

The General Assembly is a unique experience, one you will always remember. We hope it will serve to deepen your faith in God and your commitment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). May God bless you as you begin your important work as a commissioner or advisory delegate to the 218th General Assembly.

Presbyterian Voices for Justice will be active at this Assembly as it has been at each Assembly for 35 years. Please visit our booth in the Exhibition Hall. We are there to discuss Voices and its concerns. We also want to learn of your concerns and interests, and explore with you the ways they might dovetail with the work of Voices. We will also be available to provide information and resources at hearings of Assembly committees.

We hope this Assembly will be an exciting one, not only for you personally, but also for our church. We hope that this Assembly will dare to be the church preaching "good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and liberty for the oppressed" — the church preaching "the acceptable year of God."

In Christ's love, justice, and peace,

Bill Dummer and Colleen Bowers, Co-Moderators

Who Are We?

Presbyterian Voices for Justice continues the Witherspoon Society, organized in 1973, and Voices of Sophia, organized in 1995. We are a spirited and passionate community of women and men in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who are called to proclaim the Gospel vision of God's extravagant love and justice in church and society. We seek the wisdom of the Spirit for following Christ's example and for living into the hope of sustained gender equality, racial reconciliation, full human rights for LGBT persons, economic justice, environmental wholeness, an end to war and all forms of violence, and a justice-loving shalom over all the earth. We commit ourselves to risking the transformation of our own selves and our organization to live into this vision, even as we invite both church and society to meet this challenge.

Check our website at  We hope you'll visit it often during the Assembly for reports and commentary as the Assembly progresses.



If you have comments, suggestions for changes in the letter, or anything else, we'd be happy to hear from you.  Please just send a note to


GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

If you like what you find here,
we hope you'll help us keep Voices for Justice going ... and growing!

Please consider making a special contribution -- large or small -- to help us continue and improve this service.

Click here to send a gift online, using your credit card, through PayPal.

Or send your check, made out to "Presbyterian Voices for Justice" and marked "web site," to our PVJ Treasurer:

Darcy Hawk
4007 Gibsonia Road
Gibsonia, PA  15044-8312


Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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