Despite problems with the electronic voting machinery that left frustrated commissioners voting for moderator by paper ballot for the first time in more than 20 years, the 221st General Assembly last summer in Detroit received generally high marks, a survey of Assembly participants shows.
“Thank God for one ballot (Heath Rada won a first-ballot majority in the decidedly low-tech election) and mid-councils leaders who got the paper balloting handled for us,” Office of the General Assembly (OGA) chief operating officer Tom Hay told the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) at its Oct. 27-29 meeting on the campus of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary here.
Hay said the electronic voting problems were “set up by a decision made before the Assembly” to use a company recommended by the convention center in Detroit ― site of GA 221 ― rather than the “networking” firm used by OGA at the two previous Assemblies, in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh.
“We saved $80,000 but it wasn’t worth it,” Hay admitted, noting that the work done in Detroit was “sloppy.”
The post-Assembly survey of commissioners and advisory delegates drew a response rate of well over 80 percent, Hay said. For nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of them, this was their first GA. For another 14 percent it was their second Assembly. “The numbers are a little skewed,” Hay said, “because for virtually all of the  advisory delegates it was their first Assembly.”
Several COGA members asked that in the future, separate data be tracked on commissioners and advisory delegates.
GA 221 featured worship as part of plenary sessions and 78 percent of commissioners and advisory delegates found that format either “very meaningful” or “meaningful.”
However, attendance was lower than at previous Assemblies for the General Assembly Breakfast and worship (Monday morning) and Tuesday morning worship ― when Assembly Committees are meeting ― COGA agreed to have commissioners and advisory delegates gather for Bible study and worship in their committees on Monday and Tuesday mornings at the 2016 General Assembly in Portland, Ore.
“A Christian educator is never going to think this (Bible study/worship) is a bad idea,” said General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada. “Let’s just make sure we don’t say that this is in lieu of worship, but worship in the context of Bible study. This is a wonderful way to go, to bring wholeness and unity to our family.”
COGA member the Rev. Lemuel Garcia-Arroyo suggested those times be called “gathering around the Word,” a proposal that elicited much support.
Another first at GA 221 was Thursday morning discussions of key issues in lieu of parliamentary debates. The two topics chosen for discussion were same-sex marriage and the Middle East. Almost three-fourths (72 percent) of commissioners and advisory delegates said the new rubric was either very helpful or somewhat helpful.
COGA member Jim Wilson said the lengthy introductions to the topics by the Assembly Committee moderators where the issues were lodged “were not helpful or necessary. I wonder if it was worth the time we gave up for debate.”
COGA member Eileen Lindner agreed that the conversations “were not teed up properly,” but noted that “people want to like this ― we have to take advantage of that.”
As usual, commissioners and advisory delegates gave high ratings to their leaders. Moderator Heath Rada received an 86 percent approval rating. Vice-moderator Larissa Kwong-Abazia got a 93 percent approval mark. No recent moderator has received less than 82 percent approval. clerk 94% (96% in 2012).
General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons scored a 94 percent approval rating. The 2012 Assembly gave him a 96 percent approval rating.
In other business, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly:
- Held a lengthy discussion about the best way to provide child care at General Assemblies ― a perennial concern that is fraught with financial, legal, liability and risk management issues. Hay reported that local Presbyterians in Portland ― site of the 2016 Assembly ― are willing to work with COGA to seek a solution, which will most likely involve contracting with a specialized child-care firm there.
- Discussed the site selection process for determining General Assembly venues and will broaden conversations with potential host presbyteries to ensure their commitment to hosting the Assembly. Following Portland in 2016, the 2018 Assembly will be in Baltimore and the 2020 Assembly in St. Louis.
- Discussed ways to tweak the annual statistical report to measure congregational vitality in ways other than church membership.
- Heard reports from Rada, Kwong-Abazia and Parsons on their activities on behalf of the PC(USA) since the Assembly.
- Discussed COGA’s evolving relationship with the Presbyterian Historical Society, including a new covenant of understanding. COGA elected Ruling Elder Alvin Puryear of New York City to the PHS board, and heard reports of new advances at the Philadelphia facility, including the conversion of records-preservation from microfilm to digital records.
- Wrote off $1.27 million in “uncollectible” per capita apportionments for 2013, less than the $1.35 million that was written off for 2012. Parsons reported that more than half the uncollectible per capita apportionments were in just seven presbyteries: Grace, Greater Atlanta, New Covenant, Salem, Santa Barbara, Shenango and Tampa Bay.
- Talked extensively about the “role” of the General Assembly in the life of the denomination, part of an ongoing COGA conversation led primarily by Lindner.