Daniel Van Beek will be posting daily updates here while he is a Ruling Elder Commissioner for the Lake Michigan Presbytery at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Portland Oregon.
Saturday – June 25
A shorter morning Plenary meeting on Saturday. However, due to some expenditures approved by the Assembly, we needed to vote on upcoming Per Capita increases. The budgets for the OGA and the PMA were approved. A cool group of information was presented by PMA regarding the new worshipping communities across the denomination. The day wrapped up with worship, after the “handing over” of the chair of stated clerk from Gradye Parsons to J.Herbert Nelson. There was also a presentation from the host presbytery, Giddings-Lovejoy, of the 223rd GA, which will be held in St. Louis.
Thanks for reading and I hope this was helpful in keeping you up to speed in the happenings at GA this week! It was my honor to serve. – Daniel
Friday – June 24
Plenary went into the late evening again today, though not as long as we thought. It was an historic day that began with the election of the denomination’s new stated clerk, J.Herbert Nelson, the first African-American to hold that office. The voting was not all that close, but it did give the church an opportunity to think about the role of technology in our future. Nelson’s opponent, David M. Baker, called for better use of tech as a denomination. Other happenings included:
- There was a motion to reconsider 11-05 (the “apology” to the LGBTQ/Q community) but it was defeated
- A huge change in church verbiage happened in the morning Plenary session and it seemingly happened without many commissioners realizing the ramifications. Back in 2012, the 220th General Assembly voted to call pastors “Teaching Elder” so that the equality of voice between the clergy and members of the church was retained. An overture to the Committee 6 on Polity sought to use both terms “teaching elder” and “minister of the word and sacrament” (the traditional term for pastor in the Presbyterian Church). The committee’s recommendation, however, essentially removed “teaching elder” completely and that’s what passed. The question was raised that it was for a specific part of our Book of Order, yet the wording allowed for full reversion to the older term. I voted AGAINST this as I feel that the best route is to use the right term for the right situation. “Minister of the Word and Sacrament” seems perfectly okay in nearly all pastoral functions, yet when the elders of the church are working together, this term seems to place “Ruling Elders” below the pastor in terms of importance. More to come, as the presbyteries will have to approve this before it becomes real.
- Long discussion on teaching elders who were under investigation being allowed back into the church to work or volunteer. The end result was that they could if the disciplinary process was completed.
- The assembly voted to renounce reparative therapies that claim to reverse homosexuality – a big and good gesture for the denomination.
- Recommendation that decries the Israeli military treatment of children was passed after long discussions and a number of failed amendments.
- After a number of amendments, a report on the church’s stance on the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was approved. There was heated debate about the “right to exist” for both states and whether or not the reports of abuses by the Israeli military are always correct.
- In the evening session, there was a long debate regarding farming. A statement was put forth to denounce “factory farming” but the use of the term “large scale” was confusing to most and motions and amendments were discussed to make sure we were not demonizing family farms that have been successful and thus now large.
- Fossil fuel divestment was a hot button issue going into GA. The measure to divest over the next three years from fossil fuel companies (with a minimal interest keep to allow discussion) and to not invest in them going forward was replaced by a substitute motion. The substitute said to work on a phased divestment plan with closer adherence to a report from the MRTI group of the Presbyterian Church. After long discussions and debates, the substitute motion became the main motion and passed overwhelmingly.
- The peacekeeping committee closed the night and we approved a large report that included some new peacekeeping affirmations.
Thursday – June 23
Another long night at the Plenary of GA 222. The morning got way behind early on and into the lunch and dinner breaks, we were only as far through the business as we were slated to be before worship (before lunch).
- Committee 13, which dealt with the Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Foundation, Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program, and Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, led off the morning. Reports and leadership for 4 of the 6 agencies of the PC (USA) were approved. Did you know that it is the 300th anniversary of the Board of Pensions? One church in Omaha is in the midst of a “welcoming building” project and was featured in a video. I made contact with the pastor to learn more!
- Columbus (OH) was selected as the site of GA 225 in 2020. I objected on Michigan grounds (I’m kidding)…I did say “Go Blue” a few times.
- Lots of discussion then happened around implementing Dependent Care Policies. While we were all in favor of these policies, the motions and recommendations often involved prescribing specifics and codifying them into the Book of Order. For those reasons, these measures were amended softer and then passed. Presbyteries and congregations will get resources to help them build these policies better.
- There was a wonderful worship service with Rev. Alice Ridgill, a young African American pastor from South Carolina, preaching. Her message on the Good Samaritan was inspiring!
- After lunch, we heard a powerful message about the plight of the First Peoples and how the Presbyterian churches were complicit in it. We then passed an apology as an Assembly that we were committed to helping right the wrongs of the past.
- Overall, lots of committee recommendations were immediately amended or substitute motions introduced that restored the wording of the overtures before the committees. A very frustrating and time-consuming exercise.
- BIG MOMENT: The General Assembly voted to rescind the action of GA 221 that the number of Synods be reduced from 16 to 10-12. So the number of Synods stay at 16.
- The Assembly, after long discussion, approved an action that all councils of the church examine and implement family leave policies for families of employees.
- BIG MOMENT: After dinner, we addressed THE WAY FORWARD initiatives, the ones from the committee on which I served. Essentially, we made three actions, all of which were approved by the Assembly.
- Created a committee to explore a denominational vision plan to guide the General Assembly and congregations and councils about what it means to be part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
- Created a commission to look over the recommendations about changes needed in the PMA and OGA, based on close examinations already undertaken; these changes will NOT include merging the agencies, as some overtures requested
- Disapproved all overtures seeking to make changes to the Book of Order need both a 2/3 majority in General Assembly and among the presbyteries, as well as measures to make it more difficult to get constitutional changes in front of the GA; this motion was approved and even was concurred by the Foothills presbytery which started many of the overtures
- BIG MOMENT: GA approved item 11-05, an apology to the LGBTQQ community and its struggles in the church in the past. This item was hotly debated, as one group requested to put back the original language instead of what the committee overwhelmingly recommended. In the end, it was approved as amended and was endorsed by the Covenant Network, an advocate group in the denomination for LGBTQQ rights. Other advocate groups were not as pleased with this action.
- We did not get out until 11:30 pm!
Wednesday – June 22
Huge, huge night at the Plenary of the GA 222 on Wednesday. Everyone reading this, take a moment to think about how great your denomination and brothers and sisters are in the PC (U.S.A.). There is so much Spirit working in the people here. There is so much love for Christ, so much love for people. My pride is beyond words.
- 56 items were approved on the consent agenda, as they were approved unchanged out of committee by 80% or more.
- Revised Directory of Worship was approved to be placed into the Book of Order. There was serious debate about only allowing baptized folks to take communion. It was defeated. Very exciting moment!
- After dinner, a contested debate on creation vs. evolution broke out considering an affirmation letter about the PC (U.S.A.) agreeing with scientific scholarship about evolution’s merits. The motion was very very specific about the dates and thoughts about evolution’s current thinking of earth age, etc. While I personally agree on the scientific merits of evolution, I felt the motion was too specific. The vote was originally to NOT pass the motion by a margin of 6 votes. Three consecutive votes after passed the motion. There was considerable issues (or perceived issues) with the electronic voting.
- MOST EXCITING LAST NIGHT WAS THE BELHAR CONFESSION. A very brief discussion came first but the vote to add the Belhar to our Book of Confessions ended a 6-year journey and it was glorious. Words cannot describe the feeling of being part of this historic event. The Spirit has been at work here and this is just unbelievable.
Tuesday – June 21
Another late night last night for The Way Forward committee I’ve been a part of. We had key information to work through yesterday and finally came out of the committee with 3 key recommendations:
1. A response to the Foothills presbytery (et al.) overtures to change the constitutional changes in General Assembly voting to be a 2/3 majority instead of a simple majority. The committee overwhelmingly agreed that this host of overtures should be disapproved.
2. A motion to approve a 2020 Vision Team to explore the denomination’s vision and “guiding statement.” This may be a little too small of an ask as the only key thing that will come from it is a “tagline/motto” that may or may not be clear as a way to go forward. I personally had hoped to strengthen this motion but it passed easily in committee and will go to the GA plenary.
3. A motion to create an administrative commission to explore the structure of the agencies of the GA and to then implement immediate changes as deemed necessary. This commission will take into account reviews that have already been undergone and can act of those recommendations as soon as it finds them to be needed.
The committee experience has been very interesting. Some people speak early and often and seem to try to drive the will of a large group (78 on my committee). Some people try to drive things off the tracks. Others simply work better in the smaller groups, myself included, visioning new ideas and creating collaboration and consensus.
We have moved into Plenary today and have already approved a number of key items. I’ll save that update for tomorrow though! Good night from Portland. – Daniel
Monday – June 20
A little late on this update as we met deep into the evening for our committee yesterday, so I’m providing this report this morning. The Way Forward committee heard many overture advocates yesterday and had many clarification discussions about the goals and strategies of our committee’s work.
In short, we are to offer the church our recommendations for the exploration of new ideas in General Assembly procedures, the organization of the agencies of GA, and the relationship of all of them. It’s a big task! But one we don’t need to figure out on our own this week. Who we empower to handle it, and how we offer approaches to solve them.
The deliberations continue today and we will be voting on motions and overtures to present to the General Assembly later this week. Keep praying for us!
Sunday – June 19
Hello again from Portland. We worshipped with our sisters and brothers in the Presbytery of the Cascades today. Commissioners, advisory delegates and other GA attendees walked or boarded buses to various local congregations in the area.
I attended Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church. It’s a small congregation with an old beautiful sanctuary and a heart for connections and the arts. Sounds familiar? They recently put a coffee shop in their old chapel space and one of the elders told me they see about 2500 people go through that space every week. Despite the deep interaction with the community, they are still only an 80-member church. Our worship was very conversational, with beautiful music, deep thinking and feeling and a warmth of openness and love. After service, we were treated – the other 20 or so visitors – to a lunch outside under a circus tent. Yes, a circus tent, which was in the congregation’s lawn behind the church. It is used for day camps in the summer in which kids from the neighborhood learn circus tumbling and other acts. Pretty cool.
Upon returning to the convention center, we again attended a Plenary session of the entire GA delegation. There were ecumenical guests from the Portland area, with a Mormon priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim leader all opening with remarks. There were strong words about the Israeli-Palestinian decisions coming up later in GA. It’s going to get interesting. Beyond that, we heard many reports about the Korean Task Force, the Bible Study we will be encountering at GA and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s 2017-18 Plan.
The Board of Pensions showed us a video of the stained glass window they commissioned to celebrate their 300th anniversary. 300! Afterward, the BOP hosted a wonderful dinner preceded by the moderator’s reception. Lots of good food and a new space within the convention center.
This evening, we began (or in my case, continued) our committee work. My committee, The Way Forward, met last Friday and did the initial community building. Today, we got right into some key reports and responses and questions about the PMA and the Office of the General Assembly. Both agencies were studied over the past two years by committees set up by GA 221 in Detroit. Tonight, we heard the results of those studies and the recommendations of the committees. We are being urged to further study the feasibility of merging the PMA and the OGA into a more streamlined, efficient agency of the denomination. There is lots of passion and emotion about this possibility.
There is also a lot of confusion. Many commissioners and observers alike seem to have put the cart before the horse and seemed to be arguing against a merger. Neither committee has recommended a merger, but merely the study of if a merger should be considered.
This is going to be a very long two days as this committee – and all of the other committees too – have many decisions to make before bringing these overtures and recommendations to the GA floor Wednesday through Friday.
Many thanks for your prayers and I’ll post another update tomorrow! Good night from Portland.
Saturday – June 18
Portland is Packed with Presbyterians! We’re calling it Preslandia.
After arriving Thursday night, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many fellow commissioners and advisory delegates from Montana, Alaska, New Jersey, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Florida, Minnesota, Texas, California and so many more!
My committee, The Way Forward, met already on Friday afternoon. The Way Forward is charged with looking at the future of the denomination, considering overtures that could impact our daily life as congregations and our greater bodies of presbyteries and the GA itself. We’re also looking at our identity, who we are and who we want to be. Correct that, who God wants us to be. It’s challenging and exciting and quite frightening, to have such responsibility.
It’s amazing to feel the love of Christ in every conversation, every glance, every snippet overheard, every meal taken, and every song sung.
We elected the Co-Moderators tonight, two driven young women from the presbyteries of Chicago and National Capital, Jan Edmiston and Denise Anderson. They won overwhelmingly but faced a very strong runner-up duo as well. We are in good hands going forward and I’m excited about the future.
There is much work yet to be done and I am thankful to all of you for your prayers and support. I am very tired (already) and yet bolstered by the love of my congregation, my presbytery, my family and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I look forward to telling you even more soon. Check back for more!