By Ed Thompson
Former Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick would always do a Top 10 list before each General Assembly, highlighting what he felt would be the most important issues facing commissioners. I am no Cliff Kirkpatrick, and 10 issues seems more than I can handle – and probably more than you want to read about – so let me give you what I think are the top 3 issues coming to this year’s GA.
My number one would be the Report of the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability. Among other things, they recommend appointing a commission to merge the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Not exactly earth-shaking news, perhaps, and in the long run, it’s something that will probably go unnoticed by the wider world, nevertheless this represents a big change for Presbyterians. It serves as an acknowledgement that the world is changing and the church is changing and that we can’t keep on doing things the way that we’ve always done them. (Or at least the way we’ve done them since 1983.) There is and will be pushback, and as I’ve said before, what goes into a General Assembly is not always what comes out of a General Assembly, so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, is eventually approved. In some ways, they’re kicking the can down the road because they’re not calling for a report until the 2026 General Assembly. Perhaps more important symbolically than anything else, the result will say something about how willing we are to face reality and to prepare for a future that will be very different than the past. You can find this report and comments by various agencies and groups at https://www.pc-biz.org/#/committee/3000094/business.
Number two would be divestment from the fossil fuel industry and, more generally, what comes out of the Environmental Justice Committee. Divestment from fossil fuels has been an issue that’s been gaining ground at the General Assembly over the past 10 years or so. It started out with just a few presbyteries asking the Presbyterian Church to take this step, but it’s been slowly gathering more support at each Assembly. A number of overtures propose different ways to address the issue, some narrower in focus, others wider in scope. While the coal industry does not dominate our state’s economy as it did in the past, coal, as well as oil, still has a significant impact on our state. You could argue that it has a positive impact economically and a negative impact on public health and the environment. Regardless of what happens, it will be more of a symbolic step than anything else. The various entities of the Presbyterian Church have such limited investment in fossil fuel companies – due to the advice of our financial and investment advisors, who seek to get the best returns within the limitations set by previous General Assemblies – that selling our stocks in these companies will not significantly impact them at all. Certainly not all Presbyterians agree on this issue, especially those employed by fossil fuel companies or whose churches are located in areas where fossil fuel companies are major employers, which would be us. It seems to me that the debate on the floor at the 2018 General Assembly played a large role in how this was decided then. It will be interesting to see how this debate – and I suspect there will be debate – plays out on Zoom. You can see what’s before the Environmental Justice Committee at https://www.pc-biz.org/#/committee/3000086/business.
My choice for the third top issue would be the work of the Addressing Violence in the U.S.A. committee. I would think there have been overtures dealing with violence and especially gun violence at each General Assembly for maybe the past 50 years. This year, there’s a whole General Assembly committee dealing with this issue. In and of itself, that says a lot. This past weekend, there were a number of incidents of gun violence across the country. I would hope that is not repeated this coming weekend, but I would not be surprised if it happens again. This is another issue that divides Presbyterians, divides our state, and divides our nation. How many people have to die and maybe more importantly, how many children will have to die before we do something? There is certainly a mental health aspect to this, which is another issue in and of itself that we need to address. Racism often plays a part in these incidents, still another issue that we need to address. It will be interesting to see what this Assembly has to say and what recommendations they will make. You can see what’s before this committee at https://www.pc-biz.org/#/committee/3000085/business.
There are different overtures dealing with Commissioned Pastors. There’s an overture this presbytery sent to the 2020 General Assembly dealing with laying on hands at installations that got deferred to this year’s GA. With a little more effort, I could come up with five more things that are fairly important. Instead, I would encourage you to check out PC-Biz. That’s “the web program that has been designed to display and follow the business of a General Assembly meeting. It includes the text of the overtures and other recommendations that have been forwarded to the assembly – and it tracks the business as it moves through the assembly meeting, noting whether the recommendation was amended, approved, or disapproved.” You can find it at https://www.pc-biz.org/#/.