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By Leslianne Braunstein
In 2001 I took San Francisco Seminary’s GA Polity course and received an in-depth introduction into the history and workings of this august body. I was hooked. I’ve been to every General Assembly since. I am a certified GA Junkie. I’ve got the pin to prove it.
After years of drifting among the committees, I now pick a committee and follow its proceedings through open hearings, advocacy statements and deliberations – right through its report to the Assembly during plenary.
What I love about General Assembly is the Spirit working in and through the commissioners. This is most evident in committee deliberations. I have followed the committee workings of both the Polity and Peacemaking committees during times of great contention. As the commissioners entered the room I could see on their faces they had already made up their minds on issues of great importance to the church. Over the course of three days as they listened to testimony and discussed the issues among themselves, as they prayed and genuinely sought God’s face in their deliberations, I could actually see those firm convictions yielding to the leading of the Spirit. It was an amazing experience to witness.
Committee deliberations have taken many turns in the last few years. The efforts to build consensus on issues of substantial contention seem to run into obstacles and roadblocks at every turn. With good leadership, though, committees that worked primarily as “a committee of the whole” seemed to be able to build a deeper trust among their members than committees strictly relying on Roberts Rules. Roberts Rules, while a useful tool, simply does not engender mutual confidence among committee members. Being able to look in the eye your brother or sister in Christ and express your deepest hopes and fears seems to be the only way consensus can be reached.
Of course, letting committee members actually talk to one another during deliberations is messy and requires great listening skills from leadership. It takes great wisdom to know how to corral the energy in the room and bring it to a place of peace and understanding. In the end, in order to make the report, though, there must be a return to Robert’s Rules so that motions can be made and seconded and voted upon. I believe, though, the deliberative process is better served by other means.
Four years ago I monitored the Peacemaking Committee that, once again, deliberated whether or not the PC(USA) should divest from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. At the first open deliberation it was clear who was going to vote which way. However, during the next three days, as the commissioners listened to testimonies and the advice of Gen. Assembly agencies, and as they discussed what they heard in small groups and as a committee of the whole, you could feel the air change. In the end, the committee – one I believed was split in half – came to an overwhelming consensus on the direction the church should take in these matters. Of the almost 50 commissioners, only four felt strongly enough to want to file a minority report. Even with that, the next day when the committee met, the leader of that group stood and tearfully acknowledged that while they had reservations about the outcome the committee was recommending, they would not file a minority report “for the good of the church.” It was, he said, the Spirit’s leading; the report should stand on its own. I saw no visible victory behaviors – no high-fives or thumbs-up. What I heard were heartfelt acknowledgements of the difficulty of their decision and prayer. Lots of prayer.
I think this result was only possible because the leadership of this committee was committed to building trust. I suspect she did a lot of this during the closed sessions; and, when the atmosphere grew tense, she found ways to incorporate trust building opportunities into the discussions as they proceeded.
I have no idea how this would work in plenary. While individual committees work to build trust among their members, it is clear when the reports get to the floor of the Assembly, the trust does not extend to other committees. It is clear that we do not trust one another. While the Spirit may work in my life, we are not too sure about what She is doing in yours.
As I write this, I wonder if our predicament isn’t that we don’t trust one another; rather, we really question whether God is able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
It’s a dilemma, for sure.
Leslianne Adkins Braunstein is an Interim Ministry Specialist in the PCUSA (National Capital Presbytery), a biblical storyteller and passionate GA Junkie. She was raised in New York City in what is the equivalent of the Southern Baptist Church. Leslianne joined Hollywood Presbyterian Church in 1991 and she immediately fell in love with the connectional nature of the Presbyterian church (U.S.A.) – in all its beautiful organized messiness. Leslianne was a law office administrator before her call to ordained ministry which might explain her affinity to decent orderliness.