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Committee on the Office of the General Assembly begins spring meeting

Presbytery of San Juan provides hospitality, glimpses into its ministries

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

Luis Ocasio, with COGA member Margaret Elliott looking on at left. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – With the hospitality of the leaders and churches of the Presbytery of San Juan at the forefront and an unparalleled view of Old San Juan Harbor as a backdrop, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) opened its spring meeting here on Tuesday, March 21.

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Gaddis, a teaching elder member of North Central Iowa Presbytery and Moderator of COGA, began the opening plenary session by expressing thanks for the presbytery’s warm welcome. In addition to other thoughtful touches, members and staff of the Presbytery of San Juan greeted COGA members upon their arrival in San Juan on March 20 with a bag of traditional Puerto Rican candies and a card emblazoned with the PC(USA) seal and the word bienvenidos, Spanish for welcome.

As a part of its three-day meeting, March 21–23, COGA members will have an opportunity to share in community conversation and worship jointly with members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB), which is meeting concurrently in San Juan, March 22–24.

The Rev. Stephanie Anthony, COGA member and head pastor of the Fox Valley Presbyterian Church, Geneva, Illinois, set the tone for the meeting by focusing her opening worship on Jeremiah 7:21-26, followed by a labyrinth exercise on paper and a time of prayer. “I’m thinking about ‘stiff-necked’,” said Anthony, citing verse 26, “and how easy it is to become entrenched in our positions rather than seeking God’s will.”

Co-Moderator Denise Anderson with COGA member Mark Boyd. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

Following a brief report by Gaddis in which she sought COGA members’ input on filling the vacancy on COGA created by the Rev. Lemuel García upon joining the staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Rev. Denise Anderson, Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016), offered a joint report on behalf of herself and PC(USA) Co-Moderator the Rev. Jan Edmiston.

In her highlights, Anderson emphasized a new, grassroots, ecumenical push to reignite the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign—an initiative he was working on at time of his assassination—to alleviate poverty.

“We are in a kairos moment in our nation right now,” said Anderson, “where we really have to live into our ideals as people of God.”

In the opening plenary, COGA also:

  • Heard a report from COGA member the Rev. Dr. Kathleen Matsushima on the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR).
  • Heard a report from the Rev. Wilson Kennedy, COGA Vice Moderator — anticipating the March 22 joint session with the PMAB — on the two bodies’ ongoing conversations about “how our offices might be in greater collaboration with each other.”
  • Listened to a report from the Rev. Beth Hessel, executive director of the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS). In her update, Hessel highlighted PHS’s first fundraising gala event, to be held May 4, in celebration of the return of its restored Alexander S. Calder statues.
  • Heard a Big Tent update from the Rev. Tom Hay, director for assembly operations in the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).
  • Heard an update, also from Hay, on the 223rd General Assembly (2018), the theme for which will be “Renewing the Vision: Kindom Building for the 21st Century.” In a related motion, COGA approved the assembly docket, which will include—on the Thursday evening of the assembly, if the way be clear—an opportunity to attend a jazz concert. “We spend a lot of time in meetings,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), in outlining his vision. “One of the pieces we have to create for ourselves at GA is the fun of being together and celebrating.” Nelson further suggested that the concert serve as a benefit for Hands & Feet, the new initiative to strengthen local and national mission efforts of the PC(USA) by encouraging partnerships and mission involvement with cities hosting the biennial meeting of the General Assembly.
  • Approved the election of five assistant Stated Clerks.

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

For the second plenary, COGA members took a short walk to convene at the nearby Iglesia Presbiteriana Old San Juan (Hugh O’Neill Memorial Presbyterian Church), where they were welcomed by the Rev. Luis Ocasio, the church’s pastor and the current Moderator of the Presbytery of San Juan. Ocasio presented a brief history of the congregation, which—organized in 1904—is the presbytery’s oldest church still serving in the same location.

In the afternoon plenary, COGA:

  • Listened to a comprehensive report from Nelson, in which he again spoke to the theme for the 2018 GA. In his report, Nelson said that one of the challenges for the OGA is change. “If we’re going to be vibrant, we have to listen to the voices of another generation,” said Nelson. “We have to figure out in Louisville what does it mean to define church in this day and age. It can’t happen in isolation—it has to happen in relationship with congregations and communities that are struggling as well as successful.” As Stated Clerk, Nelson said that much of his time is spent in congregations, where there is an opportunity to engage people, to hear their views and their struggles. He noted, too, that the Hands & Feet initiative would be “jump-started at the Big Tent, so that it can be retooled and refined by the time we get to Baltimore [General Assembly].”
  • Heard an OGA budget update from John Wood, director of administrative services for the PHS. Prior to presenting his report, Wood began by again thanking the presbytery for its gracious hospitality. “This is where the church is,” Wood said as he gestured toward those gathered in the sanctuary. “This is more representative of who we are than what we do in Louisville…therein lies for me what today is about—what this week is about.” Although the OGA finds itself is a strong cash position, nevertheless reserves continue to erode. The major concern cited by Wood was the “unsustainable trend” that 30 percent of total per capita revenue that could be used by staff is being allocated to shared services. Gaddis summarized the two places where COGA’s help is needed: what to do about uncollectable per capita, and how to deal with the shared services issue. In a related motion, Vice Moderator Kennedy recommended the creation of a working group to look at helping to lift up per capita in congregations and mid councils.
  • Convened a conference call with the Rev. Deborah Block, Moderator of the All Agency Review Committee.
  • Heard an update via conference call with the Rev. Lisa Juica Perkins, Co-Moderator of the 2020 Vision Committee. At the conclusion of her update, Perkins asked that COGA consider resourcing the committee financially to allow for a third face-to-face meeting. Gaddis agreed that COGA would look into the matter.
  • The report on the OGA’s Mid Council Ministries was given by Kerry Rice, director of Ordered Ministries and Certification. Updates and reports included those on the Education Certification Committee, staffing changes, ruling elder training, and a report from the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) on the Bible Content Examination. For the latter report, COGA conducted a conference call with the Rev. Dr. Timothy Cargal, Assistant Stated Clerk in the OGA, whose office oversees Preparation for Ministry.

COGA will reconvene on the morning of March 22 in joint session with the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, followed by lunch and fellowship. The business meetings of both groups will then continue separately until they reconvene in the evening for joint worship at the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Puerto Nuevo.

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