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February 4, 2008: Fourteen?

The General Assembly is the highest governing body within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) -- at least as long as we are still calling them "governing bodies." Though this summer's meeting seems quite a ways away -- the 218th General Assembly convenes in San Jose, California on June 21, 2008 -- the reality is that many of the issues commissioners and advisory delegates will face are already in the works.

Among the big issues coming to this General Assembly is the election of a new Stated Clerk. After three terms, the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick has indicated he is not going to seek a fourth term.

The election of the Stated Clerk poses some interesting problems for the Assembly. Fourteen (14) individuals have expressed interest in standing for election to be the next Stated Clerk.

Fourteen.

Imagine if all fourteen decide to stand for election at the Assembly. Here is how that would play out:

a. Committee Nominee Named: The Stated Clerk Nominating Committee is already at work, soliciting applications. They are mandated to announce their nominee (no later than sixty days prior to the convening of the Assembly -- in other words by April 22, 2008);

b. Other Nominees Identified: The other thirteen seeking to stand for election would announce their intention (no later than forty-five days prior to the convening of the Assembly -- in other words, by May 7, 2008);

c. Information Packet Distributed: After the last Stated Clerk election in 2004, the rules have changed to strictly limit communication with commissioners and advisory delegates. At the convening of the General Assembly, Stated Clerk Nominating Committee will distribute a packet of information containing a photograph, personal statement, and responses to questions posed by the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee.

No other communication from the candidates or outside groups regarding the candidates is permitted. H.2.b.(3)(m) and H.2.b.(3)(n). In fact, the latter provision says that a candidate says, "Should a candidate discover that an organization is advocating or campaigning for him or her, it is expected that the candidate will request that organization to cease its activities. The same expectation will be true of organizations that are critical of a particular candidate for Stated Clerk.

Those standing for election are not prohibited from attending the Assembly, but they appear to be limited to informal conversations until Wednesday (step e, below).

d. Nominations Made: On Sunday night, June 22, 2008, at 5:00 p.m., (the second day of the Assembly), the nominations would be made. The Stated Clerk Nominating Committee would present their choice -- apparently without time restriction. Other nomination speeches are limited to five minutes. So, assume that everyone has five minute speeches. You have to add -- on average -- a minute to account for the in-between candidates, for overages on speeches and things like that. So, 14 x 6= 84 minutes. Almost an hour and a half of nominating speeches. Wow.

e. Meeting the Candidates: The Standing Rule H.2.b.(3)(o) says,

(o) Each candidate will be provided a place to meet and talk with commissioners and advisory delegates two days before the election. Only information provided by the Office of the General Assembly may be distributed in those rooms. Other materials, apart from that packet, are not permitted. Each candidate for Stated Clerk will be allowed to post the times when he/she will be available for conversation in that room.

On Wednesday of the Assembly, at the conclusion of the committee process and as the plenary process is scheduled to begin, commissioners will have to switch gears to do their entire preparation for the Stated Clerk election -- perhaps meeting and discerning among as many as fourteen candidates.

f. Candidate Speeches: On Friday morning, the next to last day of the Assembly, the election will take place. Each candidate has the opportunity to make a five minute speech. Again, assuming all fourteen stand for election, that's another hour and a half of speechifying.

g. Q & A: Then, after the speeches, there is a time for questions and answers. The time set for the Q&A is the shorter of one hour or fifteen minutes per candidate. H.2.b.(4)(d)(iii). Thus, one hour.

Imagine if the first question requires some thoughtful reflection. All of the candidates take about five minutes to answer. Twelve candidates would have the chance to speak before time ran out. Either the last two would not get to speak at all, or the Assembly would vote (as I expect it would) to hear them.

But that would be the one question asked.

Additionally, there is no limit on the time alloted to answer the question -- so one candidate could take twenty minutes to answer a question. That person would not be popular with the Assembly, but it would have a tremendous impact on all the other candidates.

h. Voting: Then, the vote.

This process makes the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee's choice a runaway prohibitive favorite. Remember: most commissioners will be attending their first Assembly; handling a lot of business with which they are unfamiliar; finding their way among people and places with which they are unfamiliar; and -- by Friday -- will be exhausted. The simplest and easiest thing to do is to just "go with the flow" and accept the committee's nominee.

I do not know who the committee's nominee will be. It is appropriate that the committee's nominee have the advantage as having been the discerned choice of those charged with the responsibility of making the nomination. And, perhaps the committee's nominee will be the best person to lead the denomination. However, it will be difficult to know because the process does not provide much opportunity or information for commissioners to make a carefully considered decision from among all the candidates.