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December 11, 2007: Dynamics of General Assemblies.

After viewing the hub-bub that developed in the letters on Presbyweb after my December 6 post, I thought a review of some of the dynamics of General Assemblies would be in order.

Perhaps some additional factors would be helpful in "doing the math":

  1. A vast majority of commissioners are attending their first General Assembly as commissioners(or so goes the polling responses during the orientation time);
  2. Most have arrived a day before the Assembly in a city in which they are unfamiliar and have to learn the Assembly area -- where meeting rooms are, where meals will be, how they get from their hotel to wherever they need to be;
  3. Most are meeting hundreds of new people in a short time and trying to figure out how they are supposed to work together;
  4. Most (again, by polling responses during the orientation time) have read less than half of the material that was sent to them;
  5. Most have had limited interaction or engagement with the denominational entities over which they are to exercise decision-making authority; and,
  6. Most are unwilling to engage in real debate/argument about what is being presented because: a) they do not want to be mean; b) they are not confident they know enough to engage; and/or c) they just want to get along and enjoy the week; and,
  7. The only opportunity most commissioners find to address the big issues are when things come to the floor for a vote -- by which time, the momentum one way or another has already been established (the percentage of items decided contrary to committee recommendation is very, very low).

These are the realities. Are there exceptions? Yes. Is the mind of Christ discerned at General Assemblies? Sure. Is it guaranteed? No -- the number of proposed amendments that later are "not approved" by the presbyteries is substantial evidence that General Assembly approval is not a guarantee of discernment.

Now, throw into the mix the vested engagement of those who are on staff or part of reporting agencies (like the FoG task force); whose lives are directly impacted by the decisions of the General Assembly commissioners. They should be involved. It would be crazy to hire or commission people and then ban them from participating in the ministries to which they were called. (There will always be a tension as to how much they should be involved. If you like what the denomination is doing, you welcome their participation; if you do not like what the denomination is doing, you would prefer they remain out of the equation.)

We delude ourselves if we think that official participation is objective and outcome-neutral. It could not be no matter how hard they tried. I struggle being objective and outcome neutral with the session I moderate; more often than not, I fail. I fail because I care. They participate because they care.

So, commissioners come to the General Assembly and need help. There are nice, official people who provide information, direction, and resources. They know what they are talking about. The thought goes through commissioners' minds, "We should trust the people who know what is going on." In the orientation materials and from the podium comes the warning that there are "special interest groups" out there; groups that are working to persuade commissioners one way or another. Commissioners should be careful when dealing with any information not produced by the Assembly staff.

Thus, the de facto presumption in favor of staff/committee/task force recommendations is established. My December 6 comments were a response to the inference in the Presbynews article assuming that the new FoG would be approved in some form; suggesting that the presumption in favor of denominational entities guarantees passage.

When considering the dynamics of General Assemblies -- when doing the math -- "Should it be that way?" is a very different question than, "Is it that way?"