By Emily Brewer and Rick Ufford-Chase
We’ve heard it. We’ve probably said it. Maybe you have too: Does General Assembly even matter? Does it change anything? Is it worth all of the time and money and energy that hundreds and even thousands of Presbyterians spend on it?
(Also, maybe you’re saying “I’m not even sure what General Assembly is!” That’s great, too. That was Emily just a few years ago and Rick a few more years ago. General Assembly is the biennial meeting of the Presbyterian Church (USA) where pastors and elders who are nominated by their presbyteries gather to vote on policies for the PC(USA). But it’s not just the commissioners who attend–it’s also PCUSA staff and other folks like many PPF volunteers who go to advocate for certain policies and try to help commissioners get done what they want to do for the church! It’s fun and sometimes chaotic and there are always surprises and great connections made).
Here’s what we say: Maybe. It can matter, but only if we make it matter.
- Being a part of GA is an important way for Presbyterians to practice skills that are relevant in lots of spaces. For example, anyone can testify about an issue before the GA they care about in the committee meetings. Our world needs more people of faith speaking in local town halls and in the halls of Congress and talking to your neighbors and fellow congregants about issues that matter.
- The General Assembly passes all kinds of great policies that can empower Presbyterians and congregations to get involved in local and global issues–like gun violence prevention, immigration justice, environmental care, racial justice, and more. These policies only matter if we know about them AND take them back to our communities and help
implement them. Passing a policy does nothing; the change happens when we each understand that we are the ones responsible for taking that policy and making it reality
- Our church is on the precipice of something new, and those who are at GA are a part of shaping where we go next and how we get there. Of course, General Assembly is not the only place where the church is shaped, but it is a key element. As the PCUSA (like most mainline denominations) declines in numbers of members, we have the opportunity to really get serious about who we are as a church, and participating in General Assembly is one way to help shape the church into an even more active and bold witness for justice and peace.
Historically, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship–through its members,volunteers, and partnerships with other groups–has been an important participant in General Assemblies since the 1950s, drawing from our experiences in social movements to speak about those issues and shape policy for the PC(USA). PPF can take a great deal of credit for shaping the mission of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and moving the entire denomination into a more bold stance around our social justice, environmental and peacemaking commitments. Since the late 1990’s, PPF has had a significant influence on all of the following:
- Helping to build broad support for specific social movement efforts – including the movement to close the School of the Americas, as well as the Taco Bell and Wendy’s boycotts in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers;
- Moving Presbyterians to direct action as accompaniers in Colombia and now on the U.S./Mexico border;
- Leading efforts at peacemaking in the Middle East, most notably by creating key delegations whose members launched the denomination’s divestment work in Israel Palestine and then helped to push through the ultimate decision to divest from Motorola Solutions, HP and Caterpillar corporations;
- Providing both fiscal sponsorship and significant organizing support for the grassroots effort to get the church to commit to blanket divestment from fossil fuel corporations;
- Leading the church’s effort to respond to the epidemic of gun violence;
- Launching the Matthew 25 Vision that now defines the entire scope of work carried out by the Presbyterian Mission Agency;
- Mentoring successive generations of young adults into positions of significant leadership in the national church and teaching them organizing techniques that have allowed them to wield influence at the level of their mid-councils and the General Assembly.
Does this sound like something you want to be a part of? We hope so!
Sign up to volunteer with PPF at the General Assembly and we’ll provide training for and orientation to General Assembly as well as meaningful ways for you to help shape the policy of the PC(USA) going forward. We need you–passionate Presbyterians–and together we will continue to make the PC(USA) a force for justice in the world.
To learn more about what issues PPF is supporting, to see who this year’s interns are, and to find out more about the events that PPF is hosting at General Assembly this year, visit our website.
Emily Brewer is the current director of PPF and was a 2012 PPF intern at General Assembly. Rick Ufford-Chase is the former director of PPF, past moderator of the 216th General Assembly of the PC(USA), and current co-director of the Stony Point Center. They are both passionate about being part of shifts in the PC(USA) so that the Church becomes a more courageous, more prophetic, more active group of people trying to make the world a more just and equitable place.