Category Archives: GA 101

General Assembly Season 2016

May 1st – The date on my calendar that marks the beginning of the General Assembly Season. This is our binge year, or we max out on GA’s, as we can include the two biennial assemblies and the triennial one.

So buckle up and here we go.

As always, this is the line-up as I know it – I will update as I clarify additional Assembly and Synod meetings.


61st General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Taiwan
29 March-1 April 2016


The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
3-5 May 2016
Mt. Druitt, N.S.W.


General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Tasmania
10 May 2016 (begins)


General Assembly
Church of Scotland
21-27 May 2016




General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)
23-26 May, 2016



General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland
23-26 May 2016



General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of South Australia
22 May 2016 (anticipated) No Assembly this year – see comment below


Presbyterian_Church_in_Canada_(logo)142nd General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Canada
3-6 June 2016
York University
Toronto, Ontario



General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Ireland
6-10 June 2016


212th Stated Meeting of the General Synod
Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
7-9 June 2016
Flat Rock, North Carolina


General Assembly
United Free Church of Scotland
8-10 June 2016


83rd General Assembly
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
8-14 June 2016
Sandy Cove Conference Center
North East, Maryland


logo+pcusa222nd General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
18-25 June 2016
Portland, Oregon


General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Queensland
19-23 June 2016
Brisbane Boys College



141st General Assembly
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America

19-22 June 2016
Nashville, Tennessee
Concurrent with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church


186th General Assembly
Cumberland Presbyterian Church
20-24 June 2016
Nashville, Tennessee
Concurrent with Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America


01645A81-A5D8-4EB1-9E4C30D14028D30744th General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in America
20-24 June 2016
Mobile, Alabama


36th General Assembly
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
21-25 June 2016
Ward Church
Northville, Michigan



Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America
27-29 June 2016
Indiana Wesleyan University
Marion, Indiana



N.S.W. State Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Australia
in the State of New South Wales

4 July 2016 (begins)
Croydon, N.S.W.


80th General Synod
Bible Presbyterian Church
4-9 August 2016
Sharonville, Ohio

NYA_0National Youth Assembly
Church of Scotland
19-22 August 2016
(Technically not a governing
body, but still an Assembly I track)

General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Australia
12 September 2016 (begins)



General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Victoria
3 October 2016



General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Western Australia
28 October 2016
Peppermint Grove, WA


General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand
15-19 November
University of Otago


These are the ones that I am tracking at the moment. I will update as appropriate. If I have missed one, or have information wrong or incomplete, please provide the appropriate information and I will update the list.

And, to make the GA season complete here are two more items…

The first is the series of articles I wrote as an introduction to Presbyterian General Assemblies seven years ago. My GA 101 series consists of the following

GA101: Preface
GA101: Introduction – Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?
GA101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture
GA101: The Cast of Characters – A score card to identify the players
GA101: The Moderator – All Things In Moderation
GA101: Where does the GA business come from? – Incoming!
GA101: Doing the business of GA — Decently and in Order

Yes, what started as a six part series expanded into seven completed articles with two more unfinished ones (still) in the queue.

And finally, on to the ridiculous. Lest we take ourselves too seriously, a couple years ago I had a little fun with the General Assembly and in the post passed along the GA drinking game and GA Bingo. In addition, Allan Edwards has posted an alternate Bingo card to use or modify for your particular polity. Please play responsibly. 😉

So, for all the GA Junkies out there I wish you the best of GA seasons. May you enjoy the next few months of watching us do things decently and in order!

GA 101: Doing the Business of GA — Decently and in Order

In the last post I discussed where the business for a General Assembly comes from.  We now turn to the question of once an Assembly convenes and has the docketed business in front of it, how does it go about dealing with the business.

The short answer is “Decently and In Order.”  There is a lot of business to get through, there are a lot of commissioners who want to discuss a few hot topics, and so the Assembly sets about systematically working their way through the business, typically using parliamentary procedure as specified and adapted by the standing rules.

How much work is there?  I think that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is probably the extreme example.  The picture above shows you what there was to deal with at the PC(USA) 212th General Assembly of 2000.  This is from “back in the day” when everything was on paper.  The PC(USA) has now gone all electronic, at least when the electronics work.  The behemoth in the lower left corner is the Reports to General Assembly.  This was a small-print document mailed out in sections ahead of time that contained all of the national committee reports and the reports from the national agencies.  The stack of papers on the left side of the orange notebook is the overtures to GA, the commissioner resolutions, and all the comments on them.  The other half of the orange notebook is the reports generated by each of the General Assembly Commissioner Committees that were than debated in plenary.  And in the upper left corner is that tote bag that they give you to carry it all in.  I will try to get an estimate of the number of megabytes of the material from this year’s GA.

In terms of volume of business, probably the number two branch is the Church of Scotland, or maybe the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.  For 2008, the reports from 25 committees and other entities to the Church of Scotland GA are 1.2 MB in plain text format with a PDF of a statistical report the same size.  That is everything, including supplements and appendices.  If you want it in Word format you can roughly triple that file size.  The printed contents of this, plus the commissioner lists and standing orders (rules) comprise what is know in the church as the Blue Book, which in 2007 was 112 pages long.

Almost all Presbyterian General Assemblies are convened by the outgoing Moderator elected at the previous meeting of the Assembly.  And, in almost all cases, the first major item of business, after the opening prayer or worship, is electing a new Moderator to lead the current assembly.  I have covered the Moderator and the selection process in detail in a previous post in this series, but there are two general models.  If there is a single nominee selected by a process before the Assembly, there is usually a formal vote and the new moderator is installed.  If there is an open nomination process to elect one of the commissioners as Moderator, then candidates are nominated, there may be candidate statements, maybe a question and answer session, and a vote is taken.  And then the new Moderator is installed.  In almost all cases the election process happens very close to the convening of the Assembly; the PC(USA) is an exception with the election proceedings taking up the whole of the first evening.

Also at the beginning of the Assembly, in association with the whole “changing of the guard” thing around electing the new Moderator, the outgoing Moderator will present a report, or at least make some comments, about his/her term of office and the activities they were involved in.  And, for the Church of Scotland, the monarch, or their representative the Lord High Commissioner, will be honored and the statement from the crown will be delivered.

With the business of leadership done the Assembly now turns to the business of, well, business.

In almost all cases there is a period of time when the Assembly as a whole takes up the list of business and begins working through the business item by item.  But in many (most?) branches of American Presbyterianism, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Assembly commissioners are assigned to committees to work on the business in smaller groups first and report back to the plenary sessions.  With the large amount of business to be covered, this allows a group of commissioners to focus, or at least try to focus, on all the business related to a particular topic and work on that business only in detail.  They become the experts on it and in general the Assembly will then usually trust their judgment.

In those branches where commissioner committees are used the meetings of Assembly in plenary halts for a day or two so the committees can do their work.  In the PCA there are eleven commissioner committees that mirror the denominational structure.  Presbyteries get to elect which of their commissioners to GA will sit on each committee, observing proper balance between teaching and ruling elders.  In the PC(USA) every commissioner is assigned to a committee by random assignment.  The number of committees varies slightly from  one assembly to the next, but is usually around the 16 that there are for 2008.

It is now the responsibility of the committee to take all of the business assigned to it, fine tune it, and bring a report back to the full Assembly with their recommendations.  It is important to note that on the PC(USA) commissioner committees the delegates (youth, theological student, ecumenical, mission) have a vote as well as voice, just like the commissioners.  Sometimes, particularly in the case of the PC(USA), there are conflicting overtures about a controversial subject or an overture differs from a standing committee recommendation and it is the responsibility of the committees to listen to, in open hearings, the overture advocates and other members of the church who wish to speak on the subject.  The committee must then try to craft a compromise position, or failing that, recommend a position on the issue.  On a controversial issue there will almost always be a minority report.  In some cases the committee will hear reports from related agencies or denominational committees and may have the responsibility of reading minutes from lower governing bodies and entities, such as a theological seminary’s board of trustees like I had to do the year I was a commissioner.

Because of the volume of business, when an Assembly uses commissioner committees the Assembly trusts the committee to do the work and there will frequently be no objection to a committee report in full Assembly.  This makes the work of the committee and the quality of its leadership very important.  While a committee member can not put a new item of business on the table, they can have a significant impact on shaping the business that is assigned to the committee and so business shaped with particular viewpoints has been known to make its way through committee and assembly “under the radar.”

An interesting personal story:  As happens frequently at GA, commissioners can get lost in the parliamentary language and sometimes end up voting one way when they think they are voting another.  On my committee in 1997 one report was defeated and I was pretty sure that was not the way most of the members of the committee wanted it to go.  My approach, rather than raise a point of order and ask to clarify the vote just taken, was to ask to submit a minority report about the issue.  This was immediately acknowledged by the chair, but people started asking what happened and soon it was apparent that many were confused by the vote.  Of course, the vote was retaken and the minority report became unnecessary.

When the full Assembly meets it begins going through the reports in the order docketed.  Sometimes a controversial item, imp
ortant visitor, or special presentation will be docketed as an “order” or “order of the day” and so another report will be “arrested” before it is finished to meet the order.  In the same way, meals and worship can be the scheduled items that cause a report to be arrested.  Under good conditions an arrested report can resume following the special item.  If time is tight, not an unusual occurrence, the balance of the arrested report may be moved to the end of the docket which could be a day or two later.  In really difficult circumstances it can be referred to the next GA, such as the OPC Revision of the Directory for Worship.

Frequently with Church of Scotland or PC(USA) reports the item will also contain an educational or recognition moment connected back to the denominational committee or agency that relates to the report.  This can include the premier of a video related to that ministry, celebration of a milestone reached, or roll out of a new educational or stewardship campaign or material.  These provide an interesting window into the workings of the church and, if nothing else, give your brain a chance to recover between business reports.  Also, a good Moderator will recognize the need to take a mental break and may insert something into the docket like a chance to stretch, prayer, singing, hearing a story or joke, or something else to provide the needed mental break and transition between reports.  It may seem like it is taking extra time but my experience has been that a well placed break will help refocus the commissioners to more efficiently deal with the next item of business.

When the committee reports the committee chair or convener gives the report, sometimes calling on other committee members or staff to help with the presentations.  (Note that this is pretty much the same whether the “committee” reporting to the Assembly is the denominational committee like the Church of Scotland or the commissioner committee like the American Presbyterians.)  It will frequently begin with introductions, thank you’s, and an opening statement.  There may then be a time for questions about the report in general, questions usually answered by the denominational chair or staff member.  There may be a vote to receive the report.  The Assembly then begins walking through the action items in the report.  These may begin with consent items which are not debatable but can be removed from the consent agenda for debate.  (I asked for an item to be pulled from the consent agenda in 1997 and was later thanked by a YAD who also wanted to speak to it, which he could do if debated, but he did not have the standing to ask for the item to be removed from the consent agenda.)  The Assembly then moves on to the items docketed as debatable.

In the Church of Scotland this part is known as the “deliverance.”  While this term is also seen in American Presbyterianism, it is not a widely used in Scotland.  The Moderator walks the Assembly through the deliverance item by item.  They debate those that commissioners want to debate, amending the item, and then approving that item.  If no one jumps up at a particular item it is taken as approved by consensus and the next item is announced.  When every item in the deliverance has been walked through individually there is then one final vote to accept or reject the whole deliverance.

As Presbyterians our debate is decent and in order.  That does not mean that it is not passionate because we also balance ardor and order.  And being Presbyterians the parliamentary procedure can get complicated.  Interestingly, the Church of Scotland does not have minority reports, but in the PC(USA) a minority report is dealt with as a substitute motion which means that the first couple of times commissioners deal with it they are still trying to figure out the way it works.  And when the Moderator gets lost, or does something wrong, the Moderator can look over at the Clerk to help straighten things out.  And frequently the Principle Clerk or Deputy Clerk, or Stated Clerk can get on the microphone and either explain where they are parliamentary wise, or suggest a more efficient way for the Assembly or commissioner to accomplish whatever they just made that last confusing or out-of-order motion about.

At the larger Assemblies there can be several microphones and the Moderator has the duty of calling on speakers at the different stations.  While the Church of Scotland may still be using paper for its reports, it excels in being electronic at the microphones.  Each commissioner and delegate has an ID card they swipe at the microphone station and the Moderator has a video display that allows him/her to know not only if the individual is speaking for, against, or on procedural issues, but to also be able to address them by name and presbytery.  The PC(USA) has recently adopted a similar system with an assistant at the microphone entering the individuals ID number, but they still use colored cards that those intending to speak hold up to indicate the intent of the speaker to the rest of the body.  Smaller meetings may designate one microphone for, one against, and one for other items.

In many smaller branches voting is done by holding up a card when the vote is called for.  If a formal vote is necessary in the PC(USA) there are electronic key pads at each commissioner’s and delegate’s seat.  You use your own and don’t vote for your neighbor if they are not there.  The PC(USA) Moderator asks “Advisory delegates vote now.”  There are about 15 seconds to vote, the results display on the big screen and the Moderator continues “Commissioners you have been advised.  Commissioners vote now.”  For the Church of Scotland the commissioners get out of their seat and go to the voting station to swipe their card and enter their vote.

And with that the Assembly works its way through the business.  By the end of many of these Assemblies there have been some late nights to get everything done (except for that Revised Directory for Public Worship) and the commissioners and delegates are physically and mentally tired.  The last night of the PC(USA) GA it is not unheard of to adjourn at 2:00 AM.  In 1997 we passed an omnibus motion to push a bunch of minor stuff off on the 210th in 1998.  A wise Bills and Overtures committee will be sure controversial items are docketed while commissioners are still attentive.  I know that by the end of the 209th GA I was mentally burned out.  Those of you there as observers can help the commissioners by getting them out of the Assembly hall area for dinner late in the meeting so they can get their mind off the business, even if it is only for an hour or two.

Usually Assemblies conclude as they began with a day of formal reports and ceremonies and nothing that will result in debate pushing the Assembly past its docketed closing time.  The business of the Assembly is concluded, but there is still more.  In the next two posts in this series I will discuss the other stuff that goes on at an Assembly and what happens after the Assembly.  We will see if I can get them done by June 21, 2008.

GA 101: Where Does the GA Business Come From? — Incoming!

A General Assembly would still be interesting if all the players got together, worshiped, elected a Moderator, elected individuals to national committees, councils, and commissions, heard greetings from other ecumenical bodies, reviewed the minutes of lower governing bodies, and then adjourned and went home.  But you could do that in a day or two and it would leave the Moderator with little to preside over.  It would not be the same as when they have to preside over a business session with a substitute motion on the floor, an amendment to an amendment under discussion, and a commissioner rising to a point of order to challenge the Moderator’s ruling on the last point of order.  I have not seen this happen in other Presbyterian branches very often, but a parliamentary situation similar to this happens usually once each Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly.  Without some business to do, the commissioners would never have this intellectually challenging (and mildly entertaining) opportunity.  More important, the church would not have the opportunity to wrestle with the application of our Reformed theology to real-world issues.  So where does this business come from?

From the church:
Being a connectional system, the first, and what should be the ultimate, source of business is from the lower governing bodies of presbyteries and synods (if the church has synods and if the General Synod is not the highest governing body).

In most branches presbyteries can pass overtures that are sent to the General Assembly.  An overture is a request for the Assembly to consider something, a change to the Constitution or the Acts, establishing a new committee or task force to address a current issue, requesting that an existing committee study an item, or some other request for action or change at the highest level.

In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) there is an additional form of request from a presbytery.  Using what is called a “Memorial,” a presbytery may send to the General Assembly a request for a judicial proceeding by the GA’s Standing Judicial Commission. 

(This should not be confused with “Memorial Resolutions” passed by some branches, like the Bible Presbyterian Church, that honor devoted church workers who have gone to be with the Lord in the preceding year.)

Overtures to the General Assembly must almost always come from a middle governing body.  Individuals would bring a proposed overture to their session and if approved by the session it would be advanced to presbytery for its approval.  If approved, it would then become business for the Assembly.  In the PCA an overture must be considered by the presbytery, but the individual or session can still advance it to the Assembly even if the presbytery disapproves of it. [RAO 11-10]  However, the presbytery disapproval must be clearly indicated on the overture.

The overture is the one form of business that can deal with just about anything in the church, be it the constitution or polity, financing, structure, or theological and social witness issues.  Every other source of business usually has some restrictions placed on it, although in smaller branches the new business from the floor can have few limits.

While controversial overtures tend to get the most attention, it should also be noted that some overtures deal with less controversial matters such as setting or moving boundaries of presbyteries, transferring churches between presbyteries, or establishing churches as union churches.

In my experience, the PC(USA) has far more overtures than any other Presbyterian branch.  For example, there are now 80 overtures on the business list for the PC(USA) 2008 GA.  At the present time the PCA has 12 overtures listed for its consideration at this year’s GA, while the Church of Scotland had only one overture to consider at its last GA in 2007 and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) had five overtures at its last GA in 2006.

From the institution:
At the General Assemblies of the larger Presbyterian branches, like the Church of Scotland, PCANZ, and the PC(USA), much of the Assembly’s time is spent dealing with business in the form of reports or deliverances from the national church structure.  (Technically, a deliverance is the “for action” portion of a report for branches like the Church of Scotland that use this term.)  For smaller branches these reports are still part of the business but with less internal structure they represent a smaller part of the total docket.

Business in reports might include review and actions related to the seminaries, reports from departments in the national office, report of the nominating committee and election of individuals to national committees, and the reports and actions from those committees. 

Often the action items from a committee are related to an overture at a preceding GA that the Assembly approved and then referred to the committee to do the work and the committee is now returning the finished product for the Assembly’s consideration.  This is usually how major items of business get accomplished.  With no General Assembly running more than a week, and most being composed of at least one hundred commissioners, it is impossible for an Assembly to create from scratch a major polity or theological document.  Instead, the request is sent to a committee or specifically created task force for their work and then a future Assembly has the opportunity to deal with their product by modifying, adopting, commending, accepting, or rejecting the work on behalf of the larger church.

From before:
Another source of business, while not usually one of the major ones, is unfinished business from the last Assembly.  These “referrals” from one Assembly to the next can be for a number of reasons from the Assembly running out of time on its docket to the business being complicated or controversial and the first Assembly decides that the church needs time to deal with it outside the Assembly.

One of the more interesting continuing items of business that is happening is the revision of the Directory for the Public Worship of God by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  This is an effort that already has 18 years of work in committees and now the final editing is being done by the General Assembly.  The 2007 GA was able to get through only five of the eighteen sections and so referred the item to the 2008 GA.  PC(USA) GA Junkies in particular will appreciate that one item of extended discussion dealt with the language of “shall,” “will,” “must,” and the like.  We will see how much further they get this year, and it should be remembered that no Assembly is bound by a previous Assembly’s actions so even those first five sections will be on the floor again.

From within:
In some branches, like the PCA and the PC(USA), business can be introduced by the commissioners themselves.  In the PC(USA) these are specifically known as “commissioner resolutions” and each resolution must be submitted by two commissioners and no commissioner may sign more than two commissioner resolutions.  In both the PCA and PC(USA) there is a deadline early in the Assembly for these resolutions or “new business” to be submitted so that the commissioners and committees hav
e adequate time to deal with them.  At the last PC(USA) GA in 2006 there were 18 commissioner resolutions, of which 13 were debated and the remaining five were declined because they could be dealt with in items already docketed.

Another item that usually comes, at least partly, from within is the budget.  While another body may have already prepared a proposed budget, many actions by the assembly have financial implications and at the end of the Assembly the commissioners usually need to approve the final budget including the changes they have introduced as a result of the business they have conducted.

For review:
In a connectional system it is the responsibility of the higher court or body to review the actions of the lower bodies.  In most Presbyterian branches, this means that the General Assembly, usually through a working group of commissioners, reviews the records of the presbyteries, synods, and the seminary or seminaries.  And being the highest governing body the Assembly has the responsibility to review its own minutes.

In some branches, like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, there are no permanent judicial commissions so the GA itself becomes the “court of last resort” for the appeal of judicial cases from the presbyteries and will, as a whole, sit and hear the appeals brought to it and decide the case.

Well, that is all the different sources of business for a General Assembly that I can think of.  Not all Presbyterian branches have every one of these types of business, but all (or maybe almost all) have most of these in one form or another.  To be clear, these are the sources of “business” in the sense of items to be acted upon.  An Assembly can also have presentations, communications, reports, and greetings that it may “receive” but not debate and vote upon and these can come from many different sources.

So now that we have outlined where the business comes from the next post will be on how the Assembly deals with it:  Doing the Business of GA — Decently and in Order

GA 101: The Moderator – All Things in Moderation

In my last post on the Cast of Characters I talked about the Moderator of the General Assembly with a brief introduction to the role they play and the way in which they are chosen.  I don’t know about other GA Junkies, but when I have been elected as a moderator of a governing body in the Presbyterian Church I have found it hard to properly communicate to someone not familiar with Presbyterian polity the proper significance of the position in a sentence or two.  (Although you may have noticed from my blog that it is difficult for me to say anything in a sentence or two.)

The easy answer is that the Moderator chairs the meeting.  In the previous post I quoted The Book of Order of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) which describes the position by saying “The Moderator of a court has the necessary authority to keep order, to expedite business, to convene, recess and adjourn meetings in conformity with rules of the court.” [16-4A]  Pretty much the chair of the meeting.  But within our system to say that the Moderator is the chair of the meeting is like saying the Clerk is the secretary.  The position takes on a greater ecclesiastical role.

At the opposite end it is tempting to describe the position as being like a bishop.  While this may convey some of the ecclesiastical significance of the position, the power and authority is extremely limited and a Moderator generally does not have the authority to assign other individuals here and there.  Furthermore, the simple mention of a “bishop” sends shivers down the spines of hard-core Presbyterians since we don’t like the image of a single individual with significant authority.  Authority is held by the covenant community.

The answer to “what is a Moderator?” lies between these two images.  The closest one-line description that I have found is that they are like the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress.  They have the authority and power to not only run the meeting but to set the tone and to help set the agenda.  There is a bit more honor and prestige to the office than a simple chair has and selection as the Moderator frequently reflects recognition for time spent working for the church in other ways. (Although previous experience in other positions is also important training for the position of Moderator.)  And finally, the Moderator becomes not just the spokesperson for the governing body, but its representative and maybe even its embodiment.

In a national church, like the Church of Scotland, the Moderator of the General Assembly is a national figure and represents the church at important occasions and ceremonies.  In any Presbyterian branch, the Moderator can speak for the General Assembly where the Assembly has spoken.  If there is no resolution concerning the matter from the Assembly the Moderator must be clear that if they speak, they are speaking only their personal opinion.  At a presbytery level, when the presbytery has examined and approved the ordination of a minister/teaching elder, it is usually the Moderator of the presbytery, or their designee, who convenes the commission to ordain, helps lead the worship service, and asks the questions and pronounces the declaration on behalf of the presbytery.

Within and during the Assembly the Moderator sets a tone for the proceedings, may call for breaks from business with singing, prayer, stories, or “ice breakers” among the commissioners, and generally leaves their stamp on how business was done at that Assembly.  After an Assembly they, frequently with their immediate predecessor(s), may have the responsibility to appoint the members of task forces that the Assembly has established.  And they are frequently the ambassador for the church and in large Presbyterian branches, like the PC(USA) and the Church of Scotland, they can spend much of their term as Moderator criss-crossing the country, if not the world, representing the denomination.

The Moderator can usually invite any other commissioner to chair the
meeting and in most branches past Moderators, if they are not commissioners, are
automatically corresponding members with the privilege of the floor.  In most branches the polity states that a former Moderator, usually
specified as the most recent that is present, would chair the Assembly in
the event that the current Moderator can not.  While rare, this could be the case at the opening of a General Assembly where the Moderator of the previous Assembly would normally preside long enough for the Assembly to elect the new Moderator.

In my opinion, the most unique method to chose the Moderator of the General Assembly is that used by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.  On a given evening in February all 21 presbyteries meet at the same time and vote on their choice for Moderator of the upcoming General Assembly.  In 2008 for the first time they had a list of nominees to chose from.  In previous years each presbytery came up with their own list independent of the others and nominated one of those individuals.

Most Presbyterian branches around the world seem to use a nominating committee approach where the committee meets months ahead of time to consider individuals that have been nominated and select one to serve as the Moderator.  There is usually an election vote taken at the beginning of the Assembly meeting that is an uncontested formality.

The EPC and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand
elect a Moderator-elect at each GA who is the “presumptive nominee” for
the Moderator of the next Assembly.  However, this designee must be
formally elected by the next Assembly and can be subject to challenge by
a nominee from the floor.

American Presbyterianism seems to be the exception in selecting the Moderator.  Their polity generally requires that the Moderator be a commissioner to the GA and elected by the other commissioners so an election can not be held ahead of time (EPC obviously excepted).  There are generally nominating speeches, comments by the candidates, maybe questions to the candidates, and then an election and it is over.  The outgoing moderator asks the commissioning questions of the newly elected moderator, an installation prayer is said, the sign of the office is passed, and the new guy (yes, it is usually a guy since the PC(USA) is the only American Presbyterian branch that uniformly ordains women as elders) takes over running the meeting.  A simple election done “Decently and in Order.”

And then there is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who may do it decently and in order, but it is more complex than any other Moderator election process that I know of.  They do follow the basic pattern of the other American Presbyterian branches:  the nominated candidates must be commissioners to GA and the election is held the first evening of the Assembly with nominating speeches and candidate Q & A.  But there are a lot of other steps and formalities thrown in.

First, it is to be understood that a person does not seek the position, the position seeks the person.  That is, God through the voice of the community calls the person to the position.  Therefore, a person does not “run” for the office but “stands” for election.  It is also why they must go through two other votes before the Assembly.  They must be first elected a commissioner by their presbytery and then endorsed by the presbytery to stand for election as Moderator.  I don’t know how many cases there are of potential moderator candidates not being elected as a commissioner to start with, but I know of one case where the person ultimately chosen as Moderator of the General Assembly was barely elected a commissioner.

Once elected a commissioner and endorsed as a candidate for Moderator the person can begin campaigning.  There are however tight restrictions set out in the Manual of the General Assembly (Section H) on what they can do to campaign.  General expenses may be no more than $1500, excluding travel and meeting expenses.  The candidates may not send mailings, e-mail, or phone calls to commissioners but information may be placed in commissioners’ mailboxes at GA.  There is also a time and place for Moderator candidates and their selected Vice-Moderator candidates to be available to commissioners and delegates, but each has their designated floor space and you get a stern warning if you stray outside your boundary line.

After the speeches and questions the delegates and commissioners vote.  The Youth Advisory Delegates take great pride on identifying the eventual winner with a plurality on their first ballot.  But the commissioners keep voting on all nominated candidates until one receives a majority of the votes cast.  I don’t know what the record is, but the highest I can remember is five ballots.

It is a favorite game of GA Junkies to “read the tea leaves” of the Moderator election for the PC(USA) to determine how commissioners may vote on the controversial issues that will come up later.  While there may be a minor degree of that in the voting patterns, after following 10-plus Moderator elections I have concluded that there are several other factors that more significantly influence who is elected.  It is my conclusion that the important factors are (in slight order of influence):

  1. Service to the denomination (it could be because of the experience or just that it gives the candidate name recognition)
  2. Warmth, wit and wisdom in the Q & A
  3. Campaign message of understanding, reconciliation and unity
  4. Moderate theological stance (or lack of extreme position)

There have been exceptions to each of these, maybe especially #4, but on balance this is what I have seen.  Things that I have seen that to me have not appeared to work are catchy campaign slogans, major endorsements, cute campaign buttons.  My observations.  Your conclusions may be different.

The one other polity item to mention is that the PC(USA) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church also elect a Vice-Moderator as part of the “ticket” with the Moderator, although the Moderator gets virtually all the attention.  This is relatively new in the PC(USA) and almost no other Presbyterian branchs have a Vice-Moderator of GA or General Synod.  And the Vice-Moderator is not the presumptive nominee the next time.

It was once the case across all Presbyterian branches that only clergy could be the Moderator of a governing body, and of course it was the case that all ordained officers were male.  It has only been in the last century that ruling elders have been eligible for election as moderators but for whatever reasons male clergy still seem to dominate as those selected for the position of Moderator of the General Assembly.  While male clergy still have an edge in the PC(USA), they are not quite as dominant with one-third of the Moderators since reunification in 1983 being female and exactly the same proportion being elders. (Note of current significance:  At the present time all three of the candidates for PC(USA) Moderator for 2008 are male clergy.)

Well, that pretty much covers the position of the Moderator.  With all that has been going recently on this entry took a bit longer than I wanted to get polished off.  Next:  On to the Business of the Assembly.  How does it get there?

Update:  In the time since this post was written others have weighed in on the role of the Moderator.  Here are the ones that I know of.

GA 101: The Cast of Characters – A Score Card to Identify the Players

Enough of the more general material that focused on the theology and structure behind our Presbyterian system. It’s now time to look at General Assemblies specifically.  Let’s begin by looking at who is there.

God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
While I won’t spend much time here, it is important to note that the whole system of Presbyterian government is based on the idea that we gather in groups to discern together God’s will.  As the constitution of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) says, “Christ is always present in His Church and governs it by God’s Word and Spirit
through the ministry of men.” [ The Code, IV-15(2)]  The delegates to any Presbyterian governing body are not there to vote their opinions, or to represent the views of the body that sent them.  They are there to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC(USA)) Book of Order puts it thus: “Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ.” [G-4.0301d]

Here is where the action is.  The commissioners are sent by their presbyteries or sessions to gather together for the decision making.  From my looking around there are two general methods by which commissioners to General Assembly are determined.

For the smaller Presbyterian branches the general rule is that every church can be represented by minister/teaching elders and ruling elders.  In several branches the representation is every minister/teaching elder is a voting delegate and the session may select two ruling elders to go as commissioners as well.  The largest branches that use this system are the PCI and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which, according to their web sites and Wikipedia, have roughly the same membership at a bit over 300,000.

For larger churches this would lead to very large assemblies.  For the PC(USA) the assembly would number about 30,000 commissioners.  Instead, presbyteries send commissioned representatives to GA.  In the PC(USA) it is currently one clergy and one elder commissioner for every 8000 church members in a presbytery.  In the Church of Scotland (CofS) it is one quarter of the minister members of a presbytery and a corresponding number of the elder members of the presbytery.  While many CofS presbyteries sent their commissioners on a rotational basis, the GA passed a rule that commissioners must be formally elected, not just assigned on a rotating basis.

One additional category of commissioners will probably surprise many of you and that is deacons.  In most branches of Presbyterianism the deacons are purely an office of service not of governing.  However, in the Church of Scotland, deacons in The Diaconate are trained and ordained professionals.  While they frequently have a ministry of care and service, like social work, they are also able to lead congregations, if necessary, with some limitations on their responsibility and authority.  In this form of leadership they are in a ruling capacity and function somewhat like a commissioned lay pastor in the PC(USA).  Again, for representation, one quarter of The Diaconate can go as commissioners to GA.

In most Presbyterian branches the term delegates is used for other representatives to GA who have official standing and usually have voice but not vote.  A significant exception is the PC(USA) where in committee the delegates have both voice and vote, but have only an advisory vote in plenary.

Ecumenical Delegates
For every branch that I have followed in the General Assemblies there are Ecumenical Delegates from other like-minded churches.  In some cases, like the most conservative churches, the number and diversity of the ecumenical delegates is fairly limited.  In the case of the large churches, like the PC(USA) and the CofS, there are ecumenical delegates invited from (probably) every member church of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and every Presbyterian branch around as well as the “full communion” denominations.

Youth Delegates
I know that two branches, the PC(USA) and the CofS, have one youth delegate from each presbytery attend GA as advisory delegates.  In the PC(USA) they only have voice in plenary, but in the CofS they can make motions under certain circumstances, but not vote on the motions.

Other Delegates
The PC(USA) also has student advisory delegates from its seminaries, known as Theological Student Advisory Delegates (TSAD) as well as advisory delegates from the mission field.

Every Presbyterian governing body has a Moderator to run the business meetings and GA is no exception. The Book of Church Order of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) describes the position by saying “The Moderator of a court has the necessary authority to keep order, to expedite business, to convene, recess and adjourn meetings in
conformity with rules of the court.” [16-4A]

The manner in which the Moderator is chosen varies between the different branches.  In the US branches the Moderator is usually chosen from among the commissioners and in most cases must be an elected commissioner.  The PC(USA) system seems to be the most sophisticated with election to be a commissioner, then endorsement by their presbytery to stand for Moderator.  There can be a simple campaign leading up to GA with nominating speeches on the floor.

In the other branches a nominating committee usually selects a candidate from among submitted nominees well in advance of GA and it is usually an honor for long-term dedicated servants of the church on the national level.  While they must be elected by the Assembly, it is usually a formality at the beginning of business.

The most unusual selection process may be the one used by the PCI.  On a designated evening a few months before Assembly all of the presbyteries meet simultaneously and take nominations and vote on their choice.  There is no predetermined list.  The candidate nominated by the most presbyteries becomes the moderator-elect.  Now there is a process that really depends on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a very Presbyterian manner.

In a few branches the Moderator can nominate, and the Assembly approve, a Vice-Moderator to assist the moderator.  In most branches if the current Moderator needs a replacement a former Moderator will preside over the meeting.

There is much more to be said about the Moderator and I’ll address that in the next installment.

Every Presbyterian governing body also has a clerk who has duties not just to record the proceedings of the body but to be an ecclesiastical officer with other responsibilities usually including monitoring compliance with polity and guiding judicial proceedings.

For most branches, particularly the larger churches, the Clerk of the General Assembly, in some branches called the Stated Clerk, is a full time position and the officer has the responsibility for helping run the church between Assemblies and carrying out the Assembly’s actions.  They usually have a
term that covers three or four years and is renewable.  Clerks of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Very Rev. Dr. Finlay Macdonald and of the PC(USA), the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, have both served in that position since 1996.  Because of this longevity in office, employment between Assemblies, and responsibility for polity interpretation, the Clerks of General Assembly are frequently viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the most influential or powerful individuals in a church.

Frequently an Assembly will also have other subordinate clerks assisting the main clerk. I don’t know if it is their intrinsic personality, or the fact that since they are not in the top job they don’t have to be as concerned with “upholding the dignity of the office,” but Depute Clerk
Reverend Dr Marjory A. MacLean of the CofS and Associate State Clerk Reverend Gradye Parsons of the PCUSA have always struck me as a bit more “colorful” than their bosses.

Other Officials
In some rare circumstances there are others who have some official standing at the Assembly.  The most obvious case I know of is the Lord High Commissioner at the GA of the Church of Scotland.  The CofS is not the state church, but it is the national church, so there is always a Lord High Commissioner at the Assembly as the representative of the crown.  On occasion the monarch is in attendance, but usually it is a friend who has connections to the CofS or sometimes, like 2007, it is one of her children or another relative.  In general, the Lord High Commissioner has no voice or vote during debate (although on rare occasion the individual is a presbytery commissioner as well) but does deliver a speech at the beginning and end of the Assembly.

Corresponding Members
At most Assemblies certain individuals are accorded the position of corresponding members.  The individuals who most commonly hold this status are former Moderators of the Assembly.  In addition, representatives of certain committees and in the PC(USA) Stated Clerks of Synods are corresponding members.  In general, corresponding members have voice in floor debate but no committee membership and no vote.

Committee Chairs
These are not the chairs of committees made up of Assembly commissioners, but the chairs, moderators, or conveners of committees of the church that are bringing business to the Assembly.  While I will discuss the business of the GA’s in another installment, I will say at this point that much of the business of a GA comes from committees that have been working in the time between Assemblies.  In many GA’s these committee chairs directly present their business to the Assembly for information and possibly action.  In certain cases, like the PC(USA), while some committees, like the nominating committee, report directly to the Assembly through their chair, in most other cases the committee reports through an Assembly committee and the commissioner chairing the Assembly committee reports, with the other committee chair speaking during the report.

Worship Leaders
During the Assembly meeting time there are scheduled and unscheduled times of worship.  The unscheduled times can be gathering times when commissioners and delegates are returning from a break, when a short break is needed in the docket, or to prepare the commissioners and delegates to vote on an important issue.

Many times the Assembly Moderator will call upon a commissioner with musical gifts to regularly lead worship singing during the Assembly.  This is not an official position but a use of gifts for the service of God.  One exception that I know if is the Church of Scotland where the Assembly, like many of the churches, has a Precentor, who has the official duty of leading singing.


Not much to say here.  Throughout an Assembly, especially a large one, there are numerous paid staff and volunteers running around making sure things run smoothly and people and documents are taken care of.  Many times specific people have specific duties.  For example, in the PC(USA), presbytery stated clerks staff the microphone stations and help advise commissioners on writing amendments and parliamentary procedure, and theology students are used as runners to deliver documents to the commissioners and delegates.  Other experienced individuals, frequently presbytery or synod staff, serve as resource staff to Assembly committees.

Finally, there is the rest of us.  Many of us do attend GA’s in no official capacity to see the church at work, experience the many associated activities, and find out first hand what is going on both on the Assembly floor and off.

Concluding Notes
As a general rule the different players at a GA can be identified by different colored badges that allow access to different areas.

Commissioners can develop various reputations over the course of an Assembly and the staff of the Church of Scotland keeps track of the number of times a commissioner jumps up to the microphone.  Their “jack in the box commissioner” at the 2007 GA jumped up to the microphone 15 times with two other commissioners in double digits.  (Sorry, my link for this audio update is now broken.)

Well, I think that about covers the cast of characters at a General Assembly.  Let me know if I overlooked anyone.  Next, I’ll go back and look at the Moderator in more detail in my next installment: The Moderator – All things in moderation.

GA 101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture

In my first installment in the GA 101 series I summarized the background from Reformed theology about why we Presbyterians organize ourselves the way we do.  That brings us now to how we actually do organize ourselves.  (I heard you out there say “decently and in order.”)

As I mentioned last time, our underlying theme is community and our overriding paranoia is granting too much authority/power to an individual.  While we grant authority and power to groups of people, we are still reluctant to invest too much power in any one group.  So we have multiple groups that are designed to keep each other accountable.  In simple terms this is what we mean when we talk about “Connectionalism” in Presbyterian settings.  Many denominations use the term connectionalism, (for example the United Methodists) but when Presbyterians use it, it is not just a relationship term, but carries a strong governance and polity meaning as well.

Let me first talk about the different groups in the structure of the church, and this is going to be review for most of my hard-core Presbyterian readers.  These groups go by different descriptive names like “governing bodies,” “councils,” “courts,” and “judicatories.”  Their role in governing is both legislative and judicial.

In the Presbyterian structure the “lowest” governing body is the church session.  This is lowest in the double sense that it is closest to the membership and that actions move up the ladder from there.  It is not lowest in the sense of priority or mission.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)) Book of Order used to have a section that says: b. The administration of mission should be performed by the governing body that can most effectively and efficiently accomplish it at the level of jurisdiction nearest the congregation. [old G-9.0402b]

The word “session” comes from the Latin and Early French to sit, a body that sits in deliberation.  This term is commonly used by Presbyterian branches although the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) does permit the use of the term “parish council” as well. [7.1(4)]

The church session is composed of the minister, or ministers, and elders selected from the congregation.  This governing body is to be the spiritual leadership of the congregation and may be the administrative leadership as well.  In the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) there is a separate church council which handles much of the administrative duties.  In the PC(USA) each congregation can decide for itself if it wants just a session or a board of trustees as well.  And the PCANZ has several different options for congregational organization, but with a session at the core.  New elders are called by God through the voice of the people and in almost all cases that means the whole membership of the congregation.  However, the session has responsibility as the examining and ordaining body for new elders and, as far as I am aware, in any Presbyterian branch the only way to be ordained as an elder is to be elected to the session.  (Interestingly, one of the three alternate ways that elders can be selected in the Church of Scotland (CofS) is to be selected by the current session.)

One of the important distinctives of Presbyterianism is that the three offices, minister/teaching elder, ruling elder and deacon are perpetual and you will hear people say “once and elder, always an elder.”  Of course, any of these offices can be renounced by the individual or removed through church judicial action, but in branches with rotation of elders on session, if a person is elected to the session again after serving their first term, they are not re-ordained.  In some Presbyterian branches, like the PC(USA) or the PCANZ, an elder will serve a fixed term on the session and then needs to be reelected when their term is up.  But I have found that in most Presbyterian branches, including CofS, PCI and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), once you are elected an elder you serve on the session as long as you are able.  An individual can be released from this service if they are unable to preform it.  This truly perpetual service may help explain the additional church council in Ireland.  In a few branches, like the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), whether or not to have terms and rotation is a decision that is made by the congregation.

An important distinctive between Presbyterian branches is the eligibility of women to serve in ordained office.  I have found it generally true that men and women can both serve in the ordained offices in “mainline” Presbyterian branches including the CofS, PCI, PCANZ, PC(USA), and the Presbyterian Church in Ghana.  In the conservative branches, like the Free Church of Scotland (FCS), Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and PCA, only men may serve as ministers/teaching elders or ruling elders.  The EPC leaves the decision up to the congregation.  It should be noted that this is a relatively recent development in the PC(USA) with women eligible to be ordained as deacons in 1906, as ruling elders in 1930, and as teaching elders in 1955.

Well, maybe I should have done a single post only on ordained offices, but all of this is important because in every governing body of a Presbyterian church ministers/teaching elders and ruling elders rule jointly and above the level of the session any duty or ecclesiastical office can be preformed by either type of elder.  As the EPC Book of Order says: “The Ruling Elder shares authority with the Teaching Elder in all of the courts of the Church, in both rights and duties.” [from section 10-4]

So what is above the session?  The next higher governing body in every Presbyterian branch that I have looked at is the presbytery.  For most Presbyterian churches the ministers/teaching elders are not members of the church that they serve but are members of the presbytery and therefore it is the responsibility of the presbytery to oversee their training, examinations, and ordination.  The other members of the presbytery are the churches that are part of the presbytery and it is the responsibility of the church sessions to send ruling elders as commissioners to the presbytery meetings.  At the presbytery and higher levels the number of ministers/teaching elders and ruling elders are much closer in numbers since each session is generally eligible to send one or two elders, and more if it has a larger membership, or more pastors on staff.  The EPC allows for churches sending additional elders if there is a “disproportionate ratio of Ruling Elders to Teaching Elders.”  The PC(USA) tries to make the number of elders exactly equal if there is a greater number of minister members of presbytery than allocated elder commissioners with a process called “redress of imbalance.”  (Note there is no corresponding procedure if there are more allocated elders than pastors.)  An extreme example of this is the PC(USA) Presbytery of San Gabriel which has three seminaries and three retirement communities within its boundaries resulting in three times the number of ministers honorably retired or in non-parish ministry than installed at churches.  So, each church gets to send two or three additional elders to presbytery meetings to make the numbers equal.  From what I have heard from several presbyteries, in practice the presbytery meetings are often dominated by elders since they are more likely to attend than the ministers if there is nothing controversial on the docket.

In addition to the training, oversight, and nurture of ministers/teaching elders, the presbytery is also responsible for the oversight, nurture and planting of churches within its bounds as well as other ministries that it may undertake in that area.  And the presbytery has responsibility for discipline within its bounds.

The church session and the presbytery are generally considered all that is necessary and sufficient to have a Presbyterian church since the connectionalism of church government has now been established by having two levels of governing bodies to hold each other accountable.  In the history of American Presbyterianism, the first churches were established on Long Island in the 1640’s and in Delaware and Virginia in the 1690’s, but the real establishment of Presbyterianism is marked by the first presbytery meeting, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, in 1706. (For more, check out Turning Points in American Presbyterian History – Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706-1729, an installment in an excellent series of articles by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s monthly publication New Horizons.)

While most branches have one or two governing bodies above the presbytery, at least one stops at the presbytery level:  The Reformed Presbyterian Church Hanover Presbytery appears to be an independent presbytery with seven churches and two affiliated churches across the United States. Similarly, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, with four churches and a preaching station, has the presbytery as its highest governing body.

[Technical note: While we frequently joke about an independent presbyterian church as an oxymoron it actually is not. At it’s root the presbyterian form of church government is an expression of church government by representation with the governing board gathering to discern the will of God. An independent church could have such a structure, and some do, and without being a part of a larger governing body still be considered Presbyterian.]

Above the presbytery comes the synod and the general assembly, but in few branches do both of these exist.  In the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) the highest governing body is the General Synod.  In most Presbyterian branches the highest governing body is the General Assembly and synods, if they ever existed, are not currently present.  The PC(USA), the PCI, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada appear to be among the few large Presbyterian branches still using synods with the CofS dissolving its synods about 20 years ago.  Where they exist, synods provide an intermediate level of review and mission coordination in a geographic region.  Whether or not they should they exist, at least within the present PC(USA) structure, is a hotly debated issue. You can check out my thoughts on their synod structure.

So what do the connections between these levels mean?  How does this all fit together?  To begin to answer that question here was a section from the PC(USA) Book of Order [old G-1.0400, now present as a footnote to F-3.02] that was taken from a statement by the 1797 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America:

The radical [ed. in the sense of fundamental and basic] principles of Presbyterian church government and discipline are:

That the several different congregations of believers, taken collectively, constitute one Church of Christ, called emphatically the Church; that a larger part of the Church, or a representation of it, should govern a smaller, or determine matters of controversy which arise therein; that, in like manner, a representation of the whole should govern and determine in regard to every part, and to all the parts united: that is, that a majority shall govern; and consequently that appeals may be carried from lower to higher governing bodies, till they be finally decided by the collected wisdom and united voice of the whole Church. For these principles and this procedure, the example of the apostles and the practice of the primitive Church are considered as authority.

The General Assembly is the highest representation of the collected wisdom and spiritual discernment in a Presbyterian church.  Each higher governing body reviews the legislative and judicial actions of the body below it.  And each lower body can bring legislative and judicial appeals to the next higher body.  In this way a higher governing body holds the lower one accountable and mediates transactions, such as transfer of congregations, between lower bodies.

But connectionalism requires accountability in both directions, and this happens in two ways.  The first is that the lower governing bodies supply commissioners, teaching and ruling elders jointly, to the higher body so it is not a disembodied review panel but a collection of presbyters, guided by the Holy Spirit, looking at issues and problems together.  The second way the bodies are connected is that in the most important matters of faith and practice the actions of the higher body must usually be ratified by the presbyteries.  I will go into this in more detail in a later installment, so let me leave it here with the general statement that in many Presbyterian branches constitutional changes or significant “acts” can not be enacted by the General Assembly or Synod alone but must be sent back to the presbyteries for a yes or no vote.

This leaves me with one final topic to consider and that is which is the level of fundamental or originating power in the Presbyterian system.  It turns out that there is not agreement on this, and in Scotland, where the church developed as a “National Church” the General Assembly is usually considered the fundamental level.  However, in the United States, where the church developed from the congregation up, the presbytery is usually considered the fundamental unit.  From the article by Hart and Muether:

Because presbyteries were established first, not synods or general assemblies, American Presbyterianism is characterized by the power of presbytery. The American church, unlike its Scottish analogue, has delegated greater power to presbyteries than to higher courts. This is particularly evident in ordination, where presbyteries still enjoy remarkable autonomy in calling men to the ministry. This feature of American Presbyterianism may reflect sound polity and good theology, but it is also an accident of history. One of the reasons for forming a presbytery in Philadelphia in 1706 was to license and ordain men for the gospel ministry. Ever since then, presbyteries in America have been jealous to guard that prerogative.

The PC(USA) Book of Order also addresses this in the section [old G-9.0103, now included in G-3.0101] that says in part:

The jurisdiction of each governing body is limited by the express provisions of the Constitution, with powers not mentioned being reserved to the presbyteries, and with the acts of each subject to review by the next higher governing body.

The GA Junkie’s companion, and not for the faint of heart, the Annotated Book of Order [pg 108] includes the extra information about this section that the phrase about powers being reserved to the presbyteries was added in 1993 and a Historical Note that in the former United Presbyterian Church and United Presbyterian Church in North America all powers not mentioned resided with the General Assembly.

Well, once again, I seemed to have produced a lengthy discussion that ended up notably longer than I thought it would be.  And it took a lot longer than expected to write as well.  The general background material about the Presbyterian system of government is now finished and we will turn to the specifics of the General Assembly.  Up next: The Cast of Characters – The scorecard to identify the players.

GA 101: Introduction – Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?

In my previous post I had a few opening remarks about this series of blog posts.  In this one I present a relatively brief and simplified development of why the Presbyterian system of government is structured like it is.

I frequently tell a group that the Presbyterian system of government is “made up of the less desirable aspects of the possible alternatives.”  It has neither the stream-lined nature of an Episcopal system with bishops to make the decisions or the simplicity of a congregational system where it is every church for itself.  The Presbyterian system is hierarchy by committee.  And we like it, or at least tolerate it.  Why is that?  Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?

We do it because of the example from the Bible and our Reformed view of God, the Church, and humankind.

Being Reformed, the place to start is with the Bible.  While we draw mainly from the pattern of the New Testament Church, there are instances in the Old Testament where our understanding of church government is foreshadowed.  One example is where Moses called out and trained additional leaders from among the Israelites. (Exodus 18:15-26)  Later when the Israelites wanted a king Samuel the prophet made it clear that what they really should accept was God as their King to reign over them, not an earthly king.  (I Sam 8)  And throughout the Old Testament God raised up prophets, leaders, great warriors, and even kings from any segment of society, not necessarily a priestly or royal class.

But in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was given to an individual for the necessity of the occasion.  In the New Testament, with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, it dwells in all believers and therefore changed the model for church government.  In the New Testament we see the decision making of the church being done in community, by groups of leaders.

It is also in Acts, specifically Acts 6, where we see the initial differentiation of those set aside to different offices.  When the works of mercy, the “daily distribution,” became too much for the apostles, they had the Hellenists choose seven from their group to take over this work and these seven were set aside with prayer and laying on of hands for this task.  These were the first deacons in our Presbyterian model, while the apostles could now concentrate on “the word of God,” the role of the elders.  It also sets the standard for how individuals are chosen and set aside for any Presbyterian office:  The call is made by God and confirmed by the community and the individuals are set aside by prayer and laying on of hands.

The specific differentiation of ministers/teaching elders and ruling elders does not have a clear-cut moment like this in scripture. John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (ICR) says “In giving the name of bishops, presbyters, and pastors, indiscriminately to those who govern churches, I have done it on the authority of Scripture, which uses the words as synonyms.” (ICR Book 4, Chapter 3, Section 8)  (The word “presbyter” is also translated “elder.”)  We do have references to groups of elders in Acts 20:17 ff where Paul meets with the Ephesian elders and again in Acts 21:18 in Jerusalem where “Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.”

Our model for the proceedings of church government is taken from Acts 15 where the dispute arose over whether a new follower of Jesus must also convert to Judaism.  We are told that “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider the matter.”  The first general assembly, or at least presbytery meeting, that we have documented.  What did they do?  They had speakers tell of their experiences and witness to God’s actions/revelation.  There was a motion, it seems to have passed by consensus, and their decision was sent out to the Church, particularly those at the center of the dispute.

This example shows several important aspects of Presbyterian style government:

  1. The decision was made jointly by a group, not just one or two leaders
  2. The group was not homogeneous but included pastors (apostles) and elders
  3. The process was “connectional.”  There was a back-and-forth between congregations and the higher governing body.
  4. No one is seen as “representing” their congregation’s viewpoint, but all are seen as working together to discern the will of God through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The development of church government in the next few centuries is thoroughly discussed by Calvin in Book 4 Chapter 4 of ICR.  Let me, at the risk of over simplifying, summarize a few important points:

First, a system of bishops, pastors and elders did develop, but the role of bishop was not one of having “dominion over his colleagues” but was one to coordinate matters and preside over an assembly.  This is similar to our understanding of the role of the Moderator in a Presbyterian setting.

Second, individuals were selected to serve in these higher offices by what we would recognize as a search committee, but they were then verified by votes of the bodies and the whole membership of the church in that district.

Third, the offices of teaching elder and ruling elder became distinctive.

So, to summarize to this point, we structure our churches and conduct our business in the same manner as we understand the early church structured itself based on the example of the church in the Book of Acts.

While the example is Biblical, there is also a Reformed theological underpinning for doing it this way.

Probably the first and foremost principle of Reformed theology is the sovereignty, and supremacy, of God.  Just as Samuel cautioned the people against wanting an earthly king, so one reason there are no individuals with “dominion” is because Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.  This is affirmed at the very beginning of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order. (Editorial comment:  I view this as a very important principle and was disappointed when the Form of Government Task Force pushed this down to the second paragraph of the new Foundations of Polity section of the Book of Order rewrite.)

Another aspect of the sovereignty of God is the concept of “election.”  Accepting that it is a part of Reformed theology, what it means is that God has formed and called the Church, not us humans, and it is the body of Christ.  Therefore this covenant community, the body, the community of faith, is important in everything we do.  Church government involves community as well as the sacraments and the discerning of call and selection of officers.

In making us part of the body, God has bestowed on each believer different spiritual gifts and talents for building up of the body.  (I Cor. 12)  We each have a part to play, and the ordained offices are only one group of many different possible parts and each part is important in its own way. We have the Reformed concept of the “priesthood of all believers” which has the double implication of all believers having direct access to God and all believers having a part to play in the body.  However, not all gifts are the same and it is contrary to I Cor. 12 to use the “priesthood of all believers” to argue that anyone has the “right” to be a teaching elder, ruling elder or deacon.  God could call anyone, just as leaders in the Old Testament came from every strata of society, but it is conditional on God’s call and God bestowing the gifts and talents for the office.

We believe that there are several reasons why we make decisions better as the community rather than as individuals.   First, with regards to different spiritual gifts, in group decision making each person brings their own unique perspective to the problem.  Another aspect was expressed by Dietrich Bonhoffer in his book about Christian community, Life Together.  About the importance of community he writes “The Christ in [a person’s] own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

A third, and very significant, aspect of vesting power in groups is the Reformed concept that original sin has so completely corrupted us humans that we can not be trusted to make decisions individually.  There is a need for accountability in the context of community.  This is the “total depravity” of the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession expresses it like this in Chapter 6, Sections 4 and 5:

4. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

5. This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.

Therefore, making decisions and holding power as groups is more likely to discern God’s will and defeat an individual’s selfish tendencies.  But as is well known to many Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession, in Chapter 31, Section 3 cautions that it is not just individuals, but our sinful nature can even pervade the group:

3. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

This brings us to what the Reformation was all about in principle:  Returning the Church and its theology to what it originally was in the early Church before being corrupted by human sinful nature.  It is why John Calvin was so thorough in discussing the organization and practice of the early church in ICR.  One of the often quoted, in whole or in part, phrases or slogans of the Reformation goes something like (in Latin) ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei; “The Church reformed, always reforming according to the word of God.” (I will admit at this point that as far as I can tell from my reading this seems to have come down as oral history since neither I nor others who cite it and have looked can locate an original or early reference for this.  However, it is so tightly ingrained in Reformed theology that I treat it as valid tradition and not urban legend.)  This phrase, and particularly the “always reforming” part, is brought out on numerous occasions by any number of individuals and groups, to claim that the Reformed church is to be doing a new thing.  That is fine for Isaiah (43:19) but my trusty New Dictionary of Theology (S. B. Ferguson, D. F. Wright, and J. I. Packer eds.) and an article on the PC(USA) web site by Anna Case-Winters agree that “always reforming” is to point us to recovering the old, original things.

Therefore, the Presbyterian system of Church government is intended to be a self-correcting system so that on balance over time we should not wander too far from the will of God.  That is why we do it the way that we do!

While I have regularly presented this material to groups before, I found the experience of putting it into concise written form to be a rewarding exercise.  I hope this is brief enough, yet informative enough, to be useful.  I do know that a few devout and faithful Presbyterians have differed with me on some of these points so I do welcome your comments via the comment section or e-mail to  Hey, it’s a self-correcting system.

Coming next:  GA 101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture

GA 101: Preface

In a comment on my last post looking ahead to the next General Assembly of the PC(USA) Bruce Reyes-Chow asked if I had done a GA 101 post as an intro to the General Assembly.  My first reaction was “no and I don’t need to” since I have usually considered this blog for those who are already familiar with Presbyterian polity and politics. (see If you care you understand)

But the more I thought about it the more I thought it would be an interesting exercise.  I try to keep the focus of this blog broad enough to capture the full sweep of Presbyterianism globally, so why not attack the question of the General Assembly as a concept and then investigate how it varies in different branches of the Presbyterian family.

So, if you are looking for a single post that gives an introduction to the General Assembly of the (pick one) Church of Scotland/Presbyterian Church in Ireland/PC(USA)/PCA/Cumberland and Cumberland in America/EPC/OPC/etc., then you are in the wrong place.  I’m using this series as a personal challenge to do a “Comparative General Assembly” series of posts over the next few weeks.  I anticipate that there will be about six posts, including this one, covering different topics.  And I’ll begin this series the same way that I begin all my talks about GA with “Why the heck would anybody want to do it this way?”, a general discussion going back to the reformers of our understanding of human nature and the nature of the Church.

From there I plan that each post will first develop a topic in general terms that is usually common to all the branches and then discuss the details of various branches.  I will admit that certain churches will get better coverage because details are more familiar to me or they have more material available on-line.  I encourage readers to supply details where I get them wrong, or I have omitted details from a church that has significant variation from the others.

So I encourage you to sit back, read along, and join me on this ride through Comparative General Assembly.

Coming Next:  GA 101: Introduction – Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?