GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2019: YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
When I first moved to Anderson, to serve as the pastor of a local church, I met the parish priest at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. There are just two Catholic parishes in Anderson, one named for St. Mary, the other for St. Ambrose. St. Mary’s is the larger and older of the two, based in a classic cathedral-like building above the White River on the edge of downtown, with a spire that elegantly towers above the rest.
I introduced myself to Father Bob because my Irish Catholic birthfather, Edward Anthony Jordan from the County Antrim, outside of Belfast, insisted that I do so upon arriving in town, because “that’s what every good Catholic boy would do.” When I reminded Edward that I was not a good Catholic boy—a good boy, hopefully, but not Catholic—he laughed and said, “Oh, yes, of course. Well, just do it anyway as a favor to me.” I liked Edward a lot (he was my father-by-birth, after all) and decided I was game. Why not?
And so, Father Bob and I sat down together in his office underneath the towering spire. I told him my story, about my adoption, about my Irish Catholic roots, but also how I had met Jesus in the Church of God and was now a pastor. He was very welcoming and told me of his Irish roots and observed that not many Church of God pastors came to town and gave him a call. From this first encounter, we developed an ongoing friendship, occasionally getting together over lunch, talking about the news and needs of Anderson, and so on. Eventually, we became comfortable enough with each other to ask pointed questions and honestly explore each other’s worlds.
“So, Jim,” Father Bob asked me one day over lunch, “what really goes on in the General Assembly, when it meets at Anderson University?” In those days, the Assembly was meeting annually in Reardon Auditorium on the University’s campus.
“What?” I replied, perplexed. “What do you mean, ‘What really goes on?’ It’s just a meeting of church folks from coast-to-coast.”
I suspected that Father Bob, steeped in the tradition of the Roman Church, imagined some kind of mini-College-of-Cardinals, a secret convocation closeted behind closed doors. My mind ran to a stereotype of commoners crowding outside the gilded rooms of the Vatican, left to peer through the keyholes, trying to listen at the door, with nothing but hushed guesses and wonder.
“No, really,” he pressed. “I’ve always been curious about what happens in your General Assembly and never have had the chance to ask anyone who knows. I’ve been in Anderson for years and heard about it, but have never understood what it does, what it’s all about.”
He had speculated about pomp and circumstance, about power centers, political arm-wrestling, and all the rest. Was it like what happens in Rome? We laughed about the ridiculous possibilities that surfaced in our now-light-hearted conversation. Is there secret underwear at the General Assembly like we’d both heard that some other religious groups require? Are there oaths and secret gobbledygook repeated in ancient, shadowed ceremonies? Hmmm. So much to wonder about.
The whole dialogue struck me seriously, though, when I realized how people “on the outside” must wonder about what goes on “in the inside” of the Church of God. This is true not just of the General Assembly, of course, but of all things church-related. It’s easy to forget how things might appear on the outside looking in when you are inside and not even thinking about looking out.
Similarly, I had some questions about what happens in Roman Catholic practice, too. Father Bob and I had an elaborate conversation on another day about what really happens in the confessional. “C’mon, Bob, I want to know what you’re doing in there and what happens when somebody walks in!” Both of us learned that our guesses about the other were often off the mark.
Perhaps even more striking is how many people (and even pastors) in the Church of God do not understand “what really goes on in the General Assembly when it meets….” As the Movement approaches its next meeting of the General Assembly, here’s a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) primer on the who, what, when, where, and why of this seminal forum:
1. Who is a part of the General Assembly?
The General Assembly of the Church of God in the United States and Canada (churches in both countries have, from the beginning of the Movement in the 1880s, seen themselves as united in one Assembly) is comprised of “professing Christians” who are “committed to living by the light of biblical revelation” and who also fall into one of the following categories: (a) ordained and licensed ministers in “good and regular standing with their relevant Church of God credentialing authorities,” (b) governing board members of all the Assembly’s “endorsed” and “affiliated” agencies (these are agencies that have signed Covenant Agreements with the Assembly), (c) officers of endorsed agencies who are ratified by the Assembly, (d) missionaries commissioned by Church of God Ministries, (e) members of the Assembly’s Ministries Council and Standing Committees, and (f) lay delegates “designated by their local church as representatives to the Assembly” (under a formula that essentially allows one lay delegate for every 100 people in weekend worship attendance, registered in the Church of God Yearbook on January 1 of each year). All these membership definitions may be found in Article 3 of the Assembly’s Constitution and Bylaws.
2. What is the purpose of the General Assembly?
The Assembly’s purpose is defined in Article 2 of its Constitution and Bylaws: “The purpose of the Assembly shall be to further the ends of the Church of God: unity and holiness. As a people embracing Jesus as Lord, the Church of God strives to follow Him, as He defined His ministry in Luke 4:16–21, anointed by the Spirit to: proclaim, heal, free, and restore, while conscious of the risks and costs of so doing. The purpose of the Assembly shall also be to conduct the general business of the Church and to serve as a forum for the identification, selection, and empowerment of leaders for the Assembly and the ministries and agencies within the Assembly’s portfolio.” This is important stuff. The Assembly can profoundly affect the course of events over time. There is no other forum in the Church of God that provides such sweeping access (every local church has a voice) and assignment (identifying a biblically-grounded, Movemental, ambition and call to action).
3. When will the Assembly next meet?
The Assembly will convene at the Marriott World Center (Cypress Ballroom 2) in Orlando, Florida, on Friday, June 28, at 8:00 am, in tandem with the Church of God Convention (which begins the day before). The first session will end at 10:30 am that day, and then the Assembly will convene in the same space for 8:00–10:30 am sessions on the next two days (June 29 and June 30, Saturday and Sunday); this year’s Assembly meeting spans three two-and-half-hour sessions, Friday–Sunday. The Assembly’s meeting date and location have been set by the Ministries Council.
4. Who runs the Assembly meeting?
The Assembly elects its own officers. The Assembly Chair, who will preside over this year’s meeting, is Diana Swoope. Her term will end at the close of this year’s Assembly, on June 30. The chair-elect (elected by the Assembly in 2017) will then take the baton as Assembly chair, effective July 1. Timothy Clarke is the chair-elect; he will serve through June 30, 2022.
5. Who sets the Agenda and what’s in store for this year’s Assembly meeting?
The General Assembly’s Executive Committee (comprised of the three elected Assembly officers and two elected members-at-large) sets the meeting agenda. The Executive Committee is processing the agenda even as I write; once the Committee agrees on the agenda, a copy will be posted online for all to see, and also distributed to all those registering for the Assembly meeting or requesting absentee ballots.
Some things are required on the agenda by the Constitution and Bylaws (for instance, reports from the Assembly chair and the general director at Church of God Ministries); the agenda also always includes a ballot for the election (and in some cases ratification) of key leaders (including Assembly officers, members of the Assembly’s Standing Committees, the Ministries Council, and governing boards of endorsed church agencies, like our universities). Financial reports from Church of God Ministries (which is the legal expression—a nonprofit corporation—of the General Assembly) and a biennial budget will also be presented. A report from the Ministries Council, following the end of the Project Imagine Roundtable, launched with the Assembly’s approval at its last meeting in Wichita (2017), will also be in the mix.
This year’s ballot will include the name of a new president of Servant Solutions (which will be recommended by the Servant Solutions board); the incumbent Servant Solutions president, Jeff Jenness, is retiring this year. My name will also be placed on the ballot by the Ministries Council for another term as general director at Church of God Ministries.
6. Are there any motions in the queue upon which the Assembly will vote?
There will certainly be some motions on the floor, but the number and subjects they address are still in process.
For example, the Assembly’s Bylaws and Organization Committee (BYOC), an elected eight-member Standing Committee, is proposing some amendments to the Constitution and Bylaws. The proposals provide some clarifying new text (answering questions about eligibility to serve in Assembly offices, where the existing text can be read in different ways) and codifying the new Standing Committee on Credentials (which the Assembly established and defined with a motion in 2017, but did not place in the Constitution and Bylaws). The BYOC has been working on these proposals as part of its meeting schedule this spring; the proposed amendments must next be reviewed and considered by the Ministries Council. Once the Council does so, they will be forwarded to the Assembly floor for its consideration. They will also be posted in advance online and sent to Assembly members before the meeting begins.
Another motion that is already in the line-up will address conditional deeding. This motion is coming from the Ministries Council to the Assembly, upon the recommendation of a Select Committee established by the Assembly Chair to examine the issues. The legal landscape (especially with regard to conditional deeds originally naming the Board of Church Extension) has shifted dramatically in the years since 2012 (when the Assembly last addressed the subject). The Select Committee (comprised of chair Diana Swoope, Michigan regional pastor Bill Jones, Church of God Ministries US-Canada chief officer Handel Smith, and general legal counsel Steve Justice) spent the last year working together to recommend protocols and policies that can help the church navigate the new landscape; the Council has received the Committee’s report and will now bring a motion forward.
Other motions are certain to emerge, as well, in the weeks ahead (see below).
7. Is it possible for anyone to place a motion on the Assembly floor? And, if so, how?
Yes and no. In other words, anyone who is a member of the Assembly may propose a motion for the Assembly to consider, but that motion cannot be brought to the floor directly. It must first pass through the Business, Leadership, and Resource Committee (BLRC)—a twelve-member elected Standing Committee of the Assembly. Once reviewed by the BLRC, the motion may be considered by the Assembly. Original motions-in-the-moment are not allowed on the Assembly floor. Paul McAllister is the present Chair of the BLRC.
If you would like to propose a motion for this year’s Assembly to consider, you may submit it directly and electronically to Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or to my office assistant (Becky Arthur) at BArthur@chog.org. You may also submit it in writing via the US Postal Service; just address the envelope to Church of God Ministries, BLRC, PO Box 2420, Anderson, IN 46018. The BLRC asks that proposed motions be received or postmarked by June 1; motions proposed at the time of the Assembly, will be immediately referred to the BLRC, without debate. These parameters are defined in Article 6.2 of the Constitution and Bylaws.
If you are a part of our Church of God family, but not a member of the Assembly, you may also propose a motion for the Assembly to consider, by following the same steps above. In cases of this kind, the BLRC may stand in your stead, owning the motion.
The only exception to this channel through the BLRC is one through the Ministries Council; the Council may also bring new business directly to the floor. Any Council motions being sent to this year’s Assembly will be included in materials sent in May to all those pre-registering for the Assembly, and posted online.
8. How many people participate in the General Assembly?
The number varies, year-by-year. Assembly participation experienced steep decline after the turn of the century; within the last decade, the Assembly’s quorum was lowered from 400 to 300, because the original quorum of 400 could not be sustained during the meeting (undermining its ability to properly act). However, there has been a resurgence of interest in the last few years, with dramatic increases in attendance. The 2019 General Assembly already has over 900 Assembly members pre-registered; this is a big win for the Movement.
9. Okay, so does it really matter? Isn’t the meeting you’ve described predestined to be a sleeper, with people paper-shuffling and talking about boring stuff?
No way. Of course, there are procedural moments that may give you pause to wonder. But the Assembly is that one place, just once every two years, where the leaders of the church come together to listen, learn, and speak into our future. It is substantive and influential. Much is always at stake. The language, identity, and ambition of the Movement is at the Assembly, more than at any other time, in view.
The Assembly is not just a business meeting; it is a key part of the soul of the Church of God. It is a spiritual work. Some have approached it as a political event (organizing floor votes, lining up voices at the microphone to champion a particular point of view, and so on), but I have always seen it as a spiritual exercise, in which ideas are put forward, prayed over, and acted upon, as the Holy Spirit informs the Body. Motions should never be about winning or losing, but about discernment of the Spirit’s leading. We believe, after all, that the Spirit speaks through the Body. That’s the foundation of congregational theology; it is the grounding of the Assembly, as well.
Our dream would be to have every church represented. We’re just about half-way there, with a way to go; nevertheless, we’re much encouraged by the strides that have recently been made. Thanks for making sure your pastor or someone from your congregation is present. For those underwriting their own expenses, the investment in travel, food, and lodging can be tax deductible.
10. Is there secret underwear required? Are shadowy oaths and ancient mumbo-jumbo a part of the mix? Do I need to brush up on the Knights Templar to be ready for what “really goes on at the General Assembly?”
Nope. The Assembly is a straightforward, unencumbered, meeting of the Church of God. I shared this with Father Bob at St. Mary’s, too—and will with anyone who asks. Think and pray: that’s how we are best prepared. Ask the Lord to specifically prepare your heart with wisdom, to bathe you with a spirit of generosity and grace, to clothe you with a love that always believes the best, and to open your heart to reach for a new day. Ask God to stir you with a passion to take back what hell has stolen, as we stare at a world still in desperate need of the kingdom. He will bless the Assembly. And you, too, for being a part.
Looking forward to seeing you there! Jesus will be at the center. There is much good news to share. There are some tall mountains to climb. But, it is all in the Lord’s hands. We are His. Give life. Find life.