Recovering from the General Assembly

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Thoughts on Who We are as the PC(USA) and What that Might Mean Going Forward

Author Rachael Eggebeen
Author Rachael Eggebeen

While doing reflections in seminary, I learned the importance of naming your social location, so here goes:

I am a white, straight, married, cisgendered female. I am a mother to an adventurous 15-month old daughter, a role that is constantly shaping my thoughts on what we implicitly or explicitly teach our children, especially girls. I am a public school teacher who works in a high poverty, minority-majority school. I’ve been a proud member of the PC(USA) since 2004, and all my life I have been a Christian who seeks justice for for all within the church and outside of the it. I am seminary-trained, but not a pastor or ruling elder. I am a member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), and it was as a member of said committee that I served at the 222nd General Assembly in Portland.

These reflections are purely my own, not those of the committee.

As I mentioned, I’m a teacher, and we are trained to talk to those who we need to correct using a ‘compliment sandwich’. We will begin and end our discussion with positives and save the critique for the filling in the middle.

Compliment

Musicians at GA222.
Musicians at GA222.

As I mentioned above, I am a relatively new to this denomination. Unlike many cradle Presbyterians, I cannot recount debates from decades back, or summon up old arguments that demoralized and attacked people on the opposite side of a given topic.

As long as I have been a member of the PC(USA), churches have been leaving the denomination over issues related to people who are LGBTQ. At this General Assembly, there were debates over many key issues of theology (access to the sacraments, to name one) and over the difficult practice of how to move forward and reconcile with our siblings who are a different racial or ethnic identity or identify as LGBTQ. However, in all these discussions, there were few or no threats to leave the denomination if one party or another did not get its way.

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As one who falls into this “young adult” age range, I want to say: We’re here. Many of us are here. But we are often facing an uphill battle when it comes to participating in the life of the PC(USA) as it currently works.
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Ruling Elder Commissioner addresses the Assembly.
Ruling Elder Commissioner addresses the Assembly.

Perhaps, this is due in part to fact that those churches who wanted to leave have already left. That said, as this General Assembly struggled to make sense of what our 21st-century reality looks like, one could sense a genuine and palpable love for our denomination. I saw this reflected in the honest and difficult conversations about the financial implications of funding (or not funding) our priorities, I witnessed it as we engaged in sincere discussions about whether our church structures are meeting our needs.

What resulted was an affirmation of the way we do church, coupled with a recognition that financial challenges, societal changes, changing demographics, and changing needs have stressed our structures, perhaps to the point of beginning to create microfissures. Going forward, the church needs to be intentional in examining why we hold onto certain commitments and structures. We need to affirm what is healthy, heal what is sick, and reform what needs to change. There can be no sacred cows. There can be no idea off-limits. There can be no one saying ‘no’ as their first and immediate reaction simply because “We’ve never done it that way before”. The next two years need to be a time of deep conversation within our churches, our presbyteries, our synods, and at the national level.

Critique

Let’s just name it: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has no clue how to minister to young adults with families. Earlier, I mentioned that I was married and the mother of a toddler. My husband and daughter were present for the plenary session in which our co-moderators were elected (more on that below). During the Q&A session with the candidates, a commissioner who serves as a college chaplain pointed out that while she is always the oldest person in the room when she works in that capacity, she is almost always the youngest person in the room. She asked how the church can better minister to multiple generations.

Teaching Elder Commissioner Libby Shannon asks the moderatorial candidates about young adults in the church.
Teaching Elder Commissioner Libby Shannon asks the moderatorial candidates about young adults in the church.

Both sets of co-moderator candidates answered with the same themes: youth (which, in our denomination, means middle and high schoolers) and retirees have specific challenges, but both need to be ministered too. These answers were of course true, but they left a huge gap: those who are too old for youth or college ministry but not yet nearing retirement. The 20-30-and-40-somethings conspicuously missing from many pews. These are the millennials and Gen-Xers that we hear so much about – refrains of “We’ve got to reach them!” and “We’ve got to become relevant!”

As one who falls into this “young adult” age range, I want to say: We’re here. Many of us are here. But we are often facing an uphill battle when it comes to participating in the life of the PC(USA) as it currently works. Many of us have children and families. Many of us are trying to start our careers in entry-level jobs as we wait for older generations to retire. Many of us are still paying off exorbitant student loans. We are the church and we want to be the church, but right now, we have limited financial means to support the church. We are trying our best to balance career, family, social obligations, and our commitment to the PC(USA) – and we could use some more support.

Like I said, I fall into this category. To attend General Assembly, my husband had to use a week of vacation and was largely responsible for childcare during General Assembly. As a teacher on summer break, I gave up a week of paid professional development. As a member of ACSWP, I use vacation days to attend our meetings, as well as pay for my mother to travel to our meeting locations to watch my child. If my child is sick, I no longer have days to use and lose pay as a result.

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Representatives from Human Resources and the Presbyterian Mission Agency addressed the body and claimed that offering this leave was “too expensive”. I’ve heard this argument before, and ultimately, all I hear is a prioritization of money over people.
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The silence from the moderator candidates could have been a misunderstanding of the question or simply a slip under pressure. At worst, it was symbolic of, perhaps even a product of the way our denomination views young adults and young families.

Rachael and daughter Elsie at GA222.
Rachael and daughter Elsie at GA222.

However, this General Assembly also addressed some larger issues concerning young families, and the conversation around this issue left me feeling more cynical. This Assembly had the opportunity to take a giant step forward regarding family leave (leave to care for a family member or birth or adoption of a child). Item 5-10 “A Resolution to Require and Expand Family Leave Policies”  from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC) petitioned General Assembly to recommend a minimum of 6 weeks paid and 6 weeks unpaid leave for congregations, presbyteries, and synods. It also directed the Presbyterian Mission Agency to offer the same leave minimums for its employees. On the plenary floor, an amend to include all 6 agencies was suggested, but this amendment failed.

Both in committee and in plenary, representatives from Human Resources at the Presbyterian Center and representatives from the Presbyterian Mission Agency addressed the body and claimed that offering this leave was “too expensive”. I’ve heard this argument before, and ultimately, all I hear is a prioritization of money over people.

We must be aware that in this context, the people that are most hurt by failing to provide adequate leave are women – a group that has historically been marginalized by the church – and young adults – yes, those very same young adults we “so desperately” want in our pews. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) proclaims God’s vision for the full participation of all people in the full life of the church: male and female, young and old. The 222nd General Assembly had the opportunity to live into that vision, the vision of a healthy church. Instead, even as younger commissioners and delegates advocated strongly for this expanded family leave, the caved to fear, using the excuse that they cannot afford their own vision.

Compliment

History was undoubtedly made at this General Assembly.

To start with, we elected co-moderators instead of a moderator and vice-moderator. More than that, our first embodiment of this new model is a team of two women, one Caucasian, Rev. Jan Edmiston, and one African-American, Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson. Both moderators did an excellent job keeping commissioners and delegates on track, managing our time in plenary, and inserting some joy and humor into what can often be a long and tedious process.

Co-Moderators Rev. Jan Ediminston and Rev. Denise Anderson with the Moderator's cross Photo: Michael Whitman
Co-Moderators Rev. Jan Ediminston and Rev. Denise Anderson with the Moderator’s cross
Photo: Michael Whitman

For me, it was especially powerful to hear Anderson recognize speakers with the words “I see you.” To see someone is a basic affirmation of their humanity. Flip through the Gospels and notice how many times Jesus first sees people – his disciples, the people he heals, the crowds to whom he preaches – and perhaps you’ll understand why this was so powerful for me. These words, repeated over and over again, healed my soul as I leaned into the vision of the full inclusion of all people that our Presbyterian Church claims as a core central value.

We also elected Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, to be our next stated clerk. His voice, honed as a pastor working with marginalized communities and reviving the Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC, will be the voice that for the next four years, speaks on our behalf to a world aching to hear good news. Nelson’s election also means that of perhaps the four prominent leaders in our denomination, two are female (Edminston and Anderson), and three are people of color (Nelson and Anderson, who are African Americans, and Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Tony De La Rosa, who is a Puerto Rican-Mexican-American Latino man.

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For me, it was especially powerful to hear Anderson recognize speakers with the words “I see you.”
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I mention this especially in light of what I believe to be the most important decision the General Assembly made. On Wednesday evening, the General Assembly officially added the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions. After the vote was announced, I cried tears of joy. Looking around, I can say I was certainly not the only one.

The 222nd General Assembly approves the Belhar Confession Photo: Ginna Bairby
The 222nd General Assembly approves the Belhar Confession
Photo: Ginna Bairby

When I first read the Belhar Confession, I had not yet been educated about the sins of racism. The community in which I was living and had been raised was largely white, with few opportunities to interact with people of color. At that time, the words articulating and confessing the sins of racism spoke a new, life-giving word to my soul. As this denomination and the denomination of my birth, the Christian Reformed Church, debated its place among the confessions, I became a supporter.

As I continue to work with marginalized communities who educate me daily on the terrible role racism plays in their daily lives, the Belhar Confession gives words to express how the systems that I continue to uphold both implicitly and explicitly are sinful. It also provides the hope that the church together can help all of us live into the promises of God’s love beginning now.

And for that, above all, I give thanks to God!

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AUTHOR BIO: Rachael Eggebeen is an 8th grade Social Studies teacher at Apollo Middle School in Tucson, Arizona (Presbytery de Cristo, Synod of the Southwest), a Title I school composed of majority Latin@ and Native American students. She earned an MA in Near Eastern Studies with an emphasis in Islam from the University of Arizona, an MAT from Fuller Theological Seminary in Biblical Languages and Theology, and a BA in history and political studies from Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa. She is married to Ed and mother to Elsie.

Read ACWC Resolution 5-10: “A Resolution to Require and Extend Family Leave Policies”.

Read Rev. Jacob Bolton’s Article, Making GA Accessible for All: Dependent Care on how the dependent care reimbursement policy made it possible for him to attend the 222nd General Assembly.

Read more articles in this issue “A Year for Confessions: Issues of Social Justice Coming before the 222nd General Assembly.”

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