While we can easily look up the powers of General Assembly(G.A.), it is sometimes difficult to understand all the purposes of the General Assembly. This was the problem I found myself facing a few years ago when I attended my first G.A. I was sent by my church, but why was I there?
To get a sense of General Assembly you have to realize that, like the local church, it has both formal and informal aspects. Formally, the General Assembly is the gathering of all the Presbyteries and their respective churches, within the PCA. It is open to all Teaching Elders, and delegated Ruling Elders sent by their churches. The primary function is to act as a gathering point of oversight and planning for the denomination. Reports are read, judicial cases are decided, permanent committees are overseen, overtures are voted upon, and many other formal things occur. I have found that G.A. functions in almost the opposite way of most Presbytery meetings. Presbytery is primarily about business, but that business is conducted out of the foundation of existing relationships. Because of the brevity of most Presbytery Meetings, the informal stuff really isn’t that important. After all, how deep can you get waiting in line for the men’s room? On the other hand, it could be argued that at General Assembly there is more going on informally than formally. While at the same time, the formal business of G.A. has less to do with relationships and more to do with official connections. For every formal action that is taken on the floor by a vote, there are ten, twenty, maybe even one hundred informal actions being taken all around the Assembly’s site. New Churches are being planned, pastors are being recruited, books are being outlined, networks are being formed, lectures and debates are being held, and many other formative activities.
The challenge is navigating between the formal and informal side of things and valuing both. Let me take a few minutes to look at both the formal and informal side of G.A.
From the Formal Side:
Committee of Commissioners
Even before Tuesday evening worship, there is a lot of business that takes place. Participating on a committee of commissioners(CoC) is a great way to serve the denomination. Basically, CoC’s are like a ministry assessment. Members of the ministry’s permanent board share what has been going on in the ministry and then share the request that they want brought to the Assembly floor. It’s the job of the CoC to approve the records and forward on any such requests. Most of the time it isn’t exciting but it is necessary. I’d suggest that first time commissioners ask their presbytery to put them on a nice and conflict-free committee. Pick MNA, or Ridgehaven, or Inter-Church Relations. Steer clear of Overtures, and Administrative.
Speaking on the Floor
Let me give new commissioners a piece of advice: If it is your first year, just listen. I’m not saying this because I have something against young guys (I’m a young guy). For good or bad, your point will always be better received from someone older. That means if Pastor X is 30 and says the same thing as Pastor Boomer, more people will listen to Pastor Boomer. You also need to trust that God has equipped other leaders of the denomination. There are over 1300 commissioners at each G.A. That means that honestly whatever insight you have is going to be shared by someone else. I also say just listen because when young guys stand up and say dumb things it looks bad for all of us.
Ok for the informal side of things:
The Exhibit Hall & the Schwag
Each year there are dozens of exhibits booths. They are put up by businesses targeted toward churches, as well as nonprofits looking for new ministry connections. At many of these booths, you will be able to score free stuff: T-shirts, music resources, books, CD.
Especially for a newbie, G.A. is a great place to build up and extend the relationships you have within the church. I went to G.A. for the first time four years ago. I knew a few guys from my presbytery, and that was about it. Four years later I’ve already got plans for dinners and lunches with a dozen different guys from around the country, and I expect that I’ll end up meeting a lot more people.
If you went to one the bigger seminaries, you will bump into lots of folks you knew from school. If you didn’t, things might be a bit more challenging on the networking front.
Coming with an Agenda
When I say, agenda, I’m not talking about some politico posturing. What I mean by agenda is that guys come looking for new jobs, or they come look to fill positions. Be honest but don’t be grubby. A few years ago I met a great guy from Raleigh. He was an elder who came to G.A. because a few months earlier their pastor had taken a call elsewhere, and he thought going to G.A. would be a good way of meeting a potential new pastor. As he met folks he shared what he was hoping to do, but he wasn’t trying to make every conversation about finding a pastor.
Should You Bring Your Wife/Family?
General Assembly might be enjoyable, but it is not meant to be a vacation. There are many activities for kids and wives, but in my experience, their offerings are pretty culturally specific. One year our first born was two blocks away at a borrowed church, and there was no way to respond if there was a problem. Don’t make my mistake, I took my family just assuming my wife would do her own thing, and it stunk. She wasn’t happy because most of the activities are geared towards your grandmother (I’ve got nothing against southern granny’s but my wife isn’t one). All this meant I ended up feeling bad about what turned out to be me “ditching” my wife all week
Let me wrap up with a few pieces of advice concerning logistics around G.A.
Booking Your Hotel
I’d encourage you to book your hotel early (Registration starts around the new year). When you book early you avoid getting stuck in the overflow accommodations. Depending on where the G.A. is centered, getting from the overflow hotels to the main meeting area can be a pain. I was stuck in the overflow in Orlando, and it turned out we were 3 miles away from the convention center. The bigger problem was that there was no direct transportation between the two locations. We had to bum rides, and even spent $30 on a taxi one time. In downtown locations, being in the main hotel is less of an issue, but it’s better to plan ahead, so you don’t get stuck.
Less hassle –> better attitude –> better experience
Alternatively, each year the hosting presbytery finds free lodging for anyone who requests it. From what I’m told this is often underutilized.
Along the same lines as booking a hotel, some locations are going to necessitate a car, while others are not. Hop on google maps, and go into streetview to see what kind of area you are dealing with. In Virginia Beach, most of the hotels were within walking distance of great food, but it was a real pain to get to the convention center. In Nashville, a car wasn’t needed at all.
Unless you have a G.I. problem, don’t play it safe, you are in a new local area, so eat like a local (Applebees will be at home waiting for you). In Nashville, we found this little Italian restaurant and an amazing taco place. In Virginia Beach, it was the seafood. If you know people from the area ask for suggestions. Be adventurous.
I might be one of those oddballs who actually enjoys serving the denomination, but if you go with the right attitude and the right expectations, then you will be able to enjoy yourself, serve your church and connect with many great people.