How I Spent Ten Days of My Summer--It Was Totally Not a Vacation!
The Cresset, Michaelmas 2016
I had the privilege of representing my Presbytery at the 222nd General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Portland, Oregon, in June. There are not many Presbyterians in northeast Wisconsin; I was the only minister we sent. My Presbytery also sent a ruling elder, which is a Presbyterian term for an ordained layperson. (The idea of “ordained lay people” is confusing to most other denominations. Presbyterians ordain people who have not attended seminary to positions of leadership in local congregations. They also serve in the wider church. At every level of the church above the congregation, lay people and clergy are equally represented.) Our third representative was a college student who served as an advisory delegate.
I celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination the same month I traveled to Portland. That quarter century, plus the seventeen years I’ve served in this region, plus the fact that I had never attended General Assembly, caused my number to come up.
I cannot remember a week I worked harder or longer hours. I returned to Wisconsin way past “tired,” “weary” and “exhausted.” At church on the Sunday after I came home, I heard the gospel story where Jesus describes salt that’s lost it savor, which is good only to be trampled underfoot. That probably comes closest to my physical and mental state following GA.
Still, it was exhilarating!
Since returning I have read the capsulized summaries of actions that we took, and honestly I do not remember much of the final outcomes. It was like swimming in a fast-moving “process river”: I remember some of the series of rapids, but most of the trip is simply a blur. There are, however, moments and snippets of conversation that capture the essence of my time at GA.
I was assigned to the Way Forward Committee, a new group created to address the challenge of a cumbersome, slow governing structure that often impedes the most exciting, life-giving ministries from springing up. We were assigned oceans of background reading. This was not unique to my committee; I heard members of other committees say they could have spent a month reading 40 hours a week and still not have read everything.
But the work of the Way Forward Committee was considered significant enough that we were called to Portland a day early. When I arrived it was easy to identify the local people who were there to help direct us. They were friendly and so prepared that I did not have to read a single sign; they pointed me from gate to baggage claim to light rail. From light rail I walked the two blocks to my hotel and I was ready to start.
I shared a room with Keith, a pastor from New Jersey. Keith made a good impression immediately. He arrived at the room well past midnight because his flight had been delayed; I slept soundly through his arrival.
It has been said that General Assemblies are family reunions, but I have to say the metaphor is not adequate. I found them to be like national gatherings of an organization I’ve been a part of a long time. They are gatherings of an organization I’ve been part of for a long time. I kept crossing paths with people and recognizing them from…somewhere. I exchanged quizzical looks with more than a dozen people I had encountered in other settings, years ago. Two of these meetings were rewarding. One was with a minister whom I had taken a class from and who had been in a class I taught. She recognized my face, snapped her fingers, and said, “Humor Guy from Wisconsin!” I much prefered that over “Teaching Elder Thomas Willadsen, Winnebago Presbytery,” which is how my name badge read.
A few days later I met Bill. We knew each other from some forgotten moment in the past…Did you go to Committee on Ministry orientation in Minnesota about ten years ago? Boundary training in Stevens Point? Where did you go to seminary? Hmm. After a few more attempts Bill remembered that we’d shared a hotel room a few years ago when we read ordination exams outside Chicago. Then we had nothing more to say to each other.
There were a lot of homeless people in Portland. After ordering breakfast on Saturday at a coffee shop a block from my hotel, I passed a homeless man as I returned to my room to retrieve my phone.
“Do you have any spare change?”
“Not right now.”
And I didn’t. I had only paper money in my wallet. Still, my conscience nags me when I pass someone who is obviously needy. As I walked past him on my return to the coffee shop, I handed him a dollar, asking, “You’ll take paper, won’t you?” He did. Then he asked me, “What did the boy strawberry say to the girl strawberry?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you weren’t so fresh, we wouldn’t be in this jam.”
I love jokes like this. I asked him, “What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?”
“Dam.” He knew the answer, but still, we’d shared a laugh. I decided to give this guy a dollar every time I passed him.
The next day he was not there, and I worried.
Another encounter with a homeless person was much more vivid and memorable. On the next to last day of the assembly, two stops before the convention center where 80% of the passengers on the crowded car would disembark, a woman standing in the aisle, shouted at a man behind her,
“Don’t f*** with me! You touch me I’ll f***you up, and don’t think I won’t!”
The man was very deferential, “I’m very sorry, I didn’t mean to touch you…”
The Presbyterians on the car were scrupulously not watching this encounter.
At the next stop, the man said, “Excuse me. This is my stop, I’d like to get off.” He was again, meek and deferential.
“You can get off when I f***in’ decide you can get off!!” Then she got up and left the car, followed by the meek man.
A nervous calm settled over the car. This is the story people are going to tell to the folks back home.
Especially after I stage whispered, “I think she went to Princeton!”
I saw “my” homeless guy again on the last day of the assembly. The joke he told was not good, but still worth a buck. Later I wondered if he had some kind of schedule, perhaps a different corner for each day of the week. That would reduce his need to find new material. Maybe it was just a coincidence.
The bulk of my time was spent working with the Way Forward Committee, and I take some pride in two ways I influenced my committee’s work.
The first time we gathered in our assigned meeting room, there were platters of cookies on stands throughout the convention center. I grabbed a plate, filled it with a nice variety, then walked around the room, serving them to my fellow members as they settled into their seats.
I had signed up to give the committee’s opening prayer. Before I began, however, I gave my name and Presbytery and added, “I am the cookie czar, and I will gladly bring cookies back from the platters out in the hallway at each break.”
I was crushed when I found no cookies at the first break—or any of the subsequent breaks that evening. We are a denomination that runs on cookies! We can’t make a decision without at least a few Fig Newtons or pecan sandies! And don’t get me started on the chocolate chip vs. oatmeal raisin debate.
The next day I stopped at the “special needs” booth run by the local arrangements people. I explained that I am a lifelong Presbyterian and I cannot make it through the day without some cookies—and I had promised seventy-two of my closest friends that I would be delivering the goods after each break. This was the only time I saw the local arrangements people flummoxed. They asked the people at the late registration booth next door, who offered me individually wrapped Lifesavers. I filled a pocket with them and said this might tide us over. Then someone said that the cookies we’d had the day before were leftovers from a graduation that had just been held at the convention center. There would be no cookies provided to GA participants.
Before we reconvened, I asked to make an announcement. I was a little shaky from low blood sugar, so that probably affected my message. “The special needs and late registration people just informed me that yesterday’s cookies were a sadistic charade. The cookies were leftovers from a prior event. I’ve got a pocketful of Lifesavers for those of you who are desperate. I regret having to make this announcement.”
I was really pleased with “sadistic charade.”
The Presbyterian Church, like all mainline denominations, has been losing members for decades, yet our infrastructure has not changed. The Way Forward Committee’s task was to create a different kind of denominational structure. We were charged to be visionary. So after hours of reports, testimony, and theological instruction, the seventy-two members of the committee broke into four small groups and dispersed to each corner of the room to meet. I decided to follow someone who seemed especially well-prepared.
“I’m going where you’re going.” I informed her.
“Hell in a hand basket?”
“Is there room for me?”
After much brainstorming, the small groups proposed a variety of responses to the whole committee. And finally the full committee made a bold proposal: the creation of “The Way Forward Commission,” a body to study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly agencies of the PC (USA). Commissions have the authority to make binding decisions. Thus we enabled the denomination to make changes that it deemed urgent.
My small group proposed creating a 2020 Vision Team to develop a guiding statement for the denomination and plan for its implementation. We discussed at length who should serve on this committee. We wanted a variety of ages and perspectives. We struggled with how to word our desire for diversity. I suggested “that we seek to include ‘the voices of peoples long silenced,’” a phrase from the newest statement in our Book of Confessions. I was delighted when that wording was accepted, and pleased that the first other member of the sub-committee who spoke in favor of it was a theological student advisory delegate from Puerto Rico. Maybe this Vision Team will really help chart the course for the future of my denomination.
My last conversation at GA was my most memorable. I was stepping onto the light rail, headed to the airport, when I heard a man say, “Cookie Monster!” I turned around and saw someone who turned out to be a member of my committee—I just didn’t recognize him. He said, “In committee I always spoke through a Spanish interpreter, and I sat on the other side of the room from you.”
“Right. Are you speaking English now, or is this Pentecost?”
“I’m good with English, but I’m shy in big groups, so I used the interpreter.”
“Darn. I was hoping to learn a new language without having to go to school. What did you think of our committee?”
“We were awesome!”
We were awesome, in the true sense of the word. The Way Forward Committee, the commissioners and delegates at General Assembly, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) were all awesome for ten days in Portland. But now, we were very, very tired.
The Reverend Doctor Thomas C. Willadsen is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This column differs slightly from the version that appears in The Cresset's Michaelmas 2016 edition.