A Summary of Actions Taken by the 43rd General Assembly of the EPC
This week my denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, held its 43rd stated General Assembly in Denver, Colorado. This is the annual meeting and council (synod) of my church, and every pastor has a right to attend and every congregation may send elder representatives. This was the first GA I did not attend since I was ordained in the EPC, though my congregation did send representatives. This GA was also unusual in that it was officially treated as a conference (“Gospel Priorities Summit”) wherein the training and plenary talks were intermingled with business, were thematically connected to the EPC’s strategic (now “gospel”) priorities, and had a 3-day runtime instead of four. Below is a summary of the official actions taken by the assembly.
To amend the EPC’s constitution requires a majority vote of one assembly, a majority vote of three-fourths of the presbyteries over the next year, and then a majority vote of the subsequent assembly. The assembly initiated this process for an area that is essentially cleaning up language. The Book of Government places the authority over a local church’s budget in the hands of the Session (board of elders). However, the Session may delegate that authority to a treasurer or a Board of Deacons. The chapter on deacons contains a detailed job description for the treasurer and church auditing responsibilities. This past year the Permanent Judicial Commission (the EPC’s “supreme court”) ruled that this section did not obligate churches to conduct an annual audit or to use outside auditors. The GA voted to delete this section from the BoG on the grounds of redundancy and to clarify that the financial and budgetary authority are always vested with the Session unless the Session delegates otherwise.
The EPC GA issues pastoral letters to the church from time-to-time to provide guidance to our congregations. In light of the ongoing issues surrounding abuse in the larger church, the GA voted to authorize the moderator to appoint a committee to reexamine and make recommendations on modifying our pastoral letter on domestic abuse, which was originally published in 1996 and revised in 1997. Along the same lines, the GA authorized the moderator to appoint a taskforce to consult with experts outside the EPC to assess our Book of Discipline. The BoD is part of our constitution, and we want to make sure that if an abuse situation arises that our constitution does not create a barrier to justly protecting victims. Any change would require a constitutional amendment, which the taskforce has been authorized to propose to the 44th GA in 2024. Along these lines, the GA initiated the amendment process for part of the BoD to include this line: “Church discipline does not supersede or negate the legal responsibility to report cases of suspected abuse to civil authorities according to local and state requirements.”
Two other committees were formed. One was another moderator-appointed committee to review and assess the EPC’s ordination standards and processes and to make recommendation for changes to the 45th GA in 2025. The motivation is the declining enrollment of students in traditional M.Div programs. The other was a new Permanent Committee. Permanent Committees operate year-round and exist perpetually on behalf of the GA, with their members elected each year on a rotating, 3-year term basis. The GA voted to create a Permanent Committee on Disaster Relief. This is an overdue step by the GA; support for churches, mission partners, and areas afflicted by disasters has been an increasing ministry of the EPC over the last decade, and the burden for coordinating it was falling on an overstretched denominational staff.
The EPC’s formal ecumenical relationships are called “fraternal partnerships” and are aimed at increasing cooperation on mission, church planting, theology, and education. The GA voted to terminate our fraternal partnership with the World Communion of Reformed Churches. I wrote about this issue back in March, and am disappointed the EPC went this direction, though it was expected. On the other hand, the GA voted to enter into a fraternal partnership with the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). I am happy to see this; I personally initiated the ball rolling on this process all the way back at the 37th GA in 2017. I am hopeful for the ways the EPC and ECO can partner together.
Finally, something notable about this GA is something that did not happen. It is unusual for the EPC to allow something that has not achieved consensus to make its way to the floor for a vote, and divisive proposals are typically killed or withdrawn in committee. Such an item this year was a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required all EPC Teaching Elders (pastors) ordained and called as chaplains to receive the endorsement of the EPC GA’s permanent Chaplains Work and Care Committee. This committee is established to support the EPC’s chaplain endorser, a role any denomination needs if their chaplains are to be accepted in the military. However, many EPC chaplains are in non-military settings (e.g. hospitals, fire stations, college campuses) and did not want to have their ordination, calling, and job now placed under the additional supervision and credentialing of this committee and the endorser. The proposal also placed the Chaplains Work and Care Committee in a position to veto or block presbyteries that had approved a non-military chaplain’s call, which would have inverted the EPC’s polity. It was a good thing that this the proposal was withdrawn, though it’s unfortunate that tensions and conflict related to chaplain policies have now arisen three GAs in a row.