Following are answers to some frequently asked questions regarding the decision to hold an in-person stated session of General Synod in October 2021. Additional questions may be added as needed.
General Synod 2021
Frequently Asked Questions
What will be the dates of the October gathering? How was October chosen?
Dates for October are dependent upon facility availability, and will be announced as soon as possible once a venue is secured. While the exact dates are not yet solidified, the meetings will not take place over the weekend of Thanksgiving Day in Canada (October 11).
October is far enough past the original June dates of General Synod that there’s a greater possibility that pandemic conditions and vaccine availability will have improved, while avoiding the beginning of the school year and program year in September as well as the beginning of the busy Advent and Christmas season in November and December. We recognize that there are other factors that make October dates more challenging for some, but with such a large and varied delegate body, it’s not possible to identify a time frame that will be ideal for everyone.
Will an October General Synod meet on a college campus, like it does at a typical June General Synod?
While planning staff had initially hoped to secure the use of meeting space on a college campus over a scheduled fall break and use nearby hotels for lodging, the logistical challenges of meeting on a campus in the middle of a semester coupled with the very large meeting space required in order to accommodate the entire General Synod delegation in a socially distanced manner means that this is unlikely, though staff are still exploring options.
What cost considerations were taken into account related to a different site and date?
Meeting at a conference center rather than on a college campus will increase the cost of General Synod, as the cost of lodging and meals will be higher, and the pandemic will necessitate single-occupancy lodging in most cases, which represents significant additional cost. We recognize that travel costs may also increase some; as a result of the pandemic, people may choose to drive longer distances to avoid crowded airports and planes, and people are less likely to carpool.
Will the increased costs be reflected in future assessments?
No. The additional costs of this format of General Synod will not be covered through increased assessments. For this year, the denomination would be able to use cost savings realized elsewhere because of lessened travel, meetings and events, and other things due to the pandemic in order to cover the increased cost of General Synod.
Will the General Synod incur financial penalties if we proceed with plans to meet in October, but ultimately end up needing to cancel contracts?
Whenever possible, synod planning staff will seek contracts with a venue and other vendors that will allow us to cancel with no or little penalty through early June, after the viability of gathering is reassessed. Flights are not booked until closer to the date of synod and so would not be affected by a late May change of plans, should that be necessary. If a coronavirus flare-up happens after contract cancellation deadlines have passed, prompting a decision that we cannot gather, there likely would be cancellation fees and penalties.
What will be on the agenda of an October General Synod? Will it be a full session of the General Synod?
All of the regular items of business that come before a General Synod will be on the agenda for October, including the Vision 2020 report. Reporting bodies that submitted reports with actionable business to last year’s synod will have the opportunity to resubmit those items of business along with anything new that has arisen in the past year. There will most likely be fewer scheduled items that do not involve actionable items of business, in order to reduce the number of guests and official observers who attend to participate in events and other programs.
If General Synod is in October instead of June, does the due date for overtures change?
The Commission on Church Order was consulted on this topic. The deadline for submission of overtures is spelled out in the Special Rules of Order of the General Synod, and is not dependent upon when General Synod gathers. “Overtures from classes shall be submitted to the General Synod office or postmarked not later than March 31. Overtures from regional synods shall be submitted to the General Synod office or postmarked within ten days of the close of the annual session of the regional synod” (BCO, Ch. 3, Part II, Art. 2, Sec. 7; 2019 edition, p. 128).
Even with the March 31 deadline for classical overtures, there is still the pathway for a delegate to present new business. The presentation of new business “shall include a well-defined statement of the nature and purpose of the proposed business and of the reasons for its presentation as new business rather than through the church’s assemblies, agencies, or commissions” (BCO, Ch. 3, Part II, Art. 2, Sec. 8; 2019 edition, p. 128), and ultimately it will be up to the assembly to decide whether the additional time before October General Synod meetings is sufficient reason to receive the new business.
Will the pandemic have any impact on who attends General Synod?
The number of voting and corresponding delegates would remain the same. Limitations will depend upon pandemic conditions and social distancing guidelines as planning develops, but it is likely that fewer official guests will be invited than in other years, fewer staff will be present, and it may not be possible for delegates to bring spouses or other family members. Depending upon the size and capacity of the venue, having a gallery for observers and visitors also may not be possible, though the proceedings would still be streamed.
Who will the delegates be? What happens if someone who has already been named as a delegate doesn’t feel comfortable attending in October?
Voting delegates to General Synod “shall be a member of the General Synod from the date of election or appointment and shall continue in that responsibility until the effective date of election or appointment of a successor” (BCO Chapter 1, Part IV, Article 3, Section 1, [2019 edition, p. 68]). Those who have been appointed as delegates to the 2021 session remain delegates at an October General Synod, unless their sending body appoints a different delegate in their place. If a delegate who planned to participate in General Synod in June 2021 is unable to attend in October, or if an appointed delegate does not feel comfortable attending in October, their sending body may appoint a different delegate in their place. (There may be other reasons that sending bodies choose to appoint different delegates, as well.)
What is the point of the brief “pro forma” meeting in June?
The June meeting will serve two purposes: first, the action of convening the meeting, even if there is no quorum present and no business can be transacted, fulfills the requirement of holding the annual session at the previously stated time and place. Second, it provides a way to adjourn the stated session to October in a manner consistent with Robert’s Rules of Order, which the General Synod follows (the motions to adjourn and to fix the time to which to adjourn are some of the few motions that are valid in the absence of a quorum).
Who will participate in the June pro forma meeting? Will it be public?
The planned participants are the General Synod president and vice president, the general secretary, and one or two to-be-determined voting delegates from the Pella, Iowa, area (at least one additional delegate is necessary because the motion to adjourn requires both someone to move it and someone to second it, and the president, as the presiding officer, cannot do either; and a second in case one of the intended participants gets ill or is otherwise unable to be present at the last minute). The parliamentarian will also be present, as well as a General Synod staff member to take minutes and provide logistical support.
While this meeting will not be physically open to the public since the intention is to keep the gathering as small as possible for the purpose of minimizing COVID-19 risk and adhering to social distancing guidelines, it will be both livestreamed and recorded for any delegates and others who wish to watch the brief proceedings, either live or at a later time.
May classes or regional synods send delegates to the June pro forma meeting if they choose to?
While there is no parliamentary rule that would prevent classes or regional synods from sending delegates, the officers respectfully request that sending bodies cooperate with the decision that has been reached and do not attempt to send delegates to this pro forma meeting out of respect for social distancing and health risks. The General Synod will not pay for delegate travel to this pro forma meeting. The June meeting will be livestreamed, so it will be open and transparent for anyone interested to watch.
Is there any precedent for this pro forma meeting?
In both 1933 and 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, the classes agreed that a full General Synod session should not take place. Both times, a brief pro forma gathering was convened at the time General Synod was scheduled to meet, during which it was declared that there was no quorum and the session was adjourned, to next meet the following June.
What factors will be used in late May to determine whether General Synod will gather in October?
Factors will include the feasibility of travel to the U.S. for our Canadian delegates, as well as travel considerations and restrictions in various areas of the U.S., rates and trends of COVID-19 infection, and availability of the COVID vaccine in both countries, among other things. Input will be sought from medical professionals, classis presidents, regional synod executives, and the General Synod Council.
What happens if it’s decided in late May that it’s still not safe to gather in October?
If, in late May, conditions are not projected to be such that we can safely gather yet in October, the pro forma meeting in Pella in June of 2021 would simply adjourn the session without fixing a time for October, and the General Synod would next meet in June of 2022. This would still satisfy the requirement for an annual session as, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, the action of convening the session—even if there is no quorum present, no business can be transacted, and the session must be immediately adjourned—fulfills that requirement.
If it is not safe to gather in October, why wait until June 2022 instead of choosing other interim dates?
A gathering on the scale of General Synod is a huge logistical undertaking and takes significant lead time to plan; once the planning is underway, it’s not possible to continue to adjust the dates of contracts for a gathering of that size by a few months. In addition, it would be impractical to attempt to hold General Synod in February or March of 2022, to be followed in just a few months by the regular stated session in June of 2022.
Could the denomination wait another year without deciding on the recommendations in the Vision 2020 report, if it ends up not being safe to gather in October?
Many parts of the RCA are strongly feeling the anxiety of living in an ongoing state of irresolution regarding the future of our denomination, and we know that there are consistories that have been waiting for resolution on the Vision 2020 report before making a final decision whether they will remain part of the RCA. We recognize that there is increasing frustration for some consistories as consideration of the report continues to be delayed, and understand that in the event of a delay to June 2022, some consistories may decide they cannot continue waiting. While we grieve any separation in the body, we also recognize that, just as the leadership of the General Synod is trying to do what is best for the whole body in the midst of a pandemic situation we cannot control, consistories are also trying to make the best, most faithful decisions they can for their congregations.
Many in the RCA don’t desire a delay to June 2022. But even among this group, many expressed a recognition that as much as we hope that conditions will improve by then, it may not be possible to gather safely in person in October. As the body of Christ, we value each other’s health and safety, and we also value making this significant decision in the best way that we can, honoring the deep relational nature of our denomination. Though we have been thrust into this season of waiting by circumstances beyond our control, we trust that God has a plan and will carry us through this season of irresolution and uncertainty until we are able to meet safely and in good order.
Why can’t we just hold synod in June 2021, with masks and social distancing?
A number of classes have indicated that they do not have delegates that are willing or comfortable to attend General Synod in the event of an in person gathering in June 2021, making it far from certain that a quorum would be present. Even if a quorum was present, it is likely that General Synod would be missing a substantial portion of the delegation.
It’s far from certain that the U.S.-Canadian border will be fully open by June 2021 and Canada currently requires travelers to the U.S. to spend two weeks in quarantine upon return, which means that Canadian delegates would have to give up at least three weeks of their time to attend General Synod.
Even regular temperature checks and rapid COVID tests to identify potential cases of COVID-19 among participants aren’t failsafes, as they can return false negatives. Given the current rates of vaccination in Canada and in the U.S., it also seems unlikely that the majority of participants would have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by June; by October, vaccine availability should be much higher.
Was a virtual or hybrid format considered? Why was it not chosen?
General Synod officers and a synod planning team extensively considered many possibilities for General Synod. Both an entirely virtual format, with delegates joining individually from their homes using a form of videoconferencing technology, and a satellite format, with delegates gathering in smaller, regional gatherings that are linked via a form of videoconferencing technology, were seriously considered, but a number of factors led to the conclusion that an electronic meeting is not a feasible option.
The RCA is a deeply relational denomination. The General Synod is facing difficult conversations, and attempting to conduct difficult conversations is far more challenging in a virtual format. The potential for connectivity challenges, the possibility of technological glitches in new systems that could undermine confidence in the process, and unfamiliarity or discomfort with new technology for some delegates, as well as the difficulty of staying engaged for long hours over videoconference are all factors.
In addition, after consultation with the Commission on Church Order, it was determined that any session that involves a virtual or satellite component must include at least a quorum being present in person at the stated place of meeting. Absent that, the session would not comply with the General Synod’s bylaws and thus raises the potential for any action taken at the meeting to be challenged as invalid.
Another factor is that any format with a virtual component would require the development of a system that could handle online voting and queueing for debate in a manner consistent with the General Synod’s rules for handling such things. While it would be possible to develop such a system, it would not be possible to do so by June 2021, a little over three months from now. Companies that are set up to facilitate electronic gatherings are focused on conferences and seminars and do not have the systems required for the unique needs of a deliberative assembly, so while they could help with parts of a virtual synod, they could not help with all of it.
I have a question that hasn’t been answered here. Who can I ask or where can I offer my question?
If you have a question that hasn’t been answered here, you may send it to the General Synod Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.