Uncertainties remain about the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to affect gatherings and travel in 2021. That makes the decision about if, when, and how the General Synod will meet this year challenging and complex. Last year’s synod was postponed due to the pandemic.

General Synod president EJ de Waard and vice president Phil Assink continue to consult with the Commission on Church Order, General Synod Council moderator Ned Beadel, and a small team of General Synod Council staff to discuss General Synod plans. They plan to reach a decision by March 1.

General Synod typically meets in June for its annual stated session; this year, it is tentatively scheduled to meet at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

After considering a number of options, last month, the president and vice president sent four possible scenarios for General Synod 2021 to classes for voluntary advice. This advice, which is not a binding classis vote, will be taken into consideration as the officers make a decision. Advice will also be provided by the General Synod Council, the denomination’s governing board.

An electronic General Synod meeting was among many options considered, but wasn’t ultimately included in the scenarios sent to classes for input. Consultation with the Commission on Church Order verified that the General Synod’s bylaws don’t permit an electronic meeting. The four scenarios, as proposed to the classes, are briefly detailed below. More in-depth coverage of the considerations for each scenario is available via PDF.

A report from the Vision 2020 Team was due to come to General Synod last summer for consideration and will be on the agenda for General Synod, whenever it next meets.

RCA chief operating officer Jill Ver Steeg invites the denomination to “continue to pray and to keep hope.”

Scenario A:

Hold an in-person General Synod meeting in June 2021 at Central College, as scheduled, with additional COVID-19 protocols and social distancing measures in place.

Considerations for this scenario:

  • This fulfills the Book of Church Order (BCO) requirements for an annual General Synod gathering. This option would enable essential annual business, such as approving nominees for the Commission on Nominations, setting assessment amounts, and electing officers. The Vision 2020 report and recommendations could also be processed.
  • The safety level of air travel and large in-person gatherings is unknown for the summer of 2021. Delegates and staff may not feel comfortable traveling or gathering in June, even with additional safety precautions. Classes may not be comfortable risking the health of their delegates, especially those who are older and may be in higher risk categories for COVID-19.
    • Additionally, certain travel may not be permitted or advisable. For example, the U.S.-Canadian border remains closed to non-essential travel.
  • Masking, social distancing, and health screen requirements would be necessary to ensure the safety of those present. Some participants may object to such requirements, requirements may be difficult to enforce, and protocols and services will add significant cost. Logistics, including lodging and audio-visual accommodations, would also increase the cost of the meeting.
  • The potential for last-minute cancellation exists should it prove unsafe to travel or gather in June, and this would bring significant cancellation costs.

Scenario B:

Do not meet in June 2021; hold a special session of the General Synod meeting in the fall, using the process for calling a special session provided in the BCO.

Under specific circumstances, the General Synod president is able to call for a special session of General Synod, which would take place in October 2021. The agenda for this session would include the Vision 2020 report and essential annual items of business. The meeting would be shorter than the typical annual meeting, probably three or four days, and would likely take place on a college campus during a fall break.

Considerations for this scenario:

  • Even with a special session in October, 2021 would be another year without an annual session of the General Synod.
  • The Vision 2020 report and recommendations would be able to be processed by the General Synod in 2021 rather than waiting until 2022. However, changes to the constitution could not be voted on at a special session. For further information about how this works, read the details contained in the full list of considerations.
  • There would be increased costs borne by the General Synod due to lodging at hotels (as students would be on campus), transportation adjustments, and COVID-19 protocols and health screenings. The need for last-minute cancellation would still be possible.
  • Delegates and classes may not be comfortable traveling or attending a large gathering, even with masking, social distancing, and wider availability of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Scenario C:

Hold the stated session of the General Synod in October 2021.

Roberts’ Rules of Order allows that the stated session of the General Synod could be adjourned to a fixed time in the future if a small number of delegates met at Central College in June, declaring no quorum and making a motion to fix the time to which to adjourn.

Considerations for this scenario:

  • This would qualify as an annual session, fulfilling the requirement that the General Synod meet annually.
  • Few people would be required to travel and meet in person at Central College in June, though there would still be additional accommodation and travel costs borne by the General Synod. COVID-19 protocols and screenings would likely still be necessary.
  • The Vision 2020 report and recommendations could be processed by the General Synod in 2021 at the October session. As an adjourned meeting of the regular session (as opposed to a special session as outlined in Scenario B), amendments to the constitution could be proposed and approved.
  • As with Scenario B, meeting in October would come with increased lodging and travel costs, with the potential for cancellation costs. Some delegates may not be comfortable traveling or attending a large gathering.

Scenario D:

Postpone General Synod 2021 to June 2022.

Considerations for this scenario:

  • Most likely, there will be fewer COVID restrictions by June 2022, which would mean fewer logistical challenges with planning a large in-person gathering. It is also likely that those who wish to be vaccinated will have had the opportunity by June 2022, increasing comfortability levels and decreasing the risk that the General Synod meeting could contribute to a large spread of COVID-19.
  • Expenses due to a nontraditional session or the last minute-cancellations of a 2021 session would be eliminated.
  • The delay in considering the Vision 2020 report and recommendations will increase frustration and anxiety amid the denomination, potentially resulting in an increased number of churches choosing to leave the denomination.
  • There would be no annual session of the General Synod in 2021, which is not constitutionally permitted, and essential annual business could not take place. In addition, the current General Synod officers have already served extended terms due to the postponement of the 2020 General Synod. If General Synod is postponed until 2022, the synod would again not have a way to elect new officers.