From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Stated Clerk Election Dynamics
27 Jun 1996 12:16:48
96234 Rules Change, but Stated Clerk Election Dynamics
by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Longtime watchers of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stated
clerk elections almost unanimously agree that what it takes for a candidate
to win is an impressive performance on stage during the Assembly's
But it's a lot harder to get agreement on whether the stage
performance is the best criterion on which to elect the denomination's
stated clerk -- a job that now pays $87,324 plus benefits annually for a
four-year term and requires both ecclesiastical and ecumenical savvy.
"You need a decision based on merit rather than impressions," says the
Rev. Flynn Long of Big Spring, Texas, a former associate stated clerk for
the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). He believes this
church needs to make up its mind which it wants -- a popularly elected
stated clerk or a stated clerk who is confirmed by the Assembly after a
lengthy search process, much like the way pastors are hired.
"The position merits extensive interviews and research ... [not] 30
minutes of questions and answers," said Long, who takes consolation in
knowing that the 1996 procedure incorporates six days for interviewing when
a nominee for stated clerk comes from the floor.
It's an old debate, really. The procedure for electing a stated clerk
has been tweaked and tampered with time and time again, both before and
since reunion, in an effort to balance a popular -- or political -- race
with a search process.
And the policy adopted by the 1995 General Assembly grapples with
those familiar tensions: sending to the floor one nominee backed by a
yearlong search process and then opening up the floor for nominations from
Cutting floor nominations out of the stated clerk's election would rip
apart a long-standing and highly politicized Presbyterian tradition of
electing stated clerks much the same way it elects moderators. Cutting
floor nominations also flies in the face of "Robert's Rules of Order," the
standard parliamentary procedure manual used by the Assembly that admits
floor nominations after any nominating committee reports.
Aware of this long-standing ambivalence, even among its own members,
the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA)'s first proposal
for a new process nonetheless tried to write floor nominations out of the
selection policy in order to "depoliticize" the system, according to
retiring clerk the Rev. James E. Andrews. But it abandoned that notion
after open hearings on early drafts of the policy at the 1991 Assembly
discouraged doing so.
"So it [this policy] retains elements of both a popular selection and
a search," Andrews said. "They wanted to leave openness there ... without
foreclosing the possibility for the Assembly to make a different choice."
What the new process does is give commissioners more time than before
to think about their choices. A nominee can no longer run from the floor
and be elected almost immediately. Now a six-day review by a reassembled
search committee -- another new twist -- plus 10 Assembly commissioners
occurs between nomination and election. This Candidate Review Committee
provides continuity between the existing search committee and Assembly
commissioners, something prior procedures also omitted.
It also requires potential nominees coming to Albuquerque to be
prepared to secure letters of recommendation and be willing to provide any
additional written material the Candidate Review Committee might request.
This more studied approach makes more sense than questions and answers
followed by an almost immediate election, according to the Rev. William
Forbes of Westfield, N.J., who has been a platform manager at the Assembly
for years and has watched numerous campaigns. "It doesn't take a lot of
organization [for a nomination] to come off the floor.
"You need a Xerox machine and a few advocates to create the appearance
of a real movement. That's not terribly sophisticated," he said. "With a
full week for work and political activity ... more things can happen."
Nonetheless, Forbes still backs bringing in a single nominee, after a
lengthy search, for an up or down vote, with provisions for hiring an
interim clerk if necessary. "The clerk is essentially the top elected
official in the church. The clerk has significant administrative
responsibility, has to have a knowledge of theology and polity. ... That
training is crucial to proper functioning of that office," Forbes said.
"[But] our process for electing a clerk is modeled on how we elect a
moderator. The process is the same. But the tasks," Forbes said, "are
Former COGA member the Rev. Jay Dee Conrad of Los Alamos, N.M., who
participated in many of COGA's conversations about policy revisions, says
he sees no other option than opening the floor for nominees, if for no
other reason than "it raises trust in the church."
"Why do we think of politics as negative? I think the Holy Spirit can
work through politics. In Reformed theology, politics is a way God works to
bring about good government," Conrad said, stressing that part of the
peculiar tension here is about creating trust -- commissioners taking
seriously the work of a search committee and a search committee recognizing
that the Spirit can "work in different ways."
Elections and search committees, he says, can both be political and
both can be guided by the Spirit.
But prohibiting floor nominees is complicated in this scenario, Conrad
thinks, by the sense most commissioners bring to any Assembly that this is
a once-in-a-lifetime vote. "They want to make the decision. .... It's once
in a lifetime and they want to do it," he said. "They're not going to
rubber-stamp something a committee's done without giving it thorough
consideration, a true affirmation."
What still remains ambiguous in this election protocol, however, is
what kind of a report the Candidate Review Committee is supposed to produce
once it has interviewed candidates nominated from the floor and the
original search committee's nominee. The policy says it "shall report its
actions in relation to the nominees for the position" and it "shall publish
material on the qualifications and views of all candidates for distribution
to commissioners and advisory delegates."
"There is," as current search committee chair Brian Ellison told the
Presbyterian News Service, "no precision on that. ... That committee can go
in a lot of directions."
But all nominees will have a chance to address the Assembly and to
answer questions posed by commissioners, and all nominees' names will
appear on the ballot.
Despite all the different opinions about how a stated clerk should be
hired, most Assembly watchers agree with Long, who says, "[The outcome] is
very difficult to predict.
"Any candidate can make or break the thing at the time time of
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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