President Halvorson Discusses General Assembly Decision in Town Hall Meeting

photo by Jesudhas Arnold

photo by Jesudhas Arnold

On Thursday September 20, Student Senate hosted a town hall meeting in which President Halvorson addressed the confusion around the General Assembly’s decision to reject a proposal to allow non-ordained persons on the college’s Board of Trustees.

Student Body President and discussion moderator Tindol Pate (‘19) said, “After the General Assembly made the decision, Senate sent out a survey to all of students and after summarizing a lot of student’s responses, realized that there were some misunderstandings of what actually happened and the process that was behind it, the logic behind it, the college’s stance on it. Over the summer, I was in contact with Sarah Ocando and President Halvorson, and the decision to have a town hall was made before the school year started.”

Halvorson opened the meeting by explaining exactly what happened over the summer, to hopefully clear up the misunderstandings. He explained that the Board of Trustees is composed of teaching and ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (P.C.A.) who are elected by the General Assembly. For the past two or three years, Covenant’s board and administration have been pursuing a proposal that would allow a minority of seats to be held by non-ordained members of the P.C.A.

The current trustees back this endeavor. In fact, they voted in 2017 to remove gendered references to trustees from the college bylaws. Those bylaw changes were approved by the 2017 P.C.A. General Assembly. Because Covenant is not a church, President Halvorson and the Board feel that there is no biblical barrier keeping non-ordained persons from serving on the Board of Trustees.

President Halvorson said, “Scripture does not require our Board of Trustees to be ordained.”

President Halvorson further explained that the process to achieve this is more complex than a simple vote. To change the current rules for election to the Board of Trustees, there would have to be a change to the denomination’s Book of Church Order, which requires an overture from a presbytery and majority votes by two General Assemblies. Two-thirds of the denomination’s presbyteries would have to ratify the overture during the intervening year. An overture to this effect was voted down by the General Assembly this summer and left many shocked, confused, and angry.

After explaining the issue, Halvorson took the opportunity to answer questions put forward by students. The questions and answers have both been paraphrased for clarity and length.

What are the feelings of the faculty, staff, and Board of Trustees on this issue?

The Board and senior administration are fully supportive of this type of change; the vast majority of the faculty and staff seem to be supportive as well.

Why did some pastors abstain from the vote?

  1. Technical: The overture should have addressed changes only to the Book of Church Order and not the P.C.A. bylaws, so the motion was technically out of order.

  2. Time for deliberation: Some felt they couldn’t make a decision without learning more about the issue and were afraid that they would make the wrong decision if they went with their knee jerk reaction.

  3. Some abstained because of precedent of a previous General Assembly stating that the Board holds ecclesial authority.

Would there have been a difference if the motion was specified to install non-ordained men in the Board of Trustees, instead of allowing non-ordained people, which implies women?

The argument that was presented by opponents of the overture was that the college’s Board, as an agency of the church, had to be composed of ordained elders. I wouldn’t want to speculate on whether or not specifying gender would have made a difference.

What is the Biblical reason for voting no?

The church is to be governed by elders and the Bible says that elders are to be men — the General Assembly is the highest court of the P.C.A. and the question was if they appoint non-ordained persons to the Board of Trustees, would that give those persons ruling authority in the church?

What is the new proposed standard for election to the Board of Trustees?

The proposal was to open up a minority of seats to non-ordained members of the P.C.A., both men and women, who were in good standing in their churches and had been examined for fidelity to the P.C.A.’s theological standards.

Last year, the P.C.A. said that they would like to better utilize women in the church: how do they reconcile their vote with this statement?

While seemingly ironic or paradoxical, the issue centers more around a narrow question of whether the Board of Trustees has ecclesial power. The General Assembly felt that any person appointed to the Board would have ruling authority in the church. As the ruling authority of elders relates biblically to communion, excommunication, baptism, etc. and a trustee on the Board would not be doing any of these actions at Covenant College, the Board and administration feel that a trustee does not exercise ecclesial authority.

Why is this so upsetting to some at the college?

This decision excludes all women and some men from service on the Board of Trustees.

What are Covenant’s plans for the future and what should we do in the meantime?

This pattern of early rejection of an overture is not a new one—a similar response was seen in a denomination-wide call for racial reconciliation. The first year it was put forward, it was also rejected but was brought forward again the next year and passed.

This year, the overture to allow non-ordained persons on the Board was put forward by the Tennessee Valley Presbytery [Covenant College cannot put forward its own overture because overtures must come from presbyteries.] It could be that other presbyteries in the denomination will submit similar overtures in the future. If they do, I would anticipate that there might be a more thorough and more informed discussion next year at the General Assembly.

In the meantime, the College continues to abide by the rules established by the General Assembly and we will continue to have respectful conversations about the issues. It’s clear that we underestimated the negative response to this overture. If additional overtures on this matter were to be submitted to the Assembly, there obviously could be more public discussion of the issues.

In the meantime, the Covenant community can pray about this issue, pray for wisdom, and pray that the peace of the Church will not be disturbed. In efforts to appeal to the General Assembly as students of Covenant College, there will be a place to open a discussion and give biblical arguments for allowing non-ordained people to be on the college’s board.

Pate said, “I see students having a huge role in praying, but also - and I’m hesitant to say this because it needs to be done with extreme grace - for PCA students to talk with their pastors and elders at home. Ask how their pastors understand Scriptures mandates. Share with their pastors their own experiences of Covenant, how it does and does not function like a church in our lives.”

Solid, Scriptural proofs and compelling theological arguments are needed to make this amendment to the Book of Church Order. To employ a (hopefully helpful) metaphor, the P.C.A. is like an anchor—at times, it keeps Covenant from moving quickly, but it also keeps the College from floating off into theological liberalism the way so many other colleges have.

President Halvorson advised that the college will keep working on this issue, but change takes time. The motion will likely be brought up again, but it is not wise to try to predict the future.