by Loren Seibold  |  15 October 2019  |

There are some things that are hard to write about. This day was one of them. Right now I would prefer to go to bed and not tell you what happened at General Conference (GC) executive committee. But you support Adventist Today so you can hear reports about events like this (at least I assume you do) and so here I am, sitting in my pajamas and trying to tell you about one of the saddest spectacles I’ve seen in church life.

I’m skipping some of the items from the first part of the day, in order to tell you about the end of the business day.

Last night, at the close of the GC meeting we were handed a paper that spelled out a disciplinary procedure for four entities from Europe (unions in Northern Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and two individuals from the North American Division (NAD)—Dave Weigley of Columbia Union and Ricardo Graham of the Pacific Union.

Please note the distinction here. The European unions were being warned. The presidents of the NAD unions were being “publicly reprimanded”—this despite the undisputed fact that it was their constituencies in session that had voted to ordain women, not unilateral decisions by the presidents. 

You have already guessed that this was a followup to the “compliance committee” process that was voted last year at Battle Creek. That’s been written about extensively, enough that you don’t need to be reminded that it was a very strong push by Elder Wilson to give his office authority to discipline, with the help of some hand-picked committees, church entities and leaders whom he deemed out of compliance. And although there were several committees set up, no one was in any doubt that the topic that pushed his buttons was women’s ordination. (This is important: not a single compliance committee met about the event I’m about to describe!)

I will tell you the basic schematic of what happened late Tuesday afternoon. 

The first motion was to give a formal warning to the offending European unions. That passed by about ⅔ to ⅓. The second part was to publicly reprimand Ricardo Graham and Dave Weigley. Before that could come to completion, an amendment was made to reduce that to a warning, also. Surprisingly, that passed. And then that set of warnings passed, as well, also by about ⅔ to ⅓.

But, as they say, the devil is in the details. What follows is how the process appeared to me—so please don’t whine about how subjective I am: I’m telling you right now that I intend to tell you my experience of this event. You don’t need to agree with me, and indeed, I suggest you watch the proceedings for yourself.

The chair and his helpers were were far from neutral facilitators in this process. There was no objection made by the commenters that the chair didn’t contradict and, as the spirit struck him, dodge, diminish, dismiss or act like he didn’t understand. To one he said, “Those are nothing but opinions,” and at first wouldn’t answer the man’s questions. Does a chair really get to manipulate everything that happens in a meeting? In this church, apparently. 

There were people huddled around the chair feeding him talking points and legal advice. People who don’t even agree with what he’s doing! I know, and they know that they did not show integrity except in the most technical sense of giving the advice they’re hired to give. This makes me sad. (Would they have allowed the subjects of the discipline to have attorneys advising them, do you think?)

One of the complaints of the four European presidents and the two American presidents who were up for discipline was that the process hadn’t been carried out as promised. Some of them were completely blindsided to learn, for the first time on the previous night, that they were to be the subjects of today’s action. Their complaint was dismissed in the most condescending manner. They should have known. How could they not have known?

The most solid objection, it seemed to me, was that the document spells out an appeals process to the reprimand. How, asked Elder Thomas Müller of Denmark, can I appeal this when I just learned of it? This was dismissed too, in a manner so clumsy as to be insulting. Again, you should have known, because you were the disobedient party.

The European leaders were puzzled. They have not ordained women, only commissioned them. In what sense, they asked, have we been noncompliant? The problem, it appears, is that some of them had, with the full support of their pastors and constituencies, begun to use the gender-neutral “commissioning” status exclusively. Even though Elder Dan Linrud of Oregon read the relevant passage from the policy book that said that commissioning was an alternative to ordination, Elder Wilson patronizingly informed him that whatever it says, we all know what it means.

Over and over again we heard, “We have a representative system.” To those who said the process hadn’t been carried through, he said, “We gave that to your division leaders, and they were to do it.” But what if they hadn’t? It was Dave Weigley who finally said, yeah, but you’re reaching down from the GC to discipline a union president, and yet when I ask that you hear us, you say you don’t have to listen, and that I should work through the representative system! Elder Wilson was clear that he was done listening. He’d attended the union constituency meetings where these decisions were made, he’d heard all he needed to hear, and he was satisfied that these presidents should bear the blame.

If there is a flaw in this process that is more egregious than any other, it is that Elder Wilson told everyone right up front that he completely ignored the compliance committee system that he so fought for last year. He said that technically the compliance committees were optional. And after they were so unfairly maligned by critics, he said, they were rendered useless. So he ignored them, and simply made the decision to discipline these entities and individuals with the help of the in-house Administrative Committee (ADCOM) in the GC office—who, of course, he could say proudly, were wholly in support of him. Of course they were! The ADCOM members present weren’t named, though we know they are Elder Ted Wilson’s closest associates. This is not a democratic process. It is a man and a few of his friends with an agenda. 

In short: Elder Wilson had no rationale for why the process had been so sloppily carried through; for why it was sprung on these men at a public meeting; for why he was disciplining the European Unions who had not ordained women; for why he’d skipped “warning” for the NAD Unions; for why he was ignoring the document’s appeal process; and especially for why he had set aside the compliance committees entirely and made the decision to take punitive measures all by himself. There was an inevitability about this, and he was determined to see it through. He was offered several good off-ramps when it was clear that he couldn’t produce a rationale; he passed by all of them.

There were some extraordinarily thoughtful comments from the floor—almost all speaking against the disciplinary process. I’m more impressed than ever with a few people, such as Randy Roberts, senior pastor of Loma Linda University Church and Les Pollard of Oakwood. I’m especially envious of the composure of the men who were, to one extent or another, in the dock today, all of whom spoke: Thomas Müller of Denmark, Johannes Naether and Werner Dullinger of Germany, Robert Sjolander of Sweden, and of course my much-admired friends Ricardo Graham of the Pacific Union and Dave Weigley of the Columbia Union. I want to mark as a standout—whom I didn’t know of until today—Victor Marley of the Norwegian Union, who was grace-under-pressure personified. I’d nominate him as the next GC president!

“But it’s just a warning,” one friend said to me. “What’s the big deal?” He’s right: it’s mostly symbolic, and has few consequences—right now. (Subsequent consequences include kicking the offenders off the GC Excom, and even dissolving their unions.) Here is the real problem: it is treating grown men like naughty schoolboys, humiliating them before their peers. (As Mark A. Johnson, the president of the Canadian Union said, “This would be illegal if this meeting were being held in my country. We have laws against this very thing.”) This was, beginning to end, parent-to-child, intended to put people in their place. 

Folks, this is 2019! Ricardo and Dave are in charge of the two biggest and most successful unions in the world church, bar none! Their constituencies love and admire them! Can it be an accident that these men were singled out for public humiliation? That Elder Wilson could barely maintain his composure when Dave Weigley asked him a question? 

How someone appears to onlookers has a lot to do with whether you agree with him or not. One commenter who’d watched the proceedings on the internet told me how impressed he was by Elder Wilson’s kindness and patience. I was sitting right down in front, watching Elder Wilson’s face. To me, he appeared to be suppressing anger. His jaw was tight, his eyes glaring. To Dave Weigley in particular, he was not just patronizing, but contemptuous. 

Elder Wilson spent the first part of his introduction to this action by telling everyone that this wasn’t about his desires. How much he hated doing this. That there was no enjoyment in it. That he wanted everyone to forget it quickly, that we need not mention it, and that we should instead remember all the mission initiatives that had been presented. Sadly, though, he had to take this action because it was about something the church voted, and it was his duty to enforce it. It was nothing personal. 

My impression, and that of many of my friends, is just the opposite. All of this is, to him, very personal. This is a vendetta against those who do not obey the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This is about one man’s need to control the church he loves—and he wanted the whole world to see it on streaming video. This is something he was proud of!

I have rarely seen a clearer instance of the unexamined life: the man who tells himself this is all in the service of duty, but everything he does, his entire methodology, says just the opposite. This is not about the church’s mission. It is about a personal obsession. Women’s ordination is, to him, worth destroying the church over. My suspicion is that he’s willing to sacrifice a great many of us in the process, with nary a tear. This is—let there be no mistake—about Elder Ted Wilson, a man so caught up in his destiny as to not understand his own motives. Elder Wilson has had dozens of opportunities along the way to find win-win solutions. To bring diverse peoples together. To create alliances and cooperation. This “trial” was totally unnecessary. Instead, he will go down in church history as the person who pitted the world church against itself—and he will be completely unaware of it, possibly even proud of it.

I have tried to support Elder Wilson, to give him the benefit of the doubt. People have told me that he is a good man, and I’ve wanted to believe them. Just this week I wrote an article warning against demonizing people—him in particular. After today, after watching him make excuses, blame others, slip and slide around his own words, ignore a consultation process he himself created, refuse to give vulnerable people the benefit of the doubt, to humiliate adults like children, to diminish them, and treat them as though their comments were stupid or senseless—I’m finding it much harder to believe that he is as gracious as some have said.

In the end, the silent majority voted with Elder Wilson. This, I think, is the new reality for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The NAD church has the money. But the world church has the votes. And the world church likes an authoritative system. It can be argued that reducing the “public reprimand” to a mere “warning” was a loss to Elder Wilson. But the biggest loss was to Elder Wilson himself, who showed far too much of his real motivation, which was not to create unity but to overpower others.

We may need to prepare for a denomination in constant conflict, in perennial drama. From the beginning, Elder Wilson appeared prepared to sacrifice members and leaders who didn’t agree with him, and to feel justified in it. And after the way most of the world church leaders fell into line behind him today, I see little hope of a better outcome for the future. If Elder Wilson is replaced in 2020, whoever steps in will be heir to the same dynamic, and it is unlikely the replacement will be as skillful in managing it as he is. 

I never thought I would say this, but it now seems to me that we in the western church (by which I mean the NAD, Europe, and Australia/NZ) have no chance of moving forward into a successful, missional future as long as we have to spend time and energy in proceedings like this, wrestling with the world church’s leaders—in this case, proceedings wholly unnecessary, manufactured by one who lacks insight into how he could have been less destructive.

I admit I did not join in when, at the end of the session, Elder Wilson wanted us all to sing “Whisper a Prayer” with him.  I am always bothered by the use of prayer and worshipful music as mere punctuation to stressful meetings, and at that moment, I confess, my heart was especially unreceptive.

Tonight, I am sad. I grieve for Elder Wilson. I grieve for those six marvelous leaders who were called on the carpet today like naughty schoolboys. And I grieve for all the rest of us.

Just remember this. None of this was necessary. There were a dozen other ways to solve it with far less pain. Elder Wilson wanted to solve it this way. That tells us a lot about him, and what he intends for this church.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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