September 21, 2017:      Next week the administrators of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination will begin to gather from around the world for what will be three weeks of yearly meetings in Silver Springs, a Maryland suburb of Washington DC. This culminates in the Annual Council of the General Conference (GC) executive committee, October 5 through 11.

The Annual Council is where the GC Working Policy, currently a 790-page set of procedural rules for denominational organizations, is discussed, amended and revised. The committee includes about 350 individuals, including all of the union conference presidents from around the world, all of the GC and division officers, GC department heads, the chief executive officers of major institutions and a relatively small number of pastors and laity.

Many Adventists have great fear about the outcome of this meeting because of a new policy voted a year ago defining a process for dealing with disagreements between the GC and its member units, primarily the union conferences. The policy mandated steps to be taken to resolve such differences but did not specify what would happen if the GC were unable to impose its will.

For a year now there has been talk of “the other shoe” dropping. On the one side are those who want to maintain a lock-step unity while on the other side are those that warn of schism if sufficient flexibility cannot be maintained among brothers and sisters in the Adventist faith. And the central issue, often unstated, is about ordination to the gospel ministry. The Adventist movement has women serving as clergy and even at least one conference president, but technically they cannot be ordained.

GC Sessions have discussed the issue in 1881 and again in 1990, 1995 and 2015. Each time the consensus from Bible study has been that there is no reason to prohibit the practice. In fact in the 19th century Adventist co-founder Ellen White was aware of the consensus and offered no negative comment. She held the credentials of an Ordained Minister during much of her career, voted again and again by the GC over many decades.

In the 21st century some union conferences began to approve the ordination of women clergy. The GC Working Policy gives the union conferences the authority to approve ordinations and actually prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, among other things. So, it should have come as no surprise, but it has resulted in a reaction among some members, especially those anxious to “purify” the denomination.

Fears and Rumors

The fear of many is that if the GC seeks to impose sanctions against one or more union conferences, it will result in litigation because each union conference is incorporated under civil law in the nation or state where it is located. The litigation will result in bad publicity that will turn off potential converts, outside agencies such as accrediting bodies and members who see the entire conflict as ridiculous regardless of their personal opinion about the ordination of women clergy.

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A rumor was relayed to Adventist Today by a number of sources that on September 12 the GC administrative committee voted a four-line policy proposal that would authorize the GC officers to convene a small group to act on behalf of any local or union conference that was deemed to not be functioning within the denominational framework. Adventist Today was unable to confirm if this was a reality or simply an expression of the fears of many denominational employees in some parts of the world. If such a proposal is to become a reality, it will appear at some point on the Annual Council agenda over the next three weeks.

In an effort to allay the fears and control the rumors, Pastor Dan Jackson, the president of the denomination’s North American Division (NAD), convened a Webinar on Friday (September 15) for the local and union conference officers and ministerial directors across the division. He urged these denominational leaders to focus on the mission of the church, made it clear that the NAD will not authorize any ordinations of women clergy, and told the group that he had a personal conversation with Pastor Ted Wilson, the GC president, in which Wilson stated that he would not “use the nuclear option” against any union conference.

The phrase “use the nuclear option” is borrowed from current political narrative in the United States. It refers to historic rules in the U.S. Senate that allow a minority of a little over 40 percent of the Senators to block any proposal and whether or not the majority party should get rid of those rules so it can impose its priorities on the government.

What Will Happen?

As these issues come to the Annual Council there will, of course, be at least three viewpoints among the committee members: (1) Those who believe “unity” requires that union conferences be kept from approving the ordination of women clergy. (2) Those who believe “unity” requires a degree of flexibility given the very multicultural nature of the worldwide Adventist movement and do not understand why it is so important to prohibit the ordination of women clergy in local conferences that have voted by wide majorities to do so. (3) Those who would like to avoid a fight that could devolve into litigation, the destruction of important relationships and the defection of large number of church members.

One retired church administrator who has worked at the GC told Adventist Today that in his experience the largest number of GC committee members at Annual Council always fall into the third category no matter what the issue may be. “I will be surprised if there is any appetite for a destructive conflict.” He said that he thinks this is what Wilson and Jackson were attempting to signal. “Staying together is more important than either side of the ordination issue.”

“We need to pray for the leaders as they gather for this Annual Council,” a pastor from one of the largest churches in the United States told Adventist Today. “The presence of the Holy Spirit and their ability to hear the still small voice of God is more important than ever.”

Adventist Today has been told than hundreds of congregations in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand will have special prayer meetings on Sabbath, September 30, and October 7. These are the parts of the world that have the most to lose from a bad decision or a protracted, very public conflict. The younger generation of adults in these areas have a decided distaste for organized religion and this extends to many who grew up in the Adventist faith.

Adventist Today is sending both executive editor Loren Seibold and news editor Bjorn Karlman to cover the Annual Council for our readers. There will be daily stories on the Web site and short bulletins more often on our Facebook page and via Twitter.

The feature photo is from the 2016 annual meetings.

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