30 March 2022 |
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
Let me begin by saying that I regard you as a wise aunt who gives good advice. I’m usually impressed by your wisdom and probity.
However, an answer last week to a question about whether Elder Ted Wilson is a bad person gave me pause, and made me want to respond. In this column, you admitted that Elder Wilson had some deficiencies, but you encouraged us to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It is a good Adventist answer; a kind and compassionate answer. We grow up being taught that we need to love everyone, regardless of what kind of person they are, and to forgive and forget. And of course, I do believe in forgiving, particularly if the person has asked for forgiveness and is truly sorry.
But with this answer, I believe you may have given Elder Ted Wilson a pass that he doesn’t wholly deserve. You compared Elder Wilson to the Wizard of Oz, who in the movie declares himself a very good man—just a very bad wizard. Very few of us know Elder Wilson personally, so we can’t actually judge Elder Wilson the man. I’ll leave that judgment to his family and close friends, and I suspect most of them will say he is a good man: he provides for his family and he loves his church. He himself would say, I’m sure, that he has the best of intentions.
But I don’t think the person submitting the question to you was asking about Elder Wilson’s personal life. They were asking about the Elder Ted Wilson who intersects with their lives as members of the Adventist church, and what he represents as president of the General Conference.
Giving that disclaimer makes me feel a little less bad about talking so frankly about him—although I am certain he would have no problem speaking unkindly about me, which observation you’ll understand better in a moment.
People often refer to Elder Wilson as president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Actually, our church doesn’t have a president. He is only the president of one office of the church, the General Conference.
Still, most Adventists consider him the leader of the church, mainly because he portrays himself that way: as sort of the self-selected pope of the church. What he says carries a lot of weight, and it feels to me like many fear him—and for good reason, if you see how he has publicly taken on his enemies. This has always felt unhealthy in what is supposed to be a spiritual environment.
We all make mistakes, and anyone who is a leader is up for criticism. The church and its leadership isn’t unlike politics and politicians: there are generally multiple factions pulling leaders in multiple directions. Of course, they can’t please everyone.
But are they even listening? A good leader is the leader of all the constituents of the organization—even those he disagrees with. You can’t please everyone all the time, but an effective leader doesn’t act like an autocrat: they let the sides know that they are being heard and make them feel a part of the whole.
This is where Elder Wilson is lacking in effective leadership.
Business and religion
It is not entirely wrong to view the church structure, the General Conference and its multiple vassal offices, as a business. We have a product—multiple products, actually—to promote. We have finances to manage and be accountable for. Of course, we want our business to be run efficiently.
But there are a whole set of unspoken rules and assumptions that get attached when you add God into the equation. Expectations are shifted, because one expects the leaders to act like Christians—meaning not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk.
Humans have a wide variety of needs, and all of them come into play in an organization like a church. “Do unto others as you would have them do until you” is perhaps the best guiding principle. Just saying you care isn’t enough. Nor is it enough for our leaders to merely sound religious—quoting Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy. What’s needed is to listen to the real needs of the members, and “do unto others.”
Elephants in the room
I think it is better for us to be frank about the shortcomings of our leaders. It sometimes feels a bit like the emperor’s new clothes, where everyone sees he’s naked except the emperor himself.
There are a few not-so-hidden elephants in the Wilson room—places where Elder Wilson has failed those he purports to lead. Instead of admitting that these areas are not his strong suit, he doubles down and digs his heels in, refusing to dialog with those who disagree with him.
There are probably dozens of issues that could be named. In fact, the reason why the church is losing membership may well be due to Elder Wilson (as you, Aunt Sevvy, acknowledged, to your credit).
A big one that has been going on for decades now is women’s ordination. How often does Ted Wilson, as a leader, sit down with and talk with those who advocate for female pastors being ordained? If talks were occurring, there wouldn’t be a need to bring this up at every meeting of the General Conference Session or its executive committee. Elder Wilson makes his personal feelings on this topic known very clearly, and allows no room for disagreement among his associates. If there are conflicts, these individuals find themselves moved to a new assignment or fired. (Some will remember the shameful public scolding at the 2019 GC Executive Committee meeting of those distinguished and respected church leaders who had chosen to ordain women.)
This management technique trickles down to the lower levels of church structure, and it is probably why employees who think differently don’t feel they can speak up publicly against church policies, even if the policies are unbiblical or totally irrelevant to today’s church.
The other elephant in the room is the marginalized members. This is a large demographic, but the one that I’m most familiar with are the LGBT+ members.
Forty years ago Ted’s father, Neal Wilson, sent a group of pastors, Bible professors and a counselor to talk with the new LGBT+ group, later organized under the name Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International. After several days of getting to know this group of Adventist “homosexuals,” all but one of the GC representatives reported back that they had a positive experience with the Kinship group and recommended that the church set up a method to dialog with and minister to us.
But this never happened. The one person who dissented was Colin Cook, at the time an Adventist pastor, who himself was and is a homosexual. He came up with a program to “de-homosexualize” Adventist LGBT+ people. The church followed his recommendation and poured funds (tithe money and offerings) into supporting his program. Many LGBT+ people trusted Colin because he was endorsed by God’s remnant church.
A few years later Kinship was instrumental in exposing Colin’s inappropriate sexual behavior with the counselees who came to him for help. After Colin was exposed twice, the church stopped funding him, but never apologized for this mistake and for the mental health—and yes, lives—lost due to this misguided counseling sham. Forty years later the church has never admitted doing anything wrong. No apology has ever been issued.
Ted Wilson follows in his father’s footsteps. He refuses to acknowledge that gay people exist in the church. He refuses to speak with Adventist LGBT+ members to hear their side of the story. And not only does he ignore all attempts from Kinship for dialog, he repeats the mistakes of his father by endorsing a group that advocates for change for those who are LGBT+.
After decades of hard experience, we have learned that you can’t pray away the gay. God, although He could, doesn’t change someone’s orientation no matter how much you fast and pray. If Elder Wilson doesn’t talk with LGBT+ Adventists to hear their stories, he thinks he doesn’t have to deal with these (or any other) marginalized members of the church.
Good man, bad man?
Does this make Elder Wilson a bad man? That isn’t for me to say. But it makes him a poor leader. As long as one fits neatly into what Elder Wilson considers worthy of membership, there is no problem. If one finds themselves outside of what Elder Wilson deems acceptable, then you become persona non grata. To me that is the definition of a bad leader.
And to me, at least, as a member of the LGBT+ community that has been so harmed by his and his father’s decisions, I confess that I don’t immediately think of him as a good man, either.
A sincere apology for the harm he has done may not change everything, but it would be a good first step in building a bridge. If Ellen White were still alive, I wonder if she wouldn’t be writing a letter to be put in the Testimonies to the Church, admonishing Elder Wilson and instructing him on how to become a better leader and a kinder person.
But Elder Wilson’s constant quoting of the Spirit of Prophecy doesn’t make up for never having a conversation with people, and asking “How can I understand you better?”. The end result might not be a change of heart, but at least the attempt should be made to hear what the people he is meant to serve are saying.
Compassion is important. Forgiveness is important. But at some point we must forgive and tell the truth, Aunty. Ted Wilson and the rest of the church leadership who follow his lead aren’t entitled to a free pass any longer. It is time for them to start being genuine, transparent and honest. No more political double talk to pacify members with vague rhetoric.
My mom told me that “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” It is good advice, but sometimes being silent keeps you from clearly identifying the problem. In this case, I think my mother’s other quote is just as important: “Honesty is the best policy.”
So, Aunt Sevvy, I will continue to appreciate your wisdom. But I think in this piece, you may have asked a bit much of some of us who have been marginalized by Elder Wilson. He indeed, has a hard job, as you said. But we also need to expect him to be a leader for everyone, not just for those who agree with him.
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Floyd Poenitz, a lifelong Adventist and graduate from Southwestern Adventist University, writes from Dallas, Texas, where he lives with his husband, Jeff. He serves as president of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, where he works to create community for LGBT+ Adventists and their families and to raise awareness of LGBT+ Adventists in the church.