by Monte Sahlin

By AT News Team, October 10, 2014

Fear of losing control, what the Adventist News Network (ANN) called the "elephant in the room," seemed palpable at the Annual Council of the governing body of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination during its first full day, Friday (October 10). In a leadership development seminar church administrators openly discussed the fact that at least some of them will likely not be re-elected at the General Conference (GC) Session next summer and the fears expressed by many about possible reactions to a pending decision on gender equality in clergy ordination.

"It is clear that leadership feels great angst about what can happen in San Antonio next year," wrote Adventist Today editor J. David Newman, who is a press observer at the meeting. "The whole morning was devoted to what happens if you do not get elected, and what to do if the GC Session does not vote your way on women’s ordination."

In no uncertain terms, the seminar prepared the more than 330 committee members, most of them church administrators, to face the reality that next year they might not be asked to return to their present job. Top leaders in the Adventist denomination are generally appointed to five-year terms of office and then must be re-elected based on review by a nominating committee and the vote of constituency delegates. Until recently re-election was common, and many leaders had long careers in what are defined in organizational bylaws as temporary positions.

Pastor Pardon Mwansa, a vice president of the GC, kicked off the workshop with a presentation entitled, “The Nominating Committee Decides to Make a Change.” He discussed the need for humility "when you are not re-elected," wrote Newman. Invoking lessons from Old Testament characters Daniel and Samuel, Mwansa said that a person elected to a denominational office has replaced someone, and that it would also happen to them. “We are called to serve and minister, and not to an office or a position,” Mwansa said.

Several denominational officials from various parts of the world offered case studies on how to prepare for a change in leadership, or in some situations, how to make a needed change at an administrative position. Several delegates said a change in leadership can both help the denomination and send a signal to the person being re-assigned.

There were frank case studies of “Pastor Upward Mobility” and “Pastor Superdose” led by key officials. "This was followed by a wonderful monologue given by Delbert Johnson," director of the denomination's retirement office. "He was seated at a desk with memorabilia from his conference president days and talked to his chair about how wonderful it was to be a leader and how sad it would be if he did not continue to be a leader."

Dr. G. T. Ng, the denomination's number two officer, gave "a delightful and humorous presentation [on] 'Appointment and Disappointment,' again dealing with the subject of not being re-elected." He emphasized "the need to be a humble leader." This was followed by two more case studies on the same subject. "It almost seemed to be overkill," wrote Newman from the meeting.

These presentations are unprecedented, a “taboo subject,” according to ANN. Elections and leaders' hopes for re-election are typically not discussed openly. The fact that this item was on the agenda is evidence of concern that next July at least some in the auditorium might see their current position assigned to someone else.

“Change brings innovation. Change ensures that we keep focused, and we might step back if we do not change,” said Maria Fraser, a lay member from the Southern Africa Union Conference. “There will be weaknesses in everyone, but the secret is for the team to synergize all their attributes and energies so that we can have the best for the Church.”

Pastor Don Livesay, president of the Lake Union Conference in the United States, urged his colleagues in the room to subject themselves to periodic evaluations. “We as administrators typically would rather have a root canal than be evaluated. Therefore, we don’t know where we’re hitting it right and missing it wrong,” Livesay said.

Livesay also called for evaluations to be formalized throughout the denomination, which would enhance accountability and balance in an administrator’s leadership and personal life. “If our life falls apart because we’re not re-elected, we verify not being re-elected,” he said.

Ng implored committee members, who include the officers of the 13 world divisions and the presidents of the 132 union conferences, to view their jobs through the lens of stewardship. “If you are elected to the same position, then you will become a steward of that new position.” He urged church administrators to follow his custom at the end of each term, bringing a moving box into his office and thanking his administrative assistant for the time they have worked together, visibly prepared to leave his job. Ng distributed a miniature box to the committee members as a reminder of this point.

Also on Friday, Pastor Mark Finley, the well-known evangelist, now retired, spoke for nearly an hour on “unity in the body of Christ.” He addressed how leaders on both sides of the women’s ordination debate would react if a potential vote next year at GC Session differed from their own convictions.

Finley said the issue went beyond women’s ordination and had implications on how the Adventist movement will work through other points of disagreement. He spent most of his time on three “flashpoints” from the book of Acts that threatened the unity of the early church. “Dissension deters you from mission. That’s the devil’s strategy,” he said.

Finley reviewed three New Testament stories in which the church had to make choices about customs and leaders,  and what happens when church leaders, corporately, make the wrong choice. The first story was the selection of someone to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. They nominated two individuals and then cast lots to select Matthias. Finley imaged that there might have been two sides, one which nominated Joseph and the other which nominated Matthias. In the end they all had to come together after the choice was made.

The second story involved the selection of seven persons to handle the conflict over who got food in Acts 6. The Greek widows complained they were not receiving help, so seven Greek men were appointed. Since they were Greek, they would understand the needs of the Greek widows. Finley emphasized that much prayer preceded the decision.

Then came the argument over whether circumcision was a salvation issue. The local leaders in different places had different opinions on the matter, so a general council of Christian leaders was convened in Jerusalem. A larger body met and rendered its decision, which the local churches were asked to follow.

This set the stage for Finley's third story, about Paul’s return to Jerusalem. The elders at Jerusalem, the church leaders, convinced Paul to shave his head, take vows, and perform certain ceremonies at the temple to show he was a good Jew. This backfired, and Paul was arrested. However, it provided an opportunity for Paul to extend his mission to Rome, where he had been wanting to go.

Finley said this was probably not God’s "plan A" but his ultimate purpose was still fulfilled: preaching the gospel in Rome. Adventist Today editor Newman summarized Finley's point; "Even if we get it wrong at San Antonio regarding women’s ordination, God will still find a way for His ultimate will to be achieved."

The New Testament pattern for resolving differences, Finley said, included prayer, seeking biblical answers, discussing the issues, considering what is best for the church’s mission and then finally making a decision on the issue together. Addressing the pending decision on ordination, Finley said, “May I make a humble suggestion? When you’ve studied an issue for 40 years and discussed it and discussed it and discussed it, pretty soon people have pretty well made up their minds on either side of the question. Continual discussion and debate only furthers division.”

Finley said he hoped the Adventist Church, like the early church, could learn to live with the decision on a major issue because people on both sides of the debate “were committed to the same Jesus. Whatever decision is ultimately made on the ordination of women, and I pray that this church will make the right decision, but whatever decision is ultimately made, my prayer is that nothing but God’s unified and prophetic mission will be the central focus of our lives,” Finley said.

"What Finley did not cover," Newman observed, "is when God does not make His ultimate will known, when He allows mistakes to continue. We could use King Saul as a good example. It took almost forty years before God made changes in the leadership of the nation."

Finley’s presentation was a preamble to next week, when the committee is expected to discuss the matter of women’s ordination, reported ANN. The committee must vote in order to set the topic as an agenda item for the 2015 GC Session.

The committee commissioned a study by Bible scholars on the theology of ordination two years ago to try to resolve a debate that has gone on since the early 1970s. At the 1990 GC Session in Indianapolis the denomination decided to authorize the ordination of women serving as local elders and to extend Commissioned Minister credentials to women hired as pastors, but not to permit ordination for women clergy because of concerns about "unity."