By Victor Hulbert (from news bulletin), November 14, 2016:     Leaders in the Adventist denomination’s Trans-European Division (TED) are united in mission. Watch them in discussions at the dinner table or in committee during their annual meeting in Bečići, Montenegro, and you will see a positive exchange of ideas in progress. Together they are looking for positive ways to share the Adventist message across the varying cultures that include communities from the extremely secular to the Orthodox, Catholic and predominantly Muslim.

Within that context church members seek to build relationships within their communities and with each other. Equally, with such diversity, they find themselves working in radically different ways in different countries.

That cultural diversity affects not just mission, but the way the church leads and operates. This became clear in discussions focused around the document “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation” recently voted by the denomination’s General Conference Annual Council.

In consultations, held both with the presidents council and with the larger executive committee, Pastor Raafat Kamal, president of the TED, noted that there is a positive spirit and desire within the TED that they are, and want to remain, part of the world church, that they rejoice in the unity that the denomination has together in Jesus, but that there are particular issues and circumstances in Europe that need sensitive understanding from the larger body of Adventists.

Several clear issues were presented during the debate. The first was that the document, while good in intention, was open to misinterpretation. “The name of the document is ‘Unity in Mission.’ I do not know of any document with a name that has produced such disunity,” stated Pastor Reidar Kvinge, president of the Norwegian Union Conference. With serious issues of equality legislation in his country, his team have been looking for a way forward that will give gender equality that satisfies government regulations, and that fits in with the spirit of denominational Working Policy.

As president of the Adventist denomination in Denmark, Pastor Thomas Müller agrees, but finds his membership far more concerned with the ethical and conscience issues than the challenge they have in being out of harmony with Danish employment law. He pleaded that, “this needs open discussion and some need for adaptability.”

Both Kvinge and Müller emphasize that it is not the document itself, but the issues that surround it, principally that of credentials for women in pastoral ministry and church leadership, that are causing some difficulties for the denomination in their areas. They are struggling with how to balance, not just equality legislation, but the cultural expectations of their youth and young adults where the norm is one of gender equality. They see this as an issue of fairness not theology.

Frieda Souhuwat-Tomasoa, a lay representative from the Netherlands, appealed for greater understanding and sensitivity. As members in Europe reflect the diversity of thought seen around the Adventist world, she agrees with Müller that we need to learn to co-exist with a variety of opinions. “Can we find a third way? We need to listen. We need to consult and we need to come back together.”

History may give us a somber lesson in that regard. Pastor Robert Csizmadia, executive secretary of the Hungarian Union Conference, recounted how the Adventist church in Hungary split forty years ago because, in his words, “both sides were right.” As a result discussions got bogged down and trust was lost. He pleaded, “I accept that this is not about ordination. It is something more. How do we listen to each other when we are both right? We do not have 40 years!”

That resonated with Hilde Huru, a lay member from the Norwegian Union Conference. She sees this as an issue not just of equality, but of conscience. She confessed that, along with many of her fellow members, she struggles with what she sees as inconsistent church policy that allows the ordination of women as elders and deacons yet holds back from that same privilege for paid pastors. She pleaded that she had been waiting, hoping, being very patient for 15 years, hoping that this inconsistency would be removed. Quoting the prophecy of Joel 2:28 that “your sons and daughters will prophesy,” she said, “I have stayed patient for the sake of unity. I can no longer do that. We cannot stay united unless we allow for diversity.”

Listening is seen as an important point by Kamal, including the listening and prayer principles outlined in the unity document. This must be not just during the discussion, but also as part of the route for finding a way forward.

Pastor Djordje Trajkovski, president of the South East European Union Conference, which includes the nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia,  and represents one of the more traditional areas within the TED. A mild mannered and gentle man, he expressed that while the issues of compliance and, in particular, gender equality, may be of more significance in some parts of Europe than others, that nevertheless we need to stand together as leaders with a common voice. “We need to respect each other,” he said, while also voicing the hope that this would not be an ‘all-consuming issue’ for the next four years.

Müller urged the leadership of the World Church to be more pro-active in trying to find a positive solution. “We want to be together in this,” he said. “We want unity. We should navigate towards solutions.”

One of those solutions looked again at Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council — a passage highlighted in previous TED discussions on the subject of unity. As a model for finding win/win solutions for two groups that are both “right,” the Jerusalem Council was highlighted again, noting that Jewish Christians continued with their tradition of circumcision while the gentiles were allowed a variation.

A way forward was suggested by Pastor Göran Hansen, president of the Swedish Union Conference. He suggested that as leaders we work positively towards solutions and then reconvene a full executive committee meeting in February 2017. He suggested that giving more time to discuss, to listen to each other, to consult with the policy experts, would help the TED to move towards a consensus. The suggestion gained wide approval.

Pastor Wim Altink, president of the Netherlands Union Conference, added that in preparing for the February meeting, the TED officers, including the executive secretary, should draft a careful and well-reasoned TED response to the “Unity document” to be discussed, amended and accepted.

In concluding the discussion Kamal thanked committee members for their positive, constructive spirit. “Such a spirit is the way we must move forward,” he said, noting that “we cannot rush this. I’m appealing for calmness about this. To take time to take this process forward in a calm and dignified way.”

Kamal stated, “We will not ignore what was voted at Annual Council. We will take positive steps to address this, and I emphasize positive. We need to find a constructive solution.”

It was clear, in the room, that there were those who were hurting. Despite the fact that the Pastor Ted Wilson, the president of the denomination’s General Conference, very clearly stated that last year’s “no” vote on the recommendation that Divisions be allowed to authorize the ordination of women “does not change current policy,” people experienced that female pastors, elders and leaders have been given a difficult time since the vote. Others, and particularly young people, have become discouraged with a church that does not seem to be speaking their language. They want to belong, but struggle with what they see as inequality.

Kamal emphasized once again that the entire TED leadership believes in and supports women in pastoral ministry and in denominational leadership. “We have made statement after statement on this issue,” he said, noting in particular the TED releases made following the vote in San Antonio during the 2015 Year-end Meeting, and more recently, immediately following the vote on the Unity document. “We are part of the world church, but we need the world church to understand our issues within our culture. We have made very open commitments to our values in the empowering of women in ministry and leadership. We have to find a way forward to see how the Division can work within the unity of the world church and policy.”

Discussion and consultation will now take place across the Division based on the “Unity in Mission” document. This will lead up to a special TED executive committee meeting that will convene in the early part of next year.

Victor Hulbert is communication director for the denomination’s Trans-European Division with offices in England. The featured photo with this story is a landscape of the city of Bečići, Montenegro, where the meeting is being held. It is from the local travel bureau.