By Loren Seibold, October 9, 2016:  

Culture Shock:  The first day of the Annual Council meetings is always a bit of a culture shock. It’s not just that there are so many people from all around the world, speaking so many languages—that you can find in any U.S. city. It is that it’s still our own dear church, but here presented with so much formality, so many people in suits, surrounded by the resources to do anything they like, from the most polished presentations to flying around the globe. It’s also the sense of self-importance here, the “highest authority of God on earth” feeling that pervades the room. One can’t help but contrast this gathering of the church with the humble congregations that many Seventh-day Adventists attend, including those I pastor.

But it becomes quickly apparent that most of the church represented in this room is not like the North American church, but very much more dynamic, more optimistic about winning the world. Where we seem to have given up, occupying until He comes or at least waiting for the latter rain of the Holy Spirit to make the crop start growing again in our barren ground, they’re still hard at it, with many fewer resources and much more success. It makes one rather ashamed, really, of our obsession with church conflicts while others are trying so hard to make life better at the raw edge of human need—even if it is by means of a message that seems less meaningful to the Western church than it once did.

The Meeting: Procedurally, the meetings have a peculiarly disjointed feeling. There is a meeting agenda (perhaps online—they’ve not given it to us in the news media). The meeting lurches from topic to topic, each with another presenter, with lots of reminders to rush. (This latter is necessary: we pastors are sometimes better at talking than communicating.) Yet everything is connected a little too stiffly, like a necklace that’s been strung so tightly that it has no flex. Sections of the meeting are divided by perfunctory punctuation prayers. Important things, things that could occasion good discussion, seem to be rushed along by the chair, Powerpoint slides zipping by so fast you can’t read them, only to be succeeded by another long testimony or video presentation.

The attendees—mostly men in suits—are well-behaved. There’s surprisingly little moving around. These are people who’ve trained themselves to sit in meetings as though something important is happening. And occasionally, something does. About the time you get bored and are dozing off, or take a bathroom break, some interesting bit will fly by.

But you must understand that these meetings are not designed for discussion. They are mostly reporting on what the people in the GC departments are doing, what some would call promotion. With the occasional hold-your-breath story, like that of Pastor Ali, a former Palestinian Muslim who was nearly stoned to death when he became a Christian, and is now a Seventh-day Adventist pastor in Israel.

They generate a lot of paper, the people in this building. Brochures, department-produced books that are bought and given away, and may have few readers. Lots of catchy program labels like “Total Member Involvement” and “Mission360,” and dozens of acronyms whose meanings are impossible to keep track of. Many professionally-produced promotional videos, so good that they almost defeat the purpose, all being so slick and nice that there’s nothing to distinguish one from another. Media fills in where charisma used to be.

Business: Now and then there’s an item of business: someone nominated to a job that must be voted, or a policy change. Today they changed the status of the Netherlands Union Conference from a union conference that hasn’t had any local conferences in it for 40 years, to a union of churches, a union conference that also operates as a local conference. This took a few years of study and some onsite visits, in order to change a label. Wow. But organizations do have to do this kind of thing.  

Other business: a document on transgender people is being delayed until the spring meeting. One good idea that I heard today was from a couple of South Africans who have started a free construction consulting service for big Adventist building projects. Having been part of building a new church once, I know there are many pitfalls, and amateurs doing the work of God often make them. I think it’s safe to say that our biggest boondoggles have had to do with real estate and building mistakes. 

The Big Discussion: After Dr. David Trim, the long-haired, flamboyantly-waistcoated Brit who heads the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, gave a report on the slippage in doctrinal belief among some Adventists (the “remnant church” idea seems to have taken the worst hit) there was a precisely timed (half an hour, 3 minutes per comment) discussion. Here you would learn that many world Adventists still think it a problem that women are wearing jewelry, and that not enough people understand the central importance of the sanctuary doctrine, and that it is probably the fault of lax pastoring. There is, when it come to these matters, little consideration of cultural differences or progressive truth.

The Elephant in the Room: One presenter, a talented and interesting young man who works in the building, told me that he rather resented that while he was talking about something of great importance (and I agree—it was), he knew that the so-called “unity document” was in everyone’s thoughts. I sympathized. It casts a shadow over everything, even though it wasn’t mentioned today, and though the original document has slid into the background in favor of a later, more pastoral one.

In the last couple of weeks a lot of us have had our underwear in a knot about this. There’s nothing we Adventists enjoy more than a fit of righteous indignation, especially if it’s self-righteous. I think it’s safe to say that our excited imaginations exceeded reality, which in any gathering like this is bound to be pretty dull.

There is an alternative narrative that I heard from several people I talked to. It goes like this: The General Conference has been under a lot of pressure, not specifically about women’s ordination, but because division leaders sometimes have to crack down on unions that are not in compliance with denominational policy, including financial policy. Now these unions have started to say, “So, it’s OK if Americans go outside of policy, but not us?” (Set aside for a moment the argument that gender in ministry shouldn’t be a GC policy matter, and just accept that when many voted at San Antonio, they thought that was exactly what they were voting—not some technical question about under whose jurisdiction ordination falls.) Given that the majority of Adventists are in South Asia, Africa and Latin America, that’s put a lot of pressure on the GC’s top leaders.

The story goes that it wasn’t Pastor Wilson who called for the punitive document, but the Secretariat. (Whenever I hear that word I think of a Triple Crown racehorse, which betrays my age.) That the department headed by the good-humored Dr. G. T. Ng asked for the original document, which was prepared with the help of Dr. Trim, as merely a study paper to start discussion. That their big regret is having released it, which made it seem more than that. That they never intended to inflame the rumor that they were about to “missionize” the union conferences, but only that they needed to initiate some serious discussion because of the questions they were getting from leaders in the rest of the world. That the conciliatory, pastoral document they’ll be discussing on Tuesday was what they were headed for all along.

In other words, the temperature wasn’t nearly so high about all of this as the rumors made it sound.

I have no way to confirm this—the important part of the discussion was kept in the most inner of the inner circles, and much of what we heard was leakage seasoned with gossip. But the older I get, the more I want to believe that people have good intentions, and are probably not nearly as dark and menacing as they seem through a computer screen.

Yet the issues involved here have some serious consequences, from which we extrapolate sinister motives. And it’s probably not surprising that the blame has been attached to GC President Ted Wilson.

Ted Wilson: I have never had a conversation with Pastor Ted Wilson. From a number of people I hear that he is a kind, thoughtful gentleman. That he is courteous to a fault, honest and gracious. I want to believe that, though like many others I have had a hard time squaring that with the way he’s advanced his agenda in the church since being elected in 2010. From the very beginning, he’s rubbed our fur the wrong way, especially those of us in the NAD and Western Europe.

It’s hard to understand people who are very unlike oneself, so I talked to a few people who have worked with him, and here’s what they say:

  • That he is a man of conservative principles, everyone agrees. His picture of the church is one that isn’t popular with educated Adventists of the Western church, though common elsewhere. He is totally committed to the central place of the Seventh-day Adventist church in spiritual history, and is certain that this traditional theology, in all its parts, is what the church must hold to in order to succeed. And given the amount of time he has spent outside of North America, who knows but that he may be intuiting that correctly?
  • He naturally thinks in terms of rules, doctrines and policies—that we must work within them, and conform to them. It is this need for structure, say his supporters, not mere power, that drives him. While that works well for those who are in agreement with him, it too often results in a win-lose scenario, when with a bit of flexibility it might have have been a win-win.
  • One person I talked to said this: “He doesn’t seem to know how to get people to do what he wants them to do in ways that make them want to do it.” (One definition of “charisma” is the ability to make people want to do what you want them to.) Instead, he defaults to tactics that open him to the accusation of being neither transparent nor collaborative.
  • Another person said that Pastor Wilson tends not to let others guide him. He relies either on his own convictions, or on organizational processes—which is why the ordination vote in San Antonio felt to him like a definitive solution, and he finds it puzzling that others didn’t see it the same way.

I don’t agree with Pastor Ted Wilson in everything, but I think we need to be careful not to indulge in the kind of angry demonization I see of him on Facebook and in comments. Real people are complicated. They believe their motives are good, even if we don’t like what they’re advocating. To picture Ted Wilson as a sort of Mr. Burns (from The Simpsons) as some do isn’t helpful. Instead, knowing his personality and leadership style is probably the best way to know what to expect of him and how to work with him.

The Rest of the Week: Expect more reports and bits and pieces tomorrow. The recrafted unity and conciliation document comes up on Tuesday afternoon, though I expect the discussion won’t be nearly as dramatic as the original document would have occasioned: after all, the new document is conciliatory and pastoral, and puts action off another year, which may be a good thing.

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Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today