By AT News Team, July 1, 2015: Key leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination have been in San Antonio (Texas) for several days for prep meetings. Hundreds of booths have been set up in the exhibit hall. Perhaps as many as 65,000 people are on their way for the General Conference (GC) Session which begins tomorrow afternoon, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
The GC Session convenes once every five years. It is the constituency meeting for the top level of the complex organization of the largest Adventist denomination. It establishes the doctrines of the denomination, amends its constitution and bylaws, and makes revisions in the Church Manual, the rule book for local congregations. It also appoints the top officers, key staff and policy-making committees of the worldwide organization.
This is the 60th meeting of its kind since the first GC Session in 1863 during the formative years of a denomination that is about 160 years of age now. A total of 2,566 of the people coming to the GC Session are the delegates who will actually participate in the discussions and vote on the items presented. They come from more than 170 countries where the Adventist denomination has established organizations.
The other 62,000 or more people are simply observers who will hear music and preaching, hear the reports and observe the parades from various parts of the world while connecting with old friends and meeting new ones. But they will not participate in the business meetings, although they will be able to see and hear everything that happens in those meetings.
The denomination has four levels of organization as well as thousands of affiliated institutions and charitable agencies. The top level is the GC which has 13 divisions or field offices scattered around the globe, each encompassing a continental region. The level below it is made up of units called “union conferences” and “union missions.” (The difference is whether or not they are financially self-sustaining.) These union conferences are the entities that send the official delegates to the GC Session. Most encompass all of the Adventist members and organizations in a nation, although a few of the largest countries in the world have two or more union conferences covering a region of the nation.
Union conferences consist of a cluster of local conferences, the third level down from the top. The grassroots level consists of the local congregations in communities around the world. Each congregation in the denomination is part of a local conference (or “mission” or “field” or “section” — there are a variety of terms used in various nations) which manages pooled funds, hires the clergy, and administers Adventist schools and community service centers.
Each level of the organization has defined roles and authority. For example, the decision to accept or drop individual members of the denomination is in the hands of local congregations. The hiring and assignment of pastors belongs to the local conferences, while the ordination or commissioning of clergy is under the authority of the union conferences. At the 1901 GC Session major decisions were made delegating authority to the four levels instead of it being entirely in the hands of the GC. This was an historic step in the growth and maturing of the Adventist faith that gives it the flexibility to be one of the most multicultural religions in the world.
There are two kinds of delegates coming to San Antonio. The “regular delegates” are representatives of the union conferences that send them. The “delegates-at-large” include the officers and staff of the GC and its divisions, and representatives of the institutions and agencies that belong to the GC and the divisions.
Quotas defined in the bylaws determine how many delegates each organization gets. The total number of delegates from each division must be at least individuals who are either pastors or other “front line” employees or who are not employed by the denomination. The non-employees are often called “lay members” or “laity,” although most are well-educated professionals or proprietors of businesses.
There are 1,559 regular delegates and 1,007 delegates-at-large who have been pre-registered for the meetings beginning tomorrow. That is a total of 2,556 delegates. The Adventist News Network (ANN) has released data from a survey of the pre-registered delegates administered by the GC Secretariat.
Six percent are under 30 years of age and another 36 percent in their 30s and 40s. The majority (54 percent) are in their 50s and 60s, while only three percent are over 70 years of age. This reflects one of the major trends in the Adventist faith, the “graying of Adventism.”
Only 17 percent of the delegates are women, although the delegations from North America and Europe have higher numbers. For example, the Pacific Union Conference from the west coast of the United States is 42 percent women; twice the proportion of the world wide delegations. This is of particular concern to some denominational leaders and delegates because one of the major items on the agenda is about the role of women in the denomination.
One of the reasons that the percentage of women is so low is because most of the delegates are clergy and in most countries around the world there are few if any women among the clergy. In fact, many of the delegates are church administrators who hold jobs that the denomination’s Working Policy requires to be ordained clergy. And the GC refuses to recognize the handful of women who are ordained clergy in a few places.
Each delegate has the right to go to one of the microphones and speak to the agenda item that is under discussion at that moment. But often when the most controversial items are being debated the lines at the microphones are so long that it becomes impossible for all the delegates who wish to speak to have the opportunity. Sometimes the person in the chair will designate one microphone as “for the motion” and another microphone as “against the motion,” and alternate speakers.
Most important, the delegates vote on the recommendations and decisions brought before the session. Each delegate has one vote and at this session, for the first time, an electronic voting system will be used which will protect the anonymity of each delegate as he or she votes. A number of observers have voice the hope that this will mitigate the feeling at previous GC Sessions that some delegations engaged in “block voting” where individuals were pressured to go along with a particular viewpoint regardless of their actual convictions.
This GC Session has the potential, in the eyes of some observers, to become the most divisive since the 1922 session in San Francisco, California. At that session the man who was serving as the denomination’s president was alleged by a number of delegates to be not conservative enough, particularly in terms of interpreting the Bible. It was at the height of the emergence of the Christian Fundamentalist movement in America across all denominations and some historians have seen the tensions at that GC Session as influenced by that trend. As a result, Pastor Arthur G. Daniells, who had served as the denomination’s president since the 1901 session, was not reappointed to that position. Instead, he began secretary (number two officer) of the denomination and later the founding leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial Association.
It remains to be seen what will happen over the next ten days. Millions of people are praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a strong sense of God’s guidance and grace among the delegates.