How the General Conference Lost Its Mojo
23 October 2020 |
My wife asked at the end of last week, “Are you going to do your own personal reflection article on the Annual Council meeting, like you used to do when you attended in person?”
My first reaction was “no.” But then I had to step back and wonder why I was so quickly dismissive. I sensed that something vital and important had changed in the last year.
I think I may have figured it out: church leadership has ceased to matter that much anymore. The church—that is, the people of the church, the worshipers, members and givers—have moved on and left the leaders behind. The General Conference has lost its mojo.
For the past 20 years we in the western church (by which I mean North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand) have been obsessing about the General Conference’s decisions. We’ve fretted about Elder Wilson’s advocacy of headship theology, his public scoldings of distinguished leaders, his retitling himself the president of the church rather than of the General Conference, his embrace of the most conservative elements of the church such as Last Generation Theology.
I may be giving COVID-19 too much credit, but the social reconstruction it forced upon us has changed a great many things—including our relationship to the multiple levels of church administration. Something has shifted in the western Adventist church. I’m almost ready to say that the GC is never going to matter as much again as it has up until now.
What western church leaders choose to do now will determine the extent of their irrelevance—more on that later.
The online community
I’m surprised and pleased at how quickly we took on meeting virtually. I preached the very first sermon after lockdown for the congregation where I have my membership, the Glendale City Church in southern California.
At first it seemed odd, uncomfortable. But over the next couple of months we realized something more clearly than we had before: with Zoom, you didn’t need to be in a particular place to attend church anymore!
Of course, we’d watched Doug Batchelor or Dwight Nelson online, but we were still feeling like church was local, even when we didn’t attend. When we couldn’t go to church, at least for a while, we began to sort ourselves into online communities of people with whom we had more in common. Monika Arnold’s recent essay is a good expression of how someone whose connection with an online Adventist community made her feel she didn’t need an uncongenial congregation—and I suspect that’s more common than we know quite yet.
It’s too soon to say what will happen to local congregations and communities. Many have said (and I agree with them) that we’ll never simply go back to normal when COVID-19 is over.
I knew big congregations would adapt. A few pastors took small congregations and districts there, too. I’m proud of some of the young pastors I know for how readily they created new versions of church. Zack Payne and his colleagues in metro Milwaukee abandoned the usual little church silos in favor of a regional association of pastors working together online. What part of that will survive beyond C-19 is unknown, but I think Zack and his friends would agree with me that the congregational landscape has changed.
As for those congregations that didn’t adapt, that are just sitting around waiting for things to go back to how they were before: I hate to break it to you, but this may be the beginning of your end. A substantial number of your congregations were already on life-support. You’re mostly grey-haired, there are no families, no children. You will not survive this. You kept saying you needed your own pastor, but what you didn’t realize was that a small multi-church district like yours doesn’t have enough money among all of the congregations to pay one relatively modest pastor’s salary—especially once you factored in the overhead of four more levels of church hierarchy above the local church.
The online church
We don’t know the durability of the online community model. Indeed, as has often been noted about social media, it thrives on a certain decontextualization from everyday life. The camera frame is cropped. We can be (though not all are) selective about what we show and what we say. That’s different than having to deal with the ordinary annoyances of the in-person church family. Many expectations—people to fill every obsolete church position that no one cares about, for example—don’t exist in the Zoom world.
Yet who’s to say it isn’t a valid new way to relate to people? After our ATSS online Lord’s Supper, I no longer doubt that the spirit can move in an online community, just as it can in a face-to-face one. A lot of the people I’ve met in the ATSS community are real friends, and will continue to be even after we’re no longer isolated.
But what of the church leadership?
I have said for years that the people who know the least about the church on the ground are the people who lead it at the top. As local pastors did what they could to recover local ministry, the conferences, unions, divisions and General Conference seemed shell-shocked. They had the money, the personnel, and the technology—but they seemed to wonder what they were supposed to do now.
We wondered, too. It had been assumed for so many years that they were essential—and in just a few short months, many of us were asking, “Essential for what? We’re still having meetings—without any help from you—and enjoying it more!”
Some conference were just flummoxed. They knew things were changing, but it was too painful to address. Some said nothing. A few laid people off. One pastor called me this week to tell me that in an effort to save money, his conference had pitted pastors against one another: it was a race to see whose church treasurers would get their remittances in first, and if yours came in late they’d chop a big chunk off the pastors’ paychecks. Though my friend’s churches had been consistently on time, this month one treasurer’s technical difficulties made him post his a couple of days late. “Tough luck,” his conference treasurer told him.
The best conferences took a “we’ll stand with you” attitude toward their pastors. Some said, “If revenue falls and you take a cut in pay, we will take the same cut.” That’s nice, as far as it goes, though it avoids the question that now presents itself a bit more clearly: how much do we really need your offices at all?
The General Conference
There are two concerns of the western church that have been largely ignored. One, that we are overburdened with denominational administration. And two, the arrogant, top-down, vaticanish “God’s highest authority on earth” attitudes of the General Conference.
For years, Adventist Today has been attending and reporting on the GC autumn executive committee meeting. It’s always been one of our most-read features. But as I followed the responses to the executive committee meeting this year, I sensed that our readers’ interest had waned. It wasn’t just that the executive committee had been online, though the lack of the usual rally atmosphere may have contributed. No, what I sensed was that the interests of Seventh-day Adventists are elsewhere. They have enough problems in their lives, and can live without again hearing Elder Wilson’s deadly dinosauric attitudes about the Word and the world. The attitude was “Meh—who cares what they say?” The GC seemed hollowed out, irrelevant. It lacked interest, and had become merely annoying, like the music you have to listen to on your phone while you’re on hold.
The concern and anger about church leadership has changed to something that ought to alarm leaders, were they but to realize it: apathy. People don’t care what they say and do anymore. And I suspect they’ll begin to act accordingly with their money. With the organization of so many new online communities, it looks more and more like the era of the corporate church is over. How long will it take for church leaders to see that?
This isn’t entirely surprising to those of us who have our eyes even partially open. The western church has been heading for crisis for a while: our congregations are aging, our revenues are in decline, our schools are closing, it’s far too late for a soon return of Jesus, and we are coping with the non-occurrence of most of our prophetic expectations.
Yet we have continued to act as though the General Conference still holds all the cards. This summer, people woke up one day and realized that we can safely ignore it.
How much church leadership will survive?
“But what of women’s ordination?” people ask. “They won’t let us do it.” Nonsense. Women’s ordination is here. It is being done by at least two unions, and others in Europe have set aside the whole ordination requirement completely. The rest could do whatever they wanted about ordination, and they would suffer nothing more than an ineffectual scolding. Many leaders said five years ago, “Oh, just give us a little time. We’ll follow the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union.” Why haven’t they?
The next year will be crucial. There are two things that church leaders in the western church must do.
First, they need to declare their independence from the General Conference. The way they do that is for the union conferences, who already have this authority, to tell their constituencies that they’re going to start ordaining women. Most said they wanted to, and would, eventually. Well, “eventually” has arrived. As one AT author asked a while back, “What are we waiting for now?” I encourage you to call your union conference and ask why they haven’t followed through. They have, at this point, nothing to lose. It’s time to confront them about their cowardice.
Second, it is time to reduce administrative offices. Many church leaders still act as though denominational offices are the church. They are not. This endless top-downism cannot continue. There are a dozen conferences in the North American Division (NAD) that can’t afford to be conferences, and don’t need to be. They’re sucking money from ministry to pay for an office whose work could be done elsewhere. Yes, some offices have reduced staff. But at the same time, the NAD built up a gigantic new bureaucracy of their own. Is that better?
At last week’s ATSS Dr. Denis Fortin pointed out that Presbyterians and Methodists allow no career bureaucrats. Clergy can serve in denominational administration for a limited term, and then they must rotate back into congregations. Adventists, like Roman Catholics, let our leaders become permanent bishops, cardinals and popes—who quickly lose touch with congregational life. I have seen no real will anywhere in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to make congregations the central thing, nor ministry its most important job. The main thing on the chopping block right now should be our overpopulated offices—and that, I will remind you, was said by no less a luminary than Dan Jackson in his valedictory meeting with the NAD committee in 2019.
My point is that as our community restructured during this lockdown, the General Conference has gotten lost, and much of the rest of the church bureaucracy is in danger. When the church “went to ground” and began assembling itself in online forums, it became apparent that there is much “above” us that we can live without.
The question now is how soon those who lead the church are going to realize it.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.