by Adventist Today News Team
Officials at the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (GC) announced last week that taskforce assigned to develop a plan to merge the Review & Herald Publishing Association and the Pacific Press "will cease its work immediately," according to a bulletin from the Adventist News Network (ANN), the denomination's official news service. "Differing perspectives as to the interpretation" of statements by Ellen G. White more than a hundred years ago were given as the reason for abandoning the effort, although there were hints that the subject will be approached again in the future.
The problems faced by the denomination's publishing enterprise are clearly outlined in a confidential document that Adventist Today has obtained. "Rapid advances in printing technology. Widespread availability of electronically disseminated information. … Momentum toward self-publishing [and] movement towards print-on-demand and electronic publishing [mean that] publishers must view themselves as distributors of intellectual property rather than publishers of books and magazines."
The document was evidently prepared for the officers of the GC and the North American Division, and led to the June 19 decision asking the management and boards of the two publishing houses to develop a plan for merger. In addition to the technological and economic environment within which Adventist publishing must work, the document also lays out a number of problems specific to the denomination's operations in the United States.
The problems noted: (1) There are many "very price competitive" providers of print services available and "denominational entities demonstrate a commitment to 'lowest cost' among all available options." (2) "The Literature Evangelism program is no longer a primary distribution avenue [because] door-to-door marketing of consumer products has almost completely disappeared." (3) Down-sizing of staff in local and union conferences has "reduced the promotion of local church involvement in annual … literature distribution initiatives." (4) "Many local conferences no longer operate" bookstores. (5) The way the denomination's supply system for local Sabbath School materials is organized and intellectual property is handled.
The goal of merging the two publishers was to introduce more cost effective use of new technology and connect the institutions to the plans of the Adventist Church in North America. Both publishing houses are organizationally linked directly to the GC despite the fact that there are now 63 publishers operated by the denomination around the world and the cost of shipping paper products has largely ended international distribution.
A source inside one of the institutions told Adventist Today that almost immediately after the June 19 announcement there were widespread expressions of fear among employees about loss of employment and personal difficulties related to being asked to move to another state. Other sources refused to characterize the reactions of employees even when offered anonymity, but acknowledged that similar concerns were being felt.
A 1968 compilation of Ellen G. White quotes on "Confederation and Consolidation" has been circulated among interested individuals. The ANN story implies that this collection or the original documents were discussed by the taskforce. Extracts from about a dozen letters written by White from 1894 through 1911 are included in the 22-page document, as well as a letter dated May 15, 1983, from "Friends of the Pacific Press" urging readers to write to certain GC officers and the union conference presidents because "in a few weeks … the future of the Pacific Press is to be decided [and] some would have it give up some of its independence."
A line from Letter 81, 1896, is quoted stating that Pacific Press "was ever to remain independent of all other institutions." Most of the original correspondence quoted in the document is from 1894 through 1896 when White was living in Australia and there was an effort to place the denomination's publishing houses under one governing board, a concept approved in principle by the delegates to the 1889 GC Session and further developed at the next session in 1891.
Material from the letters was read to the delegates at the 1895 session, although at that point the item under discussion was the merger of periodicals, not publishing institutions nor the concept of a single governing board. (See the General Conference Bulletin for 1895.) "I have no faith in consolidating the work of publication, blending into one that which should remain separate," White had written in Letter 71, 1894. "This is not God's wisdom, but human wisdom."
Interpretation of passages such as this one becomes controversial at several levels. What specifically was she intending to address? The earlier plan to have one governing board for all the publishing houses or the immediate proposal to combine some of the periodicals? Did she intend to make statements about situations more than a century later or was she only addressing the foreseeable future? How was the 1963 compilation constructed? That was prior to the capacity to search the entire text of all White's writings which is available in digital form today.
Those who interpret the material from White most literally not only believe she has ruled out any kind of organizational merger, but also that she mandates that each publishing house own separate production facilities. The 1983 proposal put forward a concept that has been discussed again recently; to have separate publishing organizations that share one production facility. This would be more cost efficient than the current situation.
In previous news reports Adventist Today editor J. David Newman has pointed out the value to the church of maintaining a number of voices and a range of views. With an estimated 30 million adherents around the world, the Adventist movement would, in the opinion of many members and clergy, not benefit from any plan that features a single editorial operation for even North America.
Although "the taskforce will not continue," the joint statement of the GC and NAD officers said, "the nature of a restructuring relationship in whatever future format that may develop requires deeper analysis and modeling." The statement also asked that the publishing houses "try to find ways to realize economies through closer cooperation and possible shared services."
"If the publishing houses would embrace this idea and really develop collaborative projects to deal with the new technology and business models in today's media world, they could probably avoid this merger idea coming back again," a church member who has worked in media businesses told Adventist Today. "Collaborations and joint ventures as the most common way forward these days. Mergers are largely among those holding onto eclipsed technology."