by Loren Seibold  |  1 November 2019  |

Every autumn, I attend two sets of meetings at around the same time. First comes the General Conference Executive Committee, followed hard upon by the North American Division Executive Committee—known to us insiders as, respectively, the Autumn Council (AC) and the Year-End Meeting (YEM).

In many ways they’re quite different. AC has a ponderous feeling—not benevolent ponderous like a tame elephant, but like a really big, really nosy academy dean who’s giving you the eye. The NAD people are not just friendlier and more joyous and optimistic, they also project a feeling of innovation and competence rather than control. The GC tends to gaze into the past and fret about how to preserve it, while the NAD looks (more or less) to the future. Dan Jackson is funny and open, full of praise and love for the church and for young people, especially, while Ted Wilson is all about, well, not to be repetitive, but again that word “control” comes to mind.

But there’s one thing they have in common. In both places one wonders at the sheer amount of unasked-for stuff being created and done, the feeling that it’s too much, that it’s being done because they can, but without much reference to the actual needs of the church on the ground. In both meetings, it’s about people telling their stakeholders how much they do (using some extraordinarily professional presentations), and why they deserve the buildings and people and travel budgets that they have. (You would be surprised at how little time is spent on actual decision-making in these meetings.) But you definitely realize, as you listen to them, that it’s been a heck of a long time since most have actually experienced the church as it is out in, say, North Platte, Nebraska, or Pahrump, Nevada.

The result in terms of actual usefulness to the church is mixed, it seems to me. While I want to encourage the NAD team and praise them for their better, sweeter way, the manner in which all of these administrative offices pursue their goals raises lots of questions for those of us out in the denominational boonies.

But back to the report.

Nominating Committee Report:

As you’re no doubt aware, in our system, people don’t run against one another for jobs. We pastors and church workers are such delicate blossoms that we can’t face competition. So the NomCom brings one name, and you vote it up or down. All of today’s nominations were good picks, and approved by large margins.

  • Vice President for the NAD with emphasis on church ministries: This job was held by the estimable Debra Brill, who is retiring. She was replaced with Bonita Shields, who is right now a Stewardship Ministries Director. 
  • For NAD Undertreasurer (which is what the SDA church calls assistant treasurer, for some odd reason): Judy Glass, formerly of AdventSource.
  • To replace the vacated portion of Stewardship Ministries Director, Michael Harpe from South Central Regional conference was elected. 

With regard to this last: is stewardship something that you can teach? I think this is a fair question. For the past nine years or so, the GC has funded stewardship directors at the division level all over the world, and I think I heard today that will be funded until 2025. I wonder whether a cheerleader four stories up for giving more offerings really matters to giving in Mankato, Minnesota. Discuss amongst yourselves.

President’s Report

Elder Dan Jackson is always full of good theology and good humor. Some gems from Elder Jackson today:

  • “I have far more hope in 2019 than I did in 2010.” 
  • “Every time we come together as Christians we ought to be high fiving each other…. God will along with Him give us all things. I have confidence in the graciousness of God.”
  • “We need to move away from the church idea, and back into the idea of a movement.” (I hope I wasn’t the only one who, sitting in this multi-million dollar building, listening to us praise and cheerlead ourselves, felt a little irony.)
  • “What threatens us is the idea that we’re part of the SDA church and it will just keep going on like it is.” 
  • “Our goal has been to plant 1000 new congregations in five years. We’ve got 750 in three-and-a-half years.” (I love the statistic, though I would like to know more about these planted churches. Later in the program we learned about lots of refugee and foreign-language churches being planted, and my guess is that both departments are taking credit for the same achievement.)
  • “The church not called into existence to not evangelize.” 
  • “Strategy is planning.” “I hope the years of counting numbers and patting ourselves on the back are over.”
  • “I believe the church has made a mistake in not including in our Fundamental Beliefs one about Christian education.” “The best evangelists are teachers.” 
  • “In the last seven years we’ve closed 256 schools. We’ve lost access to 16,000 students. The system is declining.” 
  • “To assume that every college and university is going to go on as it has is a false assumption … We have reached a time in the history of the church where if we do not consider how we may do things differently, then we’re going to lose institutions.” 
  • “I’m a firm believer that we don’t need 59 conferences and missions and nine unions and everything we have. We have inventions today, planes, jets, etc. One day our economies are going to dictate to us that we can’t have 59 conferences and missions, and nine unions, and 20 million-dollar camps.” (Again, the irony thing.)
  • “Our leadership is committed to involving youth and young adults. They’re involving themselves. Things are not as bad and gloomy as some people want to make them. [Certain ministries say that] ‘the NAD is going to hell in a handbasket.’ They say that to make money. There are people in the church who buy into conspiracy theories.” 
  • “Our conspiracy in the NAD is for youth and young adults. We need to infect them and involve them in finishing the work.”
  • “Make sure young adults are represented in GC delegations.”
  • “I don’t want anyone to get the idea we will pull back on having women in ministry, because we won’t… We thank God for the women in the NAD who are pastors and educators and administrators. We have 170-175 female pastors—we’re gradually building a critical mass. I hope to see the day when we have 1000 women pastors in the NAD—not for the sake of having women, but to have individuals called by God serving God and humanity.” 
  • “People take potshots at our Adventist hospitals because they say they’re abortion factories. That’s hooey.” 

Elder Jackson’s Retirement

This wasn’t a surprise, but after thanking the church for a lifetime of service, Dan Jackson said, “The is the 10th time I’ve reported to this body, and this will be the last time.” 

How is he replaced? Generally at session time, the GC president is elected first, and then invited into the nominating committee. He brings with him a list of who he wants for general vice presidents. But for division presidents, there’s an additional step, according to Gorden Doss, who corrected me on my original description. “The newly elected GC president meets with each division caucus, which functions as a mini-nominating committee. The division caucus agrees on the nominee and the GC president takes that name to the big nominating committee,” he says. That still gives the newly-elected president some influence, but Gorden says “In my observation, the NAD delegates will be able to nominate the president they want to replace Dan.” It is then approved not just by NAD voters, but by the voters of the whole world church.

That we got Elder Jackson, and had him for this long, is a great blessing, and I believe we in the meeting, and many in the church generally, have felt that way.

Secretary’s Report

Alex Bryant’s report involves, as usual, lots of statistical slides, which you can either look at on the video or (more easily) peruse on our Twitter feed, thanks to our reporters. 

  • As growth in Christianity in North America is essentially stagnant, particularly in the mainline churches, our relatively small growth of 2-3% is meritorious. The Southwestern Region (Texas) is the fastest growing region. 
  • An odd statistic: Professions of faith are increasing faster than baptisms. Any idea why?
  • “If we would just close the back door, we would fill every pew in every church.”
  • “The latter years will be greater than the former years. Our best days are still ahead of us. I don’t know how… but God says we’re going to finish in a blaze of glory.”

Miscellaneous Reports:

  • The Volunteer Ministries Director lists 50,839 volunteers in the past year. Of these, about 10K are group deployments (such as building churches or doing Share Him evangelism) and Adventist Community Services volunteers, which amounts to about 30K. The rest are student missionaries and other volunteers. One of the projects being developed is a mission trip connector, that will let someone find a group to travel with for a mission tourism project.
  • Interesting report from Brian Ford of eAdventist, the online membership tracking system. Brian believes that the data commonly reported (by David Trim at the GC among others) that the median age of NAD Adventists is well over 50, is contradicted by the birthday data in the eAdventist database, which he says moves that number down into the 40s—thus indicating that the NAD church isn’t as old as many people think. You can listen to it here, 
  • The report from Refugee and Immigrant Ministries is one of the most impressive things I’ve heard today. Among the data: since 2009, refugee congregations have gone from 57 to175, annual baptisms from 54 to 470, tithe from $350K/year to $3M/year. Watch it here—it’s worth a few minutes of your time.
  • Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries is promoting a film entitled Salute that tackles the question of whether you can serve God and serve in the military. By the way, did you know that 15% of endorsed chaplains are women?

Education Department Report: 

I’m a product of Adventist education, and I am very, very grateful for it. However, the language of educational administration and planning is baffling to me. Perhaps it’s just because it’s not my field, but still, it’s generally very idealized stuff, and I can never see the connection between the airy talking points and a teacher pulling her hair out in a classroom of 20 six-year-olds. 

Take the “Three Big Ideas” today: 

  1. “The economy and society is changing radically and education is changing with it.” [Besides that being pretty much a truism, shouldn’t it be “are changing radically”?] 
  2. “To face our challenges effectively, we need to work collaboratively.” [With whom? Doing what?] 
  3. “Adventist education is extraordinarily well prepared to work to meet the challenges [which challenges?] because we are built on divine counsel that was far ahead of its time.” [This is the sort of statement that frustrates me. So what if what we’re doing per Ellen White isn’t working?—remember, Elder Jackson said our educational system is declining. But by definition we’re doing things right. Does it matter whether it succeeds or not? Can we do anything else, or are we locked into a system built on “divine counsel”? Help me out here.]

After these very nice, but somewhat abstract, ideas, I thought their answers to practical questions from the floor were a bit weak. Listen to it yourself—I’d be happy to be corrected. But I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that just like a lot of our church administrators, it’s been too long since these people sat in a classroom full time.

The Adventist Review Report

The Adventist Review team gave a stunning, impressive report. They have more communication going on than any other department in the GC. It’s all very professionally presented. Lots of magazines, video, websites, films. Great stuff. All done by smart people, some of them young. 

And other than the Adventist World, members in the average congregation know about hardly any of it.

I was a pastor for 41 years. In the last few of those years, I would come to these meetings and see all of the stuff that was being produced, and go back to my little congregations and wonder, “Where is all this stuff? When is it going to show up here?” But of course, it rarely does. I’ve come to realize:

  1. It’s being produced not because anyone has said they need it or want it, but because there are people who have time and money and talent to do it. 
  2. All the attention is on making, not on using. So much of it never gets to end users. (Go ahead, NAD administrators: ask conference presidents in this meeting how many of them go back and present everything they’ve received to their pastors at the next workers’ meeting. Ask them how many of them even pack the stuff up and take it home with them on the plane.)
  3. And if I really did take all of this back to the churches and promote it, that’s all I’d get done. There’s too much. It would be like giving my congregation a drink from a fire hose. 

It’s the modern version of the old days when every pastor got ten letters and packages a day from the conference office, nine of which went immediately into the rubbish bin. Except now we don’t have to throw them away, because the stuff doesn’t even reach us. 

Here’s the thing, folks in the NAD and the GC. You are good, good people. Smart, professional, hard-working. The problem is that no one is holding you accountable to actually see results from all the stuff you produce. It all seems meaningful to you, because you’re in the midst of it and it’s fun to do, and in doing it you get to travel all over the world (a photo clinic in Iceland, a biographical film in the Czech Republic) and surely all that work must be making the church better—isn’t it?

There appears to be no plan to solve real problems with a few carefully targeted solutions that are promoted and encouraged. Whatever you can produce, you will produce, and tell us it’s the greatest thing ever. Until next year, when it’s gone and we wonder, “What happened to that greatest thing ever from last year?” 

11/2/2019, 9 AM: Corrected description of how NAD president is nominated.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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