by Loren Seibold, Sunday, 29 October 2017

Each year when I come to these meetings—both of them in the autumn—it’s impossible not to notice how dramatically they differ. The General Conference annual meeting is solemn, stiff, and tense. There is a low-grade anxiety that hovers over the room. The departmental reports, however good they may be, always leave you wondering what the reporters are self-editing, and why. There’s a feeling of impending disapproval, as though you are being watched over by your high school principal. Of “them” up there, and “us” down here—as though we are in opposition, or about to be.

The NAD Year End Meeting (and this was even more noticeable when the two meetings were held in the same room) has quite a different feeling. It seems like Dan Jackson is trying to work with the room, rather than scrutinizing it for incipient malfeasance. In this meeting, there are long sessions of genuine laughter. (Elder Wilson isn’t necessarily opposed to humor, but it’s hard to laugh in his presence.) Dan Jackson is the ally of his committee, rather than their accuser. He frequently talks about how much he loves the church and how loyal he is to it. But he isn’t constantly chalking out the lines that one dare not cross, and he’s filled with praise for everyone, even if he doesn’t agree with them. He makes me think of Randy Newman’s song from Toy Story, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” 

I explain this just to help you see that Elder Jackson, with grace and good humor, has served as a sort of firewall that protects the North American Division. Undoubtedly this takes a lot of mental and emotional energy, and it is all the more reason to admire him and pray for him, and let him know that you do, and are.

There’s a lesson here about how to make people want to work with you, that probably applies to marriage, parenthood, pastoring, being a boss, and all kinds of things. People respond to kind hearted, well-intentioned, honest interaction. No one supposes that Dan Jackson has the ability to fix everything. But the NAD has a friend in him, whether or not he has the power to turn back the cold front that threatens to roll in and freeze the joy and creativity out of this work.

That said, a few observations about today.

The afternoon session was devoted entirely to talking about the infamous “Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance: Phase II”, document that was discussed three weeks ago.

One might wonder why it was necessary. The document was, after all, sent back to a committee (not necessarily the right committee, but that’s a discussion for later.) It is, in a sense, behind us, and anything that comes out of the committee will undoubtedly be different, for better or worse.

But then again, maybe not. Dan Jackson said this: “The fact that the document was referred back does not mean that the discussion is over. This is no time for either jeering or cheering. Our role is to recognize what the world church is still discussing. While I think we have some profound beliefs on this matter, right now nothing is settled, other than a document was referred back to a committee.”

I’ve expressed my belief that the vote at the General Conference Annual Council portends an acceptable ending for this disagreement between the Western church and the rest of the world. I still believe I’m right. But Elder Jackson is right, too: it isn’t entirely at rest.

He encouraged thoughtful, prayerful response. “The NAD is only 6-7% of the membership of the denomination. By God’s grace we will be a part of the church. Our world brethren are open to listening to us. The kinder and more Christlike we are, the more apt they are to listen to our concerns. Being Godly Christians does not mean we just don’t talk. We express our concerns and share what we feel, but we do it in a Christlike manner.”

Which prompted one commenter to later say (to laughter around the room) “I appreciate your Christian demeanor, but some people are feeling frustrated by all the Christian demeanor you are showing.” Indeed, there is, beneath the Christian courtesy and grace, simmering impatience in the room.

More observations:

The conversation has become muddled. It isn’t clear whether it is about women’s ordination or about power. The discussion mucks about between the two.

As this story has developed over the last few years, the conversation has become muddled. It isn’t clear whether it is about women’s ordination (which, after all, the Theology of Ordination Study Committee was largely positive toward) or about power. Every discussion mucks about between the two. I have tended toward the belief that the real issue is control, not women—the men on all sides of this issue being, as far as I know, kind husbands and fathers and not abusers of women. But at times I wonder: why has this issue led leaders to overreach and attempt to force others to obey? Why not all the other policy non-compliance issues around the world, some of them involving significant sums of money? I don’t know.

My other observation—and I’m not sure you can draw any conclusions from this, though it concerns me a little—is that the majority of the people who came to the microphone today to disapprove of the current situation with regard to the unions that are ordaining women, were young people. (Please understand I’m not saying that all of the young people were against women in ministry. I’m only saying that I was surprised that most of those who spoke against the current state of non-compliance were young people.) A delegation of college students are members (or invitees with voice, I’m not certain) of this committee, and a few of those, along with a young pastor, were rather passionate about not liking that some unions aren’t obeying.  

Their complaint wasn’t women in ministry, but unity. Some of these young adults seemed terribly frightened that not everyone in the church is obeying the General Conference. Perhaps this has to do with culture, or with developmental psychology, and it certainly speaks to the need to educate our young people about the theology of power, and how the church works. (Though a lot of adult Adventists, even church leaders, seem not to understand that fully.)

Fairly early in the discussion a Canadian college student came with a motion. Recognizing that the GC in session has voted that women aren’t to be ordained, he said, he moved that the NAD direct all entities in the NAD territory to bring their actions into harmony with the vote of the 2015 GC session in regard to women’s ordination. After a bit of discussion this motion was handily tabled.

Highlights of the discussion:

  • Ken Corkum from Newfoundland was offended that he’d been asked to sign a document saying that he was loyal to the church. “My father told me that your word is as good as your signature.” He dismissed Ted Wilson’s argument that this was just a conflict of interest statement, pointing out that COI statements pertain to financial matters. He also wondered if the GC could reach beyond the union leaders targeted before, down into the conference constituency. Dan Jackson replied that “The GC cannot move beyond the Division level without approval of constituencies.” The GC does have the authority to call a union session. It doesn’t have authority to go into that session and demand that the union would act in a certain way: that would lead to serious bylaws problems.
  • Ricardo Graham of the Pacific Union Conference pointed out that he and his fellow leaders “have no authority to change anything our constituency has voted.” Current policy allows the GC to request a special constituency session, he said but they have never made that request—the PUC would comply if asked—nor has Elder Wilson had a direct conversation with the Pacific Union Conference. He added, to some cheering, that “We in the PUC recognize Total Member Involvement”—referring to the insistence on letting the constituency speak.
  • (Dan Jackson interrupted to say that commenters were restricted to three minutes. “We think two minutes is too short,” he said to much laughter, referring to the two minute limit at the GC session on this document.)
  • A member who I couldn’t identify pointed out that the Theology of Ordination Study Committee had concluded that there was no evidence for pastoral ordination, only ordination for elders. He suggested the NAD do away with pastoral ordination entirely. Dave Gemmell of the NAD ministerial department had his own suggestion: change every reference to ordination to ordination/commissioning. Elder Jackson: “We’ve tried that on for size.”
  • Neil Biloff of Dakota Conference observed that if conference presidents withheld documents from their executive committees before asking them to vote on them, or asked them to sign a loyalty statement, the conference would look for a new president.
  • Daniel Dragan Stojanovic, Secretary/Vice-President of the Adventist Church in Canada, said that if he had to sign documents to be an administrator of the church he’d rather resign. He explained that he grew up in Eastern Europe where he was expelled from school for years because he wouldn’t sign documents demanded by the government. He talked about his deep gratitude for the freedom he has here, and not wanting anything to interfere with it.
  • Several commenters mentioned Martin Luther and reminded us that the priesthood of all believers should temper the sense of hierarchy between clergy and laypeople. Dean Coridan of the Iowa-Missouri Conference opined that we’re not a democracy, but a republic, and a republic doesn’t let any session of any entity become a complete authority over the entire organization, but protects the rights of minorities.

“I missed marching on the Pettus Bridge, I missed Birmingham, I missed going to jail, I missed being able to demonstrate and be on the right side of the struggle. I will not miss this one. I know it’s right, and I believe it’s biblical.”

  • Calvin Watkins of the Southwest Regional Conference said that because of his age he missed most of the civil rights movement. “I missed marching across the Pettus Bridge, I missed Birmingham, I missed going to jail, I missed being able to demonstrate and be on the right side of the struggle. I will not miss this one. I know it’s right, and I believe it’s biblical. I believe in the equality of all leaders. We cannot afford not to bring as many workers as we possibly can to this battle.”
  • A layman whose name I didn’t get: “It is offensive to me to hear policy equated with Scripture.”
  • Kent Walker from the Central California Conference wondered what authority the Division has over the unions?  Dan replied that when the presidents of the two unions talked to him before taking women’s ordination to their constituency meetings, he told them, “This is against policy. However, I will pray that God’s spirit will guide you. I do not have the authority to say, ‘You will not do this.’” Kent added that no unions have voted to be noncompliant since GC session, and reminded the committee of General Conference Auditing Service’s findings that 81% of entities across the world church that are non-compliant. “Are we spending as much time on these other non-compliance issues as we are on this one?” Dan Jackson: “I think you know the answer to that.”

Finally, a few thoughts from Dan Jackson:

  • “We are living well within policy by developing an initiative to bring more and more women into pastoral roles. But we will not advocate that anyone goes against a vote of the GC.” But “anyone who tells you that the NAD employing or encouraging women to enter pastoral ministry is against policy is a liar. GC policy is very clear that women are intended to be part of ministry.”
  • “We are asking the world church to exercise Godly forbearance. Ellen White has a lot to say about that. We ask them to affirm, as did Gamaliel, that if it is from God it will prosper, and if it is not from God it won’t.”

Columbia Union Conference and Pacific Union Conference have failed to comply with a policy that requires them to discriminate.

  • Is ordaining women against policy? There is no policy against women’s ordination, he explained. But there is a policy that the church will not discriminate against any group “with the exception of positions that require ordination.” “Columbia Union Conference and Pacific Union Conference,” he explained, “have failed to comply with a policy that requires them to discriminate.”
  • “I will not call those who voted the way they did rebels. I do believe that ordination is the responsibility of the unions unfettered by any other organization, including the GC. But does the right to make policy about about ordination belong to the unions?”
  • Dan Jackson said there are four things an ordained minister can do that an unordained minister can’t: organize churches, disband churches, lay hands on other individuals being ordained, and be a conference president. The policy says they should all be paid the same, but he fears that there are places where women are held back.

The denouement of the day came when Mrs. Jackson, Dan’s wife, came to the microphone and made the motion that “because the document is so severely flawed, I move that this body express its strong disagreement with it. Period.” Laughter and many seconds. This was ultimately amended to say that delegations from the the NAD should bring the concerns expressed by the Year End Meeting participants to the GC Unity in Mission Oversight Committee, along with a recommendation that they add a woman to that committee. This was passed, and thus ended the meeting for the day.

Tomorrow will likely have less lively discussion, and more reports. But let’s thank God for such open and enlightened leadership. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dan is in this job because God wants him here. Do you agree?

Loren Seibold is a pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today

To comment, click here.