By Jiggs Gallagher, August 30, 2016 – Corrected: The 30th quinquennial session of the Adventist denomination’s Pacific Union Conference on Sunday and Monday (August 28 and 29) started out like most such gatherings, with music, worship, enthusiastic reports of progress on a number of fronts and many choruses of “Amen” from the assembled delegates. It convened in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
All the officers and top department heads, beginning with Pastor Ricardo Graham, the president, were re-elected by vast majorities of the 307 regular delegates and 81 delegates-at-large. All of the leadership team was elected by percentages in the upper 80s and 90s; an electronic voting system was used that by all accounts worked far better than the one at the General Conference (GC) in San Antonio (Texas) last summer.
However, underlying tensions over the issue of ordination for women in the clergy bubbled up just after the opening prayer, as Graham introduced the agenda and asked for a simple vote to approve it. Pastor Chris Buttery of the Sacramento Central Church rose to ask for a vote to add an item. He wanted delegates to consider rescinding the vote by a 2012 session that approved gender equality in ordination, calling it out of harmony with a 2015 vote at the GC session against allowing the world divisions of the GC deal with the issue. Graham noted that without advance notice of an agenda item before the meeting, adding an item would require a two-thirds majority under the rules. Graham then ruled the motion out of order, Buttery sat down, and the printed agenda was approved, 93 percent to 7 percent.
In his remarks Graham noted that after the departure of his predecessor, Pastor Tom Mostert, the union office staff in Westlake Village (California) was reduced from 101 to a current total of 33. The move was aimed at reducing duplicative services that were already ably provided at the local conference level. He added that monies saved were returned to the conferences and especially to local churches, “where the action is.”
The Sunday night reports proceeded at a dizzying pace, surveying programs over the past five years such as “Pathways to Health,” a medical outreach that has gone across North America but began as a joint effort between the Northern and Central California conferences. The most recent project was undertaken by the Southern California Conference in Los Angeles in April, and served about 8,500 people at the Los Angeles Convention Center. More than 4,000 volunteers participated, and so far 12 people contacted through the project have been baptized.
Other program reports featured revitalized literature evangelism; GLOW (Giving Light to Our World) with a goal of distributing one billion religious tracts during 2017; SOULS West, another literature effort that has graduated 300 young students; and SHARE, a total member involvement in “evangel-living” that will undertake a major training program in Ontario, California, in August of 2018.
Diversity was highlighted, with activities in African American, Hispanic and Asian communities. Within the five-state region there are Adventist ministries among 25 Asian language groups and a large effort has emerged in work with refugees. For example, the Arizona Conference serves a large group of Myanmar (formerly Burma) refugees in the Phoenix area. The conference has grown its Asian ministries from one to 12 congregations during the quinquennium.
Other reports highlighted the vibrant Adventist education program, both K-12 and two institutions of higher education, La Sierra University and Pacific Union College. Scholarship programs targeting eighth-grade Hispanic students from Adventist families in public schools are bringing those stude4nts into Adventist academies for the ninth grade.
Pastor Eddie Heinrich, youth director for the Northern California Conference and volunteer coordinator for the union conference, noted that more than 6,000 young people are just concluding the summer camp season. He said 200 of those youth were baptized at the camps this summer, and another 200 will be baptized this fall in their home churches because of decisions made at camp. He claimed that 2,000 of the 6,000 “gave their hearts to Jesus” in public declarations. Outreach to public high school students (coordinated by Pastor Scott Ward) and public college and university students (coordinated by Pastor Ron Pickell) showed progress in those areas.
Graham’s wife, Audrey, presented a heart-warming testimony about a friend at the public high school where she teaches. The friend, Helen Smith, is a substitute teacher. She asked Audrey if she were a Christian, because she sensed something different about her. Audrey said yes, and that she was a Seventh-day Adventist. Smith replied that she was a Baptist but that she wanted to become an Adventist. Their friendship grew, and Audrey invited Helen to church one week when she (Audrey) would be speaking for a women’s program. She arranged for friends near Helen’s home to give her Bible studies. One day two years ago Helen texted Audrey that she was to be baptized soon.
For all the reports of progress, including small increases in tithe and other donations, there were negative reports as well. Baptisms declined every one of the five years from 2011 to 2016. Though not large decreases, it was evident that leaders want to turn that trend around in the coming term.
The Monday morning session proceeded smoothly during the elections. Pastor Dan Jackson, president of the denomination’s North American Division, chaired the nominating committee. He and Dr. Heather Knight, president of Pacific Union College, the committee’s secretary, presented each nominee and offered opportunity for comments from the delegates on each person. There was no comment regarding anyone. Graham was re-elected president, so were Pastor Bradford C. Newton (executive secretary and ministerial association secretary), Pastor Tony Anobile (vice president), Theodore R. Benson (treasurer), Pastor Vic Louis Areola III (Asian Pacific ministries coordinator), Pastor Virgil S. Childs (African American ministries coordinator) and Pastor Jorge P. Soria (Hispanic ministries coordinator).
However, when Knight presented a roster of conference candidates for the executive committee, a number of delegates, particularly from the La Sierra University church, asked about the diversity of the group and how it could be increased in the next round in 2021. Jackson responded that procedures should be put in place to encourage more input through publishing names and contact information for the nominating committee members early enough to facilitate the gathering of suggestions.
Another questioner suggested term limits for officers, suggesting that most delegates don’t want to vote against an incumbent who is working hard and effectively, but if term limits were in place there would be new blood as a matter of course. Jackson noted that other union conferences have already implemented term limits and the Pacific Union Conference could certainly consider that change.
The orderly procedure of the morning’s activities began to disintegrate when the bylaws committee made its report. What began as a rather routine number of cosmetic editorial changes were read and approved without controversy. But when the committee chair read the change proposed for Article 14, which concerned making amendments to the bylaws in concert with the Model Union Conference Constitution and Bylaws voted by the GC executive committee, it unleashed a torrent of comments from the floor.
First Pastor Chris Oberg, senior pastor of the La Sierra University church, stated, “I want to speak to the tension in the room,” referencing the vote of the 2012 special session. She felt the change in language proposed for Article 14 would open the door to moving backwards on women’s ordination in order to supposedly comply with GC policy. A pastor from San Jose rose to call women’s ordination “the elephant in the room.” He urged defeat of the change.
The bylaws committee had been allotted 15 minutes on the agenda, from 9:30 to 9:45 am to present its entire report and take the vote. The comments, arguments and repeated votes (at least six) stretched the discussion to more than two hours and 20 minutes, ending at nearly noon. Graham noted that there were numerous other reports to follow, some involving necessary votes. A buffet luncheon for the delegates, was not served until after 1 pm.
In the end, Article 14 was approved with one new sentence but retaining the language that the committee had proposed to drop. Amazingly, Pastor Buttery of Sacramento came back to the microphone to try to re-impose consideration of striking the 2012 vote on gender neutrality in ordination. There was a distinct buzz of annoyance from the hungry crowd. However, Graham acceded to an electronic vote, which was defeated by 24 percent yes to 76 percent no.
The arcana of parliamentary procedure, including Roberts’ Rules of Order, tended at times to confuse delegates during the chaotic bylaws discussion. There were repeated requests to re-read the language of proposals so that delegates could understand what exactly they were voting on. Graham twice interjected requests to stop everything and offer prayer at particularly contentious points. At the end of the segment, Graham said he felt it was productive and that difficult issues require time and careful thought to work through them.
When this reporter entered the meeting on Sunday night, he was greeted by a lady (appropriately) named Joy. She was welcoming people, and she offered to pray with each one, as she moved around the lobby. That was just one indication that this was not the run-of-the-mill corporate gathering. The family feeling of church permeated all of the proceedings, even if there was evidence of some dysfunction in the family.
Jiggs Gallagher is a senior editor for Adventist Today and teaches journalism at California State University. The featured photo with this story shows the Pacific Union Conference office in Westlake Village, California. The other photos were taken during the meeting.