by Loren Seibold, 9 December 2017

I did a brief stint in a conference office once. I was never to be a permanent fixture there, and I knew it—just a wayfarer passing through between assignments. I did learn something interesting, though: the moment you are on the other side of that desk, your view of the church and of your colleagues changes. It’s that balcony view that you get of the whole conference. Suddenly the pastors and congregations out there aren’t just entities you know exist; their problems and failings pool there in the office, because that’s one of the things that the office is for: to become aware of and manage the problems in a conference.

Because of this there develops in some offices a kind of soft contempt for the pastors and church members. It comes from a sense of authority, held in a rather enclosed, self-referential group, combined with too much information about all the stupid failures of both congregants and employees. I have seen this reflected in the secretaries and other workers in conference or union offices, too, who can become officious and superior. They don’t mean to be that way. But they’re cut off, inward looking: there’s just not a strong enough relationship between the church in there and the church out here.

And if that’s true for a conference office, it’s even more true when you get to the very top of the church: Silver Spring, the place where the denizens have been convinced, by an out-of-context statement from one of our pioneers, that they’re the highest authority of God on earth.

We often talk about the cultural conflict we have over women’s ordination with the global south. But the other cultural gap we have is with people in leadership. We don’t understand how they see the world. We can’t see their privileged big-picture vista of the denomination, just as they—though they rarely admit it—are fatally out of touch with the congregations and members they are supposed to serve.

Some of the men in Silver Spring haven’t been pastors for decades, and some (including our GC president) have no significant pastoral experience at all. (Ted Wilson did a short internship in Patchogue, Long Island, NY back in 1974. In my writing about him, I choose to use the honorific Elder Wilson. Pastor is reserved for those who have worked more than a token period of time in a congregation, not just grown to elderhood in an office.) What they see is a vast organization, with all its difficult and complex parts, and they—sometimes rightfully—fear it blowing up and dropping its greasy parts along the road like an exploded transmission case.

The Collective Holy Spirit

People in Silver Spring don’t see the working of the Spirit out in the church, in individuals or congregations or conferences, as clearly as they see it manifested at 12501 Old Columbia Pike. They sincerely want to know God’s will, but they don’t see enough distinction between God’s will and their will. That’s why our leaders are terrified of union conferences making their own decisions: they don’t like the uncertainty of the Holy Spirit speaking to one region of the church without Its previously having consulted them.

People in Silver Spring don’t see the working of the Spirit out in the church, in individuals or congregations or conferences, as clearly as they see it manifested at 12501 Old Columbia Pike. They sincerely want to know God’s will, but they don’t see enough distinction between God’s will and their will.

I say again that these are good men. They are well-intentioned, and personally kind and generous. But to them, their picture of what the church should be overrules your conscience—or even a large number of our consciences. This was said in so many words during the discussion at the General Conference Annual Council (GCAC17) in October. You can hold whatever personal views you like on women’s ordination, Elder Wilson said, whatever the Holy Spirit is telling you. But you nonetheless bow to the denomination’s will. (Which reminds me of an old joke from Soviet Russia: “Yes, I do have personal opinions, but I assure you I don’t agree with any of them.”)

As for authority: the men at the top—this they must believe if the church is to be spiritually valid—were put there by God, so they get to define what makes the church a success. The more they believe in themselves, the less clearly they hear the rest of us. Eventually, as in Dr. G.T. Ng’s presentation at  GCAC17, those who disagree with them aren’t just people with another point of view, but rebels, fifth columnists, subversives.

The folks in that building don’t choose to see others this way: it is a natural consequence of their isolation. Someone like Elder Ted Wilson—let’s be blunt—has had few life experiences outside of top church administration. He doesn’t know the Western church at its grass roots, and doesn’t seem to want to, which makes him seem insensitive and myopic. But he holds as sacrosanct the unquestioned truthfulness of his version of our message, and his office’s authority over the church.

From there, it’s a short step to a single-mindedness that excludes all other ideas—even if that means ignoring the needs of the church on an entire continent. It’s another short step to manipulative methods of management: leaders can come to believe the Holy Spirit is in all they do, even when it’s slightly underhanded.

Being Christian to Our Leaders

When I watched Elder Wilson recently, I thought of that line in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy says to the wizard, “Oh, you’re a very bad man.” He replies, “Oh, no, my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

And it’s very difficult to be a good wizard. The place where our wizard-in-chief stands to make decisions prejudices him in favor of top-down authority. He has been led to expect the church to be a choir singing in unison, with him as director. Elder Ted Wilson is the way he is because… well, because he could be nothing else given the way he was raised in the church, growing up in the mission field, the son of a GC president, believing that this is the only true church, and the part of it he occupies the highest authority of God on earth. Why should we expect him to be otherwise?

When I watched Elder Wilson recently, I thought of Dorothy saying to the Wizard of Oz, “Oh, you’re a very bad man.” He replies, “Oh, no, my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

I know it’s hard to redefine one’s opinion of a person when you’re upset with him, but there are two reasons for doing so. First, because God wants us to. Jesus’ core message is about trying to see through the eyes of others and treat them with the consideration we’d like for ourselves.

The other reason is that if you merely write someone off as bad, as unfit for office, you cease to try to understand him. For example, it’s necessary to understand that Elder Wilson is serving a world constituency that largely believes as he does. He is himself a mission child, and he’s surrounded by core officers who are also from other lands. This is the part of the church that is most in focus to him. He also has a temperament which craves order and compliance, in a way that others of us crave diversity and creativity.

If we’re ever going to find some form of unity in diversity (and believe me, women’s ordination is only the beginning of sorrows—there are a dozen other conflicts lined up right behind this one, just waiting to splatter all over us) we’re going to have to try to understand Elder Wilson and the rest of the team in his office. Our best bet, short of his possible 2020 retirement, is to keep communication with him open. He may not understand win-win leadership, but the rest of us needn’t fall into an antagonistic relationship with him.

I have long felt that the best answer to all of this will be a looser, more regional sort of organization—to think of ourselves, for example, as an alliance of Seventh-day Adventist regions rather than as a sort of Adventist Vatican. That may have been Ellen White’s original intention in 1901-1903, but her unfortunate “highest authority of God on earth” statement interferes. So for the time being, we’re stuck with being one holy, catholic and apostolic church, from which any deviation, no matter how necessary, looks like apostasy.

Read Part 1, “Good Men, Bad Leaders”, here

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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