By Loren Seibold, 16 October 2017

“Is there any penalty for being out of compliance? The working policy is quite clear, about what we call perhaps the nuclear, or perhaps the ballistic options, and those are to downgrade unions, if that’s where they are, from union conference to union mission; it is to disband unions. We have not chosen to do that.”

This vaguely threatening explanation at 2017 Annual Council by Elder Ted Wilson, president of the Adventist denomination’s General Conference, followed a presentation of a document that the officers were asking the General Conference Executive Committee to approve. This document said that if Executive Committee members didn’t sign a loyalty oath, they could be removed from the committee (even though their position there is ex officio—guaranteed by the GC constitution and bylaws). In the end, the proposal didn’t pass; it was sent back to committee.

The first thing that bothered me in this statement was the word “nuclear.” It’s a violent, cataclysmic word. It is not just threatening, but destructive. It implies “I could push a button and bring this all down. I’ve got that power.”  

It seemed to me a bad word choice—until I began to think about the implications of what he was threatening. Should the General Conference try to exercise authority over the unions, the result could do incredible damage to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The “Nuclear Option”

Let’s explore for a moment what Elder Wilson and his team could really do, and what could happen. We’ll set this hypothetical story in the Pacific Union Conference of the denomination’s North American Division.

We’ll start with the assumption that the General Conference could get support for such a takeover process. According to Working Policy B 95 15, a recommendation to take action against a union conference must come from the Division Executive Committee—which might be challenging in the North American Division. Elder Wilson would then have to go to the General Conference Executive Committee for approval—which committee didn’t jump at the chance to punish errant union officers last week. The GC legal team would, I hope, counsel against it.

But let’s suppose all those hurdles could be cleared. The North American Division Committee recommends it. The GC lawyers give their blessing—or they don’t and their counsel is ignored. The GC executive committee grants permission. Does the GC have the authority to “take over” a union conference. Could they have the police escort the officers out of 2686 Townsgate Road in Westlake Village, California, and Elder Wilson stroll in and sit in Elder Ricardo Graham’s chair?

My sources say no. The GC doesn’t hold the title to the union conference property, so they cannot claim ownership of the building. Nor can they remove the officers—that has to be done by the union constituency. The Pacific Union Conference is incorporated in California, while the General Conference is incorporated in the District of Columbia, so even the claim that they control the PUC’s assets and authority would raise legal challenges.

The GC doesn’t hold the title to the union conference property, so they cannot claim ownership of the building. Nor can they remove the officers—that has to be done by the union constituency.

Should the Pacific Union Conference not agree to be taken over, the General Conference might resort to legal proceedings. Whatever happens there, millions of dollars of your contributions would be used to enrich attorneys, the church’s reputation would be besmirched, and the outcome, whatever it is, would be befouled by animosity.

The Union Constituency Meeting

The Pacific Union Conference’s constituency, you see, is not the General Conference. It is the local conferences who make up the members of the Pacific Union Conference: four in California, plus Nevada-Utah, Arizona and Hawaii.

What’s more likely to happen is that the Pacific Union Conference calls a constituency meeting.

The delegates, selected by the local conferences, have some hard choices to make when they gather. Do we want to end our support of women’s ordination? Shall we let the General Conference take over our union conference? Shall we replace our union conference president? No doubt someone from the General Conference would be present spelling out the consequences. He would make it sound as though the General Conference has the authority to do this—though as we have seen, that’s far from certain. By design, by law and by policy, the union conferences are surprisingly autonomous. Ellen White is even on record that God wanted the union conferences to be autonomous.

This is going to be a contentious meeting. Some delegates are going to stand for women’s ordination and local autonomy. Others will be terrified of breaking up the denomination. If there are enough of the latter, the story is over, and Ricardo Graham and his associates are gone—because while they may not have had to obey the GC’s order to evacuate the office, they do have to obey their constituency.

But to play out this projection: let us suppose that the answers from the constituency are no, no and no: we’ll stay on the path we have been with women’s ordination, we won’t let the General Conference take over, and we’ll keep Elder Graham. (That’s a safe bet if the past is indicative: a 2012 special Pacific Union Conference constituency meeting voted to go forward with ordaining women 79% to 21%.)

So far, no one has shown me convincing evidence that the General Conference can legally disband a union conference, as Elder Wilson threatened. GC Working Policy B 95 15 speaks only of “the expulsion of the unit from the world sisterhood of unions.” Expelling the Pacific Union Conference, though, would expel every conference and tithe-paying congregation in that territory. Not wanting to alienate the entire southwestern part of the United States, no doubt the General Conference would set up a new judicatory in the territory of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Hawaii.

For the purposes of this story, I’m going to headquarter our hypothetical union mission in Bakersfield. The GC officers then either ask, or demand, the conferences to join this newly-formed judicatory, the Pacific Union Mission in Bakersfield .

The Pacific Union Mission doesn’t automatically take the place of the existing Pacific Union Conference, though. It is a competing entity. And undoubtedly each conference will want to talk about whether it goes with the GC’s unity option—the Pacific Union Mission in Bakersfield—or stays loyal to Westlake Village, ordaining women, and Elder Graham’s leadership.

Conference Constituency Meetings

Now each conference in the region calls a constituency meeting. Their leaders explain what has happened: the General Conference has declared the Pacific Union Conference in Westlake Village, under the leadership of Elder Ricardo Graham, to be invalid. The conferences have been told they must henceforth send their tithe to Bakersfield.

If the former meeting was hard, these meetings—at least one in each conference—are even more contentious. An officer from the GC may have gone to each conference office already and done some bargaining—both threats and incentives. Some conferences, such as Southeastern California Conference, would probably vote to stay with the existing Pacific Union Conference. Let us suppose (just for the sake of our story) that the more conservative Central California Conference wants to keep the church unified by submitting to the authority of the the new Pacific Union Mission in Bakersfield.

So the Pacific Union Conference ends up with some of the conferences, the Pacific Union Mission has the others. That’s it then, right?

The Battle for Congregations

Sadly, no. The conflict continues, and here it becomes locally painful. Not every congregation in a conference will want what their constituency voted. Let us suppose that in Central California Conference, which (in our hypothetical story) has voted to join the new mission as requested by the GC, some congregations in the Bay Area (Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, and others) say, “The Pacific Union Mission doesn’t represent our views. We want to remain with our existing Pacific Union Conference in Westlake Village.”

Remember that the Central California Conference (as is true of all conferences in the denomination) holds the title to every church building and school building in its territory. Conferences hold church property in trust not for the congregation, but for the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

If the majority of church members refuse to go along, they can chain and lock the church’s doors. This action is legal.

Let’s suppose the Sunnyvale, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church decides not to remit their tithe to the Central California Conference treasury, maybe even sending it directly to Westlake Village instead. The leaders of the Central California Conference (which, in our hypothetical story, has chosen in a constituency meeting to be under the authority of the new Pacific Union Mission) gives the congregation a few months of grace, after which it can do several things. It can quit paying Sunnyvale’s pastors. It can send them new pastors who think as the GC does. It can hold a church business meeting and ask members to choose if they are loyal to the one side or the other. If the majority of church members refuse to cooperate, they can chain and lock the Sunnyvale church’s doors. All these are legal actions.

A group of congregations might want to form a new local conference—the San Francisco Bay Area Conference, let’s say—under the existing Pacific Union Conference. A Central California Conference constituency meeting would have to decide whether to allow it, or to say, “Your church building belongs to the existing conference. Either you go along with our alliance with the Pacific Union Mission, or move out of your buildings.”

Whatever happens, the financial contributions from the Pacific Union Conference, which alone supplies about 8% to 9% of the tithe for the entire world field, drops dramatically. Conferences either become a patchwork of Pacific Union Mission supportive congregations and Pacific Union Conference supportive congregations, or non-compliant congregations are re-pastored or even locked out if they don’t support the entity their conference’s constituency meeting has chosen. Almost all ministry and evangelism grinds to a halt. Potential converts think the Adventist church has gone crazy. There are uncomplimentary stories in the news media about our lawsuits and conflicts. Schools close. Membership drops. Everyone is obsessed with litigation.

Meanwhile, something similar is happening in the Columbia Union Conference and other union conferences in the NAD, as well as in some places in Europe and the South Pacific.

Just Fiction—for Now

I doubt very much the conflict will ever get this far. I weave this yarn just to show that the “nuclear option”—forcing disobedient union conferences to come into compliance—isn’t a good road to travel.

(And I must tell you quite frankly that had “Procedures in Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance, Phase 2” passed on October 9, the loyalty oath could easily have plunged some regions into conflict as unions decided whether to give up representation in the denomination’s world governing body. All of us—including Elder Wilson—are very fortunate the proposal was sent back for study and revision.)

While my story may sound far-fetched, you need to know that events not entirely unlike this have happened in other denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church. In these, the conflict has been between a local congregation and the denomination, and the complaint has usually been that the denomination is too liberal. But the result is the same: churches that congregations have funded and managed for decades, sometimes centuries, are taken away from them. Their ministry and mission to their community evaporates. The denomination gets horrible PR. Everyone spends a lot of money on lawyers. God’s church is consumed in bitterness and anger.

Rather than talking as though women’s ordination is a rebellion like those of Conradi or Canright, I wish the GC leaders would seek a win-win solution with the union constituents—who are not rebels but reasonable people with reasonable convictions about women’s ordination.

Elder Wilson declined to be interviewed by Adventist Today at Annual Council, but I wish we could ask him if keeping women from being ordained—or, for that matter, expecting conformity from every union—is worth what I’ve outlined above. I’ve said before that I wish our leaders in the General Conference, rather than talking as though women’s ordination is a rebellion like those of Conradi or Canright, could seek a win-win solution with the union constituents, who are not rebels but reasonable people with reasonable convictions about women’s ordination.

But win-win doesn’t seem to be Elder Wilson’s style. He is known by many as a gracious and godly man, pastoral and caring, and I have no reason to doubt that. But his determination to win this contest at almost any cost is eroding respect for him—as reflected in the meeting last week. In 2016 he succeeded in setting the stage for a showdown on policy compliance. This year, though, he lost decisively. Exactly why, I can’t say, though I suspect it had much to do with the high-handed way his proposal was presented: keeping the document a secret, not following last year’s procedure before moving on to Phase 2, and speaking dismissively to those who disagreed with him.

As in families, so with churches: if you reach the point where you have to make threats, you’ve managed things badly.

Edited 17 October 2017 to reflect the role of GC Working Policy B 95 15

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

To comment, click here.

Let’s lift the church together! Support Adventist Today!