Edwin Torkelsen  |  28 August 2018  |  

The Adventist Global Youth Leaders Congress (GYLC) was held in Kassel, Germany, July 31 – August 4 under the motto “Pass It On.” Reports showed youth leaders, men and women, enthusiastically dedicated to their task. Chigemezi-Nnadozie Wogu reported in Adventist Review, “The meeting of more than 1,600 youth leaders was an array of smiles, laughter, hugs, high-fives, selfies, camera flashes, loud clapping and cheering, tears of joy, fellowship, prayers, sermons, workshops, and loud amens.” There was much to be thankful for and happy about!

The Picture

The General Conference (GC) Youth Director, Gary Blanchard, posted a picture on his Facebook page showing 17 smiling members of the GC World Youth Directors Advisory. This group comprises Division level youth directors. The 17 persons in the picture were all men.

The picture was reposted on a Facebook discussion group. It triggered a flood comments. All comments had one focus question: How is it possible that this GC World Youth Directors Advisory has found room for 17 men, but not one woman?

The technical answer is simple: There are today no women youth leaders at the Division/GC level. Only men. For that reason the Youth Directors Advisory has only male members. It is an issue of policy-based (or old tradition?) ex officio membership.

But the technical answer does not answer the underlying paradox, or as some would say, an obvious self-contradiction. In the local churches women are often heavily involved in child and youth programs. Women are also youth leaders in some Conferences and Unions. Many women attended the Kassel youth leader congress. But none of the 13 Divisions has a woman youth leader.

Our church promotes the ideal of two-gender parent families. Both genders are spiritual guides and role models. They supplement each other, and are equally needed in these roles. The question is, Should not the leaders of youth programs reflect that family and church are interrelated, that youth programs are an extension of the family’s activities?

No wonder that the picture of the 17 gentlemen in black, and no women, triggered a flood of comments. In the minds of the almost 600 that posted comments, that picture visually demonstrated that our church leadership is heavily male dominated, the higher up, the more so.

A friend commented to me that we should not blame those guys, but rather the constituencies that elected them. Well, he is partly right. On the individual level, these guys are wonderful people, highly motivated, and very dedicated. However, there is no constituency to blame for electing them, since the Divisions are mere branch offices of the GC.

The “blame” must go to the election system that selects the names that are voted in GC sessions. Was it really not possible to find one woman among the 20+ million members in the 13 Divisions qualified for a Division level youth director post, while finding 13 men was no problem?

All 13 Division youth directors are members of the GC Advisory group. In the picture there are 17 men. That leaves at least four additional openings, maybe more. Why was it not possible to find one woman to fill one of the four openings? If ordination is a requirement for a position on this Advisory, that would be a perfect example of the “glass ceiling” that our church has constructed to keep women out of top leadership positions: Just invent a criterion for election that only men may fill. If ordination is not a criterion, this is a perfect example of either old male monopoly tradition and/or simple lack of common sense.

A serious reality check is necessary. Like it or not, in this day and age gender does matter, not only symbolically, but functionally. Please, don’t break the 3rd commandment by blaming God for electing only men. This innocent snapshot reveals a human systemic malfunction.

The System

All systems operate on certain rules. Some are codified in voted policies, others are just old traditions, presuppositions, and assumptions taken for granted.

What does it takes to be selected for a Seventh-day Adventist career position?

First, we like to think that when we pray, an election will simply express God’s answer.

This ideal is more magical than pious. Elections don’t happen per inspirationem, by the Spirit’s command. Human interference is always present. There is a back room story behind all elections. Nominations are the results of human “advice,” “suggestions,” or other forms of “influence.”

The rationale behind our one-candidate voting practice, is allegedly to avoid open “political campaigning.” The result is that campaigning is reserved for the influential people among or with access to members of the nominating committee. The campaigning is done mostly informally and secretly.

We have the deplorable practice that when a Conference/Union/GC president has been elected, he is invited to join and “advise” the nominating committee. That way the newly elected president is given the opportunity to influence which persons the committee will nominate for other positions.

Second, there are systemic mechanisms at work that we must acknowledge.

We claim that our church organization is “democratic” and “representative.” That system effectively excludes common members from having any direct influence on the election of officers above the local church level. From the conference level and up only elected representatives have a say. As we move up the layers, representatives are elected by representatives that have been elected by representatives. The ratio of employees and ex officio representatives to “lay” non-employed members increases exponentially.

The GC Executive committee consists of all Union presidents and other ex officio members, mainly top leaders in denominational institutions, among them a contingent of GC officers (who are subject to the scrutiny of the Executive Committee – a conflict of interest situation?) and a small sprinkling of “laypersons,” all of whom have been selected by representatives on boards and committees. Members with no ties to the halls of power have a slim chance of participating in these “representative” fora. Thus the governing of our church is mainly done by people who are employed by the organization.

Third, there are psychological “bonding” mechanisms at work. The people who pick nominees are probably closer to each other than to the common members. This is where the system becomes crucial to personal career interests.

“Lower” positions in the hierarchy become stepping stones for promotion to “higher” positions. Brothers select fellow brothers of the clan. It is said that the important thing is not what you know, or how clever you are, but who you know.

Fourth, system networking becomes the key to promotion. The mechanism is simple: The more influential people you know, the greater are your chances of being noticed, elected, and promoted.

Nobody will admit that they promote themselves. Still, some do it more ardently and effectively than others, often in subtle ways. A good strategy for election is to present yourself as very industrious and dedicated, and voice opinions that align with the ideas of your superiors. Also, you need to declare that you have no interest in an administrative position. That may simply be a “pious” way to apply for the job.

Professional networking is alpha and omega for the ambitious ladder climber. Your professional future depends on your in-house connections. If you doubt the presence of these mechanism, just read the CVs of top Adventist administrators. They list the successful steppings from stone to stone.

The psychological and other mechanisms that operate informally within an organization may not be acknowledged, or their importance may be minimized, because pointing them out  may cause a cognitive dissonance between ideals and reality. But reality usually trumps ideals. The map does not always correspond to the terrain.

Fifth, the tell-tale picture reflects the system.

Our Division youth leaders may be excellent people and well qualified. They deserve our praise, support, and prayers. We should never denigrate these individuals and the work they do. However, our support must not blind us to the systemic mechanisms that have brought them to their positions.

Ideally, positions should serve the needs of the members, old or young, not career ambitions. The GC Youth Directors Advisory’s job is to advise regarding the youth ministry. Young people comprise two genders. In local churches youth leaders are probably a good mix of men and women. Their success depends on trust. Men and women are both moral guides and role models, but they meet the different needs of boys and girls differently. In the real world gender balance matters very much.

The puzzling picture of our world youth leaders contradicts the fundamental gender equality values and ethos of our church’s family ideals. However, the potential effects of the unintended signal that this one-gender picture sends to every young girl in our church is even more disturbing. In this picture millions of girls will see a church that through its policies and practice upholds and defends millenia-old secular social gender prejudices, rather than the Christian and biblical counter-cultural idea of gender equality.

Young boys and girls hardly ever see a Division youth leader. At a young age, they could not care less.

However, young kids grow, gradually expanding their thinking processes and ability to observe and evaluate reality. Young people today live in a visual world where one picture speaks louder than a thousand explanations. At this point they start asking that uncomfortable, distressing and disturbing question, Why are there no women in the picture?

Explaining systemic processes will probably not impress anybody. When the picture says it all, technical words become futile. The simple and honest answer would be, It is because our church’s views of women’s place in the church is still stuck in some secular, millenia-old unbiblical prejudices and cultural traditions.

Our Grandchildren

We have two grandchildren, one girl and one boy, both nine years old. Last Christmas my son-in-law and I discussed some theological questions, and I said something about the pitfalls of the “proof-text” method of reading the Bible.

Suddenly our nine-year-old granddaughter jolted me with a question. Looking up from her legos on the floor, she asked, “Does that mean that we may read whatever we like into the Bible text?” Her simple question gave me a powerful, unexpected wake-up call. Never underestimate a nine-year-old child’s ability to observe, listen, reflect, and ask probing questions!

Soon that little girl and her boy cousin will begin to observe, listen, reflect, and ask more probing questions. They will see and hear about the gender differences practiced in our church. It will not take them long to spot gender discrimination. They may come to me and ask, “Morfar (that is maternal grandfather in Norwegian), why?

I have tried to figure out what to answer when Geneina and Carson begin to ask those probing questions. They are already sharp thinkers. I know they will not be fooled by silly and hollow quasi-theological answers. They have played together since they were born. When separated by thousands of miles and 11 time zones, they still play together for hours, on Skype! They adore and love each other. Any thought that they are not equal in every way, would be incredibly strange to them. Everything in their own experience contradicts such a thought.

So, what should a bewildered grandfather answer? Should I try, feebly, to defend the muddled situation our church is in, and the equally muddled rhetoric and actions some leaders use? Or should I be honest to God, our grandchildren, and myself and speak my mind? Would my straightforward honesty be sufficient to preserve their faith in God and the Bible as a true guide to truth, and respect for the church, even if the present stance of the church regarding women so blatantly contradicts their own experience, as well as the overarching ethos of Scripture?

I can only pray, “God, help me!”


Edwin Torkelsen is a retired historian who worked for the National Archives in Norway. He also taught Medieval History in the University of Oslo, and was an Associate Professor of History in the University of Trondheim with a special interest in the development of the ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, theological, doctrinal, and political ideologies of the Medieval church. He is a member of the Tyrifjord Adventist Church in Norway.

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