by Larry Downing  | 19 October 2018  |

Our investment in foreign missions has brought unexpected returns, with interest! Those who observed or participated in the recent General Conference (GC) Fall Council listened with interest as pastors, administrative personnel and other representatives to the General Conference Executive Committee responded to the proposed adoption of the GC Compliance documents. Delegates from North America and Europe urged fellow delegates to allow them the freedom to fulfill their mission unencumbered by the threats of sanction and expulsion. The representatives from Latin America, Africa and Asia listened, promoted the adoption of the Compliance document, and marked “YES” on their ballots. Their votes carried the day. The compliance document is now the law of the church. The children and grandchildren of the early Advent converts turned to bite the hand of those whose ancestors provided their spiritual food. What was sown is what was reaped.

In addition to a theological package delivered by early missionaries to the unwashed heathen, the foreign ambassadors packaged and dispensed a management style. A significant number of those who answered the call to mission service were theologically conservative. They believed in, practiced, and promoted a hierarchical administrative style and let the indigenous people know who was in control. The management style modeled in many of the mission fields was well learned. The progeny of the early converts perpetuate the authoritarian management style their ancestors learned from the North Americans who came to save them. Should the dictatorial model have been limited to the area where control is Standard Operating Procedure it would perhaps be tolerable. However, our missionary endeavors were effective to an extent few imagined. Adventist members in Latin America, Africa and Asia far outnumber the North American and European members. Administrative personnel in the dominant areas tend to perpetuate a top-down management style. It is what people know, and it is an effective method to assure administrators retain their power positions. Tolerance for those who do not march to the leader’s drum is limited.

The leaders from areas that practice a “literal” interpretation of scripture, a narrow application of Ellen White’s statements, and enforce a hierarchical management style have the votes to impose their values and practices on the world church. Those areas of the world that value diversity, inclusion, and practice a more democratic management style are saddled with policies that violate accepted ethical and moral values. It was no surprise that the motion to accept the GC compliance policy carried. It was equally unsurprising that a significant number of those present, and those who watched the vote or read the final tally, were disappointed, frustrated and angry. Time will tell how these people express their emotions and convictions.

It is satisfying to have evidence there are those in church leadership who are aware of issues that confront the Adventist church and its people and are willing to identify factors essential to an ethical not-for-profit organization. In an October 16 presentation, GC Treasurer Juan R. Prestol-Puesan did exactly this. He specifically identified trust as the essential and described the need to practice transparency, integrity and accountability. When any of the above is absent or lax, trust will erode and trust, he affirmed, is the coin of the realm. If people in the pew do not trust church leadership, the game is over. (A paraphrase of his words.) His conclusion hits the mark! What he did not say is that many Adventists have lost trust in church leaders. They do not trust the leaders to represent them nor do they trust them to be fair. Leadership is not trusted to seek consensus rather than to enforce administrators’ will on others. The leadership style that brought victory to those who voted for the Compliance document brought defeat to those who opposed the motion. The vote exacerbated the tension that threatens to divide the church.

Effective and trustworthy professional managers seek reconciliation among diverse groups and encourage consensus among disparate parties. The vote to approve the GC Compliance document brought about disunity. We witnessed a failure to encourage people to seek resolution to the factors that brought about the Great Divide. The leader of a religious organization does well to support those who base their opposition to a motion based on on ethical and moral values. When questions of morality and ethics arise, and can be supported by scripture and common sense, a leader does well to allow full consideration of such matters. To ignore or demean women and men who state their concern that a motion, if adopted, violates moral and ethical matters is to risk future problems.

Had GC president Ted Wilson demonstrated pastoral skills or had the ability to mediate and quiet divisive issues, the internecine battle could well have been resolved with a win-win rather than the win/loss that brought triumph to one group and dismay to another. It defies logic that an organization, much less one that claims to be a religious body, will, with intent and forethought, alienate and demean a significant component of its most competent and effective and loyal personnel. To those who claim no one demeaned any one, ask ten women pastors how they felt when the Compliance document was voted, and listen.

Why could there not have been evident a moderate attempt to conciliate the ordination matter that divides the GC Executive Committee members? To those administrators and others who baldly claim that women’s ordination was not the issue? Be real! Yours are empty phrases that we do not believe. We know that committee after committee affirmed there is no scriptural or other factor that denies ordination to women. Why did you, Mr. Wilson, not share that with the group? We know why. You are obsessed with denying women their proper place. How do you defend your decision to make no attempt to mediate between the two disparate groups? This is what effective, moral leaders do. The lack of an ability or willingness to bring a group to consensus boggles the mind.

One might recall that the chair is to be impartial and step down as chair if she/he desires to speak to the motion. This parliamentary rule is ignored within the Adventist construct. It was apparent that the chair, in the discussion of the compliance motion, expected a “yes” vote, and the obedient followers came through. One more block in the Tower of Trust chipped away.

It is unfortunate, unnecessary and irresponsible for a religious organization that claims prophetic insights, an abiding love for one another and claimed commitment to a democratic process, to establish policies that have brought the Seventh-day Adventist church where it finds itself. It is time to stop the foolishness, seek forgiveness and practice the humility that is too often a pious cliche with little substance. To those who announce their love for the church, it is time to demonstrate how love works. To those who proclaim that the Remnant will go through to the end, they are correct, but that remnant may carry an identification other than Seventh-day Adventist. Israel of old was assured the nation would never fail in its mission to occupy the world. Someone once stated words to the effect that all prophecy is conditional. All means all.


Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. 

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