Why This General Conference Session Is Making Me So Sad
by Loren Seibold | 7 June 2022 |
Though I never thought that the General Conference (GC) was an oracle (a modern Urim and Thummim where every vote reflected the mind of God), in my younger years I did hope that important things—things that helped the church become better and more responsive to the world we lived in—could happen at GC sessions.
But after watching them for years, I now believe that these meetings accomplish little for God’s kingdom. At one time the Session was at least an affirmation of community—that lovely feeling of worldwideness that many of us appreciate. The international flags are still paraded in, but after the interdivisional machinations of 2015, even some of that warmth is gone.
Now the General Conference, whether in their office in Silver Spring or in session, appear merely to be holding a century-old line. Holding the line is not inspiring or particularly motivating. It is impossible for me to know how this event is received by people in other parts of the world, but I’m pretty sure it has alienated many in my part of the world.
What the brethren don’t seem to know
Here is what the GC brethren (still mostly brethren—a mere soupçon of sisters among them) don’t know, and I wish they did: the meeting that they tout as being the most significant event in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been, for too many years now, a succession of disappointments.
Perhaps we of the progressive western church are not the majority, but we are still an important and supportive part of it. But many of us expect little from this meeting anymore. The General Conference has for some decades now shown us that they prefer not to be in conversation with our part of the church. Even when they can’t prevent it, they disapprove of flexibility, innovation and spontaneity on any terms but theirs.
Even when they do act, it is almost always too little, too late. They’ve convinced many of us that holding the old line is all they can do, which is why we have begun to see them as irrelevant.
How did this happen?
It seems to many of us that authority and control—not community, communication, or faith—have become the top values of the General Conference.
The denomination purports to be a kind of democracy—a representative democracy, we say. But how democratic is it, even through representatives? When you gather thousands of people who don’t know how to work together, with a substantial majority of them employees or families of employees, all the power goes to the guys (again, still almost all “guys”) with the checkbooks, agendas, and microphones.
How much creative work can happen in such a setting? Yes, there is voting and parliamentary process—but many undemocratic governments have that too.
In fact, the General Conference leaders have told us repeatedly that they see themselves in terms of authority. It would be interesting to count how many times some variation of Ellen White’s “the General Conference is the highest authority of God on earth” statement is invoked in this Session—in spite of the meeting being so controlled that it’s unlikely even the Holy Ghost could shoehorn in an outcome different from what the leaders have scripted. Mark Finley will again identify Acts 15 as the first General Conference Session, and as the reason why Silver Spring should have the final word on what we Adventists are to believe and do.
Executives of a representative democracy shouldn’t try to sacrifice the successful functioning of a significant part of the church to the votes of a few delegates. Good leaders try to find win-win solutions. They don’t pit half the church against the other half, and write off the discontented half as having succumbed to “the shaking”—a metaphor that Elder Ted Wilson has used to describe his critics.
What isn’t leadership
We have had dominating church leaders in the past. Is Elder Ted Wilson any worse, or were we just expecting better leadership by this time in our history?
I don’t know. I do know that at least we in the western church have experienced manipulative rather than cooperative and interactive leadership from him. We have become accustomed to the president of the church speaking ex cathedra, like a pope. (Have you noticed how much of the advertising about the GC Session featured the face of Ted Wilson?) We have seen Ted Wilson scold distinguished church leaders as though they were naughty little boys, all because they took an action that was biblical, ethical, and required by Fundamental Belief #14.
In truth, we in the western church have learned to eclipse Ted Wilson from view in order to go on with our work in a dynamic, changing culture that he doesn’t understand.
My opinion, which I think a valid one: this is what happens when we select for our leader a man who has never been a pastor. Ted Wilson has spent his entire life, almost from birth, in the hallowed halls of church governance. No wonder he speaks as though what happens at 12501 Old Columbia Pike is the church, and the rest of us are merely subjects of his office!
Living up to expectations
The first day of the Session was pretty much what I expected: it showed a disconnected-from-culture church addressing superannuated notions of churchness.
A couple of delegates well known to be part of Ted Wilson’s inner circle tried to reverse the church’s stance on ordaining women as local elders. (The leader was Gerard Damsteegt, the husband of Laurel Damsteegt, whose strongly anti-woman article Elder Wilson insisted that the Adventist Review publish just days before the Session. See Adventist Today’s critique of it here.)
And then Elder Wilson, whose leadership has been so singularly unhelpful to the western church, was reelected. If he “reigns” to 2025, he will be the second longest-serving president in church history. We have hundreds of wise and experienced church leaders, but he’s the only one the nominating committee could turn to?
What do we have to look forward to for the rest of the Session? More of the same. One item on the agenda asks that every congregation create a local coordinator to promote “the Spirit of Prophecy,” by which is meant the writings of Ellen White. I am not, like even some Adventists, contemptuous of Ellen White. I honor her as a godly woman, a feminist forerunner, and a vital part of our history. But her writings are not the Bible. That the brethren think this is even worth proposing for a vote shows that they have entirely missed Seventh-day Adventists’ passionate desire to connect with God through the Holy Scriptures alone. (Not to mention the impracticality of adding another job to the many tiny churches that can’t even find elders, children’s teachers, or piano players.)
To 2025—at least
And thus for the remainder of Ted Wilson’s term. Progress on equal ordination for women will be blocked. While the people of the world suffer wars, environmental disaster, disease and famine, among us a mythological eschatology of Sunday laws, persecution, and papal overreach will be the message. We will keep talking about Jesus coming “soon,” though there is no evidence, biblical or otherwise, to support that urgency. Millions—some say a billion—of cheap pulp copies of The Great Controversy will flood mailboxes, and promptly be hauled to the dump. The church will talk about Jesus in terms of fear and obedience rather than redemption, salvation, grace and love. Young people are disappearing faster than we can make them, even as an old guard scratch their heads and wonder why. Thousands of small congregations, having buried their last gray-haired supporter and seen all of their children flee, will lock their doors in the next decade.
Some church judicatories could try to exert their independence. Pushed too hard, the North American Division (NAD), parts of Europe and Australia/NZ, not to mention our world-class universities and medical institutions, could get to the point where they can’t work with the General Conference anymore. Then what?
No one on the dais in St. Louis this week seems worried about these things, though I think they should be. They should know that this may well be the week that many Adventists in my part of the world give up on the church altogether.
The GC isn’t the church
Which is why in these past few years I’ve begun to think that we give the top of the church too much attention, and thus too much credit. It’s why we at Adventist Today aren’t covering the General Conference Session with the sort of breathless wonder that some are.
We love our church. But for us, the church isn’t the General Conference. Our church is the marvelous people who love Jesus, who honor the helpful and upbuilding parts of our message, who worship on God’s beautiful Sabbath and long for Jesus to return (whenever and however the events unfold); who above all believe in a God of grace and goodness, a God who reaches out to all people, everywhere, of every age, race, gender, and sexual orientation, a God who wants us to work for justice, peace and the relief of suffering.
I started out by saying that the brethren don’t seem to understand our church’s place in a larger Christian story. Please don’t read this to mean that I think they have bad intentions. Elder Ted Wilson is a kind man with good intentions, and so are his helpers. But that doesn’t mean they’re doing the right thing. You need only watch a bit of this Session to see that these leaders are living in a different world than the church they run. There are few real-world problems being solved in St. Louis. The church machinery is clanking away in the corner, generating nothing that helps to save this church, much less the world which we are supposed to be enlightening.
This week, please pray for those Seventh-day Adventists who love their church, but who honor God more than they do an office at 12501 Old Columbia Pike. My desire is that Adventist Today be one of the vehicles for such people; that we help the Seventh-day Adventist Church take our lovely inheritance of faith and use it in the real world to solve real problems. That we do not merely react to church politics, but act to promote the grace, justice and goodness of God in a broken and hurting world.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.