Gerry, Jason, and myself were pondering what the president might be thinking about current challenges in the church. We pooled our money, counted, and discovered that with my added credit card limit tapped-out, we could get to $19,269--enough money to rent 15-minutes of time on the government’s new mind-reading machine at CERN. Gathering up the money, I headed across town for the CERN laboratory.
Parking my rental car, I pulled out my phone and tuned in one last time to the livestream from Annual Council. As I listened, the president was speaking, very transparently sharing his thinking with the General Conference Executive Committee. Here’s what he said:
The problem is that there are those who have not complied. How do we deal with them? If they do not accept what a Session said, how do we work with them? That's our dilemma.
If the method that has been proposed to you is not the one that should be followed, we've been asking for a better one, and we've not received a good one.
Delaying is not a good option either, if delaying means never concluding what the compliance was intended to do. If delaying means to be able to iron things out so that people come into compliance, praise the Lord, that's fine. But our dilemma is, we have some units that have simply said, "We're going to do things differently; we're going to do it our own way." And that's not in compliance with Church policy. Neither is it in compliance with General Conference Session action. So, regardless of whether we agree with something or not (because you can hold your opinion, no problem), the problem is, there are times when you have to submit your opinion. I've had to do that. I've voted on things that went a different way. But you say “We're part of a group and we're going this way.” So how do we get to that when there are units that are not willing to comply?
So, back to your question as to the difference between the committees. The Constitution and Bylaws committee will not solve the problem we presented to you. It will not. The only thing it will do is perhaps give some reflection and suggestion as to additional wording in policy if indeed in the future something were to come up as we are experiencing, how would it be treated? That would have to go to the General Conference in Session if it was added to the Constitution. It would have to go to the General Conference in Session to be adopted and accepted. So it will not help us with anything we are doing now.
The Unity [in Mission] Oversight committee can look at your suggestions, your comments, and try to come up with something a bit better. The alternative, and I'll be open with you (because it is another alternative), but it was deemed, perhaps it is some kind of a punitive committee that is looking for the organizations that are out of compliance. Then you have to figure out what you can do. So if you had a committee that would look at those units (and there are some, we can name them, but we won't do that now), if you want to look at those units and officially declare, "You are out of compliance," we can have a committee to do that. The big question is, what do you do next?
Do you just make a statement: "You are out of compliance"? Is there any penalty for being out of compliance? Well, the working policy is quite clear about what we call the "nuclear" or the "ballistic" options. And those are to downgrade unions from union conference if that's where they are, to union mission. It is to disband unions. We've not chosen to do that. That would be an extremely comprehensive and difficult thing. Let's just be very open with ourselves. That would take enormous amount of time and effort, and that would be even much greater effort taken away from mission than what is even being suggested. So, the basic problem that your officers are facing, because I'm facing it, all the officers, not just the three executive, all the officers of the General Conference, and you, are facing it: What do you do when an organization is so out of compliance with what has been indicated? What do you do?
The General Conference really doesn't have a lot of tools to address that. It can disband the union, yes. It can't go and remove officers, the constituency has to do that if it is a union constituency or a conference constituency. Missions, you have more flexibility. But there are very few options the General Conference actually has. So what has been presented to you, at least in part, is an attempt to try and help to focus on some ways on which to bring compliance. To refer this back to the Constitution and Bylaws Committee would not really help us with our current situation.
This was the president’s thinking. It was remarkably insightful! Slipping my credit card back into my wallet, I started the car and drove away. He was very transparent, very open. He had saved us $19,269!
In retrospect, after the decision on Monday, what did we learn? We can look at the non-compliance question with additional perspective now since the General Conference Executive Committee in 2017 has chosen not to implement the proposed reconciliation plan in its present form. Seven special points of interest stand out to me from the words of our Adventist president:
1. The president is open to a better plan, but the criteria is that the plan needs to result in actual compliance with the voted action of the General Conference in Session.
2. The leadership of NAD, TED, and of other units is not willing to comply with the decisions of the General Conference in Session.
3. Some solutions are only possible in the situation of a General Conference Session.
4. General Conference Working Policy already contains other "quite clear" options:
a. Downgrade Unions to Union Missions.
b. Disband Unions.
5. The above two options are perceived as being time and resource intensive, and as potential energy taken from the pursuit of mission in evangelistic lines.
6. The problem of non-compliance is not the president's problem alone, but the problem of the entire General Conference Executive Committee.
7. It is the proper task of the constituencies of Conferences and Unions to remove non-compliant officers. The Church is actually designed so that the General Conference cannot even do that (except in Union Missions).
List item number one is important. Decisions voted by the General Conference in Session are extremely meaningful to us. The vast majority of Adventists agree: this is an absolute.
List item two shows the extremity of the present situation. The leaders of certain units are unambiguously and openly acting out rebellion. They are unwilling to fulfill obligations they have made. Such an extreme problem naturally, even inevitably, requires an extreme solution.
List item three is why San Antonio-level events can only happen at a moment in time every five years. This is one more reason why disregard for such meta-level decisions made by the Church is particularly destructive when entities or officers disregard those decisions.
List item four is what I think to be the most clarifying information: There already exist "quite clear" solutions for extreme situations. Living behind Ruby Ridge while pastoring in Idaho, the locals shared with me that if you are being charged by a grizzly bear, and you have two guns, a 22 and a 44, you have an extreme situation. You should not use your 22. Use your 44, and squeeze-off as many rounds as you can! You may have to choose between the bear and the human. Looking at Monday again from a Tuesday standpoint, the spiritual parallel is, top leaders in the Church may have to choose between disbanding or downgrading a sub-entity, or, deep damage to the Church itself.
List item five suggests careful reassessment might be very useful. How much energy has been invested already in the current situation? TOSC and the 2015 GC Session, with additional energy already invested at AC2016, AC2017, the energy spent by leadership between those meetings, and now even more energy will be spent preparing for AC2018. Considering all the energy being spent, plus the fact that the North American Division is rent by division because of current non-compliance with General Conference Session voted decisions, it would seem useful to reassess the approach. Strong crises require strong solutions; that's what downgrading or disbanding Unions is for.
List item six may not be appreciated by some: non-compliance with General Conference Session actions is a problem that impacts the whole church. It touches every member. Non-compliance is a violation of the Bible-based Adventist Fundamental belief on unity. Policy compliance has a major impact on our unified work and witness: how much more, refusal to adhere to key decisions made at a General Conference Session.
List item seven is very interesting because of a truly new development among Adventist laypeople. In the Adventist Church, presidents of entities above other entities really can’t fire those in entities at other levels. Generally speaking, those elected by constituencies can only be replaced by the members of their constituency. Laypeople in churches in my Conference (and, more recently, others) began holding special meetings this year in support of the world church in what they call "World Church Affirmation Sabbaths." In my observation these are serious laypeople who support leadership in the Church that acts in support of decisions made by the General Conference in Session. As a pastor, I was thrilled when my church members who attended a recent WCAS meeting returned to their home church with WCAS-provided, denominationally published EGW sharing books they were given to distribute as part of a Total Member Involvement initiative! More interesting to me is their stated interest in identifying local lay-members who are strongly supportive of the world church and who might serve with distinction on Conference committees.
Very early in the current GC presidency our president called for the laypeople to hold their leaders accountable. That didn’t happen at AC2017. But are we seeing that begin to happen at the conference level?
In conclusion, my friends and I are thankful that the president saved us $19,269. We are also thankful because the insights he shared come from a high-level understanding rooted in an experience of direct leadership and knowledge of General Conference Working Policy. This information is not available just anywhere or from just anyone.
Everyone, even the president, after the Monday decision at Annual Council, is in a position to reassess possible solutions to the extreme problem the Church faces now because the leadership of NAD, TED, and of other units is no longer willing to comply with the decisions of the General Conference in Session.
Although the proposed action did not occur, my respect for our president has increased another whole level as I have watched him hard at work for Jesus’ blood-bought Church here at Annual Council 2017. Instead of criticism, let us pray for him and for all Adventist leaders who support the 2015 decision of the world church in General Conference Session. Thank you president Wilson for sharing your thoughts so transparently with the Church on Monday, and for laboring to help her in this emergency hour.
Larry is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor in the Pacific Northwest.