Church Leadership and Lay Member Involvement (Conclusion)

In this series of articles, we have been looking at Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership structures, and how lay members are involved in various leadership levels. We have observed two interesting trends: 1) That increasingly levels of church hierarchy committees have diminishing input from laymen, and Church employees are customarily stacked on executive committees, giving them inordinate say in matters of church governance. 2) That a “Good old Boy” political phenomenon exists in North American clergy and leadership, further increasing the distance between laity and ‘leadership.’ All of this results in lay members having less and less input into the Church that they support and belong to.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Part Four: Union, Division and General Conference governance

The next administrative level of the Church we will look at is the Union. The governance process of the Church at this level is becoming less than ideal.

The delegates to its constituency meeting are chosen by the local conference executive committees. Many of those constituent delegates are automatically members of the constituency by virtue of their position in the Church, in other words, they are Church employees, i.e. Conference president, secretary and treasurer from each Conference. That adds up to a lot more Church employees that make up the constituency of the Union, compared to the local Conference constituency that is about 50—60% lay members.

The bylaws state that a fair proportion of lay members, should make up the constituency. Depending on how you interpret “fair proportion” they may or may not be fairly represented. In reality, the process at this point is already becoming heavily controlled by Church employees and the potential good old boys club. The  nominating committee recommends the Union officers and executive committee to the constituency for vote, similar to the local Conference election process, with the same inherent problems. As mentioned in part two, the Union nominating committee has many Church employees. The Division president is the nominating committee chairman and not a lay member like the Conference nominating committee chairman generally is.

The Union executive committee, like the local Conference executive committee, is controlled by its officers, with many Conference Church administrators making up its’ membership, along with an additional variety of Church employees, and a few lay members.


 The next level is the Division. The Division is technically not a separate level of the Church but is rather a “division” of the General Conference. The Division officers are not elected at your typical constituency meeting, but instead at the General Conference session, since they are part of the General Conference.

The Division president is concurrently a vice president of the General Conference. He and the other Division officers are nominated by the GC session nominating committee, which I will explain under the General Conference section. The delegate members from a Division to the GC session, become the de-facto Division constituency. There is also a Division executive committee made up primarily of Union and Conference officers, and other Church employees, again, being automatic members by virtue of their position. There is some lay representation on the Division committee, but with no number or percentage being required, so the number of lay members and their input is not significant.

General Conference

 Finally the General Conference level. Its constituency meeting is what is referred to as the General Conference Session, held every 5 years. The constituency is made up of two types of delegates to the GC Session, Regular and At Large delegates. There are 400 Regular delegates, made up of Church administrators from the Conference/Union officer group, by virtue of their position. Every Union has representation regardless of size. There are no lay members in this category.

In addition to these 400 Regular delegates, each Union is given additional Regular delegates according to the membership of their Union, based on a formula. Basically larger Unions get more delegates and smaller Unions have fewer delegates. These delegates are mostly some type of Church employee, pastor, teacher, hospital administrator etc. Lay members can also be chosen to this group of delegates. This is the largest group of delegates.

 The second delegate group is the Delegates At Large, with 300 members. These delegates are made up of all of the GC executive committee members (GC/Division/officers, Union presidents, and GC department/institution/organization heads), GC departmental associates, 20 GC staff and 20 individuals from each Division which are made up of other Church employees and lay members. 25% Of the total Division delegation is to be made up of lay representatives. There are almost 2600 delegates of all types in total, with roughly 15% ending up being lay members.

 At the GC session, the GC officers, departmental and organizational directors and associates are elected via a nominating committee process that sends one name per position to the constituent delegates to vote up or down. The nominating committee selection process is a little different at a GC session. Each division has a caucus of all their delegates at the very beginning of the Session, to choose their representatives to the nominating committee. 10% Of their delegates will automatically be on the nominating committee. The General Conference also chooses 8% of its’ delegates to be on the nominating committee. No current Division or GC delegates that are in a position up for election can be on the nominating committee. That’s good.

The last Session had 252 delegates on the nominating committee, 233 from the Divisions and 19 from the GC. The nominating committee chooses its own chairman with guidance from the GC. In my opinion, the process of choosing the GC Session nominating committee membership is the best of the organizational levels.  It is decided by the constituency and not an administrative committee. The makeup of the membership of the nominating committee is however, predominately church employees with very few lay members. No number or percentage of lay members is required by policy. The chairman is a Church employee.

GC Executive Committee

 The General Conference Executive Committee, which meets officially twice a year at Spring Council and Annual/Autumn Council, is made up of GC and Division officers, Union presidents, GC department heads, plus heads of GC institutions and organizations. Finally, there are 3 lay people chosen by each division plus 15-20 lay members chosen by the General Conference administration, which added together is about 60 lay members out of 350+ total membership. Again roughly 15% lay representation.

 As you can see, lay representation gets smaller and smaller as you move up the levels of Church governance, with lay representation not only numerically becoming smaller but also less significant in terms of impact on the decision making process and outcome. There is also more and more potential for a conflict of interest the higher up you go in Church governance.

How to Streamline Our Church Structure

 As a young man, I remember a study my father did for the General Conference, and the presentation of its results at an Annual Council. The study involved the impact that would be made on the Church, financially and otherwise, if the Church in the United States was greatly reduced administratively to three Unions with a western, central and eastern union. Also, there would be one major university for each union with no other colleges. The projections, as you would guess, would have saved huge amounts of money for the Church with three strong unions and universities instead of several unions and many struggling colleges, etc.

Well the concept was not taken seriously, and was voted down fairly quickly without exploration. The main reason it was rejected—you guessed it—conflict of interest.

It might have been good for the Church at large and its membership, but not for the administrators. If the administrators voted for this concept, they would have been potentially, literally, voting themselves out of many of their jobs, so it wasn’t in their best interest to vote for it.  Every single lay member could have voted for it, but it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the vote, due to their small representation.

A Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

 One of the interesting things about our Church governance system, is that the inherent conflict of interest in the whole system makes it almost impossible for lay members to change the Church policies that control the process. If the lay members of the Church felt very strongly about changing to a governance process with lay leadership on governing committees and a majority lay membership on all committees at all levels, existing policies would have to be changed and voted.  To make these changes our lay members would be at the mercy of the Church employees that dominate the governance process. Because of the conflict of interest, it would very likely never be voted.

Currently, lay members have no leadership on the committees, no input to the agenda, and are a minority of the voting power on the committees.

What Can We Do?

 Our Church governance is stacked against our lay members and it can be discouraging at times, if you let yourself think about it, but we can’t just give up. We have to always be looking out for the best interest of the Church, however and wherever we can. We have to use the voice that we do have, and use it more effectively. At a minimum, our lay members should be able to decide who their own representatives are on these committees, and not Church administrators that choose yes men or members because they are someone’s friend.   We have to push Church leadership for change even though it won’t come easily or quickly. Prayer for the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of our leaders is paramount.

 Down through the years, our dedicated and well-meaning leaders have taken the basic governance system of Mrs. Whites day and developed it into a very complicated system. With Gods’ help, it has been functioning reasonably well, in spite of some of its’ shortcomings. Some current leaders, however, are now trying to circumvent the governance process, and sowing seeds of rebellion.

Our lay members need to be willing to stand up to these rebellious leaders and oppose their activities. We love our Church and we need to be willing to fight for it. Lay members still largely control the decision making process of the local Church, which is really the most important level where the most meaningful work of the Church is carried out. Lay members still have significant influence at the Conference level. Let’s use it, and use it well.


 In conclusion, we are seeing growing numbers of unfaithful leaders using a less than perfect governance system to their advantage. Our faithful lay members need to be better organized and willing to stand up to these unfaithful leaders, challenging them. The current problems in the Church aren’t going to just go away by themselves. Things are only going to get worse from this point on.

Depending on the outcome of the General Conferences’ efforts to bring these rebellious leaders back into the fold, we may be on the brink of what Mrs. White saw in vision, with the Church seemingly falling apart. To help prevent this, she says that the greatest want of the world, is people that will stand for right, though the heavens fall. Will you be one of those?

I’m convinced it won’t be much longer before our beloved Church will be back to existing with no organization and our faithful lay members will be carrying the main responsibility of leading Gods’ chosen people, waiting for Christs’ return.


Harold Butler has worn many hats over the years. Some of those hats include:

U.S. Army 1969-71
Missionary former Far Eastern Division 1975-88. Hong Kong and Singapore.
Johns Hopkins University/Hospital full time 1988-91, part time 1991-2008.
General Conference Global Mission 1991-96
Private practice 1996-2017.

Harold retired in 2017 and lives with his wife in Maryland and spends the winters in Florida.