ith pageantry, parades, and people—lots of people!—General Conference (GC) sessions pulsate with the energy of this global movement. Yet at their heart they are business meetings, during which some 2,400 delegates representing the world church elect leaders and consider items such as changes to the Church Manual or the church’s Fundamental Beliefs.
The daily Bulletins of each session, produced by the staff of the Adventist Review, provide a record that shows the changing church as it moves through time. As one studies the past five sessions, those in which I served as editor of the Review, fascinating bits of history come to light.
1985: New Orleans
When Adventists gathered in the Louisiana Superdome, the church numbered about 5 million and had just concluded the most fruitful evangelistic thrust in our history, called the 1,000 Days of Reaping. With the church growing rapidly, church structure and organization needed to be addressed. Signs of strain were appearing between the General Conference and the North American Division, where the central office is located. The role of women in the church was coming to the fore, especially in North America.
The Adventist Church was a church on the move. It was time to consider major changes in how we went about our mission.
The main item of business at this, the fifty-fourth General Conference session, took up a series of recommendations concerning the role and function of denominational organizations. Delegates affirmed the concept that the world church has four (not five) constituent levels: local church, conference, union conference, and General Conference. The geographical divisions of the church are not separate levels but part of the General Conference. Thus, presidents of these divisions not only administer the church in their territories, but are vice presidents of the General Conference.
Reiterating this concept has major implications. It helps preserve the unity of Seventh-day Adventists as the church grows globally.
In the most sweeping departmental change in 80 years, five departments and services of the church were melded into one megadepartment: Church Ministries. It combined Lay Activities, Sabbath School, Youth, Stewardship and Development, and Home and Family Service. One other item introduced in New Orleans—the role and ordination of women pastors—was deferred for further study. It would feature prominently in the following two General Conference sessions.
The fifty-fifth General Conference session, held in the Hoosier Dome, was marked by surprises from its outset.
In his opening address on the Thursday night, General Conference president Neal C. Wilson announced his readiness to continue in office if requested. He turned 70 on that very day; he had served for 11 years. The following day, however, the Nominating Committee did not bring in an early report. The hours ticked by and suspense mounted. Word leaked out that the committee had voted to turn to someone else to lead the world church, that it had sounded out one person but that he declined, and that now they were working on other names. Would the church elect a president that day, or would we enter Sabbath hours with the issue unresolved?
At last, shortly before 6:00 p.m., the committee presented its report. It was a stunner: nominated for world church president was Robert S. Folkenberg, president of the Carolina Conference. At 49, he was the youngest GC president since A. G. Daniells, 89 years before, and the first to come to office directly from the conference level since the church reorganized in 1901.
One item of business generated strong feelings and extended over several days—the role of women pastors. At length delegates voted 1,173 to 377 that, because of the widespread lack of support in the world church at the time, the ordination of women to the gospel ministry would not be approved. The role of women in pastoral ministry was, however, affirmed.
At this convocation, a new division formed from the territories of the USSR was recognized, a strategy for the intentional evangelization of unreached areas (subsequently called Global Mission) was launched, a position statement on Sabbath observance was voted, and the constitution and bylaws of the church were changed to limit the number of delegates to General Conference sessions.
The sprawling Jaarbeurs complex in Utrecht, Netherlands, was modified from its customary exhibition function to accommodate an international convention. Some of the huge space was turned into dormitories that enabled thousands of Adventists from Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union to attend their first General Conference session.
Once again the issue of the ordination of women pastors elicited passionate speeches pro and con. This time the point of focus was not their ordination, per se, but a request originating with the North American Division that each division of the world church be given leeway to determine what would be best for the work in its territories. Inevitably, however, debate on the floor reverted to ordination rather than dealing with the NAD’s request. When the votes were at last tallied, the motion lost massively: 673 yes, 1,481 no.
In startling reversal of the decision taken 10 years earlier, delegates also voted to disband the megadepartment Church Ministries. They not only reinstated the previous departments (Sabbath School, Lay Activities, Stewardship, Family, and Youth), but sanctioned the introduction of a new one, Children’s Ministries.
Much of the business again concerned organization. The constitution and bylaws were amended to increase lay representation at GC sessions to at least 20 percent of delegates, with a similar stipulation for pastors. The size of the Executive Committee was reduced, but a new mandate ensured that funding would be provided to enable all union conference presidents to attend meetings of the Annual Council. A recommendation to position Adventists publicly as a people of hope was adopted.
Once again the GC session convened in a domed stadium—the Skydome in the lovely city of Toronto, Canada.
Once again elections were of high interest. Jan Paulsen, chosen by the General Conference Executive Committee after Robert Folkenberg resigned in 1999, was returned to office in rapid fashion by session delegates. Paulsen, a Norwegian, is only the second non-American to serve as GC president. Voted as secretary for the world church was Matthew A. Bediako, a Ghanaian. For the first time in its history the Adventist Church’s two top leaders were not Americans.
One item ran over several days—a recommendation to amend the Church Manual in its section on “Divorce and Remarriage.” The new wording—which was less judgmental, acknowledged situations in which divorce was the only practical option, distinguished between grounds for divorce and grounds for remarriage, and pointed to the need for redemptive effort and ministry to families involved—met with sharply different responses from delegates. After much discussion the revised wording was voted by the session.
Among other interesting items: a new Department of Women’s Ministries was added; a sculpture on the Second Coming was unveiled before its being moved to GC headquarters in Maryland, where it is now featured in the foyer; a Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, the twelfth volume in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary series, was officially released; and mission was featured in a series of daily presentations labeled “Windows on Mission.”
2005: St. Louis
The city of St. Louis, Missouri, located on the banks of the Mississippi River and famed in American history as the gateway to the West, was chosen as the venue for the fifty-eighth GC session of Seventh-day Adventists.
Two items made history: the election of the first female vice president of the General Conference—Ella Simmons—and consideration of a new fundamental belief. Joining Simmons were two other women voted as officers: Rosa Banks, associate secretary, and Daisy Orion, associate treasurer.
Discussion of the proposed addition to the Fundamental Beliefs, “Growing in Christ,” ran the full gamut of the session. No change in statement of doctrine had been made in 25 years, and delegates lined up at the microphones to have their say. Eventually, with amendments, the new fundamental belief was approved by the delegates.
This development is notable, not only because of the increase in the Fundamental Beliefs from 27 to 28, but because of the factors that led to the introduction of the new statement. It arose out of the needs of the global mission of the church as it moves into new areas and encounters populations that live in bondage to the spirits or to karma.
In another “first,” all business stopped for 90 minutes each day as principles of leadership were presented to the delegates.
1985—2005: 20 Years, Five GC Sessions
The church triples in membership, from 5 million to 15 million. In Africa the increase is fivefold, to more than 5 million. The North American Division shrinks to only about 5 percent of world membership.
The General Conference sessions change as the church changes. No longer are they dominated by the North American Division. They become livelier, more difficult to handle, more difficult to predict.
But two constants remain: mission and unity. These quinquennial convocations do not go the way of the World Council of Churches, with demonstrations and power struggles. Adventists remain one in hope, one in mission.
William G. Johnsson is a former editor of Adventist Review and serves the General Conference as assistant to the president for interfaith relations.