Just before the 1990 General Conference (GC) session in Indianapolis, Indiana, I received a call from an Adventist brother in California. “Can you do an article on term limits?” he asked.
“Yes,” I promised, “that sounds like something I’d like to do sometime, though not at the moment.”
He understood. But I suspect that both he and I expected it would be within a year or two. Now here we are, more than 20 years later. Incredible!
As the idea bounced around in my head over the succeeding years, I alternatively would feel both pro and con. And as more and more time passed, I began wondering how many in the church really gave a hoot about the issue anyway.
Then one day during the 2005 GC session in St. Louis, I looked up at the television monitor in the Adventist Review office, and the hot topic on the floor of the session was precisely the one I’d mentally shelved: term limits.
The Debate in St. Louis
The 2000 GC session in Toronto had voted that the GC’s Constitution and Bylaws Committee consider an amendment to the bylaws, limiting the term of office of a GC president to two consecutive terms of service. The recommendation from that committee to the St. Louis session was “that the change not be approved.”1
But U.S. delegate Brian Bull was not buying it. We’ve got to find a way, he said, to adjust for “the enormous benefit enjoyed by an incumbent.” One possibility, he offered, would be “to require a two-thirds vote of the Nominating Committee to report a name back to the floor after they have served two terms or 10 years, whichever is the longer time period.”2
However, Bull’s motion to refer the item lost.
Also arguing against the committee’s recommendation, Canadian Berthold H. Stickle (then a delegate from the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division) observed that “it is very difficult and painful sometimes to tell a fellow worker that it is time not to continue. It is much easier if we have a policy in place that eliminates some of that pain.”3
Defending the committee’s recommendation, its chairman Gerry D. Karst (at that point in the session newly reelected GC vice president) reminded delegates “that when we come together in session, those in elected office no longer have a job. It is the responsibility of the Nominating Committee and this body to choose to reelect them or to find others to fill the positions.” He did not want to see the session “impose limits that might hinder the direction that the Holy Spirit might move us at some future time.”4
The motion to reject term limits carried.
What I found significant in the debate was that at no time was there any hint from either side that term limits were once an adopted policy in the Adventist Church. Following (in italics) are the relevant sections of the minutes of the Autumn Council convening in Omaha, Nebraska, October 20-27, 1931:
TENURE OF OFFICE:
Whereas, A principle of conference management is clearly stated in the Spirit of Prophecy, in these words:
“I have been shown that ministers should not be retained in the same district year after year, nor should the same man long preside over a conference. A change of gifts is for the good of our conferences and churches.” (Gospel Workers, p. 420.) And,
Whereas, Our experience has proven that very long tenure of office in the same position is not for the best interests of the work . . . ,
Resolved, That we adopt as our working policy—
1. That the tenure of office for General Conference executive officers and heads of departments (including divisions) shall not exceed twelve consecutive years in any one position.
2. That the tenure of office of union executive officers and department secretaries shall not exceed eight consecutive years in any one position, in the same union.
3. That the tenure of office of local conference or mission executive officers and department secretaries shall not exceed six consecutive years in any one position, in the same conference or mission.5
When Did Things Change—And Why?
Evidence suggests that the practice of term limits at first received enthusiastic approval in the church. A 1933 GC committee spoke of “the wide approbation given the tenure of office plan,” leading the committee to expand the policy’s reach in North America to include pastors and members of local conference committees.6
By 1938 we see a further extension and broadening of the areas of the church where the policy should apply. For example, in the North American Division, “the term of service of a worker in any one conference [was] not ordinarily [to] exceed twelve years.” And while workers in our institutions stood beyond the ordinary purview of the policy, the GC committee, nevertheless, suggested that “even in our institutions changes in leadership are at times desirable; and that the spirit of the policy should therefore apply as the respective boards in counsel with the next higher organization shall be able to arrange.”7
Notwithstanding such early enthusiasm, the policy did not survive. Pinning down the exact cause, however, is not easy. But as one reads between the lines, it’s possible to identify certain developments as indirect harbingers of the policy’s eventual demise.
One such development had to do with the frequent need for critical adjustments. In 1937, for instance, the Southwestern Union faced a situation in which “the president of one of the conferences in that union . . . , if reelected, would serve a few months longer than the tenure of office policy allows.” But to strictly apply the policy in that particular case would have brought unnecessary hardship, since the officer in question, “because of physical infirmity,” was “not likely to be invited to other conferences, but would be able to serve where he [was] if reelected.” Accordingly, an exception was made, upon the approval of the General Conference Committee.8
In another development (in 1938), a GC committee found it necessary to stipulate that “workers of experience and standing shall not find themselves disconnected from the work as a result of the operation of the policy.” The same action went into considerable detail in respect to the application of the policy in regard to language considerations, or where fields combined or divided. It was even found necessary to stipulate that the policy “shall not be understood as entitling any worker to the full period of the tenure of office in either the General [Conference], division, union, or local organizations.”9
All these incidents hint at possible areas of friction, tension, and difficulty in applying the policy; and in the aggregate, they took their toll.
Considering such (circumstantial) evidence insufficient, however, I struggled to find something specific, something concrete in the minutes, stating exactly how and when the practice ended. But I couldn’t. And I understood why when I spoke to former GC president Neal C. Wilson. No formal action was taken to discontinue the practice, he said; “it just died a natural death.” It had never been really popular, he said, and “people just seemed to neglect it, with no one objecting.” “It seemed impractical,” he continued, “and the feeling was that in cases where change was needed, there’d be enough sensible folk around to make it happen, without the church having to mandate an arbitrary rule.”
So there you have it. The policy simply died from neglect.
When I hung up the phone from talking to Elder Wilson, I felt like letting my article simply die as well. But there was that promise to the brother in California. And there was this need—partly for my own sake—to spell out a few issues not articulated in the debate at St. Louis.
Arguments Against Term Limits
1 The complexity of the modern church. Given the global nature of the contemporary church, it would seem unreasonable to expect a new president to master that kind of complexity and get critically important programs up and running until well into their first term. A second term would almost certainly be needed for goals to be realized, for plans to mature. And just as it would be the height of irresponsibility to even think of changing a president after their first term (except for compelling reasons), just so it would seem unwise to arbitrarily remove them at the end of a second term, especially if the bulk of the good programs they’ve initiated remains unfinished.10
2 A waste of talent, experience, and expertise. Why remove a competent, forward-looking incumbent simply because of some hard-and-fast tenure requirement, and perhaps replace them with someone less competent, less visionary? As one critic said, speaking about the public sector in the United States: “By having term limits, we are eliminating the people who have wisdom and experience from political life. Like any job, it takes years to be good at what you do. About the time our elected officials have become good public servants, we’re required to throw them out.”11
The same argument would apply to the church.
3 It can lead to administrative confusion and dysfunction. That’s what happened in many places in the public sector in the United States. According to Jennie Drage of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the high turnovers in state legislatures have led to “radical changes” in the performance of those bodies. “What we don’t have anymore [in those areas where term limits have taken hold],” she says, “is that handful of long-serving legislators with experience. What you get are legislatures with people with not much experience or policy expertise.”12
4 It negates the choice of the constituency. The constituency may very well want to keep a particular leader at the helm a little longer. As someone said in regard to the public sector, “Limits force out well-regarded politicians who have formed strong ties with their constituents and erode democracy by taking away voters’ rights to choose their representative.”13
5 It would politicize a GC session considerably beyond anything we see now. One can envision all kinds of undercurrents coming into play in the run-up to the session that ends an incumbent’s term. One can even see factions developing in support of one candidate or another. The current system tends to impede such potentially divisive forces and activities.
6 The “lame duck” effect. In the United States, where a president is limited to two four-year terms in office,14 the political community begins to write off the incumbent sometime around the seventh year—sometimes even earlier. That same reality could take its toll in the church with term limits. One can envision situations in which important new initiatives vital to the advancement of the church’s mission get shelved, simply because the incumbent’s days are?numbered.
Speaking in the context of the general society, news writer Marc Fisher described term limits as “an admission that we no longer trust ourselves to make reasoned decisions.” They are, he said, “a mindless resort to law to replace the more difficult task of human judgment.”15
One might almost consider these arguments convincing enough to close the case without bothering to look at the other side. But in fairness, we should. First, however, an observation.
In St. Louis I noticed what I’d call a broadening of the issue. The question referred to the Constitution and Bylaws Committee in Toronto (as well as the report brought back to the St. Louis session) was specific to the office of the GC president. Yet the direction of the debate on the floor tended to expand the subject to include other offices as well. As I see it, that was an unfortunate development, since it tended to skew and unnecessarily complicate the issue.
The pro arguments below do not apply to this expanded version of term limits. As previous experiments with the practice have shown, its enforcement across the board can produce considerable confusion and instability. There’s good reason to confine the discussion to the CEO of the particular organization, for that’s the person who, more than anyone else, places their mark upon the particular entity and determines its direction. Accordingly, my focus as I set out the pro side of the conversation would be on the office of president or CEO—of the General Conference, divisions, unions, and local conferences/missions. It also includes, to some extent, pastors.
Arguments in Favor
1 The need to keep abreast of the rapid modern pace. With contemporary developments taking place at breakneck speed, perhaps no CEO of any major enterprise can keep on the cutting edge for a period longer than 10 years. A forward-looking organization would recognize that the leader who stands at the head of their game today could not be expected to still be current in 12 years.
2 The need to bring fresh thinking to the table. The moment a GC president is elected at a session, that person (according to tradition) sits with the Nominating Committee for the remainder of its deliberations. In that position, they wield an enormous influence on the committee. And some of the changes that delegate Bull and others would like to see in regard to departmental incumbency would come as a natural result of a change at the top, since a new president would want to begin “building their own team,” so to speak.
This is an issue with immense practical consequences for workers and the church as a whole. One might expect that as long as President X remains in office, the talents of certain people will be utilized and that of others virtually ignored—not, necessarily, because of any malice or ill will, but simply because such people do not even cross President X’s radar screen. Accordingly, a particular group of people gets invited again and again—to lead out, to speak, to serve, to whatever—while others, equally gifted or competent, are overlooked. Thus, timely change is needed—to bring new people on board, new blood into the mix, new ideas to the table.
3 The need to counteract the negative effects of incumbency. In handing down its ruling on term limits, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in part: “Long-term entrenched legislators may obtain excessive power which in turn may discourage other qualified candidates from running for office, or may provide the incumbent with an unfair advantage in winning reelection.”16
Though the church operates on somewhat different principles, the caution in the Ninth Circuit’s ruling is not irrelevant.
4 The need to help relieve election-time unpleasantness. A considerable amount of bad feelings frequently accompany the removal of a CEO from office. And the resulting bitterness in some cases can linger for years. So notwithstanding Marc Fisher’s caustic observations cited above (describing term limits as “a mindless resort to law to replace the more difficult task of human judgment”), Berthold Stickle was speaking from experience during the St. Louis debate when he observed that “it is very difficult and painful sometimes to tell a fellow worker that it is time not to continue.” Thus the need for “a policy in place that eliminates some of that pain.”
My Take on the Issue
Here’s part of an entry I made in the (occasional) journal I keep:
“Allegheny East Conference camp meeting (6/10/00). Alvin and Jewel Kibble were introduced by Columbia Union president Harold Lee. I was intrigued that here was a leader leaving office in good spirits, not forced or voted out. . . .
“It was a 20-minute introduction that reviewed a whole catalogue of accomplishments in the conference under Kibble’s administration. And what impressed me at the service was the smooth transition of power. No ‘bloodletting.’ No acrimonious, late-night constituency meeting. No unseemly holding on to power. No stonewalling refusal to hand over power. No hard feelings on the part of the outgoing couple.”17
In a September 28, 2005, telephone interview with current Allegheny East president Charles L. Cheatham (who succeeded Kibble), I asked for his take on the idea of term limits. “I see [it] as a very good thing,” he said. “It avoids the manipulation of power on the basis of the popularity of the particular person in office at the moment.” One drawback, he noted, would be that some constituents might find themselves frustrated if things are going well in the conference, and yet, because of the policy, the office still needs to change hands. “But because of term limits,” he noted, “we have not experienced the kind of conflict and upheaval that some other conferences have had during constituency time.”
Interestingly, the concern voiced by Cheatham—about constituents being forced by policy to change a president they’d prefer to keep—was precisely the question Ellen G. White was addressing in the statement from which the 1931 Annual Council quoted in its term limits policy preamble.
“The question is asked me,” she said, “if it is not a mistake to remove the president of a state conference to a new field when many of the people under his present charge are unwilling to give him up.”18 White’s counsel went contrary to what many of us would have offered: “The Lord has been pleased to give me light on this question. I have been shown that ministers should not be retained in the same district year after year, nor should the same man long preside over a conference. A change of gifts is for the good of our conferences and churches.”19 This is true where a leader is weak, White says, but even where it’s just the opposite: “If a laborer is spiritually strong, he is, through the grace of Christ, a blessing to the churches, and his labors are needed in different conferences.”20
So how should we respond to such unequivocal, divinely inspired logic? I would say that unless someone is able to show that contemporary circumstances have so drastically changed the picture that White, if she were writing today, would counsel differently, we should come down on the side of term limits—in the restricted areas White described.
However good or spiritual a leader might be, there are bound to be people, equally committed and spiritual, who’d find their leadership style unattractive, irksome, even oppressive. And the thought of a seemingly endless tenure could become burdensome and discouraging. Term limits carry the hope that no administration would last forever.
If a country the size and complexity of the United States could function under an 8-year term limit, it’s difficult to make a credible case that the Adventist Church would suffer under limits that extend two years longer.
I keep remembering those famous lines I learned back in high school:
“The old order changeth, giving place to new;
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”21
1 See GC Bulletin No. 7, July 8, 2005, p. 31.
2 GC Bulletin No. 8, July 14-28, 2005, p. 35.
3 Ibid., p. 42.
5 GC Committee minutes, Oct. 20-27, 1931, p. 430.
6 Ibid., Oct. 17-24, 1933, pp. 1085, 1086.
7 Ibid., Oct. 14-27, 1938, p. 946.
8 Ibid., Mar. 15–Apr. 29, 1937, p. 356.
9 Ibid., Oct. 14-27, 1938, pp. 945-947.
10 We might keep in mind, however, that a new president never begins from scratch. We don’t have a party system in the church, with a president of a different party having to initiate brand-new programs or approaches antagonistic to that in a previous administration. And while each new president would likely have a particular emphasis they want to give, we needn’t assume radical changes with every new president.
11 “Term Limits Voters Guide,” www.perkel.com/politics/issues/limits.htm.
12 Cited in Matthew Vita, “Political Appeal of Term Limits Appears to Wane,” Washington Post, July 17, 2000, p. A1.
13 Susan Heavey, Term Limits Special Report, up-dated Mar. 5, 1999, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/termlimits.htm.
14 Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only U.S. president elected for a third and fourth term. After his death, the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution lim-ited the president to two terms only.
15 Marc Fisher, “Like All Fads, Let Term Limits Just Fade Away,” Washington Post, Oct. 7, 2000, p. B1.
16 Joan Biskupic, “California Term Limits Beat Challenge: High Court Lets Stand Ruling on Curbs for State Lawmakers,” Washington Post, Mar. 24, 1998, p. A9.
17 Allegheny East is the largest conference in the eight-state territory of the Columbia Union, with some 41,000 members. Its term limits policy applies to the office of the president only.
18 Gospel Workers, pp. 419, 420.
19 Ibid., p. 420. (Italics supplied.)
20 Ibid., p. 421.
21 Alfred Lord Tennyson, Morte d’Arthur (Death of King Arthur) , Line 408.
Roy Adams is an associate editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World. He recently announced his retirement, effective November 1. This article was published October 21, 2010. .