October 12, 2016

Annual Council Approves Measure to Encourage Adherence to Church Policies

Annual Council delegates approved on Tuesday a document that details steps on how to deal with Seventh-day Adventist Church entities not adhering to voted actions of the Adventist world church.

In a 169-122 vote, members of the General Conference Executive Committee endorsed a three-page document that calls for a patient, multi-step process of dialogue and prayer to bring about reconciliation between these entities and the church’s voted policies.

The one-year process, which several delegates described as conciliatory in approach, envisages multiple consultations at various levels of the church’s structure, pastoral letters urging compliance with voted church actions, and much prayer. If the matter relates to Fundamental Beliefs or voted actions and policies of the world church and remains unresolved, the next step of action is to take place. The document calls for the General Conference Administrative Committee to draft a proposal on the next course of action and submit it to the 2017 Annual Council for approval.

“We will work with diligence to bring a good dialogue and discussion,”

“We will work with diligence to bring a good dialogue and discussion,” world church president Ted N.C. Wilson said after the vote.

“The Lord is not going to let this church falter,” he said. “This church will move ahead with mission.”

The Tuesday evening vote capped a nearly three-hour discussion about the document, titled “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation,” in the auditorium of the Adventist Church’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. A total of 315 delegates representing 19.5 million church members in more than 200 countries and territories are gathered in Maryland for the yearly business meetings of the General Conference Executive Committee, the highest decision-making authority in the world church after the General Conference Session, which is held every five years. A total of 291 delegates participated in the vote.

Michael Ryan, an assistant to the General Conference president who was involved in the development of the document, explained to delegates at the beginning of Tuesday’s discussion and again partway through that the “Unity in Mission” document was not about women’s ordination. Instead, he said, it was about making sure that all church entities followed world church policy. This, in turn, would keep the church united and help it fulfill its mission of spreading the gospel to the world, Ryan said.

Committee members pray prior to casting their ballots at the Seventh-day Adventist church's Annual Council. (Brent Hardinge / ANN)

“What we have here is a document responding to the call that we enter into a time of discussion and listening on the issues that might be before us on non-compliance,” Ryan said. “This document is not about women’s ordination, [although] it certainly will be one of the tests.”

The 2015 General Conference Session turned down a proposal that would have allowed some regions of the church to ordain women to pastoral ministry. A few of the church’s administrative fields, however, have ordained women.

Many of the 50 people who stood to speak expressed concern with the statement. Of that 50, some were “invitees” who only had voice but no vote. Several expressed concerns about the scope of the potential matters that could be addressed, including commonly accepted variations from working policy. Others, seeing Tuesday’s action as a follow-up to the San Antonio General Session action, said the matter for them was of one of conscience, not of salvation. Several said they feared the document would split the church rather than unify it.

Daniel Jackson, president of the North American Division, said he has spoken and prayed with entities within his territory, as the document says, and did not see how the document would contribute to church unity. He said the question that delegates ultimately would have to ask themselves if they approved the document was simple: “Has this decision contributed to the unity of the church?”

Jiří Moskala, dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University echoed several delegates in expressing his discomfort that the Fundamental Beliefs and voted actions and policies of the world church are seemingly being given equal footing in the document. He called for a theological study of how policy relates to the church’s core doctrinal beliefs.

Some delegates said they felt the document had been rushed through to a vote and needed more study.

“We need more time with this document,” said Dave Weigley, president of the Columbia Union Conference within the North American Division.

An early form of the document was drafted by Ryan together with church division presidents last summer. Work began on the revised document Oct. 3.

A light moment came when world church general vice president Tom Lemon, who chaired the session, announced that the next delegate speaking would be William Miller. The audience laughed that the president of the Potomac Conference shares the same name as the Advent movement’s founding preacher.

Joining in the joke, Miller quipped, “Hopefully this will not be a Great Disappointment.”

Delegates who supported the document said the points being raised by the other delegates were off topic and at one point asked the chair, world church general vice president Tom Lemon, for clarification. They said the issue was only whether entities of the world church needed to comply with decisions voted at General Conference Session.

“I don't have the right to deviate from actions taken by the world church,” said Kathryn Proffitt, a lay delegate.

She said that no matter her personal views, she had to set them aside because of what the General Conference voted in Session.

Guillermo Biaggi, a general vice president of the world church, reiterated that a decision voted at General Conference Session has worldwide authority.

In a room filled with differing viewpoints about the document, mission was the one point that everyone seemed to agree on.

“We must abide by this vote,” he said, referring to the 2015 Session vote.

He added that the document under discussion on Tuesday support mission, “even though some may think differently.”

In a room filled with differing viewpoints about the document, mission was the one point that everyone seemed to agree on. Delegates spoke passionately about their desire for all church leaders and members to be out in the field, spreading the gospel.

“All of us here love the church,” said Jose Cortes, president of the New Jersey Conference, and the last delegate to speak shortly before 6 p.m.

He recalled his grandmother telling him when he became a pastor: “You belong to the church, and the church belongs to Jesus.”

He appealed to delegates to take those words to heart.

After more than two hours of comments from the floor, Lemon called for delegates to vote on paper ballots. Ushers collected the ballots and took them to the front of the auditorium, where world church secretary G.T. Ng and other members of his team counted them.

Lemon said in an interview after the vote he appreciated the decorum and believed that the issue was well understood.

"The real work has just begun," he said.