Montana Constituents Approve New Directions

June 19, 2017 | Steve Vistaunet

Montana Conference delegates are a hardy bunch, with a faithful combination of independence and loyalty. They are also remarkably dedicated — so much so that nearly 250 of them celebrated Father’s Day (June 18, 2017) this year in Bozeman, Mont., perched on the cold comfort of Mount Ellis Academy (MEA) gymnasium folding chairs.

In the morning devotional, John Freedman, North Pacific Union Conference (NPUC) president, added a call to prayer to the session theme of "Loving God, Loving Others." “We too often talk more than we pray,” he said. “And that opens us up to divisiveness. If Satan can turn us from fighting the fight of faith to fighting each other, he wins.”

Montana delegates kept the fight of faith to the forefront, bolstered by periods of prayer. Freedman ably performed chairmanship duties throughout much of the day, assisted by John Loor Jr., NPUC vice president for administration.

One of the major items on the day’s to-do list was the election of a new president to replace Merlin Knowles, who had not been renominated. The conference nominating committee instead brought forward the name of Ron Halvorsen Jr., a familiar name to many Montana members for his prior experience as Mount Ellis Academy pastor. Halvorsen, who currently serves as Ohio Conference president, was elected by a resounding majority of the delegates, pending his acceptance. If he and his wife, Buffy, do not accept the invitation, the position will ultimately be filled by the newly elected board of directors.

Knowles and his wife, Cheryl, graciously diffused any perceptions that might have been simmering below the surface among concerned delegates wondering about the proposed change in leadership. He acknowledged that they’d been wondering for about a year whether he should take an early retirement, but decided that the nominating committee choice would be their indicator of God’s will. From the stage, they expressed their peace with the decision and heartfelt appreciation to the delegates and the entire Montana membership for allowing them the privilege of serving them since 2010. With early retirement they plan to remain in Montana with their extended family to be of service wherever possible.

This could have been a somewhat complicated constituency session due to a confluence of changes addressed by the nominating committee. Besides the presidential change, Sharon Staddon, vice president for administration and finance, was also retiring and therefore not re-nominated. Phil Hudema, director for education, communication and youth, had accepted another position in British Columbia just before the nominating committee met, and therefore was also not re-nominated.

The nominating committee believed a new president should be firmly in place before moving ahead on permanent selections for the administration/finance and education roles. This timing would allow the new leader to have input into building a new team. So they nominated two individuals as interim selections in those areas.

Elaine Hagele, retired former vice president for finance in the Mid-America Union, was put forward as the interim vice president for administration and finance and elected resoundingly by the delegates.

James Mason, retired associate education superintendent for Upper Columbia Conference in Spokane, Wash., was nominated to serve as an interim education director. He was overwhelmingly elected by the delegates to that limited role — not including the other areas Hudema had also been covering.

Both Hagele and Mason have accepted these interim roles and will begin their responsibilities as soon as possible.

Barry Taylor was nominated to continue as director of planned giving and trust services, church ministry and ministerial, and re-elected to the post with affirmation by the delegates.

Following her general financial report, which was voted and received by the delegates, Sharon Staddon took valuable time to explain several recent and difficult decisions by the conference board of directors. Even though the conference budget and operating capital has flourished in recent years, 2017 trends, including short-term tithe indicators, project some challenges that could grow if not dealt with proactively now.

One central factor has been the growing debt of Mount Ellis Academy to the conference — totaling nearly $300,000 by the end of 2016. Prior to the constituency session, the directors voted to address the MEA financial issues with the following steps:

  • Forgive the $300,000 debt by allocating $100,000 from an unrestricted, matured trust and write off an additional $40,000 per year over the next five years;
  • Increase the 2017–18 MEA subsidy by $40,000 and adjust future subsidies based on voted pay increases;
  • Require the academy to maintain a balanced budget;
  • Request the academy to consider other income sources using assets on hand.

In order to make these financial adjustments on behalf of MEA and enable the continuation of the Hispanic Bible worker position, Staddon said the directors also voted to cut two full time positions in the conference office and two in the field:

  • Secular campus ministries coordinator;
  • A pastor, via redistricting;
  • Publishing director/outreach coordinator;
  • Planned giving and trust services, ministerial, and church ministries director.

Staddon’s report was informational, not an item requiring a delegate vote. But an appropriate way forward, considering these potential changes, is undoubtedly one of the first tasks of a new leadership team and board of directors.

Delegates spent a lot of time working through changes proposed by the constitution and bylaws committee. Without becoming enmeshed in the details, know that this process is in good hands and the delegates did their job of asking questions, suggesting changes and generally providing appropriate checks and balances to the good work coordinated by the bylaws committee.

After choosing a new board of directors and bylaws committee, delegates considered one of the biggest issues of the day toward the end — the current status and future of Mount Ellis Academy. Principal Michael Lee candidly highlighted some of the challenges.

Besides the aforementioned debt, ongoing enrollment retention and recruitment concerns, increasing items of deferred maintenance and some unplanned-for catastrophic medical expenses have put a noticeable list to the good ship MEA. Lee acknowledged that some members’ perceptions have clouded a bit, but he assured delegates MEA leadership will be working on several fronts to right the ship. Not only are they freighted with presenting a balanced budget which precludes accumulating more debt, but are taking steps to address enrollment issues and create a clear spiritual plan for the school.

Delegates pushed Lee to be proactive at ensuring that core Adventist values are fostered at MEA but approved updated academy mission and vision statements, which have been in place for several years but never officially voted into the MEA constitution. Those statements are:

MISSION: Mount Ellis Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist High School, is open to students of all faiths. As a Christ-following community, we seek to help students:

  • Discover the reality of their Creator;
  • Develop their God-given gifts;
  • Serve in His kingdom.

VISION: To follow the Lamb wherever He goes.

Those statements were underscored by current staff member Kevin Emmerson who related the testimonial of one international student who did not come to MEA as an Adventist. “When I came here,” said the student, “my parents were scared about the decadent West. But I see that Seventh-day Adventists are different. I believe now what the world needs is more Seventh-day Adventists.”

That concurs with an observation from one of the delegates, a former MEA student, who believes the academy’s mission is strengthened by having students who are not Adventist on campus. He said: “It’s refreshing to be in a community that’s not all salt, in a place where it’s actually useful to spread it around.”

As a way to reach out to additional prospective students, MEA is opening its outdoor school experience in Glacier National Park this year to all ninth- through 12th-graders, even if they are not enrolled as full-time MEA students. Read more about this opportunity at

At the end of the day, it all came down to an attitude John Freedman had called everyone to remember at the beginning of the day: trusting God through prayer, and then trusting each other, even with differing perspectives, to be honest and faithful to the Seventh-day Adventist mission and calling. That common bond should bring members together for the common cause.

And on Father’s Day 2017, for a representative group of dedicated Montana members, it did indeed.