My Observations on an Annual Council Decision
Delegates gathered during October at the General Conference (GC) headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., for the 2017 Annual Council meeting of the world church executive committee. On Monday, Oct. 9, the agenda included discussion on a document that proposed to lay out enforcement procedures for issues of church governance and policy compliance. You can read the full document that was proposed HERE. Following is a report from John Freedman, North Pacific Union Conference president, with his personal observations as a delegate to that meeting.
This past Sabbath, many of us around the Northwest joined together, each in our own way, to pray that the Holy Spirit would be present during this year’s Annual Council meetings for the world church. Specifically, we wanted the Spirit to lead in a proposed discussion on matters of church governance and compliance. Monday’s agenda brought that topic to the forefront. I participated in that discussion, and many of you watched and prayed via live stream on the internet. Here is my quick report on the proceedings, and why I believe our prayers for a Spirit-led decision were answered.
Monday’s discussion on a proposed document from the world church’s Unity in Mission Oversight Committee was honest, insightful and discerning. The central purpose for such a document was to bring about conformity to all General Conference (GC) fundamental beliefs, polices and voted actions. Some delegates had requested that the material be given out ahead of time to allow for more prayerful consideration. That request was denied. Instead, delegates were handed the 14-page document just as Monday afternoon’s discussion began. This was immediately concerning to many of those present, including me. We all need adequate time to pray over and study important documents which have longterm implications for our beloved church.
Prior to discussion from the floor, G.T. Ng. GC executive secretary acknowledged that the catalyst for this push for compliance was the ordination of women. Ted Wilson, GC president, who chaired the meeting, explained, however, that the proposed document also dealt with compliance issues at every level of the church around the world. It is indeed true that policy compliance concerns, including financial practices, are a challenge around the world field well beyond just the issue of ordination.
Tom Lemon, a world church vice president, reviewed actions that had been initiated in response to the 2016 Annual Council, stating that he had meetings with every division and union determined to be out of compliance on ordination. Lemon made special note that all these meetings were very cordial and insightful — centered on prayer and efforts toward mutual understanding. He found a strong commitment to our fundamental beliefs and an inspiring focus on mission. As he listened to the comments from union conference leaders in these meetings, he observed "not one person who gave any hint of being in rebellion. Rebellion is an attitude before it is an action. I didn’t hear that anywhere. Concern but not rebellion. I want to allay that fear. We are children of God and we are in this together.” This was very encouraging news to me.
I was also glad to hear Dan Jackson, our North American Division (NAD) president, dispel rumors that the division is preparing to break away from the world church — conjecture fueled in part by the recent NAD move out of the GC headquarters building to another location. There are indeed differences in how our church's mission is being applied to the various regions around the NAD, but there is no sanctioned spirit of rebellion here either.
As delegates perused the document being proposed by the GC, they began to note potential conflicts in the proposed steps with existing content in the world church constitution and bylaws. Some pointed out that the proposed document significantly limited freedom of speech and the ability of church leaders and representative delegates to express differences of opinion. One delegate observed that, under the proposed provisions, even Ellen White would have been forbidden to speak against any issue, policy or voted action at an Annual Council. Another person pointed out that the document, as presented, was a direct move away from our denomination’s Protestant roots—an ironic and troubling commentary, in light of this year’s 500th Anniversary celebration of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
I do want to point out that there was clear understanding among delegates in the room about the need for our world church to have policies and voted actions that help govern the church and move it forward in mission. That was affirmed many times. And all understand the need for unity in our church. The question on Monday was: Is this 14-page document focused on enforcing conformity really the road we want to go down? Is there a better way?
Policy enforcement indeed is necessary at times. But I don’t believe enforcement is the best or most productive pathway to unity. Instead, it often only causes more division. Ellen White understood this. She said, "The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement." E. G. White, MS 24, 1892. I agree with her. There is a better way.
While the discussion on Monday was long, the spirit in the assembly was very good and respectful. After six hours of thoughtful discussion, delegates voted 184 to 114 to send the report back to the Unity in Mission Oversight Committee for further review and work. This will likely delay any further official decision on world church policy compliance until the 2018 Annual Council.
This gives us an opportunity to pray for the members of our world church Unity in Mission Oversight Committee as they rework the document. May the Holy Spirit anoint and guide them in their work and help them find a better way forward. Pray also for our GC leadership, that God would help them to effectively lead our world church in a manner that honors the principles of His Kingdom. They have a daunting responsibility.