A Grievous Leadership Failure

On October 15, 2019, six unions were given a warning at Annual Council by the General Conference’s Executive Committee for taking actions that were not in harmony with voted policies, specifically as it relates to women’s ordination. How did we come to this ominous point and what should be done?

Indulge me a ridiculous, fictitious story to hopefully make an important point.

Imagine a company called “Ultimate Health.” They operate in countries around the globe. Many populations in Africa, Asia, and South America are suffering from rheumatic fever which can be successfully treated by taking penicillin tablets. In North America and Northern Europe people suffer from the ravages of high blood pressure, which can be successfully kept at bay by the use of beta-blockers.

Unfortunately, the CEO of Ultimate Health and his close associates reject the use of beta-blockers. This medication has, in fact, been used successfully for decades by many health centers. The leaders, however, are not impressed and choose instead to consistently reference various selected studies to bolster their claims. They are immovable.

As the CEO and his associates visit with subordinates around the world, they spread their warning about beta-blockers, lobbying forcefully against their use. Ultimate Health touts its democratic culture, but everyone knows these leaders occupy a place of enormous influence behind the scenes and their viewpoint takes hold in many places.

At an annual gathering of Ultimate Health’s global representatives, the CEO gives an inspiring speech about the need to restore health to hurting people everywhere. “That is our mission,” he urges. “It’s more important than anything else.”

He then presents a motion that glaringly contradicts that speech. He shares his convictions regarding the dangers of beta-blockers and bolsters his appeal by framing it in terms of unity. “We cannot be divided in our approach to health. We all need to act together. Anything less would lead to widespread confusion and chaos within our ranks.”

The majority of the attendees follow his lead and vote in favor of the following motion:

Physicians who are members of Ultimate Health are not permitted to use beta-blockers and are only authorized to use penicillin for the treatment of disease.

Doctors and healthcare workers in North America and Northern Europe go home to their constituents and share what has happened. People are chagrined at the dilemma the voted action has created.

In an attempt to comply with the CEO’s plea for unity, they only use penicillin to treat high blood pressure. “It’s better than nothing,” they reason. But it soon becomes clear that penicillin is not working. There is an obvious mismatch between the disease and the cure. High blood pressure continues to damage countless lives.

Finally, the doctors in North America and Northern Europe feel that they have no choice. They are caught between two deeply held loyalties. It is a heart-wrenching decision that is not made lightly, but for the health of their communities they use the forbidden beta-blockers. The results are consistently positive and the ravages of high blood pressure are averted.

Months later, as word filters back to Ultimate Health headquarters, the doctors get a letter telling them to cease and desist. “You are using an unauthorized medication which is against the action voted from our last meeting. You are destroying the unity that is so essential to our organization. Such actions cannot be tolerated.”

At an upcoming meeting of representatives from throughout the world, the Ultimate Health offices in North America and Northern Europe are called out for disobedience.

The accused reply that they should not have had to make such a choice. They continue by saying, “The leaders created this controversy themselves by turning what should be a choice tailored to each person’s disease into a one-size-fits-all imperative. What unites us is not our method but our commitment to saving lives as the CEO himself has so often stated.”

A majority votes for them to be given a serious warning anyway.

Thousands of Ultimate Health workers in the disciplined areas are gripped with a feeling of foreboding and dread. It does not take a prophet to see that there is now a very significant probability that the conflict will escalate causing an unprecedented fracture.

Members of the accused regions ask each other, “Who will step forward and find a creative way to head off this potential disaster? Who will have the courage to stand up and lead a movement to fix this mess?”

Some key observations and applications for today:

1. Just like different diseases require different medications, different cultures require different solutions. What works in one culture and context will not necessarily work in another.

2. Gender inequality that is tolerated or accepted in one culture is anathema and repugnant in another. That inequality is manifest in forbidding the ordination of women.

3. The presence of gender inequality can make the Adventist message completely ineffective. People in certain areas of the world immediately write you off as having no credibility, especially regarding spiritual things.

4. The unions are actually being disciplined not because they failed to foster unity but because they failed to follow uniformity, choosing to put the spiritual needs of their communities first. The unions are not in rebellion, but are simply trying to give top priority to God’s ultimate mission.

5. The situation we find ourselves in today where the Executive Committee issued a warning to six unions is the result of failed leadership, not at the unions, but at the General Conference. Let me explain below.

It is a basic tenant of any course on leadership and management that you do not call for a vote when you know that your representatives are split on a consequential issue with strong emotion and large numbers on both sides. Such an untimely vote would pit people against one another and make the split official. You then wind up with good guys and bad guys. Faced with wide-spread, deep-seated differences, effective leadership finds a creative path forward that brings people together.

Before the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, the General Conference leadership had more than enough information to see that there was a major division in people’s thinking and perspectives on the issue of women’s ordination. A Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) had been set up at the 2010 General Conference Session with the mandate to report on the issue of women’s ordination by June 2014. Theologians, teachers, pastors, administrators, and lay people from around the world were selected to serve. Every world division was to set up their own sub-committee to explore the same issue and report to the larger group.

When the final reports were gathered and presented, it was clear that people of goodwill were in two major camps. One group was in favor of allowing divisions to choose whether to ordain women or not and the other camp was in favor of only ordaining men. Both sides were made up of people who were fully committed to God and the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Both sides were working from the very same sources, the scriptures and Ellen White.

Before bringing the issue to a vote at a General Conference Session, the leaders at world headquarters should have done at least the following:

a. Put their own viewpoints aside and NOT take sides for the sake of the denomination as a whole. This would allow them to become credible unifiers and mediators.

b. Immediately launch something like a worldwide “Mutual Understanding Campaign” to foster awareness, tolerance, empathy, and compassion on both sides around the issue at hand.

c. Promote the solution of having each division choose whether to ordain or not. This would honor and make room for the positions of both sides.

d. Take regional straw votes over time to see how close they were getting to consensus regarding letting divisions choose.

e. Bring the issue of divisional choice up for an official vote when the time was right.

Tragically, none of that was done. The leaders publicly sided with those voting “No” and later, making matters much worse, set up a system to punish those who chose to allow women to be ordained.

At this critical juncture, the central question for the denomination is not women’s ordination, as important as that is. The central question is whether or not the General Conference leadership can humbly reverse course, measure up to the moment, and do what should have been done before. The solution does not lie in the response of the disciplined unions but in the response of the well-intentioned leaders at world headquarters.

Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Image Credit: Adventist News Network on Flickr.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9967

Totally agree. I have consistently said that a good leader seeks consensus and brings opposing parties together instead of actively supporting one side against the other. As you have so rightly said, this kind of leader needs to bring people together in spite of their own “viewpoints” No leader will have a constituency that agrees on everything and for that reason a leader will inevitably need thoughtful consideration of the issues and diplomatic skill to foster unity. A good leader also needs to understand the difference between uniformity and unity. Sadly, TNCW has demonstrated neither the skill, nor understanding to achieve this.


if i were a rich man lyrics by Zero Mostel
If Brother Ted Wilson could step away from this boring autocratic role he is so used to playing and try some new material and sing to himself these famous lyrics we might all begin tosee some positive changes in his Leadership for the better!
The words, Brother Ted apply to you:

"Dear God, you made many, many poor people.
I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor.
But it’s no great honor either!
So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?"

If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn’t have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man.

I’d build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen,
Right in the middle of the town.
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below.
There would be one long staircase just going up,
And one even longer coming down,
And one more leading nowhere, just for show.

I’d fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks
For the town to see and hear, squawking just as noisly as they can
And each loud “cheep” and “swaqwk” and “honk” and “quack”
Would land like a trumpet on the ear,
As if to say “Here lives a wealthy man.”

If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn’t have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man.

I see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man’s wife
With a proper double-chin.
Supervising meals to her heart’s delight.
I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock.
Oy, what a happy mood she’s in.
Screaming at the servants, day and night.

The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise.
“If you please, Reb Tevye…”
“Pardon me, Reb Tevye…”
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!
And it won’t make one bit of difference if i answer right or wrong.
When you’re rich, they think you really know!

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.

If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn’t have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man.

The different worlds in which these two pieces were released affect the depictions and interpretations of what many see as the same story, but one common theme is what ties together the book, the movie, and everyone who appreciates their beauty: religion.

In the role of Tevye, Ted Wilson is changing, but a huge discrepancy is seen that Tevye the Dairyman must stick to his tradition to prove something to external members of society, whereas Tevye from Fiddler is so adamant in his traditions because internally he cannot fathom going against everything he has believed in his entire life. A common phrase in Tevye the Dairyman’s running monologue is “What would my enemies think?” Who exactly does he mean by enemies? Tevye sees his enemies as anybody trying to impose change upon his shtetl and his lifestyle.

Drink two cups of Postum, memorize these lyrics, sing them twice a day, and then you can change for the better!


Regarding: Divisions.
It is MY understanding that the CHOICE on who gets Ordained is up to the
UNIONS. Not the Divisions.
Although the Division Leadership MAY encourage their Unions to Ordain
pastors NOT based on Sex or Gender. And make it EASY for the Ordained
to move about the Division with no problems.


I would be leery of appeals to local culture. People in certain areas of the world will immediately write you off as having no credibility if you insist on created sex roles, yes, but they’ll also write you off if you say that homosexual sex is wrong, or that same-sex marriage is wrong, or that congressional representatives should not be in “throuples.” In other places, the culture may insist on female genital mutilation, or polygamy. So prevailing local culture is not the touchstone of what the church should or should not do. The SDA Church has a distinct, Scripture-based message that cannot always be adapted to local culture. Sometimes it has to stand against culture and condemn it.


Sheep and goats are being separated.


"Sometimes it has to stand against culture and condemn it."

If only there was some consistency on what to accept or condemn…


Yet, what TOSC clearly demonstrated was that this global committee, after four years of study, was not able to reach consensus on a bible-based theology on WO, because it is not there, in Scripture.


Yes, our Theology of the Trinity, the Role of the Trinity in the Salvation
of Earthlings, They the Creators and are due worship, our Relationships
to other Earthlings because we are ALL Created in The Image of the Trinity.

But the manner of Worship, the manner of spreading the Good News is
NOT all in the Bible. God does allow for Traditions to be formed that would
honor Him. And we SDA’s get allowable Traditions to get mixed up with DOCTRINES
Traditions of MEN ONLY as PRIESTS is a Catholic Tradition that we have
continued in, Other Protestant Denominations have REJECTED that
Catholic Tradition and allows for whomever God calls to be “Priests” and
proclaimers of the Gospel.


i no longer believe there is a solution…a majority of delegates at SA2015 had the apostolic church’s dual policy solution on the question of circumcision, recorded in Acts 15, in front of them and either didn’t know about it, or chose to ignore it…this kind of massive error can’t be revisited…what’s done is done…

the path forward now is a split, and Indianapolis2020 should be an acknowledgement of this fact…NAD, europe and australia should go one way, and the rest of the world church can go their own way…it’s time to move forward, and be done with regrets and second guesses…


The “Church” does not need to split.
What Needs to be ALLOWED by Each Individual Union is to be allowed
to ORGANIZE itself as it perceives needed for the Giving of the Gospel.
Organization includes the Hiring and the Authorization of Whomever,
regardless of sex or gender in THAT PARTICULAR Union.
One Union should NOT be allowed to tell another Union what they can
or cannot do in their organizing for the giving of the Gospel in their
territory, among THEIR ethnic groups.
However, there should continue the Mutual Assistance that has been a
part of the World Church Order up to now.

WORK OF THE DIVISIONS. Devise means for movement of persons
between Unions in that division as needed or desired by persons of
another Union.


When, in 1975, the Viet Nam war was coming to an end, and talks were being set up in Paris, they argued for months - about the shape of the negotiating table. This is no different. Grow up.


Here, here, Steve…no, there is no need for a schism. When everything is viewed from a “Black/White” paradigm this whole existing mess gets exuded from an inept Leadership. There is a way out, as you stated, but the paradigm has to shift to the understanding that “The Truth” sometimes lies in the middle. Short of this happening, the church is committing the “Death of a Thousand Cuts”…a slower and much more lingering death.


That may be your understanding and mine as well, but the powers that be saw the loophole in the 2015 GC vote (which denied DIVISIONS the right to permit ordination, which automatically reverted back to the UNIONS having that right) and have chosen to issue warnings against the unions. They have done so through constructing “compliance” documents and rhetoric that, in my humble opinion, is totally against Biblical principles. Having sat through the GC discussions and watched the most recent Annual Council sessions, I am wondering what will happen in Indianapolis. It was all so painful to watch, at least for me. I am not seeing our focus on evangelism, but rather our focus is now on marginalizing women by whatever means necessary, whether by removing the possibility of ordination or by issuing a revised abortion statement. This is the 4th or 5th annual council that has focused primarily on female issues. Genesis 3:15 is taking on new meaning. EGW says that the devil was most angry when God created woman, for she was more beautiful than the fallen angel. Seems that the church is angry with women too, albeit it is comprised of over 60% women! Help us, Lord!


This is such a key point that it should not have been overlooked. But since it was, how do we undo the damage?


Correction: I understand that the final position of the TOSC Committee was that of the 13 Divisions 2 were completely opposed 11 were in aggreance or would allow Divisions to make their own choice according to context.
It turned out that GCADCOM were opposed to this decision because it doesn’t agree with their idea of a world church ( empire?) of “unity.”


I must just add my voice of approval and sincere thanks to the author of this excellent article. How true that the problem has arisen from top leadership rather than from the actions of the Unions under discussion. Will the leaders have the courage, the humility and the Christian grace to pause for a few moments in prayerful contemplation. Will they find the spiritual wisdom to discover a middle road of healing rather than to plunge head-on into self-inflicted denominational chaos?


Sorry Australia doesn’t won’t to follow a few people that’s a wrong thing to say
Many where not asked
We should uphold the GC vote and those who don’t accept it should stand down from a authoritative position
Original SDA built and financed these churches and now are told to leave by SDA almost like Vatican two situation we are seeing with the Amazon SYNOD

Ps its only a few people in leadership roles and like most church boards its the few and many churches are waking up to this so I reject what you say . That’s without compassion or sympathy.
It will hit the fan with all lies and these few liers in our church


Thanks, @dcread:

You said:

In response:

So, like @oleutaker said, the issue here is this: What does the church do when its distinct, Scripture-based message doesn’t specifically address an issue about which members have deeply-held opinions?

By this, I mean ones so deep that they’d conclude that God must share their opinions on the matter.

It seems Kim Johnson’s point is that the last thing you should do is compel everyone to agree, or to act in the same way. This appears to be a sensible recourse, when it comes to culturally-decided matters.



Sorry but I am missing the usefulness of your parallels which unfortunately make or break the case your are promoting here - didn’t Jesus say that culture, another word for tradition, literally nullifies the Word of God?

Is this not a bit of self justification? Did the Unions choose :“spiritual needs” or “cultural wants”? this could be their own or their members it does not matter which.

You are very tough on the GC leadership but you never even mention the Division’s leadership, don’t they have a role? Should we design RACII charts for them?

Sorry to say but your article seems very subjective and one-sided opinion.