Annual Council Diary—Reflections on the General Conference and the North American Church


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Changes in the relationship between the General Conference and the North American Division were at the heart of this year’s Annual Council session that concluded on Oct. 17. Not only was there the action responding to the unions that had voted to ordain without regard to gender, there was also the money.

Earlier this year, a plan was presented to the General Conference in which the tithe percentage North America sends to the General Conference would be reduced from 8% to 6% (the other 12 divisions send 2%.) Accordingly, the 2013 General Conference budget was structured to reflect this reduced percentage. However, unlike the actions regarding ordination, this change in finances generated virtually no discussion by the Executive Committee members.

Perhaps it was because the overall financial news at the session was positive. Tithe and mission offerings were reported to be stable and in many regions, growing. Tithe to the General Conference from outside North America through September totaled US $20.7 million, a 5.6 percent increase from last year. Mission offerings from the same region were up 5.4 percent to $45.1 million. (In North America, tithe was also up, but only by about 1%.)

Total income for the world budget is now split nearly 50:50 between NAD and divisions outside North America. “As recently as 2006, that ratio was 66 NAD and 34 the rest,” according to church reports. So the other divisions can rightfully see their financial influence growing.

The General Conference’s investments have also been positive this year, with that category showing an increase of more than $19 million over last year.

So, even though the NAD is dropping the amount that it is sending to the GC, the budget for 2013 is up $7.3 million. The $174 million operating budget that was approved for 2013 (compared to the $166.7 million budget for 2012) did not threaten appropriations for the other divisions, most of which were set to receive an increase (except the Inter-American and South American Divisions).

General Conference Treasurer Robert Lemon (pictured) began his financial report by saying that the Lord knew what he was doing when he started the Seventh-day Adventist Church in New England, because North America has given the majority of funds for the operation of the church since the beginning. With that kind of introduction, it would be hard for other divisions to grumble about the reduction in funds coming from the NAD.

Lemon’s attitude of gratitude goes a long way in a year that has seen significant discord between the General Conference and the NAD. Representatives from the North American Division came to the Annual Council Session with the warnings of “dire consequences” language in President Ted Wilson’s presentations at the union constituency sessions ringing in their ears. Just what would those consequences be?

The answer to that question was that the unions were labeled as dissenters, their actions were labeled a mistake, and the certificates of ordination that the unions have issued to women will not be recognized by the rest of the world.

If you are not a woman pastor, that does not seem to be much in terms of a consequence, so the action was passed. One North American conference president noted that the small number of no votes did not even total the entire North American Division representation. (The tally was 264 "yes" votes to 25 "no" votes.)

Progress was made in the tone of the discussion, and it seems to me that both the votes of the NAD unions and the vote of the General Conference Executive Committee delegates in response to the union actions are good things that move us forward as a world church.

Why are they both good? There has been much frustration in both the Global North and the Global South on this issue, and not much effort had been put forth on bringing the two sides together. Mark Finley’s Bible study during Annual Council probably marked a high point in showing both sides how to find common ground with the other. And while the timetable set out for the Theology of Ordination Study Committee seems long, bringing scholars from around the world together should help to foster better understanding and clarify Biblical exegesis.

It is also a positive thing that the both of the NAD unions followed through on their votes with actual ordinations. In so doing, they remind the world church that we already have women pastors doing significant work. The question that remains for the church to decide is whether or not we are going to treat them equally.

At the 1990 General Conference Session, a two-tiered system was put into place, that is captured well by the Adventist Review in the timeline on ordination published in its October 11, 2012 issue. It reads: “1990, July GC session votes to accept the recommendations from the commission and GE Executive Committee that women not be ordained, but to allow female associates in pastoral care to perform some functions of an ordained minister in the local church.” Those functions would be to baptize and perform marriages. In other words, the church would accept women doing the work of a pastor, even if it did not see fit to recognize that work with an equal credential. It is that inequality that is at the heart of the polarizing debates.

Disunity has come as a consequence of the 1990 action.

In North America, as President Dan Jackson has pointed out, there are already 120 women pastors at work. Faculty at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University say that 140 women are currently enrolled. When the General Conference leaders say that they want to limit their discussion of the issue to unity, policy, and how we make decisions, they ignore that the issue is about more than policy and unity—it is about people.

With an improved tone in the official conversation, and the theologians busily working on the theology of ordination, perhaps the unity that is so fervently sought by the General Conference officials can come by members unifying to affirm the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all those called to be pastors. A “both/and” solution will be needed for unity.

Photo: ANN, Ansel Oliver, Spring 2012.

Read the previous six Annual Council reports by Bonnie Dwyer here:

Friday

Sabbath

Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4842