When I read the Spectrum article “Ted Wilson Takes Appeal to 3ABN Audience,” when I watched Pastor Wilson’s presentation in front of the Pacific Union Conference (PUC) constituency, when I perused his statement of response following the PUC meeting, and when I examined the associated materials posted on the Adventist News Network, I was hit by a wave of nausea. Literally.
Prologue and Disclaimers
Now let me pause right here before I even start to issue a rant alert. What I’m about to say isn’t going to be gentle, velvet-gloved, smoothly spoken, judiciously weighed, pleasant-to-the-ear praise and platitude. I’ve been there and done that. To no avail. Rather, it will be a lot more like the diatribes of the Old Testament prophets. It will be more like the no-holds-barred denunciations of Matthew 23.
For those who want to label me a “disgruntled employee,” let me save you the bother. I’ll label myself. I ama disgruntled employee—former employee, I should say. I was bullied and shunned out of pastoral ministry. But not by my wonderful congregation where I served for 20 fulfilling and rewarding years. Rather, I was destroyed by the church hierarchy.
I took the earliest realistic retirement exit from church employment because General Conference and North American Division leaders so tenaciously refused to honor the church’s policies. Policies taken from the very book Pastor Wilson so enthusiastically waved before the PUC constituency meeting. Policies voted by the GC Executive Committee, the group highly lauded by Pastor Wilson as the ultimate authority between GC sessions.
The tragic fact is, those much-vaunted policies are applied only when they’re deemed advantageous to the church leaders’ agenda of the moment. But when they’re perceived to be getting in the way of that agenda, the policies are ignored with impunity. But you’d never get that idea when you listen to the rhetoric of the GC higher-ups.
Another preliminary observation: Most Adventists have been well indoctrinated concerning the almost-immutable axiom that the church’s leaders are always right. Well, not always. But it doesn’t really matter because the axiom has a couple of corollaries. The first is: Even when the leaders are wrong, they still should be treated as if they’re right. The second is: Even when the leaders are wrong, if anyone has the audacity to highlight that fact, that person immediately becomes more wrong than the leaders and is fair game for intense personal scrutiny to discover any perceived character flaw or procedural misstep. If either is found, that automatically becomes the sole focus, canceling all negative facts about the leaders. Since “attitude” is one of the most disqualifying of all perceived character flaws, I know what awaits me even from readers on this progressive website for writing as forthrightly as I’m about to do.
And my final disclaimer: This treatise is long. Very long. So if you’re in a rush, don’t even get into it. Stop now. Move on to something else. Also, if you think church leaders should be spoken about only with reverence and awe, stop reading and save yourself some heartburn. Oh, and if you’re not willing to read the entire “rant,” please don’t bother to comment.
Now let me share with you a personal experience that glaringly shows the true level of disregard that church-headquarters leaders have for GC Executive Committee-voted policies. First I’ll describe the overall setting of what happened. Then I’ll show how policy was deliberately and willfully violated by the church’s top leaders, even though they were repeatedly requested to implement it. Finally, I’ll offer some suggestions concerning what we can individually and collectively do.
Chapter 1: The Background Story
Six years ago, my wife’s brother, a high-profile employee at the NAD headquarters, went on an in-the-church-workplace rampage against my family and me (some readers already know the general story). Without so much as one word to me beforehand about his anger (ever heard of Matthew 18?), he told bystanders that he was going to create big problems for me. Then he set about to do it. And what better way to destroy me as a pastor than to spread the word among my ministerial colleagues that I was spiritually unfit to stand in the pulpit—and that I was a liar, to boot?
Making good on his threat to create problems, my brother-in-law—remember, he’s a high-profile NAD-headquarters employee—sent defamatory letters about my family and me to an unknown number of my ministerial colleagues in the Florida Conference and to my Conference president, Pastor Mike Cauley. (To this day, I don’t know who else may have received them.) In addition to maligning my character in his letters, he threw in a few lies about my wife. In fact, he declared her to be guilty of something for which, as he put it, there is “no offense equal.” And he told my ministerial colleagues that our sons were guilty of “a systemic inhumanity . . . that defies all norms of Christianity and human decency.” Which truly is a breath-taking indictment, granted that it employs terminology usually reserved for history’s greatest villains.
Now I can assure you that I didn’t sign up for ministry expecting that my wife and kids would be subjected to that kind of character assassination in my church workplaceby a leader at the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s headquarters. Nor did I sign up for ministry expecting that, were a church-headquarters employee ever to engage in such behavior against me as a pastor—but especially against my wife and our children—that I, as a long-serving pastor, would be treated as if I were an absolute idiot for expecting even the most basic level of employee accountability.
Nor did I sign up for ministry expecting to have to tell my wife that, although in her role as a pastor’s wife she’d sacrificed greatly for “the cause” over many years, although she had spent her entire married life almost totally controlled by the expectations of her husband’s employers, and although her understanding of right and wrong and moral propriety was impeccable, the bottom line is that the Adventist Church’s top leaders are a law unto themselves, doing whatever they choose to do or not do, and if they choose to treat her dismissively and with disdain, she’ll just have to take it. That’s a message no pastor’s wife should have to hear or tolerate. At least not because of the behavior of spiritual leaders of an organization that declares itself to be God’s Remnant Church. But back to the story.
As with his attack on me, my brother-in-law didn’t have the Matthew 18 courtesy to talk to our sons ahead of time about his grievances. Nor to my wife. Nor did he even send my wife or our sons a copy of the letter he sent about them to my ministerial colleagues! But in his diatribe letters he did warn that others weregoing to hear about his hostile perspectives—which, needless to say, was a disconcerting piece of information for us. How far might he take his vendetta?
Reputation is important for all people. But in some walks of life, reputation makes or breaks. When a pastor’s reputation is in tatters, so is his career. So, following the Matthew 18 model, I wrote privately to my angry NAD-headquarters-employee brother-in-law, trying to clear the air concerning his church-workplace attack. He sent back a brief note by certified mail saying that he wasn’t going to respond to—let alone read—anything we might send him. And when both my wife and I did write several times seeking resolution, he sent back our letters unopened. But that was just the beginning.
Becoming Concerned: When I received word about the kind of comments my brother-in-law was making about us around the church-headquarters complex, I became even more concerned. Although for the last 20 years of my ministerial career I was “just a pastor” (by personal choice), I certainly wanted my reputation protected at the church’s headquarters, where I had earlier worked. Over the years I’ve written considerably for various Adventist publications. And I’ve served on a variety of high-level committees. I didn’t want falsehoods to destroy those relationships and opportunities. Nor did I want my wife and sons to have to live under the shadow of such vitriolic denigration and lies by someone who—both as an NAD-headquarters employee and as a close relative—would be highly believable to a lot of people.
When I learned that Robert Kyte, at that time General Counsel in the GC’s Office of General Counsel, and Todd McFarland, then and still an Associate Counsel, had “regaled” a couple of my church members (who the two lawyers happened upon at an Adventist lawyer’s convention) with judgments about my wife, and questions about whether I could possibly be as bad as I was being described around the church’s headquarters, I decided I needed to stanch the reputation hemorrhage immediately. When GC lawyers—men who should have at least a basic understanding of discretion and propriety—are initiating such conversations and digging for information about a pastor and his family, I don’t need to explain that it’s a less-than-positive sign.
So I sent copies of a letter to six carefully selected GC/NAD leaders requesting help. I wrote to more than one person because I—and others I know—have been totally dismissed when writing to just one leader. But one or six, it makes no difference. High-level Adventist leaders give the brush-off to whomever and whatever they don’t want to deal with. (If I sound cynical, let me assure you that my cynicism is based on much observation and wide personal experience.)
One of the letter recipients was officially listed as chairman of my brother-in-law’s board, and four others were listed as advisers to him. In the latter group was then-General Conference president Jan Paulsen. The sixth recipient was attorney Kyte. (I also sent a copy of the letter to my Conference president, Mike Cauley. Despite ultimately having some twenty letters cross his desk over a span of more than two years, Pastor Cauley never so much as acknowledged the matter to me—not administratively, not “pastorally,” not casually.)
Request for Help: I began the first sentence of my first letter to the six church leaders, “In the spirit of Matthew 18 . . . .” I told what had happened and asked that the perpetrator be counseled spiritually concerning the impropriety of his church-workplace defamation, harassment, abuse, bullying—there are a lot of appropriately negative words we could use. I said I wanted the damage already done to be undone “to the degree possible.” I said the perpetrator could acknowledge the impropriety of his campaign against my family and me (which was being carried out in the church workplace), or the church leaders could do it on his behalf. But I wanted it done. In making these requests, I didn’t quote chapter and verse of any church policy. I simply based my requests on the standards of fairness, propriety and Golden Rule Christianity that I’d consistently been taught from my first recollections as a child in an Adventist home.
The response I received to my initial letter—I know the pattern—was total silence. So six or seven weeks later, I wrote again. Nearly two months from when I wrote my first letter, Pastor Halvard Thomsen (at that time assistant to the president of the North American Division, chairman of my brother-in-law’s board and, he informed us, the designated spokesman for responding to me), wrote back to assure me the NAD/GC leaders had absolutely no control over how my brother-in-law might choose to treat my family and me—because he was, after all, a relative. Pastor Thomsen made it clear that the familial relationship meant that anything my brother-in-law might choose to do to us was totally outside the purview of the NAD/GC—even though one church employee was using an audience of other church employees (in both my work arena and his) to defame yet another church employee (i.e. me, and my wife and sons).
The only thing accomplished by my letter to the six GC/NAD leaders requesting help was that Pastor Thomsen assured us, in essence, that he’d clearly warned my brother-in-law that anything he might choose to do against us absolutely mustbe carried out in such a manner that it couldn’t be perceived as part of his official employment role! Pastor Thomsen didn’t say the perpetrator had been told to cease and desist—just to attack more carefully! The only thing that counted with the GC/NAD recipients of my letters was protecting the church’s interests. And the easiest way to protect the church was to declare this clearly in-the-church-workplace matter to be something that it wasn’t. They said it was totally outside their purview—even though that wasn’t the truth by any objective standard. Pastor Thomsen’s contention was nothing but a pretext. A lame excuse. Sheer absurdity.
Spousal Expectations: Having worked for the church for decades, I know how much control administrators have over every aspect of life for those in their employ. And so does my wife. Having “non-facts” put forward as truth doesn’t sit well with either of us. The facts are, the wide-ranging control of administrators isn’t just over employees. It’s over entire families. For example, when I was about to be ordained, my wife was summoned along with me to sit in front of a group of ministers—all men; no women present—who interrogated and exhorted both of us. We were reminded of the high calling and high privilege of gospel ministry. The examiners impressed upon us the serious responsibility that comes with ordination. Even though she wasn’t receiving one penny from the church, my wife was told in no uncertain terms the exact type of behavior that was expected of her just because she was married to someone who felt called to ministry and who was about to have hands laid on him.
In fact, on one occasion a couple of years later, I was invited to interview for a pastorate in an eastern state in the U.S. But before I could meet with the church board, word got to the conference president that my wife, an Australian, wore a wedding ring. I was told that if she insisted on wearing the ring—a totally acceptable Adventist practice in Australia from the church’s inception there—the invitation would be withdrawn. Now get this: If my non-employee wife wore the tangible symbol of her commitment to her marriage, her husbandwould be without a job. But when a high-profile, on-the-payroll, church-headquarters employee went on a rampage and sent into the church workplace letters designed to destroy the reputations of three young Adventists by declaring them to be guilty of “a systemic inhumanity . . .that defies all norms of Christianity and human decency”—as well as destroy my reputation and that of my wife—that’s totally outside of administrative control! All I can say is two words: absolutely asinine! Let me use two more words: unethical, immoral.
(As an aside, and this has implications for the issue of women’s ordination: It’s interesting that in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Britain and much of Europe, Adventist women have always publicly advertised their married status by wearing a wedding ring, just as the rest of society does. In North America, such a “display of vanity and pride” was for well over a century considered a spiritual anathema by Adventists. Eventually, North American Adventists declared the wedding-ring prohibition ridiculous. But, with women’s ordination in mind, I would note that in the many years before the acceptance of the wedding ring by North Americans, the Adventist Church survived quite well despite this diversity in religious behavior. The church didn’t crumble despite an absence of lock-step uniformity concerning how Fundamental Belief 22 was being applied. Interestingly, when the widowed Willie White remarried while in Australia, to an Australian, Ellen White offered the dedicatory prayer at his wedding—even though it was a ring ceremony and even though Ellen White had said there was no need for a woman to wear a ring even in Australia. Many, many years later, when Willie White’s daughter did an extensive interview that was published in the Adventist Reviewabout her life as a member of the White family, her description of her parents’ ring ceremony was excised before the interview was printed—because it might be “misunderstood by the church members.” I know because I worked at the Adventist Review at the time.)
But now back to the absurd assertion that the GC/NAD leaders have absolutely no control over how their employee might treat another employee and his family if that other employee happens to be a relative—even though the abuse and defamation is transpiring in the church workplace!
How About a Little Logic? Logic says that if a church employee sets about to destroy the reputation of a fellow church employee (who also happens to be a relative), and he does it in front of an audience of family members at the family reunion, that might reasonably be called a family matter—though, depending on the severity of the behavior, it could still become a matter of concern to his religious-entity employer. Church employees are never truly “off the clock.”
However, if a church employee sets about to destroy the reputation of a fellow church employee (who also happens to be a relative), and he deliberately chooses to do it in front of an audience of church members in the local church’s foyer because it will have more impact there, it becomes a local church matter—though such a public outburst would make it even more likely that it might also become a matter of concern to his religious-entity employer.
But if a church employee sets about to destroy the reputation of a fellow church employee (who also happens to be a relative), and he deliberatelychooses to do it in front of an audience of fellow church employees specificallyto destroy their respect for the pastor and his family who are being maligned, it categorically becomes a church-workplace matter.
Because they didn’t want to deal with the matter, the church-headquarters leaders I interacted with have stubbornly declared that familial ties remove all otherwise-applicable obligations concerning church-workplace behavior. It’s open season on relatives in the church workplace! Attorney Kyte’s mind-boggling defense for not calling the perpetrator to any form of accountability was: “I suspect that he [the perpetrator] continues to hold the same personal views about you and therefore to expect him to retract his communications seems like a difficult possibility.” Do parents say to a misbehaving child, “Because you’re still angry at your sibling, there’s no way we would even consider asking you to make right the wrong you’ve done”? I don’t think so. Not Christian parents, at least.
Now keep in mind—and this is important—I’ve never once asked for any form of punitive action whatsoever to be taken against my brother-in-law. I asked merely that he be counseled spiritually to help him understand the impropriety of his behavior. I asked that those to whom he was accountable ensure that the behavior stop immediately. And I asked that my name be cleared. I just asked for basic Christianity, which calls for wrongs to be righted. In response, Pastor Thomsen chided me for having even brought the matter to him, suggesting, despite the documentation provided, that I might be lying: “Your statements. . .are open to interpretation as to their veracity,” he wrote to me, copying his accusation to the other recipients of my letters. In response, I asked what I had said that was of dubious veracity. He didn’t answer. I wrote again, pushing for specifics. If he was going to level a charge, I wanted concrete examples, not vague accusations. Again no answer. No answer to this day.
What Was My “Crime”? As readers, I’m sure many of you are asking what I did that so stirred the ire of my church-headquarters relative. After all, everything happens in a context. I mean, who’s to say that we’re not far worsethan even the accusations made against my wife, our sons and me? And those are reasonable and legitimate questions. That’s why I offered to come to the church’s headquarters to answer any questions the church’s leaders might have and to address all accusations made against me already as well as any additional ones that might be forthcoming.
I said: “I believe that any objective onlooker would find it totally reasonable that I should ask you, as the employer/overseer of someone who has undertaken a deliberate campaign of defamation against my family and me, either to summarily declare his actions to be inappropriate or, at the very least, seek to determine the validity of the allegations.”
I told the church’s leaders that if, after investigation, they felt what had been said about me was true, and that I indeed was spiritually unfit to stand in the pulpit, then I would “encourage you, as leaders, to fulfill your moral/spiritual obligation to safeguard the integrity of the church as a whole and recommend to the Florida Conference that I be terminated. . . .
“If, on the other hand, you determine that [my accuser’s] statements are unwarranted, then I would request that you fulfill your moral/spiritual obligation to safeguard the reputation of a church employee who has been defamed . . . .” No recipient of my letters has ever acknowledged that I’ve made the foregoing requests.
However, it gets worse. After refusing to acknowledge an array of arguments, questions and requests, Pastor Thomsen wrote, after just two brief, one-page, dismissive, pontifical-pronouncement letters (I’m sure that Ellen White would have labeled them “kingly powers” letters): “I would like to bring this matter to closure as I have concluded there is nothing more I can say to assuage your perspective on this matter. However, any further communication between us will not lead to different results. Consequently, I nor anyone else within the GC or NAD administrations will respond further to these communications.”
Reading the foregoing three sentences, one would get the idea that Pastor Thomsen had labored long and hard to convince me of his position, and that I had simply refused to listen to well-articulated arguments that would persuade anyone but the most stubborn and head-strong. The reality is, in his two letters he’d spent a combined 16 lines addressing the matter at all! And those 16 lines were just pronouncements. No discussion of my questions. No counter arguments. No queries of his own. No dialogue. He simply made unsupported assertions, sidestepping every issue I raised. He was right, he said. And I was wrong. And that was that.
At that point, I’d provided more than three decades of loyal, highly productive paidservice to the church. My wife had provided more than three decades of unpaid service, having to structure her entire life around what crumbs of my time she and our sons could grab that weren’t already taken by the church. But when we simply refused to accept the patent absurdity that clearly unacceptable church-workplace behavior is nevertheless OK if the perpetrator is related to his victims, we were told that if we ever wrote again, no one at the church’s headquarters would even acknowledge our letters! That’s how much the average church employee—pastor, teacher, other—means to the headquarters hierarchy.
“Sorry for your angst,” I hear you saying, “but what does the story have to do with church policy? You haven’t mentioned policy even once in this entire discourse.” And you’re right. My wife and I didn’t initially approach the church’s leaders with a list of policies, telling them they had to apply them or else. We appealed to the most basic principles of Christianity. What we assumed were universal understandings. Christian Common Law, if you will. But when we were treated as if we were absolute idiots for believing as we did, my wife began to research the church’s policies—those “Christian agreements,” as Pastor Ted Wilson euphemistically describes them. She discovered . . .
Chapter 2: Those “Christian Agreements”
The General Conference has a duly voted “Statement of Ethical Foundationsfor the General Conference and Its Employees.” It’s not a brilliant document, but it’s certainly a good start. It’s more or less a refraction of the Golden Rule. Just like world-church president Pastor Ted Wilson does, the Statement of Ethical Foundations uses the term “respect” often. “We will respect and uplift our fellow employees,” the document promises. “We will refrain from intentionally placing another in a position of embarrassment, disrespect, or harassment.” (In light of what we’d experienced, we found that promise particularly significant!)
And when a fellow church employee is perceived to not be toeing the line (such as I was accused of), what then? “We believe it is our personal responsibility to report, through established confidential channels, any behavior that is inappropriate . . .” (emphasis mine). The statement promises that “the General Conference will fulfill the commitments it has entered into through authorized channels.” The statement also calls for “ethical and moral conduct at all times and in all relationships” (emphasis in original—and it doesn’t say all relationships except familial relationships).
In short, the document advocates what most kids from religious homes have been exposed to extensively by the time they’ve graduated from kindergarten. It’s like an “Introduction to Christianity for Children.” Very basic. But certainly the core of what Christianity is all about. And exactly what we’d been asking for.
Unfortunately, as we discovered, the laudable behaviors promised in the Statement of Ethical Foundations aren’t employee expectations as the average onlooker might assume from the wording. In practice, the document is little more than an exercise in public relations. Put another way, the beautiful Golden Rule picture painted in the document is mere propaganda. And I’m not the first church member or employee to discover this sad fact. The Statement of Ethical Foundations is ignored with impunity—unless, that is, church-headquarters leaders want to throw the book at some offending employee. In that case, every ounce of applicability will be wrung out of the document.
By no means is the Statement of Ethical Foundations the only paper statement that’s cavalierly ignored by high-level leaders. There are others. Many of them. One in particular has significance for me personally and for our church’s current discussions about ordaining women—because, despite the appearance of guaranteeing respect and fair treatment for those who are ordained, the policy I’m about to highlight is mere decoration. And if it’s ignored in the case of men, I wouldn’t hold my breath that it will be honored for any women who might eventually join the ranks of the ordained Adventist clergy.
Protecting the Minister: The policy I’m referring to is: “L 60 10 Integrity of the Ministry—In any case where the integrity or the moral or professional standing of any holder of credentials is called into question, it is the duty of the union to join the local conference/mission in conferring, with a purpose to clear away any uncertainty, in order that no reproach or shadow may be left to rest upon all the credentials held by the ministry. . . .”
In fact, another policy promising the clearing of an accused pastor’s name is even stronger: “L 60 05 Union Responsibility—Union and local conferences share the responsibility for safeguarding the integrity of the ministry and are required by denominational action and practice to assure that credentials issued within their respective territories shall indeed certify that the holders are in good and unquestioned standing, . . .”
Granted that we were dealing with accusations made in the church workplace by an NAD church-headquarters employee, and granted that the policy states that it may at times be necessary to involve the next higher organization, I explained in a letter that I had by-passed the conference and union and come directly to the NAD/GC to minimize the number involved. I asked if they preferred that I go back to the lower levels of administration first. The answer? Silence. They never acknowledged that I had asked that question—or that I had even cited the policy to them. It was as if I hadn’t even written. A minister appealing to GC and/or NAD leaders shouldn’t expect much. From my experience, leaders at those levels are the church’s most blatant violators of policy and the most unlikely to engage in meaningful discussion or to ever back down from a position, once it has been taken. Infallibility isn’t just a papal prerogative. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me pause to clarify something that should resonate deeply with our world-church president Pastor Ted Wilson and his associates: The Statement of Ethical Foundations was notvoted by some "obscure group with no relevance," to borrow Pastor Wilson’s own words. Nor was policy L 60 10andL 60 05, just cited. No, these documents were voted by the General Conference Executive Committee, the body that has ultimate power between General Conference Sessions! Pastor Wilson has stated publicly and emphatically that such high-level enactments simply must be adhered to. At least when it comes to women’s ordination!
No Dehumanizing? I would point readers to a General Conference document called Guidelines for Employer and Employee Relationships (again voted by the GC Executive Committee!), which states: “The workplace should not dehumanize people. Employees should have access to a process of consultation and genuine discussion in matters affecting their labor and the conduct of the business or industry that employs their talents and skills” (emphasis mine). Like all such duly voted documents, this one is simply ignored by the leaders of the GC/NAD when it’s perceived not to be advantageous to their goal of the moment.
Let me assure you, it’s truly dehumanizingwhen church administrators won’t even acknowledge questions, arguments and requests that are unambiguously put before them. It’s dehumanizing to have a church administrator himselfsuggest that I’m a liar—after I had gone to him specifically to get help because a church-headquarters employee for whom he had oversight had sent out letters to my ministerial colleagues suggesting that I’m a liar! Also dehumanizing was Pastor Thomsen’s willingness not only to make the accusation that I might be lying, but to refuse to back up his allegation with even one factual example. Or to even acknowledge my repeated request that he do so. But there’s more.
My wife and sons quickly learned that my calling and my profession governed nearly every aspect of our family—where we lived, where the boys went to school, how my wife dressed, how freely any of them could speak their minds if their thoughts weren’t within the bounds of acceptability. After all, mine was a God-ordained call to work for a God-created organization that allegedly adhered to a long list of God-inspired “Christian agreements.” Yet when—right in the church workplace—a church-headquarters employee engaged in character assassination against those I love and had promised to protect, I was figuratively castrated in front of my wife and sons by the leaders of God’s Remnant Church when I simply asked that their “Christian agreements” be applied as written.
Despite all the sacrifices I’ve asked my family to make because of my lofty calling, I count for so little to the leaders of God’s Remnant Church that not one church leader, having been given six years to do so, has yet acknowledged that I’ve cited a single policy, guideline or official statement and asked for its implementation. They simply act as if my reality doesn’t exist and as if my words and requests were never spoken. Nor has even one church leader said it’s wrong to send character-assassination letters into the church workplace defaming a preacher’s kids as was done to mine. In essence, I was told that I was stupid and misguided and needed to just get back to work. And—like the less-than-a-man, impotent creature that they made me into—I did go back to work. Because I had to ensure that I didn’t miss out on at least a meager retirement. You want to talk “dehumanizing”? I could write a book about it. And probably will. And I haven’t even begun to address what this has done to my wife.
So much for not dehumanizing. So much for the “process of consultation and genuine discussion” promised by vote of the GC Executive Committee. Such promises will be honored only when it’s deemed more advantageous than not doing so. But allow me to put into perspective such refusal to honor policy and other duly voted paper promises.
From the “Remotest Station: ”There’s another closely related policy (once again, duly voted by the GC Executive Committee, which is so respected by Pastor Wilson!) that deserves mention: “B 45 30 Appeals—The Seventh-day Adventist Church makes provision that every agency in the work, from the individual in the remotest station [which would include a pastor] to the responsible committee at every stage of the organization [which would include a local church], is assured full privilege, without prejudice, of representing opinion and conviction, and asking consideration and counsel in matters affecting life and service.” Those are beautiful words. They’re “Christian agreements,” is how Pastor Wilson describes the church’s policies. Yet those who seek to avail themselves of such policies may discover they aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Because my appeals for explanations and a face-to-face meeting were going unacknowledged, two women elders from my congregation, both of whom worked in the local church office (and who had nearly forty years of combined church-office employment between them) wrote kind, courteous, rational letters seeking clarification and sharing observations. One elder asked how the matter could possibly be considered anything but a church-workplace matter, since it was carried on in the church workplace. The answer? Silence. The other commented on the church’s definitions and guidelines concerning abuse and asked why the matter wasn’t being treated as the emotional/psychological/spiritual abuse that it clearly was. The answer? Silence. So much for the promises of policy B 45 30.
At the time of my (early) retirement, I wrote to the various church-headquarters recipients of my many earlier letters, stating once again that, even though I was leaving denominational employment via retirement, I still wanted my name cleared, and I wanted a face-to-face meeting with those who had refused to do so—or, to be more accurate, hadn’t even acknowledged that I”d made such a request or that I’d cited an array of policies promising me that right. The answer to my letter? Silence.
At that time, my wife, Leonie, wrote specifically to Pastor Ted Wilson and to Carla Baker, director of Women’s Ministry for the NAD, pleading for their help. The answer? Silence.
More recently still, I asked the board of the church where I was formerly pastor if they would write on my behalf, formally requesting that my name be cleared as per policy, and that my queries—and a number of queries from the church board itself—be addressed in a face-to-face meeting (in harmony with policy B 45 30). The letters were signed by the head elder, assistant head elder, church clerk and church treasurer. The letters were sent by certified mail, and forms came back confirming that they had been received and signed for at the church’s headquarters. The headquarters’ answer? Silence. Yet Pastor Ted Wilson, one of the non-responding recipients of the church board’s letter, waves the GC Policy Book before the assembled PUC delegates and says that it’s imperative that the policies contained therein be adhered to—because the policies are GC Executive Committee-approved! Has he not read policy B 45 30,which is also GC Executive Committee-approved?
Ironically, one of the policies that will probably be invoked as justification to try to punish the presidents of the Columbia and Pacific unions in response to their “renegade” actions regarding the ordination of women is even more applicable to Pastor Wilson and his lieutenants: “B15 15 Officers/Administrators to Work in Harmony with Policy—Officers and administrators are expected to work in harmony with the General Conference Working Policy. Those who show inability or unwillingness to administer their work in harmony with policy should not be continued in executive leadership by their respective constituencies or governing boards/committees.”
But that policy could also come back to bite—if in reality leaders were ever held accountable. Clearly, Pastor Wilson and his fellow leaders don’t have a track record of policy adherence. And he and his colleagues aren’t defending their own violations of policy on the basis of a conscientious objection, as the two “rogue” unions are doing. In our situation, the GC and NAD leaders are simply ignoring policy as a matter of convenience. But Pastor Wilson has nothing to fear. He knows there’s no chance that policy B 15 15will be invoked in his own case. Again, it’s just window dressing.
Business Fraud: I find it highly significant that the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual—which was voted not by the GC Executive Committee but by the General Conference in Session, our denomination’s highest deliberative body—declares that one of the 13 reasons for which church discipline may be administered (page 62) is: “7. Fraud or willful misrepresentation in business.” The fact is, those who run the business of the church promise to follow certain processes and procedures and adhere to policy. Those promises, which have been duly voted by representatives from around the world, are published in a book of “Christian agreements” called a policy book. Or they’re collected and posted on the denomination’s official website for the whole word to read in a collection of guidelines and official statements.
Those “Christian agreements,” as Pastor Wilson calls them, assure me that I don’t need a labor union to protect my employee rights because my concerns can be voiced and will be listened to. So is it anything short of “fraud or willful misrepresentation in business” when the the church’s highest leaders themselves refuse not only to honor their paper statements but refuse even to acknowledge that I’ve asked over and over and over for them to do so?
Yet world-church president Pastor Ted Wilson has the audacity to wave the policy book before the onlooking crowd in the Pacific Union, declaring it imperative to honor what’s contained therein. And Pastor Jan Paulsen, his predecessor, made similar statements, which likewise bore not the slightest resemblance to what he and his colleagues actually did in practice. But what church pastor is going to take disciplinary action against a church-headquarters leader who’s a member of his congregation, no matter how much the leader has refused to honor those “Christian agreements” we call policy?
Those we asked for help at the GC/NAD have consistently tried to spin our tenacity in seeking accountability as nothing more than a vendetta against my brother-in-law. No, my prime grievance is with the leaders themselves. I expect the leaders of God’s Remnant Church to honor their promises—their “Christian agreements.” I can’t work for an organization in which the highest echelons of management have such a low sense of ethical responsibility. The emotional/psychological/spiritual dissonance is just too great.
Policy Reigns Supreme: Pastor Ted Wilson’s astounding argument in the current debate over women’s ordination and what to do with the two “rogue” unions is that conscientious conviction should take a back seat to policy and world-church unity. On his priority list, policy reigns supreme. (But only in theory. When it comes to day-to-day life, he and his high-level associates will routinely ignore it.) I find such policy-over-principle reasoning to be morally lacking. From the time I was a small child, I had drummed into me by my parents and by my Adventist teachers that at times authority must be challenged. We ought to obey God rather than humans. Conscience and moral obligation reign supreme.
The models of virtue that were held before me were the Martin Luthers and the John Husses—men who were their organization’s worst nightmare but who we admire and venerate for their commitment to principle. In the case of women’s ordination, we’ve had at least two union constituencies who’ve carefully and prayerfully assessed the issue, concluding that, as a matter of principle, they must break the rules. To not do so would be the greater violation.
We may agree with them, or we may disagree. But these Adventist members and their leaders have been totally up-front about what they’re doing and why. Furthermore, they’ve pledged their continued loyalty to the Seventh-day Adventist Church—even while being accused by some of the highest leaders of being disloyal; or, as GC vice president Pastor Lowell Cooper rather indelicately put it, of not being “people of good will.” The union constituencies have appropriately explained and qualified their position: They will be loyal as long as loyalty doesn’t require the violation of conscience. They’ve acknowledged the rules. They’ve admitted that they’re breaking the rules (at least as interpreted by the highest echelons of the church). And they’ve candidly explained their rationale and the limitations of their non-compliance. From my perspective, it’s a respectful, responsible and morally admirable way to proceed.
By contrast, in my personal experience with policy-violating General Conference and North American Division leaders, the pattern is altogether different. Those flouting the policies have (a) refused to acknowledge that the policies even exist. They’ve (b) refused to acknowledge that they’re violating the policies. They’ve (c) refused to answer questions as to why they’re violating their own policies. They’ve (d) refused to acknowledge that we’ve asked them to apply the policies and that we’ve requested a face-to-face meeting so they can explain all the foregoing.
So, quite frankly, when the General Conference president stands up to plead for policy adherence, I find it blatantly hypocritical. Pathetically so. And that’s gross understatement. If those in the headquarters complex itself were upholding policy, I could respect the legitimacy of the plea—though, for the sake of conscience, I still might vote to break the rules. But it’s in no way compelling when the leaders expect a higher standard of those who are led than they’re willing to adhere to themselves as leaders.
If I Could Talk to You: Pastor Wilson, if I could talk with you (i.e. if you would honor the “Christian agreements” that you so enthusiastically tout), I would say this: You and your lock-step band of 40 leading church administrators from around the world have been pleading with all would-be ordainers of women to please, please put policy ahead of principle and conscience. To do otherwise, you say, may well cause indescribable damage to the church. You remind us that those policies, voted by a body no less august than the General Conference Executive Committee, are there for the good of the church. For everyone’s good. They simply must be honored. Otherwise there will be dire consequences. (Of course, it’s not at all clear whether the dire consequences you predict are the natural outgrowth of the union’s choices or the actions you hope to persuade the GC Executive Committee to impose on the “wayward” unions—and the difference between the two is highly significant.)
In light of your own incessant pleas, Pastor Wilson, I would remind you that for nearly six years my wife and I have been pleading with a number of major leaders at the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s GC and NAD headquarters—yourself included—to likewise please, please honor the church’s policies. But in our case, the plea isn’t to honor policy instead of honoring principle and conscience. Rather, we’re asking you to honor policy because ofprinciple and conscience. Yet you and your fellow leaders refuse. Categorically. And your (collective) tenacious refusal to do so already has caused indescribably dire consequences. Oh, I understand: The church is what counts, not people. I’m just a dispensable now-retired pastor with a former-Adventist wife.
We know we don’t count. And our sons know that their church-headquarters uncle can use their father’s church workplace to seek to destroy their father’s ministry, to destroy their mother’s reputation and to hurl the vilest of invective at his own nephews in an attempt to destroy them, yet not one of the spiritual leaders of God’s Remnant Church—the organization that declares itself to have the greatest spiritual insights of any religious entity on earth—can bring himself to say that such behavior is wrong. And it’s wrong whether judged by secular standards, the Bible or the church’s own “Christian agreements.” Pastor Wilson, your refusal and that of your predecessor and your associates to honor the church’s policies and other paper promises is a concrete and easily documented fact. It’s a grim reality. But it is what is.
So my question and my appeal to you is: Are you and your fellow leaders going to continue to, as the KJV puts it, shut up your “bowels of compassion.” Or are you going to “put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering”? In short, are yougoing to take the lead in honoring your own GC Executive Committee-approved policies and promises? Or are yougoing to continue to act as if they don’t exist whenever they call for action you don’t want to give?
Chapter 3: Appeal
My appeal to the readers of this blog is: As church members, as employees, as retirees, even as former Adventists who still have a faint glimmer of hope for the group with which you once fellowshipped and in which you’ve invested so much, it’s too easy for us to slip into the role of permanent bystander. It’s too easy for us to read the kind of things I’ve outlined here, smite our breast and thank God that we’re not like those leaders who are being described. It’s too easy to think that reporting the otherwise-unreported news and maybe even commenting on it are the same as demanding leader accountability (as our world-church president has actually invited us to do).
We’ve wallowed too long in helpless/defenseless mode. It’s time to cut the whining. It’s time to become aggressive. It’s time to cease just reading articles on Spectrum’s website or in its print version. We need to inundate 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904, with well-thought-through, rational, measured, caring-but-firm, no-nonsense letters, emails and phone calls (301-680-6000). We need to write letters to the editors of Adventist publications even when we’re quite sure our letters won’t be published.
Spectrum should start a “Rejected Letters” category on this website so that Adventist publishers will know that rejecting a letter doesn’t stifle its impact—but could make it even more powerful, because its appearance elsewhere as a rejected letter will highlight the church’s unwillingness to publish it. We need an “Unanswered Letters” category on this website so that administrators will not be quite so quick to just ignore requests made of them. We need to stop wringing our hands when we see injustice being done in the name of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and instead raise our hands and voices in united protest. We must stop settling for fob-off answers and demand the “genuine discussion” that’s promised in our church’s official statements. We must refuse to accept the culture and mindset that’s pervasive at all administrative levels—because you and I allow it to exist.
We need to make the General Conference Working Policyand all other GC Executive Committee-voted documents our tool to call leaders to accountability rather than leaving them as the tool of church leaders to ignore or use to control and manipulate employees and members, depending on the agenda of the moment. We need to recognize that we areour brother and sister’skeeper and readily come to each other’s aid. Those who are being trampled by the church need to know that they can come to us and be heard, be treated seriously, be counseled sensitively and be fought for tirelessly. It’s truly time for revival and reformation—a form not just focused on personal piety but on the “weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” It’s time for action. It’s time to take as our governing principles the priorities of Jesus—love for God and commitment to our fellow humans. It’s time for the Golden Rule to reign supreme.
No, I take that all back. It’s not time. It’s long past time.
—Jim Coffin recently retired as senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida. He is a former assistant editor at the Adventist Review and a former senior editor at Signs Publishing Company in Australia. Jim has written scores of articles for Seventh-day Adventist publications and three books—One Thing I Know—and Other Stuff I Strongly Suspect (Review and Herald Publishing Association), A Different Church for a Different World (Signs Publishing Company) and Conversations With My Church (Signs Publishing Company).
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4755