Secrecy: The Adventist Experience

“Secrecy is based on mistrust between those governing and those governed; and at the same time, it exacerbates that mistrust.” —Joseph Stiglitz

What is true about secrecy within governments also seems true for church organizations. Writing “On Liberty, the Right to Know and Public Discourse: The Role of Transparency in Public Life,” Economist Joseph Stiglitz’ comment above on secrecy found its way into Dan­iel Patrick Moynihan’s book, Secrecy: The American Experience, in 1998, in which Moynihan concluded that secrecy has a negative impact on democratic norms, and that it is for losers.

Stiglitz’ quote also captures the current state of mistrust in the Adventist Experience. During the Wilson adminis­tration at the General Confer­ence, secrecy has undermined the functioning of departments and agencies, and created ten­sion between the various lev­els of church structure. Most conspicuously, it has interfered with the work of the General Conference Executive Com­mittee. For the last three years, new proposals for how to discipline or control unions seen as being “non-compliant,” particularly on the issue of women’s ordination, have dominated the Annual Council meeting of the Executive Committee. The first formal proposal was for the General Conference to take over such unions. Although it had been discussed within the halls of the General Confer­ence, this “nuclear option” was sprung on the General Con­ference Executive Committee at the 2016 Annual Council, and it backfired badly.

However, a year later, during a dramatic Annual Council discussion of yet an­other proposal, Pastor Randy Roberts questioned Gener­al Conference President Ted Wilson about how the recom­mendation had come to the committee, noting that the vote of the General Conference and Division Officers (GCDO) had included (forbidden) proxy votes. “You weren’t supposed to know that,” Wilson said, as he began his explanation about a vote of the committee taken while GCDO was traveling and when some members had left to handle crises in their home territories. Wilson’s com­ment surprised the audience and contributed to the failure of the Annual Council motion to require loyalty oaths from union conference presidents and other members of the Gen­eral Conference Executive Committee. Wilson was stunned by the leaks from the GCDO and complained vigorously about them, but others in his administration promised open­ness and transparency going forward.

However, none of these experiences changed Wilson’s mind about the need for discipline of the unions. In 2018, he pressured the Executive Committee to approve a sys­tem of five compliance committees at Annual Council, and planned to have them commence work immediately. While he got the vote that he wanted, he did not get the coopera­tion that he needed from within. The General Conference and division employees pushed back against the immediate activation of the committees. Later, in early 2019, when the GCDO members gathered, there were more questions about the advisability of the compliance committees. At the 2019 Spring Meeting of the Executive Committee, they were never mentioned, and now a year has essentially gone by without a single one of the committees functioning. However, a letter from the GC Secretariat has been sent to the divisions asking about mat­ters of non-compliance in their territories. When the letter arrived at the North American Division (NAD), it was met with a stern response calling the letter inappropriate and requesting that it be withdrawn. Other divisions have taken a more nuanced approach, hoping that a softer response would be more diplomatic.

Whether secrecy will again play a role at this year’s meetings of the General Conference and Division Offi­cers and the General Conference Executive Committee in October, of course, remains to be seen. Will there be a report on the Compliance Committees? Will there be another five- or six-hour long Annual Council debate like in the past three years? Will the leadership be transparent about what has taken place during the GCDO meetings leading up to Annual Council, letting people know when and how members of that committee differed on issues?

The work of first the GCDO and then the GC Execu­tive Committee will be what sets the stage for the 2020 Gen­eral Conference Session in Indianapolis. They will craft the agenda, and decide what needs to be added or subtracted from the Church’s various policy manuals. One could wish that a motion would be proposed requiring that minutes of the Executive Committee meeting be made public immediately at the conclusion of a meeting — not months or years later. Likewise, requiring that minutes of the General Confer­ence and Division Officers meetings be public record would be a positive move for openness within the Church. The GCDO with its sixty-plus members is the size of the Gen­eral Conference Committee in the early days of the denomina­tion. Surely, church members have a right to know about the discussions and actions of this committee, which plays such a crucial role in the management of the Church.

Secrecy divides a body between those who know and those who are not deemed trustworthy to know. It is different from the privacy that is needed in handling of personnel issues and certain legal matters, for instance. Secrecy is a political tool that would seem to be unnecessary in our church organization, which eschews politics very specifically in the Church Manual.

As the Church makes plans for its future by bringing proposals for consideration to the 2020 General Confer­ence Session, “sunshine” actions eliminating secrecy from official committees would go a long way to uniting the members who feel estranged by the secrecy that now per­vades the organizational culture. Moynihan is right. Secre­cy is for losers.

Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This editorial first appeared in the Spectrum journal, Volume 47, Issue 3. Did you know? It is our generous journal subscribers who fund what you read on the website. Please consider subscribing today to help support the work that Spectrum does now and in the future.

Already a subscriber? Thank you! We greatly appreciate your support and invite you to click here to learn about additional ways you can support Spectrum /Adventist Forum. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, all gifts are tax-deductible, and you will receive a tax receipt for your records.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9834
6 Likes

Secrecy is the opposite of communication. It involves the willful withholding of information from other parties… Secrecy is most common in authoritarian institutions where all decisions are made by a small group of leaders. In these situations, the input of followers isn’t sought because they are not stakeholders in the decision-making process. Secrecy may be beneficial in some situations, but the people holding the secrets should be aware of the impact of secrecy on decision-making. Individuals not aware of some information can’t be expected to make decisions based on that information. If communication is the transfer of meaning, secrecy is the opposite of communication. It involves the willful withholding of information from other parties. Secrecy is most common in authoritarian institutions where all decisions are made by a small group of leaders. In these situations, the input of followers isn’t sought because they are not stakeholders in the decision-making process. In a transparent church organization secrecy has no place.

7 Likes

Whatever would make one think that an hierarchical organization like a church would be anything but authoritarian.

2 Likes

Fascinating. The article links to the report. and then gives a quote which is not even in the report with quotation marks linked to. It may be secrecy but maybe as important is accuracy. Here is the quote from the link the article gave: "President Wilson replied, “We have a very collegial process here at the GC. We try to achieve consensus, if possible. Votes are taken when consensus cannot be reached. The GCDO had quite extensive discussions on the document and were not able to come to consensus before the Adventist History tour. There were three members who are part of the IAD who could not be with us because of the natural disasters in their area. Canvassing of those members is what I told everyone early on. No one objected. We had various discussions. The discussions were very positive on getting to an appropriate goal. We canvassed those there and those who were not there. A very few who said they did not want to vote because they had not seen the document. The results are what you indicated. The vote that you mentioned. The fact you mentioned was only known to a very few people. There have been leaks. People have misused information that has caused this to be very flammable. Private information has been taken and misused again. One final thing, the chair did not vote.”

1 Like

I am this way inclined to think, if what was discussed or mention was never meant for a vote, then why present the information to a selective few. Information that is relative is discussed, on the other hand, if one wants to suggest a way of thinking, but not make it law, one implies the importance to the structure, yet allows each individual to make a contribution to the idea.
This is a church, with God has the head, God has been transparent and open, hence if we say that we represent God, we should be the same. We say that God has given us the SOP, yet what was given on structure of the church, has not been implemented. We still have presidents, which somehow nobody addresses, the function of president is illegal, and is against the guide lines of E G White, yet nobody is objecting to that post.

1 Like

You are absolutely right! But the church can change to a more transparent way of doing things!

1 Like

TW clearly conflating “collegiality” with “privacy” and completely sailing over secrecy, all the while seething about the “leaks.”
No, the many GC committees need a good dose of sunshine and transparency.
Only a few matters of personnel and law need privacy, and some of those only for a limited time.

8 Likes

In the era of the Internet it’s certainly a dumb idea trying to govern any institution utilizing secrecy. There will be, almost always, people who will leak info about everything. What secrecy can be kept long enough before it’s exposed?

I hope 2020 will be the year of a radical change in the Church. If TW is replaced, there is some hope. Otherwise, though, we will continue this shameful and unacceptable pattern of discrimination of women and other problematic issues.

Ted Wilson must go and enjoy his retirement! Though I think, based on what we see, that he believes that God needs him for a 3rd term. Have mercy!!! :exclamation:

7 Likes

I guess I need to make this clearer. Which quote is real and which quote is not? Or are they both wrong. “You weren’t supposed to know that,” or “The fact you mentioned was only known to a very few people” Those are not the same! I think inaccurate quotes are very poor journalism.

2 Likes

This casual at best interest in secrecy’s essential role in General Conference management is confirmed by how few comments have arisen here more than a day after publication.

More importantly, though, this may be evidence that Seventh-day Adventists are widely accepting of the wish of the General Conference leadership as the self-proclaimed highest authority to keep secret evidence that it having become impotent.

5 Likes

This reminds me of the GC presidential so-called election. All that theater in front of the plenary, giving the delegates an “opportunity to vote” and feel good/empowered by doing so. They all should get that sticker, I voted!

Yes, they voted but they didn’t choose. The choosing process (real voting) always happens in secret ahead of the plenary session, by a much smaller group. A secret that not many are aware of; only a few become suspicious if the voting process takes only 90 seconds!!! (2010) :thinking: :thinking: :open_mouth:

What is not a secret, though, is that Bill Garber’s Birthday was only a few days ago, therefore , even though belated, HAPPY BIRTHDAY Bill!!!

6 Likes

Thanks George! The birthday went well. I went to bed a 75-year-old and woke up a legend. A second opinion offered myth.

The t-shirt that reads:

August
1944
The Man
The Myth
The Legend

8 Likes

Bill, are you sure it’s 1944 and not 1844?.. LOL :laughing:
Well, anyway, as I say, good people are born in August!
(Mine was on the 16th… LOL Enjoying the last year in the 60’s count … :roll)

5 Likes

We are accustomed/conditioned to accept the status-quo of secrecy as being the inevitable result of never ending culture battles. Until we get a RADICAL departure from doing things by arbitrary rules and grow some courage the status quo of the Wilson legacy will continue. We need true change, true radicals that will struggle for fair policies and practices. One of the ex-officio members who will supposedly represent me at the next General Conference session included in his sermon the promise (to a startled congregation) that he would fight to get Sandra Roberts name as President of Southeastern Cal Conference in the next SDA Yearbook! He almost apologized for being so radical. Wow!!!
All that energy and passion to get something so minor when compared to greater issues facing our church. We need to be about fundamental alternatives to the status quo of lethargy, nepotism and spiritual paralysis that afflicts us.

6 Likes

How about advocating something truly simple. Introduce as a policy that all General Conference committee meetings will be videotaped for historical or archival purposes, to be released for download or viewing on the General Conference archive site at a future date, say one year after the meeting.

Just the realization that everything said and declined to be said by everyone present will be made public one year after the meeting will alter the agendas, the discussions, and the votes. And the outcomes will move toward outcomes anticipated to be more in line with what the committee members believe to be in the best interest of church members.

And when such a practice has been in place for a time, it will be considered a small step to live stream all such committee meetings at all levels of the denomination, the technology being used to be funded by the GC.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this concept is for a local conference, say the Southeastern California Conference, to embrace this practice. Perhaps even live streaming from the start.

Your further thoughts, Sam?

6 Likes

This is a brilliant idea! This is the kind of creative alternative to our present status quo of secrecy.

2 Likes

Good thoughts Bill. I see no reason not to live stream these meetings right as they happen. That includes the Executive Committee meetings. This organization, the SDA Church, has been nothing but secret since its inception. I would as a share holder, aka tithe payer, demand that these secret meetings be open for ALL members. Like a CSpan channel on 3ABN II

6 Likes

I am afraid the technology would just happen to “break down” each time a meeting was to take place, somewhat like the electronic voting machines in 2015.

6 Likes

Ahhh yes, the “manufactured crisis”, the erstwhile Presidente of Worldwide SDA churche speaks from the podium. We will test the system one more time, and if not enough units respond we will go back to open voting…essentially telling the “voters” how to sabotage the private voting electronic system. The voters faithfully listened to the subterfuge, and enough did not press the button when the “test” was conducted…and their leader said we will vote the old way. TW wanted to know how his peeps voted. Secrecy is requisite for voting-especially for voting for president-and the WO vote WAS for president-telling the greater demographic of the church that they could never be as important as he.

But then, more secrecy. Turns out the expensive voting system manufacturer filed legal proceedings contesting the public claim TW made that the “system failed”. To avoid a slander charge and thereby have his machinations revealed, the vote manipulator uses an unknown amount of church (read “tithe”) monies (purported to be up to 7 figures) to pay off the manufacturer and make the lawsuit go away. All done with lawyered-up NDA’s…

i’d love to write that screenplay, and shine a little light into these shadows of secrecy.

7 Likes

DITTO!
But, … good luck to our idea… :roll_eyes:

4 Likes