The Redemption of the Union Conference

Through most of my ministry, the conventional wisdom, shared by people from all across the Adventist spectrum, was that we’d outgrown the union conferences. Union conferences had been established at a time when there were no telephones, no airplanes, no internet. At a time when it was believed that pastors needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses at the very top—a whole chain of control. Our church may have gotten some of our evangelistic passion from our hatred of Roman Catholicism, but administratively we chose to operate much like them, with a stern and corpulent bureaucracy.

And that, children, is pretty much how the church worked back before you were born. I was astonished when I first started ministry about how much mail I got from my employers. Sometimes five or six letters every day, all sent from different departments in the same office. Ditto with phone calls. Even a small conference like the one I started in had one ordained pastor to lead every department, each assisted by an office secretary: Sabbath School, Temperance, Ministerial, Evangelism, Lay Activities, Youth, Education, several vice presidents, not to mention an entire treasury staff. The local church was at the bottom of a long assembly line of directives from denominational leaders. The GC sent their directives down to the NAD, who added their stuff and sent them down to the union conference, who sent them on down to the conference, who sent them down to pastors, who brought them to the church. At first I believed that all the stuff they sent was important, or they wouldn’t have sent it. I tried to act on everything. It took me a few years to learn that a lot of it should go into the rubbish bin.

As time went on, two things happened. One is that money got tight, and people began to wonder if we required as many conference administrators as we had pastors in the field. If you think there are still too many people in your conference office, you should have seen it 30 years ago. The conference office staff that you have now is assuredly smaller than it once was.

The other thing that happened is that the culture changed. That pushed-from-the-top management style was no longer received cheerfully by churches. Some of the pastors who came of age in that system moved into offices themselves, and started cutting the flow. There is far less control exerted over churches and pastors than there once was. Fewer meetings, fewer programs, less mail generated, and leadership is less authoritarian. Administrators learned that things worked just about as well without their micromanagement. They began to think of themselves as resourcers rather than directors. A lot of what used to be done in offices wasn’t necessary anymore, anyway: where once we thought we needed a local administrator to count how many quarterlies each church got, the presses began sending them to churches directly. Offering appeals didn’t need to trickle down through four sorting offices, either, nor evangelistic programs.

That’s why we began to think that not only could administrative staffs be reduced, but the organization could be flattened. And the obvious target was the union conferences. We knew our local conference officers, knew they hired pastors and ran youth camps and academies. And we could see the need for the continent-wide regions that we call divisions, since they reflected a regional culture. But who needed the unions?

Dave Weigley is the one man more responsible than any other for saving the union conference in the NAD.

The story is well-known by now. Most of the discussion about women’s ordination in previous years wasn’t about headship theology—that came later—but about the whole church not being ready, for cultural reasons, for change. Efforts to get regional self-determination on the issue were thwarted. The Columbia Union Conference office (and at about the same time in the Pacific Union Conference office) decided to treat ordination as a policy matter. Since the policy had always been that the union conference approved ordinations within their territory, the CUC and the PUC held that they could ordain whomever they wanted to, including women. Ordinations of female pastors followed, sparking a cultural war, masquerading as theology, that led to San Antonio, where female ordination was voted down.

From these union conferences there’s been no admission of defeat, no formal surrender. The union conference office is now thought of as the organizational fort for the rebel forces, the last redoubt against the dark side. The narrative now is that Ellen White was instrumental in creating unions in 1901 expressly to dilute the power of an overly-controlling General Conference. They represent a sort of “states’ rights” position, a bulwark against centralization and (a EGW phrase beloved of us dissenters) “kingly power”.

But notice this: the loudest voices for the abolition of union conferences have gone silent. Oh, a few angry people are calling for them to be taken over by the GC, their executives deposed, their constitutions manipulated, their policies forced into line with the monarchy. But people like me, who not long ago were quite certain that for entirely practical reasons (that they’re expensive and largely unnecessary) unions would eventually disappear from the church structure, are no longer saying it. The handful of unions and their officers who embraced women’s ordination are heroes, and the rest are safe because they have the potential to be courageous, too, even when, like the North Pacific Union, they choose not to be.

Dave Weigley found the one thing union conferences could do that no one else could. The one superpower the union conference had. The one ace card they held. The union conference could ordain women. So for the time being, union conferences are safe, at least from those who believe women’s ordination is important—and that’s probably the majority of NAD Seventh-day Adventists. It may not have been Dave’s intention to find a use for his increasingly irrelevant institution. He did what he did because he really believes in ordained women in ministry, and thought the church had waited long enough. But the outcome has been to make the union conferences indispensable. They’ve exerted an authority that balances out power within the church, and we’re grateful for it.

Nevertheless, their new legitimacy leaves us with a problem. There is still too much church structure for a division that is running low on money and has less to manage (and less desire to micromanage) than it used to. Church bureaucracies have a metabolism problem: they go on a diet, but soon find their weight creeping back up again. (Contributing to this is that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church corporate culture, the only way for a pastor to be recognized is to move out of parish ministry into administration. We are not—I hope to write more about this later—a congregation-loving denomination, but an institution-loving one.) We still need to streamline our organization, to bring it into the 21st century.

In a number of European territories, pastors work for unions, which are considered the basic mid-range executive unit. Could it happen here? At least ten years ago, Raj Attiken, Ohio Conference president at the time, made the suggestion to the Columbia Union Conference that we eliminate the conferences and just run everything from the CUC office. He calculated an astonishing savings from eliminating superfluous personnel and real estate. As I recall, each conference in the CUC was to present it to their executive committee, and come back with a recommendation. With the exception of Ohio, every conference said no, even though it would have been worth millions to churches in their territory. (In retrospect, asking conference presidents to discuss with their leadership whether they all should be restructured out of a job probably wasn’t the best way to encourage adventurous thinking.)

How this will all turn out in the end is impossible to predict. My intuition tells me that our present General Conference doesn’t favor creative thinking from its subsidiary organizations, and will do whatever is necessary to keep them from becoming too independent. Some have said that the unions are legally impregnable, but I’m not so sure. Nor do I think it impossible that church entities would spend your donated money lawyering up against each other. Yes, power is that important. Elder Dan Jackson is the potential Desmond Doss in this war, taking fire from both sides. It remains to be seen whether he’ll survive to get his medal of honor.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and the recently-appointed Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

If you respond to this article, please: Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7085
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Fascinating, and particularly so the observation that we are not a congregation-loving denomination, but an institution-loving one.
I look forward to more on this, though in the meanwhile, I’d suggest that what we have fallen head over heels for is in fact bureaucracy, with the required real estate and associated ex officio chairmanship of boards and even on occasion thereafter, promotion to presidency of institutions!

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i really believe unions need to test the whole notion that they are mere receptacles of delegated power from the general conference when it comes to ordination decisions…and by test, i mean go to court, and fight it out with local tithe and offering money, which will then be diverted legitimately from the general conference and perhaps make a statement about where power in our church really resides…the general conference can make the case all it wants that it has never delegated ordination power to unions, but an examination of the history of the creation of our unions, including their purpose, according to our founding prophet, will possibly show that ordination power has never been a specified or voted on prerogative of the general conference to delegate…but aside from structural technicalities, i cannot for even one moment believe that a court of law is going to reward the side in our church insisting on misogyny on religious grounds,when not only is it the case that the majority of religious experts in our church are opposed to that misogyny on those same religious grounds, but the practical reality in existence in our church already includes women ordained as elders, senior pastors and a conference president…and this is beside the fact that gender equality is the law of our land…

in the aftermath of san antonio, my sense is that the time for talk is over…what is needed now is clear thinking union leadership willing to risk everything for the sake of principle…i think the pathetic, male-dominated 58% san antonio majority, representing a swing vote of a mere 9%, needs to see that the one size fits all approach they forced onto the church for the sake of their concept of unity is in reality an insidious stressor calculated to achieve exactly the opposite result…in other words, with the real threat of a church-wide split on the line, perhaps those who are now advocating toleration of injustice for the sake of unity can be persuaded that unity will be better achieved and preserved when basic virtues like justice are actively fought for, meticulously cultivated and incorporated into the structure of our church, where all can see that we mean what we say when we talk about them…

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In the late 1930’s Dad built the office building for the Lake Union Conference, just off the campus of Old E.M.E. the president called for a buzzer system to be installed in each “Sec” office. Soon after the staff moved in the president buzzed the Sabbath School Sec. He received no answer. he thought the system was faulty. he went down the hall and asked, “Did you hear me buzz you?” the reply was yes. the president then asked why didn’t you answer? the reply was, “I don’t respond to buzzers!! I knew you would be down here in a minute.” The system was never used again.

The church now has a buzzer happy president. Tom Z

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Thank you Loren! Fascinating and frustrating! In Germnay the conferences are even smaller, and I have always thought we could save a lot of money and trouble if we had only the two Unions or better only one Union. My own conference in a quite small territory has managed over way too many years to handpick their own voters…with a terrible result. They refuse to work together with the rest of Germany, they even tried to separate from the rest of Germany by asking the GC to form their own Union (unsuccsessfully). They do their own thing, invite many of those dubious “privat-ministry-Speakers” like Pipim and Batchelor…Getting rid of this conference here would solve so many problems in Germany, you probably can’t imagine…
Something else: Hopeful where are you, we miss you!

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This may be an accurate description of the NAD, but not of divisions such as the Northern and Southern Asia-Pacific Divisions (NSD and SSD) that within their respective territories geographically consist of various cultures and languages. As far as I’m concerned, these regional divisions have become irrelevant. And I’m not sure about the need for the continued existence of unions either.

Thanks, Loren, for the very insightful articles that Spectrum has published under your by-line. One unwelcome outcome of Spectrum board’s one-comment-per-article policy is not only the loss of interaction between commenters but more importantly with the main author.

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What if … the union conferences in North America merged with each other, over time creating a single union conference in the NAD? Could this achieve both goals of preserving the role of the union conference as well as reducing unnecessary administrative overhead? Is it doable?

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By what ever one would want to call them, there needs to be “Local” “Confederacies” of churches. In our SDA language we call them Conferences and we call them Unions.
The WORK of these “Confederacies” is Evangelism in two [2] different ways.

  1. The Members. Beginning with 3-4 yr olds, then to Youth, Young Adults, Adults, and “Old Agers”.
  2. Individual people who live within the boundaries of where those “Confederacies of Local Churches” reside. Bringing the Gospel to them. The Good News of God’s Love for them, and it is possible for them to be a Friend of God.
    These “Conference Confederacies” and “Union Confederacies” are support groups for the “Local Confederacies of Churches”. In promoting programs, in providing training personnel, in pooling monies so all churches can have ministerial [preachers] services at the local level who can Evangelize and Train the local members. Each age group requires different services for Evangelism, and that is what we have with Youth Camps, which can also double as retreat places for Young Adults, other Adults throughout the year. The Unions provide for a way for all churches to keep up with each other through a “Union News-sheet” by mail, and on-line. And for churches to advertise themselves and their activities in the news-sheet, cut out their pictures and place them in a scrap book. The news-sheet allows other churches to see what works, and to contact each other directly if they want to copy a program.
    Yes, we DO NEED what we call “Conferences” by however these local Confederacies want to be joined. We DO NEED Unions – “Confederacies of Conferences” as they are ALL there to support the Local Congregations whether of 10 members or of 2000 members.
    AND, we need the Unions and perhaps even the Conferences to be able to examine candidates for Ordination – That is, persons who will be the Shepherds of Local Churches [Not necessarily the Priest In Charge], whether a male or female. And to provide them authority to be so, which includes financial remuneration for their time and effort.
    Unfortunately Ordination is NOT ALWAYS looked upon as being the Shepherd of Local Churches. Too often it is looked upon as being THE PERSON IN CHARGE. And with it a whole host of problems carried with it.
    Unfortunately Ordination is NOT ALWAYS looked upon as being the Shepherd of Local Churches.
    Too often it is looked at as the 1ST STEP to ELEVATION, to a 1. Larger congregation. Which provides more prestige at ministerial get togethers. 2. Elevation to an OFFICE JOB at Conference Level or Union Level. 2. Later in life perhaps at the Division Level or even an OFFICE JOB at Silver Springs. 3. Perhaps even General Conference President, if one makes enough of the right friends.
    But getting back to the Original Post. We do need “Confederacies” by what ever we call them at least on the Union Territory Level to be Support Groups for Local Churches.
    Unfortunately, the way the General Conference has been organized in the minds of those at Silver Springs and Elsewhere, there is WAY TOO MUCH!!! Micromanagement from those Ivory Tower people of the Seventh day Adventist Church. It is harming and will continue to harm the Giving of the Gospel at the Local Congregation Levels.

EDIT: I dont agree with Sam Geli on the ELIMINATION of the “Conferences” – we need them.
But I do AGREE on rest of his Complaints.
And I believe if we see that the Complaints come from the Authoritarian Attitude of the Office People to “Maintain”, then we will see that “Maintaining” is NOT the same as Supporting.
Supporting is helping the Local Congregations to Assess their Opportunities as they Look Away from themselves to the Communities in which they reside, to See their Strengths and Weaknesses, and to arm themselves with Knowledge and Skills so they can spread the Good News of HOW to be a Friend of God, and HOW to live lives that bring glory to His name.
Thank you for your Post, Sam!!! [Three [3] Likes]

WE NEED the Conferences. Perhaps they just need to be organized differently. Organized so they can be Supportive of Local Churches. Assisting Local Churches to Assess their Strengths and Weaknesses. Provide personnel who can assist Local Churches to Correct their Weaknesses. To help Local Churches to Actually SEE the opportunities that are in the communities where they reside. To help the Local Churches DESIGN their own programs, and NOT just SEND them Canned Programs from the Conference Office which most likely will NOT fit their situations. [Which most often is what we see happening, and WHY Conference Office DESIGNED programs are NOT used by most congregations.]
Again, Thanks! [4th Like]

EDIT: Regarding the THOUGHTS of Pastors regarding the SEEKING of an Elevated Desk Job.
These Desires are PLANTED in the minds of Little Kids by the Laity!!! When persons who are Pastors are ELEVATED to a Bigger Church group, or a nicer church building, or a better city to live in, everyone CONGRATULATES this Pastor on being chosen to leave their group, chosen for “being better”, “living better”. When one is ELEVATED to a DESK JOB at one of the Conference Offices – whether Local, Union, Division, General – one is once again Congratulated very heavily by the Laity AND Other Ordained Persons. Eveyone sees this. Little kids see this. Little kids who say they want to be a Pastor are told they MIGHT BE someone working in an OFFICE somewhere. Not that they might spend 60 years in some little town with a small congregation [40 years a paid pastor, 20 years as a pastor in their retirement].

EDIT. Two Stories.

  1. There is a Baptist preacher in town that came to a medium size Baptist Church. He recently celebrated his 25 years at the same congregation. It probably had 200 or so members to begin with. Now it has 5000 [yes, Five Thousand] members, and it requires a huge piece of property to house all their activities. And they have a place rented for Youth Church across the street in a shopping center.
  2. This Methodist Minister agreed to become the pastor of this failing congregation [the church had been built early 1900s]. It then had 37 members in 2007 in this large plant that could seat several hundred, including the balcony. It now has close to 200 members [English] in addition to a Spanish church that meets in the Fellowship Hall. He was recently outed on a Sex site when those 1000s of names were made public recently. He did this a couple of times several years ago, but then stopped, but his name was still there along with his Credit Card info. He has had to Retire. But 2 weeks ago at a Wednesday, the congregation made such a fuss with his Bosses, that he will be RETURNING as the Pastor beginning the end of November with, again, an open ended contract as Senior Pastor. working in his retirement. Most of them stood up and stated “we are among the marginalized among the Methodists and other religious groups”. “We want a pastor who understands us and can minister to us.” “We DONT want a Pastor WHO HAS NEVER SINNED.” "We want our current pastor back!"
    Two scenes that are different from the usual SDA pastoral scene.
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Lots of money could be saved by the elimination of many of our local conferences and more reliance on the Union conference structure. Local conferences have many duties but little authority, people to please both above and below, and days when the schedule of committees is just barely under rational control, consumed with sudden crises. Money spent on budgets and buildings could be rerouted to hands on soul winning priorities.

In many of these local conferences there are a plethora of ethnic pastors assigned to middle management roles who begin to see their roles as overlords instead of colleagues of the persons they supervise. They do not allow for much needed changes and innovation. The status quo and maintaining calm and peace is seen as the ideal and the best course for denominational career advancement.
In addition to the lack of autonomy, the career advancement opportunities are poor. Since some conferences have slimmed down and cut out many management levels, the leap to the next level is frequently very large and hard to accomplish.
Middle managers, including countless departmental staff, who work in the conferences are also more subject to turf wars, and rarely a prime focus for creativity. The definition of a middle manager changes based on who is currently in charge and their leadership style at the Union level. This causes instability and confusion for churches and pastors in the field of real work. A lot of valuable pastoral talent is squandered when there is no peer review and expectation for these jobs. The Peter Principle ( and I don’t mean the disciple Peter) prevails! The Peter Principle states: “Every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Two corollaries fill out this principle: (1) In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee/pastor who is incompetent to carry out his duties, and (2) work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. The premise is that a worker will be promoted until the job requires more than his or her talents, training, and capabilities can give it. An outstanding employee in middle management may become incompetent in upper management, according to the Peter Principle.

Several unpleasant scenarios face people who have reached their level of denominational administrative incompetence. They may become entrenched at that level with no more promotions. Sometimes they are fired or quietly let go, since they can’t handle the increased responsibility, unfortunately too many are promoted in our church structure and we end up with a dysfunctional group trying to perpetuate themselves in San Antonio. The entire local conference level needs to be re-examined.

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The culture hasn’t changed in Latin America. Pastors are moved around against their will at the snap of the fingers. Money is sent from one country to the next from indigenous churches too poor to feed themselves to Universities located in wealthier cities. It’s all about the fight for control. We can’t let it slip from our fingers! This is why we must study a universal Sabbath School lesson instead of the bible so we don’t accidentally lose our focus and purpose. If we just carelessly open the bible to any old random place and read it together we face the danger of disagreement as a global church and community.

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No question about it. Loren Seibold is a denominational treasure!

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Never have I read a more accurate and enlightening description of Adventist (mis)management. If the corporate church structure were examined by outside experts it would fail miserably for both incompetency and entrenched nepotism.

The church cannot possibly continue to use the tithes to operate such a bureaucracy today. It will eventually sink under the top heavy structure if it continues without wide and massive changes. Either it will sink of its own mismanagement or the membership will refuse to continue to support an ever increasing number of office personnel.

It is past time for the unions to exert the power they have been rightly given by the church policy which has been in place for years. They have the power, now they must find the will to rebel against such heavy handed power.

Loren is one of the most perceptive writers in Adventism in explaining the inner workings of the church’s structure. Keep writing and informing us so we can be more aware of the inner workings of the church; knowledge that few have taken the time to investigate. and have been misinformed.

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Herold Weiss, I knew you back in 1956 when we were both in Takoma Park. I’ve watched your career take off; you are a jewel.

Now, to my main topic: When will our denominational leaders begin to realize that the real POWER lies not in administration, but in PASTORING. The members are the prize; not some desk job. God works through each individual member, and to pastor a local church is the highest calling of all!! --ANYbody can sit behind a desk; that takes no skill whatsoever. But to “rightly divide the word of truth” from the Scripture each and every week takes STUDY, INSPIRATION, and DEDICATION. The good pastors are my role models – not somebody sitting behind a desk, or flying from one city to another holding meetings.

The power lies in the membership. And to lower oneself to take a desk job does NOT equal a promotion! When will the brightest and best of our clergy finally realize that?

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While I have every respect for Loren’s perception on the efficacy of leadership distribution, and the legitimacy of his perspective from the Manse. May I declare a conflict of interest and a different conclusion. (Though we are able to chat over tea.)

The main thesis of the article was to question the role of Union Presidents in diffusing the executive power of the General Conference, with some emphasis on the stance taken by one President on the issue of WO. Thus argument about the size, location and deployment of functional specialities is largely a red herring.

The question rather is: who calls who to account?

From a hierarchical leadership perspective (top-down), power cascades from GC Presidency through the echelons to the ground floor.

From a governance and service perspective, each of those leaders are accountable to constituencies. The weakness in my book, is the vestment of governance in those who are notionally and hierarchically subordinate.

Our governing committees at every level are loaded with people who are conflicted to the good will of those who are structurally subordinate on whose votes the President and Chair can depend. The independent laity are under-represented, lack access to the microphone, show too much deference, are un-coordinated and are too easily rolled over for the sake of being ‘nice’.

That PUC & CUC were able to take the actions they did became possible when it was clear that 80% of the constituency craved and supported WO. That other territories have not followed their initiative is largely because the perceived sub-Pareto proportion of support risks schism. We are all contained by the make up of our cultural capacity.

The shame of SA is that the majority were unwilling to concede a non-doctrinal practice to the consent of regional need and persuasion. That poorly constructed issues were brought to the floor in SA, contested even by those with GC tag, was due to weak scrutiny by the largely compliant Autumn Council to a determined Chairman.

My submission is that our weakness is not due to the structure of regional hierarchy, but the incestuousness of ascending Governance and the abusive spiritualisation of compliance.

Whatever the constitutional niceties, the hierarchy can brow beat those who are subordinate, but they cannot overcome the will of a constituency who believe in the justice of their cause.

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@joselitocoo, I think you can interact with the author as much as you like, but that depends on the author being available to interact with you! :smile: Last week was a tough week in the church family (deaths, hospice, cancer, hospitalizations :frowning: ) and I found myself lurching from sadness to sadness, which means I didn’t write a piece for Spectrum until Friday. And then spent all day Sabbath (yesterday) with one of my churches again. So finally checking in here on Sunday morning!

I’m interested in your observation that the divisions aren’t particularly regional in other parts of the world. I find that curious, and wonder what the organizational principle was for these divisions. For the convenience of the leadership, perhaps?

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Thank you, @Oriental34. That means as great deal coming from you.

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I have suspected that the church in some parts of the world operates very much as the church in the NAD did back in the 50’s through 80’s, with strong administrative control and not much sensitivity to local congregations. As I said in the piece, I’m not sure congregations have ever been our main focus, and that has much to do with how success in ministry is affirmed by moving one out of ministry into administration.

I’m not sure that I agree that the bulwark against this is studying the same Sabbath School lesson, however.

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In some denominations, a pastor might be given an overseeing role over other pastors and churches in the region, helping them solve problems or in a pastoral search. So they’re still in parish ministry as they help other pastors in parish ministry. I think much of what happens in some of our administrative offices could be handled this way, not just as effectively, but more effectively.

It occurs to me, @sam, that perhaps we need the administrative offices to take care of pastors who can’t take the pressure of ministry, but need something to do until retirement. Perhaps we’d be worse off if we didn’t have a way to occupy them? :wink:

The Golden Calf
32 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

Yes, Yes, back to the days of responsive leadership where public pressure determines all issues.