I think we can charitably say that Annual Council was less Council of Jerusalem and more “Bethlehem Broom Fight” (Google it). Sabbath was the high point. It could hardly be helped: The 2018 Annual Council was doomed to fail, as the caricature of Elder Wilson’s super-villain status grew among his critics, to whom his simple act of growing a beard was an omen. The Council also failed because certain segments of the church arrived determined to ignore its main outcome. That’s another topic.
Instead I think it’s important to focus on two ways in which Elder Wilson helped ensure the council’s failure: his inability to “read the room” and his unwillingness to lead the whole church.
The greatest example of his failure to read the room was the theme of Annual Council itself: “The Past with a Future.” His desire for committee members to become re-enactors of a more glorious and pacific Adventism couldn’t possibly obscure the fact that we are facing a crisis in this century. In the hands of a less austere president and at a different time, it might have been fun (something many of his critics seem unwilling to grant). But this inability to recognize the real state of the denomination was like proposing a vacation to your spouse in the middle of an argument.
What’s worse was the incredible blindness of the Council’s public relations. Knowing it would be the culmination of what’s been a painful, three-year controversy over compliance, one should have chosen almost any other spot in Adventist geography. Yet, Battle Creek. With Elder Wilson shrugging off criticism that he aspired to “kingly power,” he chose a place where one would-be pharaoh once came so close to capturing the denomination that Ellen White led an exodus out of Battle Creek. Worse yet, we met in the venue named after this man: the Kellogg Arena. There’s enough ominous (if unintended) symbolism here to give Walter Veith material for another 36-part series. We cannot fault Elder Wilson for wanting to remind us of our heritage, only for a failure to realize this was a terrible time to do it.
We saw further evidence in the opening Sabbath, where Ted Wilson delivered one of the most mocked, “memed,” and miserable sermons by a General Conference president in the modern era. Much of the message was beautiful and indeed Christ-centered, and one would hope he would use his pulpit to focus nervous and frustrated committee members on shared Adventist meanings. Instead, he took several opportunities to fire at meat-eaters, reopen the “worship wars,” and raise the issue of jewelry and dress — divisive issues which hadn’t been at stake. Was that really the best time and place to disinter more controversies?
This speaks to the second issue: an unwillingness to lead the whole church. Coming out against jewelry, meat, and so on wasn’t just taking a stand, it was a signal about the specific kind of Adventism the president finds acceptable. I don’t actually disagree with all of his positions on these “lifestyle issues,” but I do believe that leading the world church involves leading different kinds of Adventists.
As I see it, Elder Wilson wants above all to be understood as a pastor of the denomination, not as some dark-suited executive-type. His Twitter and Facebook handles are “pastortedwilson.” Before Annual Council, he noted that his responsibility as General Conference president was to call for “a special season of prayer” over the meetings. Unlike other presidents, he seems to relish public evangelism. Fortunately, the Adventist Church is flexible enough to allow every president to reinvent the presidency. Elder Wilson clearly sees his presidency as a pastoral role.
The problem is that his desire to lead his kind of Adventists compromises his greater desire to be the denomination’s “pastor-in-chief.” As a local church pastor of an ethnic and theologically mixed congregation, I could never preach the sermon he preached without starting a fight. When presenting a controversial subject, the evangelist knows to preach carefully, so as not to cause unnecessary offense. Elder Wilson peppered his sermon with gratuitous moments of chucking stumbling blocks out into the audience.
I’m happy with Elder Wilson’s pastoral focus, but he doesn’t seem interested in pastoring a multicultural denomination, which is what we are. In which case, we might ask what any conference ministerial secretary might ask: “If the church isn’t a fit for you, then why did you take the call?”
What also compromises Elder Wilson’s preferred role as pastor-in-chief is his politics. Last year, he released the controversial “unity” document at the last minute, ensuring minimum comprehension before the vote. In each of the past two years, the General Conference and Division Officers (GCDO) committee voted on the slimmest of margins to advance the “unity” document to annual council. This year, the vote was 32-30 (51%) to send the “unity” document to the floor of Annual Council, where it passed by a slightly larger margin (59%). No local church pastor would interpret such a decision by their board as any kind of broad mandate or vote of confidence, even if permission is technically given. To go ahead and implement a historically controversial document on such slim margins is to invite trouble.
Elder Wilson has consistently demonstrated this unwillingness to represent Adventism beyond his preferred group of believers. In the wake of the contentious vote in favor of the “compliance document,” he said: “It is not a time of dejection and opposition….It’s a time for us to reflect…how God intends for us as his remnant people to fulfill the final warning to the world.” He signed off by urging executive committee members to “bring home a good report.” While there were many other topics at Annual Council worth rejoicing over, the “unity” document dominated the show. So it’s only a “good report” if you were in favor of the document.
Contrast that wooden lack of expressed empathy with the North America Division’s response: “Many of us are dealing with fear, disappointment, and even anger” and “although this is difficult, amid the rancor we must keep our faith in Jesus.” The NAD’s message to female clergy (ordained or not) was even more empathetic: “Know that our NAD leadership team believes in your ministry. You have our confidence and the assurance that we will do all in our power to strengthen and empower you….Your ministry is invaluable.” Both Elder Wilson and the NAD committed themselves to church unity, but only one seemed to understand how nearly half of the committee members (and their constituents) were feeling.
This seeming lack of empathy is troubling in a pastor, let alone the highest denominational leader. Being a vibrant, multicultural denomination doesn’t mean our General Conference president needs to be a liberal (I prefer conservatives between the two), only that he be willing to accept, understand, and lead people who think differently. The good news is that these two issues — the inability to read the room and the unwillingness to lead those you disagree with — are both curable with more experience as a local church pastor, which Elder Wilson regrettably has little of.
Let me conclude that our faith shouldn’t be shaken by these cultural conflicts in the church. When once the Seventh-day Adventist Church was confined to North America, John Loughborough remembered how he and the Whites, “taught that the message would go into all the world, into the different nations and nationalities.” Someone objected to the idea of a unified, global church: “Prejudice will come up between you, and you will all go to pieces.” Loughborough happily informed the church 50 years later, in 1913:
“I went around and some of the pieces… I saw the Basutos in Africa and the Germans, and other nations. And today, bless your heart, there are about seventy different pieces in the different parts of the world, and they are most wonderfully stuck together. There are lots of pieces, and I tell you they are very useful for this message. There is no disunion among these pieces, and, by the grace of God, there will be none here.”1
I would to God that this were still true. As a multicultural church grows, these tensions are natural. We should not give in to slandering our leaders or flaunting the ties that bind us together. We should not casually talk of breaking fellowship with one another. We must first accept that unity in a multicultural, 21st century denomination is going to look different than unity in the more homogenous 1800s. I hold Elder Wilson in the utmost regard as my brother and elder in the faith, and would prefer he develop the necessary skills to help lead us out of this mess. If not, then he should be replaced in 2020. A new president with a new perspective won’t make the cultural tensions go away, but a leader who understands his church and can lead those he disagrees with is a necessary part of our healing.
Beyond the leadership question, there is much work to do as a church. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I can imagine it starts with something like this:
"The early Christians began to look for defects in one another. Dwelling upon mistakes, giving place to unkind criticism, they lost sight of the Saviour and of the great love He had revealed for sinners. They became more strict in regard to outward ceremonies, more particular about the theory of the faith, more severe in their criticisms. In their zeal to condemn others they forgot their own errors. They forgot the lesson of brotherly love that Christ had taught. And, saddest of all, they were unconscious of their loss. They did not realize that happiness and joy were going out of their lives, and that soon they would walk in darkness, having shut the love of God out of their hearts."2
Maybe for the next Annual Council, we can dress up as Christians.
Notes & References:
Charles Prynne pastors in the Midwest and has one wife, two daughters, and two dogs.
Image: Executive Committee Members gathered at the Battle Creek Tabernacle for worship on Sabbath, October 13, 2018, during Annual Council 2018. Image credit: Flickr.com / Brent Hardinge / Adventist News Network.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9151