Window of Opportunity: Qualitative Inquiry Examining Race, Religion, Regional Conferences, and Response to Social Issues within the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States

Introduction

On May 25, 2020, the world watched in horror as George Floyd, a black man, was killed in the hands of white police officers.[1] For advocates of social justice and law enforcement reform, the incident is emblematic of a systemic problem, and they buttress their argument with data for the years from 2013 and 2019, which suggest that police in the United States killed 7,666 people during that time.[2] Although the data do not reveal insights into the context of the deaths, further analysis reveals that not all racial or ethnic groups are represented equally in these police-involved incidents. African Americans carry a disproportionate death burden and despite only representing 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police.[3] More than four in ten Americans say the country still has work to do to give black people equal rights with whites, and blacks in particular are skeptical that black people will ever have equal rights in this country.[4]

Religious leaders, including Pope Francis, have since made enunciations on the tragic events of 2020.[5] Similarly, political and business leaders expressed dismay and pledged support to efforts to address racism.[6] Within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, pastoral leaders as well as officers of institutions associated with the church released statements asserting their own shock for the series of tragic events in the United States and in some instances, reaffirming their commitment to principles such as cultural humility or social justice.

However, to the author’s knowledge, absent from the statements by leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, is any analysis of the “elephant in the church”; namely, the perception of racial bias in the church and the role of Regional Conferences in addressing racial bias and inequities or representative of racial segregation within the church.

In this article, I provide a brief review of literature that discusses race and disparities, religion and social issues, and history of Regional Conferences in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Additionally, the paper includes statements released by denominational leaders in response to the death of George Floyd, and reports on a qualitative exploration of attitudes toward Regional Conferences within the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States, in the context of social protests in the Spring of 2020. Lastly, the Kingdon Policy Model and the “Window of Opportunity” is used to frame discussions regarding the future of Regional Conferences.

Race and Disparities

Race is a central social category that has salient implications for virtually every aspect of life and has captured a range of negative social outcomes including economic exploitation, political marginalization, and social stigmatization.[7] There is wide recognition that there are racial disparities and inequities in essentially all areas of life, including health.[8] For example, a study estimated that eliminating health disparities for minorities would have reduced direct medical care expenditures by about $230 billion and indirect costs associated with illness and premature death by more than $1 trillion for the years 2003-2006 (in 2008 inflation-adjusted dollars).[9]

Similarly, studies show impact of race disparities in incarceration[10] and in the criminal justice system in general.[11] Furthermore, the scholarly consensus is that there are racial disparities in mortality rates.[12] The scientific literature confirms the existence of significant racial bias implications for wellbeing, which led the American Public Health Association to claim that to achieve health equity, there must be a focus on addressing injustices caused by racism.[13]

Religion and Social Issues

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is famously known to have remarked that “it is one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours in Christian America.” This statement may be true even in churches where church attendance is on Saturday, Sabbath. What is not always acknowledged is that Martin Luther King, Jr. went on to say that “any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teaching of Jesus Christ and it fails to be a true witness.”[14]

Van Reken articulates his views about Christianity and social justice and contrasts the church as an institution versus an organism. The church as an organism is different from the institutional church in that it considers the church, not as a unified organization, but instead as an aggregate of individual believers. In other words, the response to social issues by a church as an institution may be influenced by the level of engagement on the issue by the individual members.[15]

On one end of the continuum of the church engagement with social issues are those who argue for limited or cautious engagement. They are concerned that focus on social justice may lead the church to become an outgrowth of the primary political parties.[16] The other end of the church engagement with social justice is represented by Liberation Theology, which emerged from Roman Catholic thought in Latin America, and teaches that a primary duty of the church must be to promote social and economic justice.[17] This was an explicit focus on defining Christian faith in the political context of underdevelopment, in a partisan spirit committed to action.[18]

Similarly, Black Liberation Theology embraces the tenets of Liberation Theology and applies them to the context of African Americans in the United States. James Cone, a primary proponent of liberation theology, argues that the same religious perspective that was applied to those who lived in poverty in Latin American should be applied to improve the living conditions of African Americans.[19]

Race in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and History of Regional Conferences

According to the Pew Research Center, Seventh-day Adventists are among the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the United States: 37% are white, while 32% are black, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian, and another 8% are another race or mixed race.[20]

In this paper, I do not aim to give the reader a complete review of the history of blacks in the Seventh-day Adventist Church or of the creation of Regional Conferences. For that, the reader is encouraged to explore David Penno’s dissertation or four-part series in which he analyzes the creation of regional conferences and reports on a cross sectional study that explored racial integration within the church.[21]

However, the reader should be aware that Regional Conferences were authorized in the General Conference Spring Council of 1944. The voted action reads in part, “Whereas, it appears that a different plan of organization for our colored membership would bring further great advance on soul-winning endeavors; therefore, ‘we recommend, that in the unions where the colored constituency is considered by the union conference committee to be sufficiently large, and where the financial income and leniency warrant, colored conferences be organized.’”[22]

In discussing the need to improve the worship conditions for black people, long before the vote of 1944, Ellen G. White argued in favor of providing neat, tasteful houses of worship. And although some have posited that she was against integration, she specifically stated: “Let them be shown that this is done not to exclude them from worshiping with white people, because they are black, but in order that the progress of the truth may be advanced. Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way.”[23]

For years, the white church leaders refused to respond to calls to better serve black church members and to integrate black pastors into leadership roles. However, the tectonic shift came about because of long-time racial conflict within the church. Specifically, the change was sparked by tensions that reached a climax when in 1943 a black female church member, Lucy Byard, died after she was denied healthcare at one of the church-operated hospitals in Washington, D.C. However, instead of acquiescing to the call for full integration of all church institutions, the church leadership opted to create the “Regional Conferences.”[24]

At the time of their charter, the church leadership explicitly used the terms “colored conferences” and “white conferences” to refer to the new governance structures that were being created.[25] Today, Regional Conferences are part of the North American Division but operate affiliated institutions (e.g. academic entities), and a distinct pension or retirement plan for employees of the Regional Conferences.[26]

Data suggest that Regional Conferences have been relatively successful in carrying out their ecclesiastical mission. Relatively, because there is no true comparison or control group against which to measure outcomes. However, it is reported that Regional Conferences consistently baptize 8,000 to 10,000 new members per year and serve approximately 300,000 members.[27]

Methods

This paper is based on a two-pronged approach: 1) Review of internet for statements released between May 25 through June 6, 2020, to identify responses by church leaders to the social events of 2020; and 2) Focus groups of church members to explore their attitudes toward issues of race within the church. Focus groups were held May 30–31, 2020.

Strategy 1: The first strategy included using combination of the key words “George Floyd” and “Seventh-day Adventist,” or “George Floyd” + selected church-affiliated institutions.

Strategy 2: In the second strategy, there were two focus groups:

• Group A included 12 participants, comprised of three women and nine men. All non-black. Two were currently employed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One participant previously lived in a jurisdiction served by a Regional Conference. Ages ranged from 40 to 63.

• Group B included 11 participants, consisting of five women and six men. Ages ranged from 30 to 52. This group was entirely comprised of black participants. Three were currently employed with, and one was formerly employed by, the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Both groups had a variety of professions and educational attainment levels, ranging from bachelors to doctoral degrees. Participants were convened to discuss racism and social justice within the church. Both groups convened using videoconferencing technology, due to social distancing measures required in 2020.

Findings: Response by Church Leaders

In the context of increased awareness of inequities in the social, economic, and health systems, the death of Mr. Floyd has sparked intense protest throughout the United States. There is the understanding that this is not an isolated incident and instead is one of a series of events that are emblematic of a system that perpetuates inequities that predominantly affect people of color, and in particular, blacks.

The condemnation by religious leaders has been swift. As reported by America Media, self-described as “the leading provider of editorial content for thinking Catholics and those who want to know what Catholics are thinking,”[28] Pope Francis stated, “I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd. My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”[29]

But what has been the response among Seventh-day Adventists leadership?[30] The internet search was guided by the question: How have leaders in selected church-affiliated institutions responded to the events of Spring 2020? What are the elements of the response?

1. Ted Wilson, President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, initially responded with a statement condemning “a global rise in evil.”[31] While this may have been panned as a tepid response, a subsequent statement specifically condemned racism and named recent victims of racist violence in the United States.[32]

2. The North American Division President, Daniel Jackson, released a statement that included a direct apology to African American church members: “I want you to know that I am deeply sorry. I am saddened that you have experienced prejudice and bigotry — even in the church — and that there have been times when you were not allowed to eat in the same cafeteria or go to the same washroom as whites.”[33]

3. The Central States Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which oversees churches and members in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area, also released a statement. The missive includes “we fully support any and all non-violent protests, boycotts, and public pressure necessary to achieve justice for George Floyd. Subsequently, we strongly believe that we have a spiritual and moral responsibility to the people and community within our territory, and it is our intent to always be concerned with the eternal destiny and the present welfare of our people.”[34]

4. The Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists public release stated, “The Seventh-day Adventist Church, as represented by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, is anguished by the continued and increasing tension and violence emerging in various parts of our country and most recently in Minnesota with the cruelty resulting in the death of George Floyd. That which unites us should be amplified. That which divides us should be confronted and denounced. It is into a broken world that Christians are called. It is in the face of such evil that Christians are to live as a people who will love one another, serve one another, defend one another, and protect one another. Sadly, those entrusted to protect both the innocent and the guilty have failed in their duty. The Florida Conference invites all of our members and friends, and the community at large, to carefully consider the tragic death of George Floyd and recognize that violence against ethnicity, race, culture, or language is deplorable and cannot continue unconfronted, and that silence in the face of such evil is unacceptable.[35]

5. Lake Union: “The officers of the Lake Union are heartbroken over the recent tragic death of George Floyd, one of many unarmed African Americans who have died during an encounter with local law enforcement officers… We encourage all our members to stand for truth and justice by peacefully taking clear stands against racism, and being actively engaged in a healthy dialogue on race relations and cultural diversity. We call for all people to take time to be in earnest prayer for God’s guidance and peace for our country through this difficult experience. Our prayers should include praying for all our minority communities, especially the African American community, so that in the midst of their angst and pain they can sense the healing touch of God. We should also pray for the men and women in uniform who are sworn to protect the communities they serve so that their work may testify to God’s command to love our fellow man.”[36]

6. Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists: “The Oregon Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church joins the chorus of voices to lift up the memory of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the multitude of other black brothers and sisters whose lives were taken by unjust racially-influenced violence. We join the outcry for justice and raise our voice to stand in support of all of our brothers and sisters who continue to live in an oppressive shadow of racially-derived mistrust, fear and abuse by the dominant society… We all need to be part of real solutions and strategic actions to address systemic racism and prejudice. We all must take substantive steps toward racial equality. For us, that starts with listening carefully to our minority brothers and sisters, learning from their experiences and taking steps together toward a more just society.[37]

7. Richard Hart, president of Loma Linda University Health, in Loma Linda, California, considered the flagship academic health sciences institution within the denomination, released a statement emphasizing the institution’s value of “justice, compassion, and self-control, that need to permeate every action and thought.” President Hart also made a call for these values to be “so clear on this campus and to our communities around that we become a refuge for those now suffering.”[38]

8. Edwin Hernandez, President of AdventHealth University based in Orlando, Florida, spoke of the “outrageous assassin that has taken countless Black and brown lives through slavery, lynching, economic marginalization, false accusations, mass incarceration, unjust imprisonment, and police brutality.” The letter included an exhortation to “pledge that we will create a beloved community that practices and teaches cultural humility.”[39]

9. Leslie Pollard, President of Oakwood University, a Historically Black College and University, based in Huntsville Alabama, affirmed that the university “will continue to produce generations of Black attorneys, physicians, social workers, dentists, teachers, media and business professionals that combat the ills of our people perpetuated by systems of oppression.”[40]

10. The President of Lake Region Conference, Clifford Jones, released a statement that focused on the “…racism [that is] still ravaging this country years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Some are even demanding that racism be declared a national emergency. Should Christians be concerned? How may we relate with integrity to the tragedy of the coronavirus and the travesty of what took place in broad daylight in Minneapolis? Certainly, not by treating the milestone or the moment with benign neglect. To be silent is to be complicit. It may reveal that one is a co-conspirator. We must strongly condemn every act and policy that dehumanizes and disenfranchises. We must work tirelessly for justice. We must challenge unfair practices. We must demolish every wall that divides, segregates, or classifies. We must agitate for equity and fairness.”[41]

11. The Seventh-day Adventist Regional Presidents Council, which as the name suggests includes the presidents of regional conferences, released a statement in which they “share the shock, sorrow and anger” and quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The signed letter goes on to say that “No one — in particular, people of faith — can be indifferent or silent when injustices are done, and the precious gift of life is needlessly snatched away.” The letter then calls “on government leaders on all levels to act and put an end to this continuing sad story of unequal justice under the law and we support the peaceful protests and demonstrations that call for it.”[42]

Findings: Focus Group

This section would have included evidence in the form of multiple participant quotes that support the themes. However, in the interest of brevity, I will combine the presentation of the themes with the discussion.

Group A: This group was entirely non-black church members. Themes that emerged:

1. Anger toward current events in the media and the obvious racial tensions in the United States.

2. Affirmation of the existence of bias in the church.

3. Negative attitudes toward Regional Conferences punctuated primarily by a) a lack of knowledge as to their history; and b) concern for the testimony Regional Conferences give to other denominations or non-church members.

4. The belief that the use of Regional Conferences and the implications of religious segregation is inconsistent with the values of God’s kingdom.

Participants seemed overwhelmingly in favor of completely changing the governance structure of the church, including eliminating both “regional” and “regular” conferences.

One quote that stood out: “We cannot as a church criticize the politics of the moment both in the USA and abroad, and yet, simply accept that Regional Conferences, are the only way to achieve the goals of inclusion and mission that were envisioned in 1945.”

Group B: This group was entirely composed of black church members. The themes were similar, but the interpretation revealed the opposite conclusion. Themes that emerged:

1. Repudiation of racism and bias as evidenced by events affecting the black community.

2. A belief that there is continued racism and bias within the church.

3. Mixed but mostly positive attitudes toward Regional Conferences.

4. Need to address perceived religious segregation and structural racism within the church.

5. Distrust in the leadership of the church because of the belief that leadership outside of Regional Conferences and members have not evolved in their view of race relations.

6. Doubt that leaders in either “regular” or Regional Conferences would be willing to relinquish their power and authority.

Participants seemed less inclined to support changing the governance structure and expressed fear that the attitudes that prevailed at the origins of Regional Conferences have not changed, and if anything, have regressed in recent years.

However, this group argued that George Floyd’s tragic death and the national reaction, may give opportunity to safely explore or revisit the governance structure in the United States, so that the church is intentional about addressing racial bias and religious segregation.

Common Themes

Participants in both focus group highlighted at least three potential policy solutions:

Option A: Status quo and structures remain as is.

Option B: “Eliminate” Regional Conferences to integrate with “regular” Conferences.

Option C: New organizational structure and leadership that dismantles both “Regional Conferences” and “Regular Conferences” and eliminates the perceived racial segregation.

Option A, to maintain the status quo, was mentioned but did not receive significant support. Participants believe that the status quo is not tenable and that even if the current structure were to remain, additional steps need to be implemented to address the perception of religious segregation.

Those in favor of Option B, eliminating Regional Conferences, cautioned about the message that church members served by Regional Conferences could hear if the issue is not addressed appropriately. The concern is that constituents of Regional Conferences may perceive that the denomination did not care or was not sensitive to their needs and was proposing to dismantle a structure that has served black church members well. Specifically, concerns for the impact on employment, representation, and opportunities for black leadership, and the future of institutions affiliated with Regional Conferences.

Option C appeared to be endorsed strongly by participants. When asked how they would implement such change, primary recommendations included: 1) Eliminate both the regional and “regular” conferences, and redesign a new system; and 2) address concerns such as employment, leadership representation, and future of institutions affiliated with Regional Conferences, as well as requiring equitable representation mandated by bylaws (e.g. 30% black, 30% Caucasian, and other minorities specific to the region).

Participants also discussed the implications of addressing issues based on their inherit merits and not based on whether the church is ready or not to address the issue. Participants expressed that decisions should be made on principles and biblical values and not postponed because of the need to achieve 100 percent support.

Conceptual Framework: Kingdon Policy Model

The discussion is based on the “Three Streams Policy Window,” which suggests that structural change comes about when there is a convergence of three streams — problems, politics, and policies.[43] In other words, change is enacted when a unique “window of opportunity” opens when the three streams meet.[44]

According to this model, problems are defined as the issue that needs to be solved. The problem stream refers to the moment when a policy issue requires attention. The problem stream marks the transition of an issue from a private problem to one that must be addressed in public by the leadership.[45] Kingdon argues that an issue changes from a private problem to a public problem when an indicator shows a change in the state of a system.

The death of George Floyd and the string of high-profile racial events have brought awareness of the need to address potential symbols of bigotry and prejudice in the church, including organizational structures. The indicator of the problem includes national protests, the public commentary by church leaders, or the renewed awareness of the perception that the Regional Conferences are symbols of sanctioned religious segregation.

Secondly, the politics or political stream refers to the willingness of stakeholders, including decision-makers and their constituencies. The politics stream also represents the convergence of motivation to solve the problem. The political stream is exemplified by collaboration or willingness to collaborate among participants to reach the aimed target. The political stream represents the attitude and ideology of both the public and the decision makers.[46]

As shown by the compilation of statements by church leaders, the unequivocal responses to current events and social issues by key leaders within the Seventh-day Adventist community may represent political will not only to be vocal on the challenging issue of racial prejudice but also to address the structural challenges within the church. The statements by these church leaders, although not necessarily representative of the wider church, may signal an openness to being intentional about race relations in the church.

The statements by various entities and leaders within the Seventh-day Adventist Church are varied in their tone and content. Calls to action range from introspection, reflection, and concrete actions. Worth noting is the apology offered by Daniel Jackson of the North American Division: “I want you to know that I am deeply sorry. I am saddened that you have experienced prejudice and bigotry — even in the church — and that there have been times when you were not allowed to eat in the same cafeteria or go to the same washroom as whites.” This statement may be unprecedent and highlights the recognition of a history of racial prejudice even within the church.

Lastly, the policy is the proposed solution to the issues. This may be a program, policy, systems, or structural change.[47] While the problem and political streams address setting the agenda, the policy stream addresses alternative specification. In other words, the generation and specification of policy solution(s) to the problem.[48]

Figure 1. Window of Opportunity

Using the Kingdon Policy Model, one can conclude that a “Policy Window of Opportunity” has opened to revisit the current organizational structure in the United States, including Regional Conferences. There are at least three potential policy solutions:

Option 1: Status quo (structures remain as is)

Option 2: “Eliminate” Regional Conferences to merge with “regular” Conferences

Option 3: New organizational structure and leadership that dismantles both “Regional Conferences” and “Regular Conferences” and eliminates the perceived racial segregation.

The Window of Opportunity may allow stakeholders to define Regional Conferences as either a) symbols of the racial bias and religious segregation within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, or b) vehicles to address and remedy structural inequities in the church and in the general community.

Regardless of what one thinks of Regional Conferences, the findings from the focus groups suggests that there is an opportunity to better explain the need for such structures in 2020. It is entirely plausible that the conditions that justified the need for separate leadership structures within the Seventh-day Adventist Church are still in effect.

While there is recognition that the Regional Conference model emerged out of explicit racial prejudice in the 1940s, the model may still be the most effective vehicle. The focus group findings suggest that the church in general, or more specifically Regional Conferences, may benefit the wider church by more clearly explaining Regional Conferences beyond their constituencies.

The policy proposal with the strongest support is Option 3, which calls for the creation of an entirely new structure that considers issues such as concerns for the impact on employment, representation and opportunities for black leaders, and the future of institutions affiliated with Regional Conferences. Regardless of how the conversation ends, a genuine dialogue is required. This may lead to discussing if the time is appropriate to dismantle the regional conferences and the “regular” conferences in favor of a unified integrated structure, and in which racial representation is required by the bylaws of the new structures.

Participants agreed that decisions must be based on principles and biblical values and not necessarily postponed in search of 100 percent support. This argument has implications for other issues the church is grappling with.

Lastly, although descriptive and not prescriptive, this inquiry provides leaders with an opportunity to develop a framework to begin or advance conversations on the issue of regional conferences without predetermined outcomes. Also, this paper suggests the need for a more systematic exploration of attitudes of church members toward contemporary issues, particularly about social justice, and a discussion of the role of Regional Conferences.

The president of Lake Region Conference may be representative of a sentiment that is now more prevalent in this Window of Opportunity, when he states, “We must challenge unfair practices. We must demolish every wall that divides, segregates, or classifies. We must agitate for equity and fairness.” (Emphasis added.)[49]

Limitations: In regard to the review of statements by leadership of church-affiliated entities, I did not attempt a systematic review. In other words, this inquiry does not claim to have catalogued all statements released by leaders within the Seventh-day Adventist community. Instead, the internet search was guided by key words within a specific window of time. It is also possible that other leaders or church institutions released statements about the current events but did not include the name George Floyd. The inclusion of the name was used as a proxy to determine how intentional the statements were.

Furthermore, due to the qualitative nature of the methodology, one cannot make assumptions or generalizations about the general population, in this case, attitudes within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Furthermore, the focus groups were convened in California, a region that is not served by Regional Conferences. It is not known whether participation in the focus groups by members from regions served by Regional conferences would yield different themes. However, the focus group does serve to identify potential attitudes toward social issues and regional conferences by those who are members of “regular” conferences.

Having disclosed these limitations, it is also pertinent to identify some strengths of this inquiry. The review of statements, to our knowledge, is the first attempt at identifying and then summarizing statements by leaders within the church on social justice issues at the forefront of national debate in 2020.

Furthermore, to the author’s knowledge, it is the first use of the Kingdon Model to policy discussion within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This model may be useful to explore other contemporary issues affecting the church.

This initial review may provide the basis for the church leadership to reaffirm the importance of Regional Conferences in addressing system bias outside and within the church. Furthermore, if as some may argue, the time has come to eliminate Regional Conferences, such propositions must also be made with the understanding that the implication must be that the entire governance and leadership structure in the United States would be re-examined. In other words, leaders in both the Regional Conferences and the church in the United States would need to demonstrate genuine willingness to redesign a new structure.

Conclusion

This paper does not pretend to respond to the question of whether the conditions that provided the impetus for the creation of Regional Conferences have been resolved. The author does not take a position on this issue.

The analysis of response to events of Spring 2020 by church leaders is interpreted optimistically as a show of commitment by church leaders to be vocal about social issues, in the institutions they lead. This is encouraging and a sign that leaders are willing to reflect on social issues. However, there was no clear reference to recognizing the existence or proposals to address the existence of racial tensions or structures within the church. I do not offer a critique as to whether this approach is appropriate or not.

Regarding the views of church members participating in the focus groups, the general opinion is that there should be willingness to explore feasibility of the church to identify new organizational structures. Both focus groups viewed the Regional Conferences as endorsing religious segregation but differed in their recommendations.

Participants offered that eliminating Regional Conferences does not mean abandoning the ideals or objectives that Regional Conferences are assumed to be pursuing. Instead, they argued, it means pursuing those goals through a lens of spiritual equity and Kingdom values. It also means a complete re-engineering or redesign of the current structures and as someone indicated, “everything should be on the table” (for redesign), including “regular conferences.”

A potential weakness is that this paper does not include prescription for actions (or it could be the primary virtue). The primary recommendation is to advocate for open dialogue. If the dialogue leads to an acceptance that the current model does not adequately represent or honor the Kingdom of God, that there be political will to develop an organizational structure that includes equitable representation that is built into the formal bylaws.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States has implemented an organizational structure that some participants considered as outdated and others viewed as necessary. The tragic events in the national scene during the Spring of 2020 appear to provide a Policy Window in which to either reaffirm the role of Regional Conferences or lay the vision for the full integration of the leadership structures. As Ellen G. White wrote, the structures envisioned in the early 20th century could be used until the “Lord shows us a better way.” Perhaps, there is now a better way in the year 2020.

Notes & References:

[5] Because of the series of events in the early part of 2020, in this paper I will refer to them as Spring 2020.

[8] Williams, D. R., & Mohammed, S. A. (2009). “Discrimination and racial disparities in health: evidence and needed research.” Journal of behavioral medicine, 32(1), 20-47.

[9] LaVeist, T. A., Gaskin, D., & Richard, P. (2011). “Estimating the economic burden of racial health inequalities in the United States.” International Journal of Health Services, 41(2), 231-238.

[10] Massoglia, M. (2008). “Incarceration, health, and racial disparities in health.” Law & Society Review, 42(2), 275-306.

[11] Kovera, M. B. (2019). “Racial disparities in the criminal justice system: Prevalence, causes, and a search for solutions.” Journal of Social Issues, 75(4), 1139-1164.

[19] Cone, James (1984). “Black Theology in American Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. LIII, No. 3.

[23] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Volume 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948), 206, 207.

[24] The statement by Daniel Jackson, President of North America Division, may be interpreted to specifically address this painful memory in the story of relationship between the black church and the broader church in the United States.

[25] D. F. Neufeld (Ed.), Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Second Revised ed. Vol. 10), (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996a), 724.

[30] One of the most powerful reflections on the issue of race within the Seventh-day Adventist Church in response to the death of George Floyd was offered by Tim Gillespie in his Sabbath sermon. However, because he is my Senior Pastor at Crosswalk Church, Redlands, California, I have decided not to include his remarks to avoid potential bias in this paper.

[44] Figueroa, C., Castillo, E. G., Norquist, G., Wells, K. B., Griffith, K., Kadkhoda, F., Jones, F., Shorter, P., & Bromley, E. (2018). “A Window of Opportunity: Visions and Strategies for Behavioral Health Policy Innovation.” Ethnicity & disease, 28(Suppl 2), 407–416. https://doi.org/10.18865/ed.28.S2.407

[46] Judy Gregg, D. N. P., Miller, J., & Tennant, K. F. (2018). “Nurse Policy Entrepreneurship in a Rural Community: A Multiple Streams Framework Approach.” Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, 23(3), 1-11. DOI: 10.3912/OJIN.Vol23No03PPT63

[47] Figueroa, C., Castillo, E. G., Norquist, G., Wells, K. B., Griffith, K., Kadkhoda, F., Jones, F., Shorter, P., & Bromley, E. (2018). “A Window of Opportunity: Visions and Strategies for Behavioral Health Policy Innovation.” Ethnicity & disease, 28(Suppl 2), 407–416. https://doi.org/10.18865/ed.28.S2.407

[48] Young, T., Shepley, T., & Song, M. (2010). “Understanding Agenda Setting in State Educational Policy: An Application of Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Model to the Formation of State Reading Policy.” education policy analysis archives, 18, 15. doi:https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v18n15.2010

Edward McField, PhD, is the son of missionaries and attends Crosswalk Church, a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Redlands, California. He earned his PhD in Social Policy and Social Research from Loma Linda University. He serves the community in organizational and community development; focus on inclusion, race, and culture; and designing health, social and child welfare programs in Southern California.

Photo by Marius Lelouard on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10536

This is an excellent essay that is eloquent and timely in calling us as a church to seize the moment.
Total and fair racial integration in our Adventist church, where our common humanity and common salvation are put on display, glorifies the firstborn of all creation. And no matter how impressive our evangelistic appeals may be otherwise, if we fail to cross ethnic, cultural, and racial lines, then we lose the power of this message. Why are so few of our churches racially integrated? Because congregations reflect the leadership model they are using. This now-popular method of separate services for those who speak English as a second language only polarizes congregations even more. Some effort has to be made to intentionally integrate congregations or they will die. Racial integration, or simply integration, includes desegregation. In addition to desegregation, integration includes goals such as leveling barriers to association, creating equal opportunity regardless of race, and the development of a culture that draws on diverse traditions, rather than merely bringing a racial minority into the majority culture. What are we waiting for?

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"What are we waiting for?"

You ask the pertinent question- but it appears that within Adventism no one ever wants give up any real or perceived power.

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True learning happens when there is a change in behavior. There might have been a time and rationale for “regional” work but in 2020 our church should lead the way and show true unity. We need to end this archaic distinction. Let’s do it now, let’s change it now. It is fascinating to read and hear how the women’s ordination question has motivated so many in our church leadership to step up and be counted towards equality in ministry. Discrimination because of race is just as wrong as discrimination because of gender. Let’s get it right!

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The Adventist church has a history of open ended dialogs with no follow-up actions. We will lose this window of opportunity if we content ourselves to merely talk about the issue. We shouldn’t accept the status quo by default. We should call on our leaders to set a date by which they can make a conscious decision on how they will address this issue. Indecision is a sign of poor leadership.

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The Lord is indeed showing us a better way in vivid and unmistakable clarity. We have been lead to the point where God has unambiguously showed us that we must embrace inclusion and the equality of all. This must be done in all aspects of our personal lives and church or otherwise we face certain ruin by rejecting His call to change.

The curious rejection of Gods call to unity in Christ as illustrated in Gal. 3:27 that “there is neither Jew nor Greek , there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. He has made the issue sufficiently clear by the events of both in the recent past (rejection of women called by the Spirit to ministry) and that of systematic racism. The Lord God will not hold guiltless any of those who proclaim allegiance to him and yet persist in open rebellion against Him in these matters.

Many in the Advent movement have not understood this or have acted in direct opposition to the clear call. Those who cling to in their thoughts, words and deeds the systems, symbols, and attitudes that demean, repress, or through psychological or physical violence now have the opportunity to change their ways and stop opposing God’s commands.

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I live in the western USA where there are no ‘regional’ Conferences, but there are significant segregated departments: Hispanic Ministries, Vietnamese Ministries, Fijian Ministries, etc. One large church demanded that the ethnic language group sharing another part of the church building Integrate! Immediately! This was an example of just trying to bring the racial minority into the majority culture, with no accommodation whatsoever on the part of the majority congregation. Of course, it didn’t work out, and the small group moved out to another, friendlier location. They could have worked together to form some equitable solutions: Hire on the minority pastor onto the big group pastoral staff, provide language interpretation/headsets for those who don’t speak English, include the minority group’s musical traditions into the church services and potluck meals… Okay, maybe this is too simplistic, and maybe neither group wanted to do the work. After all, same old/same old is the easy default, which is where Conference/Division/Union/GC leadership comes in - but maybe they are too old and tired. Sad status quo.

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Thanks, @EdMc, for this excellent and thorough report.

You said, regarding your “Kingdom Policy” model:

In response:

There is an Option 4 that has not been named, but is also viable: We can "eliminate” regular Conferences and merge them with “Regional” Conferences.

I have been advancing this as a strategy, and a possibility, for some time; at least as long as I’ve been aware that, for white SDAs, like those in your report, the continued existences of regional conferences are opprobria.

Why was this not raised as option for consideration and discussion?

What would you see as the advantages of such an approach?

What are the disadvantages?

HA

Hi @harryallen, thank you for the commentary. The three (3) options in the report received the strongest support. It was a qualitative study so we did not focus on which option got the “most” or majority of support, but instead, examined the “strength” of the support. We did explore other options but in regards to the option you discuss, the group argued that option 3 captured eliminating “regular conferences”. However, I can definitely see your proposal as a distinct 4th alternative.

In regards to “advantages or disadvantages”, a key question would be, which option best advances equity? How would the stakeholders/constituencies react or respond to the proposals? What steps would be needed to be successful?

Although I did not advocate for a particular route in the paper, I have a feeling that most church members (and leaders) would not want to hear that their conference is being dismantled and the “other” stays intact. However, there may be ways to address objections. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

Dear @EdMc:

Thanks for your kind and thoughtful reply.

Please:

When you say, “The group argued that option 3 captured eliminating ‘regular conferences,’” to which group are you referring: Group A, or Group B?

Put another way, your project’s “two-pronged approach” seems eminently reasonable, particularly given current events: 1) Identify responses by church leaders to the social events of 2020; and 2) host focus groups of church members to explore their attitudes toward issues of race within the church.

Yet, somehow, what most audaciously jumps out of the ensuing discourse are ideas about how to get rid of Regional Conferences.

This is fascinating to me. It’s almost as though participants said, “What is the whitest possible way we can eliminate racism in the SDA church?”

Answer: Get rid of the object that white members—Group A—deem the biggest racial eyesore: Regional Conferences. (That term, “Regional Conferences,” appears 53 times in your essay. That’s about 3x more than “racism” [15 times] or “race” [17 times] does, and a googolplex times more than appears the most indelicate way to describe “racism”—white supremacy—which does not appear.)

I’m not blaming you for this, of course. You’re a social scientist doing his job.

But, unless there’s countervailing data I’m missing, the biggest takeaway from your essay isn’t that we need to do something about regional conferences. Of course, it isn’t.

The biggest takeaway is that white Adventists think that getting rid of racism means getting rid of Regional Conferences; in other words, that “Regional Conferences” is what racism…I’m sorry…“bias” in Seventh-day Adventism looks like, because that’s what it looks like to white people. That such ideas are taken seriously implies that white views still dominate.

And, of course, you’re correct: Most church members (and leaders) would not want to hear that their conference is being dismantled and the “other” stays intact. But from your skillful writing, it’s clear that white SDAs affirm “the existence of bias,” but not the broad, operational vectors of white supremacy.

This means that, given the existing power contour, almost any system which replaces the current one will, in fact, be the current one in broad outline; i.e., a Titan arum by any other name.

In other words, demolishing Regional Conferences and white ones will not disempower white Adventists an iota. That’s because if we get rid of Regional Conferences and “other” (a white euphemism for “white”) conferences, what we’ll have left are white conferences, because the SDA Church is a White Conference.

HA

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@harryallen, I appreciate your perspective. You are correct, as a social scientist, I do my best to use the terminology that the study participants used. Hence, the apparent emphasis on certain terms.

I am interested in exploring why you would assume or conclude that Option 3 is the “whitest possible way to eliminate racism”? Participants in BOTH groups soundly believed that the religious segregation (as exemplified by the existence of white and regional conferences) is inconsistent with Gospel values. In other words, it is not only the existence of Regional Conferences that is a problem in their eyes; but furthermore, the existence of “regular” or “majority white” conferences is equally problematic.

While both groups saw the current structure as a blatant contradiction to tenets of Christianity, some were more reserved in their prescriptions. However, I would caution that you may have misread or misinterpreted the options that both groups A and B discussed. In fact, option 3 seems to entirely contradict the premise of your conclusion. In other words, given the history of the governance structure of the church in the US, the proposal (option 3) seems reasonable: create an entirely new structure.

Also, remember that the paper concludes with basically two possibilities: a) to reaffirm the current governance model, or b) create something new.

Having said that, the paper was not about “worship integration” or “congregational integration”, instead, the exploratory study was about “attitudes towards the governance structure”. It is very possible that one could eliminate the current governance structure, which most agree was born out of racism and bigotry, and yet, that action would not necessarily cure the “heart” issues. To that, I have to acknowledge that a research paper or a change of structure would do little. That is a subject for the Holy Spirit and beyond the scope of my humble scholarly exercise.

Thank you for the insights and contributions. What may seem obvious for some is not always as obvious for others, so I appreciate you asking clarifying questions, which gives me the opportunity to share some more.

The West Coast Model. The West Coast Model of administration of the work amongst Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians consists of overwhelmingly Caucasian administrators with African American, Hispanic, and Asian ministries.28 …This structure exists at both the Union and local conference levels. [emphasis supplied]

… The administrators within this Model, with rare exception, have been White, with minority Department directors…

At the local church level, racial and ethnic diversity is dependent on church options, location, and choice. However, diversity generally occurs when Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians attend predominantly White churches. Diversity in the other direction — Whites attending predominately Black, Hispanic, or Asian churches or schools is rare. [emphasis supplied]


Option 5. Structural change from bottom up. Explore the benefit of eliminating all “regular” and Regional conferences resulting in one less administrative level between local congregation and the GC. I know this will not happen. At the very least, please, dismantle the various conference “regional” ministries based on race.

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Harry Allen - Yes. I have been suggesting this, as well. For a number of reasons:

First, Regional Conferences came about because State conferences refused to be inclusive of black leaders. When Regional conferences subsequently succeeded (which some white leaders at the time doubted they could without the patronage of white leadership), the response by some–now years later–has been “abolish” Regional conferences. How is this all that different from the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma? It sadly fits within this country’s history of white rage against any kind of black success or prominence and hews to an assimilationist narrative that requires black and brown people to “blend in” with white norms and institutions.

Second, there have been precious few indications that white Adventist members have any inclination or willingness to sit under the teaching and authority of black pastors, or that black leaders would ever be given anything more than a token role in the church’s administrative layer, which is still predominantly white over and against an increasingly black and brown constituency. These realities can be read as expressions of white supremacy, which includes the idea that black people are not fit to lead white people. Until there ample indications that dominantly or historically white congregations are willing to hire black pastors or that State conferences are willing to include black leadership, I would not recommend even a new, jointly created structure.

Third, and by contrast, what I have seen on the part of Regional conferences is a willingness to be inclusive, wherever members of various ethnic or racial groups wish to join them. They do not have a history of exclusion but one of inclusion. For this reason, I believe they make an ideal platform from which to launch an effort toward a more inclusive vision of the church and church structure. If we believe that the racial injustice can or must be addressed by making changes at the organizational level, why not do away with those parts of the organization with a history of exclusion and racial injustice? It makes perfect sense to do so. And if white members and administrators really are “not racist,” why could they not join with Regional conferences and come under the banner of inclusion and justice that they have so admirably established?

Finally, if we are to make organizational changes, joining with the Regional system makes sense because it allows us to create a much less top-heavy administrative structure in the NAD by paring down to a regional structure that already exists in many parts of the Division. This would generate much-needed efficiencies and free up more resources for the mission of the local church.

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Thanks, @EdMc.

I appreciate this exchange.

You said:

In response:

I may be making an error in concluding this. It is becoming unclear to me how your survey was organized, and along what paths of inquiry you took your respondents.

That is, early in your piece, you reference statements by church leaders in response to the George Floyd killing.

Then you say:

You then describe your article as…

So, this focus on Regional Conferences is there, in this summary.

However, when you describe the second prong of your paper, you summarize it as…

There is no mention of regional conferences here.

Thus, my question is this: In the focus groups, how did “Regional Conferences” come up?

Were “issues of race within the church” discussed, and “Regional Conferences” came up as an issue, to a greater or lesser degree, because the participants brought it up?

Or, did the moderator bring up “Regional Conferences,” and respondents, then, stayed on this topic, because they hold Regional Conferences to be a, or the, key issue, in a discussion about race within the church? (For Group A, “Regional Conferences” centers two of the four themes that emerge from your survey.)

Again: As I read your essay, the case is unclear. You do not say, for example, that your second “prong” was “attitudes toward issues of race within the church and the effect of Regional Conferences on those attitudes.” (In fact, I also notice, you do not even say that your “non-Black” respondents were white.)

Yet, however, in your most recent response, above, you say:

That’s different from “attitudes toward issues of race within the church.”

So, at this point, what I feel I need to know, now, is the following:

Were these focus groups organized in order to get white and non-white SDA attitudes on Regional Conferences—hence the essay’s 53x emphasis—and, when recruiting, the project merely “undersold” this as “attitudes toward issues of race within the church,” in order to least bias your sample groups?

or

Were these focus groups organized in order to get white and non-white SDA attitudes toward issues of race within the church, and once surveyed, “Regional Conferences” became both groups’ emphasis to a greater or lesser degree; i.e., especially Group A?

For now, I think I want to table my statement that eliminating Regional Conferences is the “whitest possible way to eliminate racism in the SDA church”…at least, as this pertains to your study. I want to do this because I’m not clear what your study sought to find out, or what it is actually saying about these matters.

In other words, I still hold that what I said is true. I still hold that, were one to conclude getting rid of Regional Conferences would be the best way of addressing racism in Adventism, this would be an example of white racial magical thinking; i.e., deceit.

That is, such a conclusion is incorrect. To me, it’s most close to oft-heard white assumptions that, to get rid of racial conflict, one needs to “get rid of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson,” or these days, Black Lives Matter. It’s a cousin to how, until just recently, perhaps, when questioned on racist police brutality, white people would inevitably bring up “black-on-black crime.”

Furthermore, Regional Conferences are a form of “religious segregation,” as you deem, but they are not the overwhelming mass of it. The overwhelming mass of it is in the everyday thought, speech, and actions of white Seventh-day Adventists. Regional Conferences are merely a symptom of that. If the objective is ejecting racism, it is Adventist whiteness which will have to be eliminated before anything is done to Regional Conferences.

This is what I meant when I said that, if we get rid of Regional Conferences and “other” (a white euphemism for “white”) conferences—this is what you call, above, creating “an entirely new structure”—what we’ll have left are white conferences, because the SDA Church is a White Conference.

In other words, as a way of addressing racism, a plan to get rid of Regional Conferences sounds uproariously naive. It sounds as if those suggesting this have not really grappled with what it means to say that racism is dominant, not to mention that racism is white supremacy.

That it is, is why my original Option 4 — "Eliminate” regular Conferences and merge them with “Regional” Conferences — doesn’t even track in white minds, as @2ndOpinion also states, in profound detail, above.

Here’s another suggestion: If white people want to get rid of Regional Conferences, start by hiring Black ministers, administrators, and other workers in white conferences, and pay them superbly; say, three or four times what their white peers make. Expand their opportunities in these roles at every conceivable level, for the next, say, two to three centuries, minimum.

Do so in significant numbers, and Regional Conferences become superfluous.

Anything less is mere tokenism.

Baseball’s Negro Leagues didn’t end because someone “dismantled” them. They ended because Major League Baseball started hiring Black players, and paying them great salaries, and giving them awesome opportunities; a better deal than they got in the Negro Leagues.

When this happened, the Negro Leagues, as Wikipedia dryly notes, “were allowed to fade into oblivion.” When the same thing happens to Regional Conferences, the same thing will happen to Regional Conferences.

HA

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Wow… this really caught my attention! :rofl: Turning the tables, huh? Well, I’m wondering if you’re familiar with what happened in New York by Ron Lawson’s account.


Thanks, @sokingcoo.

I said:

You said:

In response:

I wouldn’t call it “turning the tables,” :smiley: but maybe it is.

I guess the logic of it is that, if white SDAs want to get rid of Regional Conferences because they are, now, an embarrassment to them, they will have to bait the hook with more than their shimmering personalities.

In short, they should have to prove that this is not another setup. The Bible has many situations where people make recompense to prove their deep regret over earlier offenses.

For example, in Luke 19, Zacchaeus, convicted of his past wrongdoings, promises to pay back those he has cheated four times more than what he took. This pledge receives a high and effusive affirmation from the Lord, because it demonstrates genuine contrition.

Now: If the reason white SDAs want to end Regional Conferences is not because they’re inconvenient, but for other reasons—like, say, a desire to commune with their Black brethren—they should just relax, and keep being the wonderful Christian people that they are.

I’m sure that, over time, as this continues to reveal itself, they will draw Black SDAs out, and to themselves. One thing human beings are almost flawless at doing is finding out where the action is, and going there.

You said:

In response:

I was not, but I’m thankful for you forwarding this.

Northeastern and Greater New York are my home conferences. The era, under discussion in the paper, is the period during which my Costa-Rican-of-West-Indian-descent parents had our family in either one of those two organizations. I and my kin will find this very interesting.

Thank you!

HA

Overall, interesting research. However, there are two issues of concern in this study. The first, as Harry and myself have been saying, is that the researcher did not propose a fourth option: the disbanding of State conferences. I have already stated in another comment why I think this option should at least be on the list.

My second concern is that State conferences are called “regular” conferences. Did this terminology arise from the participants in the study or was it provided by the researcher? The problem with the word “regular” is that it plays into the normative assumptions constituting “whiteness”–that whatever is “white” represents a universal standard, to the extent that it just “is” and from which everything else is a departure, making them “other,” “racial,” “ethnic,” or “exotic.” In fact, whiteness is so “regular” to white folk that their own racialized identities become invisible to them (yet not to POC). Those tuned into the conversation (at least on the Regional side) would know that the preferred terminology “Regional” and “State” not “Regional” and “Regular.” Language matters.

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What they are waiting for is the massive issue of discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability that has been perpetrated by a church within the NAD against blacks and other minorities to surface. There has been some disgustingly reprehensible conduct, even criminal behaviour that has been done by leadership of a church. It is only a matter of time until the issue becomes public. Then something will be done. The church has humiliated themselves. It was also perpetrated mostly by adventists who cling to the teachings of Desmond Ford.

The situation there has become a little more complicated, again by Ron Lawson’s account:


Within a few miles from the Crosswalk Church in Redlands are several “regular” congregations and some “irregular”. ones. Happily, they are all under one regular local conference administration. :innocent:

Unfortunately, there always has been a good deal of moving things “under the rug” within Adventism. I know stories myself.