Such a Time: 2016 Pacific Union Conference Constituency Session

The 30th quinquennial constituency session for the Pacific Union Conference (PUC) was held on Sunday evening and Monday morning, August 28-29 2016, in Scottsdale Arizona. The “banner name” selected for the session was (following the Book of Esther)  “For Such a Time As This.” Delegates could register Sunday afternoon and were then invited to three different information meetings1 held before the official session opening. After a 6 p.m. half-hour selection of musical performers, the session was opened at 6:30 by President Ricardo Graham. The meeting was called to order, delegates were “seated,” which meant a count of delegates present (obtained using an electronic ballot system, each delegate having been issued a voting device), and it was determined that a quorum was present. The agenda previously sent to delegates was adopted, and the suggested parliamentarian was voted in to serve for the session. This work took about half an hour, with the rest of the evening meeting (1 ½ hours) devoted to stories and presentations highlighting activity within the PUC over the past five years.

The Monday morning agenda was packed with optimistic time-frames that quickly became unrealistic. But the plan was as follows:

  • 8 am: Worship Service

  • 9 am: Nominating Committee report

  • 9:30 am: Bylaws Committee report

  • 9:45 am: Financial Reports

  • 10:05 am: Education Reports

  • 10:45 am: Adventist Health Report

  • 11 am: Consecration of Elected Team

  • 11:10 am: “The Road Ahead” – Ricardo Graham address

  • 12 noon: Close of Session

  • 12:05 pm: Lunch

Such is the summary of the expected content and flow for the meeting – mostly obtainable by simply looking over the printed program. Now let's rewind, and I will provide both details of what took place (a reporting task) and my reactions and impressions (more of an op-ed activity).

My perspective is inevitably informed by past experience of attending (as delegate and observer) multiple such constituency meetings, at various organizational levels, over 30+ years. The details and participants change, but it seems like the unwritten template of these meetings doesn't.

The first thing I noticed as I looked over the agenda was the minimal length of the time slots and the almost total absence of any allotment for delegate comments and discussion. If the meeting had actually gone as scripted, it would have been completely one-directional – from podium to audience. Now, figuring out in advance how much time discussion will consume is admittedly problematic. And, at face value, there was no apparent controversy. The Nominating Committee was recommending all officers be retained, and there was no evident undercurrent of discontent with that. When these meetings go off-script, it is often contention over a particular officer's proposed re-election which generates the debate. Then, with the remaining sections of the meeting, it appeared as if everything was also uncontroversial and would produce no delegate angst. So I can somewhat understand why the organizers thought they would have such a straightforward meeting. But, not only do things rarely play out to some “best-case” scenario, a stronger criticism I would offer is that the organizers did not build in any opportunities for dialog (which would, of course, have to be reflected in the durations). This is disappointing. Such structure can give an unintended message that interaction is undesirable. A common result I've seen before is that delegates can “go off the rails” by spending an inordinate amount of time on minor details or behave erratically when a substantive, difficult, and controversial issue is under consideration. It is an extremely difficult task in a constituency meeting for leadership to guide such an unwieldy group – due to size and wide range of past experiences – through a meaningful, successful discussion process. But it is worse to produce a plan where any such dialog causes a time overrun, and the temptation then is to curb dialog since the meeting is behind schedule.

Time allowed for the opening session – Sunday night – was not an issue, though. No discussion was expected. This was the part of the program where the Union leadership reported on progress and initiatives taken over the past five years . As I sat through the many legitimately inspiring stories (and less-pleasing hyperbole), I could almost close my eyes and move back 30 years while hearing the same essential message of great things happening in our territory. Even the session slogan could have been reused from years ago.

And, if some proverbial Martians had descended, unoriented, into the room Sunday evening, they might have been forgiven for thinking that these people had just won the religious equivalent of the Super Bowl or World Cup. The pervasive message was of winning, excitement, great things happening for God. But delegates are generally chosen because they have significant church experience. They likely understand that reality in the local churches is somewhat more mixed. And the modest tithe and membership increases for the past five years bear this out. But we don't much want to hear that. Negatives, or even a more grounded balance of good/not-so-good – would likely be less well received than what was presented. I don't wish, however, to denigrate in any way the validity and positives of the anecdotal material provided. Good is important to present, and we can praise God for each success. But pervasive selectivity risks devaluing good news as it can easily degrade into spin and hype.

Election of Officers
Monday morning, however, was the time for business. Following Dan Jackson's devotional, the most significant part of the session followed – election of officers. Usually, if there is any drama/contention at a constituency meeting, it surrounds the elections. But this day there was no substantive debate. Each officer was up for re-election, and there were no previous controversies that might have caused any significant opposition to any candidate. Election was done via electronic vote mechanisms and went smoothly and quickly. The "Yes" vote for the officers2 ranged from 89% to 94%. Following officer election, the members of the next Union Executive Committee were voted in. No controversy appeared so far – and roughly on schedule.

But it would not remain so. The next agenda item was a 15-minute time block to deal with changes to the Constitution and Bylaws (C&B). Nothing proposed looked problematic to me, so I was settling in for a nice semi-snooze when things got interesting and remained so for the next 2+ hours of discussion on bylaws.

So, what was there in that otherwise eye-glazing legalese document that generated such voluminous dialog? There are at least two, opposite, yet potentially accurate, answers. The first way to look at it is this: there was really nothing therein that should have caused concern. The words being debated did not inherently carry any meanings that would have problematic implications. A second, opposite, view could indeed have validity, though. Words do matter, and bylaws provide determining rules for how the organization proceeds. Thus, an adverse interpretation of voted language could result in significant consequences. So, what was the real issue behind this two-hour worry over words? The “elephant in the room,” as one delegate put it, was this: Women's Ordination.

Changes to Bylaws
I will try to lay out the details so the reader may see just what the debate was about. The Constitution and Bylaws Committee proposed (among many other minor changes) some adjustments to Article 14, changes that seemed to them – uncontroversial3. Here is Section 14, with proposed additions in red/underlined and deletions in red/strike-through:

The Bylaws of this Union, which are essential to the unity of the church worldwide, may be amended, revised, or repealed from time to time in order to comport with the spirit of the Model Union Constitution and Bylaws as voted by the General Conference Executive Committee or to advance the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist church in the Pacific Union. Such amendments or revisions shall be approved by a two-thirds majority vote of the delegates present and voting at any duly called Constituency Sessions of the Union. The Bylaws may be amended, revised, or repealed, provided such changes are in harmony with the spirit of the Model Union Constitution and Bylaws. Notice of any proposed changes to the Bylaws of this Union shall be given specifically in conjunction with the publication of notice for the Constituency Session.

The Constituency Session or the Union Executive Committee may recommend to the General Conference through the North American Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to the Model Union Constitution and Bylaws.”

The controversy focused on the addition, beginning with the word “or.” The historical backdrop centers on the action taken on August 19, 2012 at a special meeting of the Pacific Union constituency4, where the delegates voted 79% to 21% to allow women pastors within the Pacific Union to be ordained. This placed the PUC at variance with the Model Union Constitution – a document crafted by the General Conference and intended as a template, or guide, for Unions in creating their particular constitutions and bylaws. Some delegates read the or clause – “or to advance … the Pacific Union” – as codifying legitimacy to the fact that the PUC has policy at variance with the Model document. For some delegates, this would be a strengthening move in stating PUC's right to differ at times from GC policy. Those opposed to Women's Ordination would, of course, have an opposite view. Brad Newton, who chaired the C&B Committee, which produced the change, and was chairing this part of the meeting, stated that the choice made in 2012 for Women's Ordination already stood on its own ground as a voted action and wording of the Bylaws – whether the proposed addition remained or not – would not change that. Nonetheless, this issue remains so potentially volatile in the church that it seems to bubble up to the surface in surprising ways.

So, what did the delegates finally decide to do? The C&B Committee had initially proposed to the delegates that the Article 14 addition phraseology be referred back to their committee because conversation the previous evening in the informational meeting left them believing they needed to better wordsmith the language since people were reading it in inconsistent ways. But the delegates voted down this C&B Committee request for further review and voted to go ahead and include the addition as stated above. Further, they voted to retain the sentence that the C&B committee proposed be stricken5. Then, because it was clear that Article 14 was where the controversy centered, the delegates decided to vote on 14 separately from the rest of the document. Note also, that changes to Bylaws require a 2/3 majority. The vote for the rest of the document (minus Article 14) was 97% in favor. The vote on 14 was 68% in favor – just barely over the 2/3 majority needed. One might infer that the much lower passing percentage for Article 14 reflected differing delegate opinion on Women's Ordination.

At long last C&B discussion concluded, and it appeared the remainder of the meeting would be non-controversial. But no. One more surprise occurred, which perhaps was the most interesting part of the entire meeting. And it was totally unscripted.

Motion to Amend Agenda
On Sunday night, Chris Buttery, a delegate from the Sacramento Central Church in the Northern California Conference, stepped up to the mic and moved that there be an additional item placed on the agenda. It turned out that the way he made the request was procedurally out-of-order, and he meekly retreated. To the credit of the PUC administration, someone approached him later and helped find the appropriate way to make the request. And at this point in the meeting, the chairman called upon this delegate to bring the request for an agenda addition to the floor. What was the proposed agenda addition? He wanted the body to vote to rescind the action taken August 19, 2012 – allowing Women's Ordination. The reason he gave: rescinding the action would be appropriate because of the voted action at CG 2015 in San Antonio.

So here was the “elephant” moved squarely to the center of the room--not wrangling about the potential that language might have to affect policy on the issue but asking the delegates to roll back the 2012 action. And the request, of course, was not part of the meeting plan. Because the request for this agenda addition was seconded, a vote by the delegates became necessary. The resultant vote was 76% opposed to adding the item to the agenda. Note, of course, that had the delegates approved this agenda addition, it would not have automatically caused the 2012 action to be rescinded – merely that that a motion to rescind would then be made and thus debated directly. But the denial of this agenda addition – with the delegates knowing what the proposed addition was going to be about – meant that the vote taken amounted to a straw poll by a representative group of the PUC constituency regarding their sentiment on the issue of Women's Ordination. Thus, one could infer that the delegates re-affirmed the 2012 action, by a similar majority.

Following this unscripted delegate request, the meeting proceeded with the Financial Report – now about 2 ½ hours behind schedule. From this point through most of the Education Report, everything proceeded apace, as scripted, with no delegate interaction. In fact, the room was emptying fast. I'm guessing this was because people needed to catch their planes. And, a bit after 1 p.m., I too needed to leave even though the meeting had not yet finished. Maybe things got even wilder after that :-) - but probably not.

I realize that some of my observations and reactions to this session have been negative. My intent, however, is constructive. And any negatives should not diminish the value and encouragement one should derive from the positive news and stories featured during the meeting. Also, the session ran smoothly; the technology functioned well. Especially commendable was the continual attention – by every person who chaired a portion of the meeting – to insure that any delegate who wanted to speak would be given a full and respectful hearing.

 

1The three separate meetings covered: Bylaws, Finances, and Education. Delegates sat at tables and engaged in Q&A with Union personnel or, in the case of Bylaws, also with additional Bylaws Committee leadership.

2Ricardo Graham – President, Bradford Newton – Executive Secretary / Ministerial Director, Theodore Benson – Treasurer, Antonio Anobile – Vice President, Virgil Childs – Director of Regional Affairs, VicLouis Arreola III – Asian/Pacific Coordinator, Jorge Soria – Hispanic Coordinator

3I later had a hallway conversation with a friend who was on the committee, and he indicated surprise over the amount of debate, saying that the committee members had no specific intentions relating to Woman's Ordination during their deliberations that produced the changes proposed to the delegates.

5The C&B Committee rationale for proposing it be deleted was simply that it was redundant, having been stated almost identically earlier in the paragraph. The delegates, by their vote, disagreed.

 

Rich Hannon is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

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