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Respectful Debate and New Leadership in Swedish Church Elections

Pastor Robert “Bobby” Sjölander is to lead the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sweden for the next four years, replacing former President, Göran Hansen, who retired at their Union Session, July 4 – 8.

Sjölander is not new to the role. He held the same office from 2007-2013. More recently he has worked as director for Evangelism and Church development.

Following the vote Sjölander stated, “I am grateful that Jesus is the head of our Church in Sweden and in the world. I wish we, I and every member, will be His tool in the work of spreading the eternal gospel. Thank you for your confidence to let me work as your Union President. I pray that God will bless each new leader, every church and every member when we serve Him together.”

Hansen joins former treasurer, Ronny Hermansson in retirement. Arnold Wittman, an economist, lawyer and member of the Jönköping church now takes on the role of Treasurer.

Completing this new leadership team is Pastor Rainer Refsbäck. He will serve as Executive Secretary following twelve successful years as editor for the Church’s publications. Rainer succeeds Bo Forssten, who has been Secretary since 2014.

Other staff elected include Pastor Anna Tegebo, who for many years has run the Church’s teen ministry. She was elected as Youth director, succeeding Willy Aronsen who has retired, but will continue to work in Norway. Karolina Poland was given the Session’s confidence to continue as Deputy Youth director, responsible for children’s and family ministries. Other roles will be appointed by the new Executive Committee.

Based at the sunny Ekebyholmsskolan campus north of Stockholm, 212 delegates from 33 churches worshipped and deliberated together. Randy Roberts, Senior Pastor of the Loma Linda University Church, served spiritual food. His messages orbited around the theme of the Session and coming work period: “With Jesus in the Heart, Church and Community,” Randy’s main message was that it is possible to live with Jesus in all these spheres when we turn our eyes on Him. The theme corresponds with that of the General Conference: Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Across.

The business sessions were busy. As the Nominating, Bylaws and Plans committees are elected by the previous Union Session, it gives the committees four years to prepare the content for the next Session. While most of the work has been done in the last six months, the process does contribute to many, perhaps too many, thoughtful and urgent proposals to discuss. Many don’t even reach the floor.

Respectful debate and effective voting

Many of the proposals from the Bylaws Committee dealt with implementing more of the General Conference’s model bylaws into the Union’s bylaws, originally accepted in the 1960s. The first proposal of the Committee was to allow for electronic voting. This was voted unanimously and applied immediately, making the voting process much more efficient. Delegates also pointed out that it certainly also contributed to a much calmer and more relaxed atmosphere during the negotiations, with less social pressure.

Over all, this Session was characterized by a very good atmosphere and respectful debate. Several of the proposals from the Plans Committee were expected to create a great deal of zeal. Primarily the question of how ministerial credentials will be dealt with. In response to the General Conference’s vote in San Antonio 2015, the Union’s Executive Committee decided in March 2016 to cease its demand for ordination of women. At the same time, they chose to cease the ordination of men until the General Conference finds a way to grant all pastors the same credentials regardless of gender. This decision resulted in several motions to the Union Session, prepared by the Plans Committee.

Credentials dealt with in three stages

In light of the previous experience of an unclear decision on this issue at the previous Union Session, the Plans Committee chose to create a decision tree with a clear three-step response option.

The first step in the decision-making scheme was about values. “Should the Union promote the same credentials for women and men as pastors or not?” Delegates who do not wish the Church to promote equal pastoral credentials, stated that the option – “the Executive Committee should not promote equal pastoral credentials for men and women” – felt too harsh. It was therefore changed to a general appreciation of both men and women in mission work and that GC’s democratically determined policy should be followed. In spite of this, the Session decided by a two-thirds majority, that “the Executive Committee should promote equal pastoral credentials for men and women.”

With this basic orientation settled, the delegates went on to the next step, the implementation. Should the Session support the decision of the Executive Committee to cease ordination, or do we want the issue to be handled more carefully in relation to GC policy? Division Secretary, Pastor Audrey Andersson, informed the delegates that the Union’s Executive Committee decision diverged from the Working Policy in two respects: already ordained pastors cannot be given commissioned credentials and only ordained pastors can be elected as a Union President. The Trans-European Division has requested the General Conference to create one ministerial credential regardless of gender. Still 65% of the delegates chose to stand by the Executive Committee decision to terminate ordination even though it may diverge from GC Working Policy. While waiting for GC to create one credential, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sweden will grant only commissioned ministerial licenses and credentials to its pastors.

Swedish Adventists seek unity and justice

The third and final step in the decision tree, discussed whether the Union should participate actively in the “Unity in Mission” reconciliation process. It is a process initiated by the GC Executive Committee to handle unions that in any way deviate from Working Policy. Many members expressed concern over the process as it is not yet known what the final outcome may be this autumn. This led to a motion, to not actively participate in the process until the legal situation has been clarified. However, the Session decided with a very strong majority – probably the strongest support for any of the proposals from the Plans Committee (89%) – to actively remain in the reconciliation process “Unity in Mission.” The Seventh-day Adventist members in Sweden thus clearly showed that they sincerely seek unity with the world-wide Adventist family, while stating that it is important for them that men and women be treated equally in the service of God.

Trans-European Division President, Raafat Kamal, commented: “I witnessed a Swedish Union Session for the first time and I noted the passion and love that the delegates have for their Church’s mission and message in Sweden. There was a sweet spirit of co-operation and seriousness in the way the business was conducted. I want to thank all those who worked tirelessly before and during the Session to prepare for this event. I am convinced that God will lead through the decisions made, to help our Swedish Adventist communities focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ.”

The issue of equal pastoral credentials used a great deal of the second day of business. This meant there was insufficient time to deal with 17 of the 38 proposals of the Plans Committee. They are now referred to the new Executive Committee.

Despite a pressured timetable the Session decided to issue a statement about the many unaccompanied refugee children received by Sweden, mainly in 2015, who now are being sent back to Afghanistan and other insecure areas in the world. The statement pleads with the Swedish Government and its immigration authorities to uphold human dignity in its dealings with the situation.

A Sabbath with mission

The closing Sabbath of the Union Session is a spiritual feast for Adventists who travel from across the country to participate. The sports center of Ekebyholmsskolan seats about 600 people, and it was packed during the church service. In the afternoon, many gathered to listen to a medley of presentations regarding various evangelism projects run by churches and ministries within the Union.

A short presentation recounting the early Adventist missionary work was also given, commemorating 125 years of Swedish Adventist missionaries around the world. The first Adventist Church in China was founded by Erik Pilqvist, a Swedish Adventist who arrived in China in 1892 with the China Inland Mission Society. Erik and his wife Ida Gran, were Adventist pioneers in mainland China. In that same year two Swedish female Bible workers and one pastor arrived in Helsinki, Grand Duchy of Finland, to start a children’s ministry program, the only kind of missionary work allowed under the Russian rule. Since then Anna Stahl, Paul Sundqvist, Roland Kazen, and about 100 other Swedish missionaries and volunteers have followed in their steps.

The newly elected Union President, Pastor Bobby Sjölander, closed the program with his thoughts on the coming years and the Church’s focus: “With Jesus in the Heart, Church and Community.” After an evening service with a lot of expressed appreciation, delegates and visitors went home to continue the work to prepare themselves and their neighbors for Christ’s return.

 

This story was written by Rainer Refsbäck and originally published by the TED News Network.

Image: Newly elected Swedish Church leadership, from left to right: A. Wittman, A. Tegebo, K. Poland, R. Sjölander, R. Refsbäck. Photo courtesy of tedNEWS.

 

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