For the Seventh-day Adventist Church quinquennial session in July when 100 plus General Conference officials will be elected, a voting body of 2,566 delegates is created to handle the election and other church business.
In a recent story about how the delegates are picked, the Adventist News Network reported that 83% of the delegates are male and 17% female.
“A question that is certain to be asked when reading statistics on gender representation is why is the percentage of female delegates so small when it is perceived that women are in the majority as pertains to Church membership?” the article says.
Then it answers its own question, “While efforts are continually made to ensure that the entire delegation shall be comprised of both genders, currently the positions from which these delegates are named and that generate the majority of delegates for the Session are held by males. This will change over time as more women are elected to leadership positions and Conference or Union executive committee membership.”
Yes, this will change over time—if women are allowed to be ordained and thus can be eligible for positions that require an ordained individual to be chosen for the offices such as conference and union presidents. Examination of the delegate numbers, and the three ways delegate quotas are established demonstrates why this is so important. Delegates with administrative positions are the majority of the delegates. According to the Constitution of the General Conference delegates are selected:
Based on units of organizational structure such as unions and conferences
Based on division membership as a percentage of total world membership
Based on the General Conference and its institutions
Division officers and union presidents are delegates by constitutional requirement. Invariably, other union officers and conference presidents, a group of about 800 more people, generally make the list of delegates, too. So, without ordination, women essentially do not qualify for hundreds of delegate positions.
There is a formula for the inclusion of pastors and the laity which is supposed to be half of the delegates after the administrative delegates are selected. Technically, only 400 delegates are allocated based on membership. The other delegates—over 2,000—are apportioned according to structural units.
Another way to look at the spread of delegates is geographically. This, too, shows great disparity in the representation according to membership.
Delegates by Division, membership by division, and the ratio of delegates per member:
The number of delegates per member is not the same for every division. The SID has one delegate for every 15,836 members while the TED has one delegate per every 767 members. The South Pacific Division has more delegates but less members than Northern Asia Pacific Division. Having more unions, conferences, and institutions affects the number of delegates in a division. Also, notice that the unit with the third largest number of delegates is the General Conference itself. It functions like a 14th division in spite of the fact that it has no membership base other than the approximately 4,000 members who live in the fields that were recently attached to it in the Middle East and Israel.
Who is included in that General Conference delegation? Members of the General Conference Executive Committee, associate department directors, representatives of GC institutions, twenty GC staff members, plus a list of about 70 former leaders and selected individuals traditionally nominated by the president and approved by the Administrative Committee.
If one were to compare the Adventist system to the U.S. House and Senate where the section of governance that has the greatest numbers comes from the House where representatives are apportioned based on population, the Adventist system is reversed. The largest number of delegates is based on church structural units rather than membership.
There is nothing inherently wrong with preference being given to administrators, since they are the people who are responsible for running the Church organization. But some might argue that a system based more equally on membership would be more fair.What is also problematic is barring women, who are half of the church membership, from holding hundreds of top administrative offices, such as conference and union presidencies. There are approximately 750 of these positions in the church, and they all require ordination. Almost all of those people become delegates to the General Conference, effectively locking women out of those delegate slots.
In the recent discussion of Women’s Ordination, the tie of administrative offices to ordained positions has not been a major factor in the conversation. It was not discussed in the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), for instance. The ascension of one woman to the presidency of the Southeastern California Conference helped nudge the Women’s Ordination conversation along, but that was all.
Whatever the outcome of the vote on Women’s Ordination, these delegate issues of disparity in representation of membership geographically and by gender need to be faced and fixed.
Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum Magazine.