In the first of several planned unscripted conversations with college-age Seventh-day Adventists, North American Division leaders responded to submitted questions in a Facebook Live broadcast Tuesday. The program, “Is This Thing On?” was recorded on the campus of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska before an audience of about thirty-five college students. NAD President Daniel R. Jackson and Executive Secretary G. Alexander Bryant answered questions submitted through social media and from live audience members.
With live musical interludes by Deneil Clarke and the Prescott Avenue Seven band and live questions received by a five-person social media team led by NAD Digital Strategies Project Manager Jamie Jean Schneider, the ninety-minute program addressed weighty topics from racism to gender discrimination and LGBT issues in the Adventist denomination.
Racism in the Adventist Church
The first social media question came from Stephen Sigamani, who asked about racism in the Adventist Church. “Andrews University has taken a great stance at opening dialogue about racism in the church,” he said. “When will we have a (sic) NAD-wide movement on this matter?”
Alex Bryant responded first, applauding Andrews University for the position and the role the university has assumed in addressing racism. “The church is better served when we hit these types of issues head on,” Bryant said.
Dan Jackson also responded, saying the words of Jesus came to mind: “All will know you are my disciples by your love one for another.” Jackson said there is a “soft underbelly of racism” even in the Adventist Church.
A similar social media question came from Kady Edwards-Campbell in Maitland, Florida: “When is the General Conference going to address the white conference, black conference situation?” she asked.
Jackson said the divisions and unions of the church have no authority in such matters. “It is only the constituent group itself that can say we’re going to put an end to this.”
Bryant clarified the question by stating, “There is no true white conference in the North American Division; there is no true black conference in the North American Division.” He noted that all 59 conferences have diversity “to varying degrees,” he added. “No conference is closed to any other group.”
Jackson stated that the emergence of regional conferences was because of racism in the Adventist Church (something for which Lake Union Conference President Don Livesay formally apologized in 2015). Jackson stated that while disbanding regional conferences is not going to happen, he does see a need for redistribution of the NAD territory. “I don’t believe we need fifty-nine conferences,” he said. “I believe we could probably do with twenty.”
The show paused for a commercial break, after which the band invited Dan Jackson to come play drums briefly, which he gamely attempted to do.
Declining Enrollment in Adventist Schools
Executive Secretary G. Alexander Bryant responds to a student question.
After the break, Shaina Rantung, Enrollment Services Student Director at Southern Adventist University, asked via social media what the North American Division is doing to combat declining enrollment in Adventist higher education.
Calling the issue “a matter of constant study,” Jackson agreed that in North America, enrollment is down. He noted that the “feeder system,” Adventist academies, has suffered the closure of between 200-300 schools (274, to be precise) in the last fifteen years. Jackson stated that students in Adventist schools do as well academically as their public school counterparts and blamed the decline in a loss of interest in Seventh-day Adventist Christian education. Jackson added that he doesn’t believe the North American Division needs 14 colleges and universities.
Bryant pointed to sociological factors: the graying of the Church in North America and fewer Adventist households with school-age children and movement from rural areas to cities. Many schools that have closed were in rural areas.
Jackson named marketing funding and the Adventist Learning Community as two of the NAD’s initiatives to support Adventist higher education.
Women’s Ordination and GC “Unity in Mission” Doc
Burman University student Spencer Page asks about women's ordination.
The first question from the live audience came from Spencer Page of Burman University who asked on behalf of Burman students what might be the future of women’s ordination. Page noted that two pastors at the college church are women and that Burman currently boasts many female theology majors. Page made an opaque reference to the General Conference’s document “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation” and asked how the North American Division will respond.
First, Jackson stated emphatically that the jobs of women pastors are not in jeopardy based on anything the church does or does not do regarding the “unity in mission” statement.
“I personally believe in the ordination of women to the Gospel ministry,” he said to applause from the live audience. “I have for many years.” He noted that the World Church has resisted calls to move forward with the ordination of women,though two unions in the North American Division have done so. Jackson noted that the NAD has established an initiative to increase the number of women serving as pastors, stating emphatically that “the role of the NAD in establishing women in pulpits is not a violation of General Conference or North American Division policy.”
Alex Bryant chimed in saying he disagrees with the world church on ordination. Bryant described the NAD “building block,” begun in 2010, to increase women in pastoral ministry. The goal, Bryant said, has been the doubling of the 107 women pastors (out of 4,000 total the NAD employs) over five years. The program incentivizes local conferences to hire women pastors by providing funding for those positions. 2017 will be the program’s third year, and the goal has been half met. $450K has been invested in the program, Bryant said.
Pacific Union College student Taleah Tyrell asks for clarification on ordination vs. commissioning.
Nicqelle Godfrey, La Sierra University’s student body president, asked why the decision is not a local, division-by-division decision as opposed to a General Conference decision?
Jackson responded noting the San Antonio 2015 vote on that very question. “The World Church said no,” Jackson said flatly.
Jackson pointed articles by George Knight and Gerrry Chudleigh on the authority of unions to govern ordination practices. The local congregation responsible for membership; conferences are responsible for employment; and unions responsible for ordination, Jackson said. He admitted that some believe ordination “is property of the General Conference in session.” Positioning the North American Division as a part of the World Church, Jackson stated that he disagrees with his brothers in India, Africa, and the Philippines (who oppose ordaining women) and stated his belief that change will come when there are 400, 500, 1,000 women pastors in North America.
Pacific Union College student body president Taleah Tyrell asked Bryant and Jackson to clarify what ordained pastors can do that unordained pastors cannot.
Women are allowed to be commissioned, Bryant said, and noted that commissioned pastors can do everything ordained pastors can except for the following four things: organize a local church, disband a church, ordain local elders, and become president of a church territory. Jackson added that ordained pastors can be paid the same.
NAD Associate Communication Director and conversation moderator Julio Munoz called attention to the implications for leadership made unavailable to women.
Bryant said the North American Division has asked for variance—for change in policy—to give commissioned ministers the right to be conference presidents. The North American Division voted that policy, but it was overturned, Bryant said.
LGBT+ Issues in Adventism
Union College student Laryssa Schnell discusses Adventist treatment of LGBT+ people.
Laryssa Schnell, a Union College senior and audience member, called attention to “our LGBTQ+ friends,” pointing to the biblical passage that describes Jesus' followers being known by their love. “I don’t feel like that’s what’s happening,” Schnell said. She asked what the church can do to be more accepting.
Every human being, however they identify themselves, is a child of God, Jackson responded. “To damn another person or to say I’m better than another person disconnects me from Gospel of Jesus,” he said. Jackson tried to strike a balance, stating his belief that the church cannot move away from teachings of Scripture with an insistence on “not damning people.” He called LGBTQ people children of God and said that when he does not understand another person’s experience, his default response is compassion. He related a story in which he told a women with a lesbian daughter in a same-sex marriage he hoped the daughter, her partner, and their children would find fellowship in Adventist Church. “They will not find membership,” he said,” but they’re not looking for membership.” He suggested that most people today want community and fellowship, not membership. However compassionate the church wants to be, Jackson stated, “I don’t have the right to turn away from God’s word.” But quoting the words of Jesus, “He who comes to me I will in no wise cast out,” Jackson said that includes the LGBT+ community.
Hannah Ashburn from Union College asked whether the NAD has undertaken any initiatives to protect LGBT+ students—especially transgender students—on college campuses?
Jackson responded, “We almost need a covenant that we will treat people in godly ways.” He said such a covenant is incumbent upon all administrators, and upon all boards and committees in the church. “God does not give us rights to bully, to ostracize, to damn and condemn,” he said. He added that every college campus should be a safe place for every LGBT+ person.
Hope for The Adventist Church
Oakwood University student Josiah Taylor asks about the future of the Adventist Church.
Oakwood University political science student Josiah Taylor got the last question, noting that peers are leaving Adventism, and asked where to look to find hope for the future of the Adventist Church.
“I never get discouraged about the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church when I’m around young people,” Jackson said. “I just get discouraged when I’m around people my age.” His message to young Adventists: “You are not the future of the church; you are the church.” He said silence and giving up can kill the church. “God did not call my generation to finish the work of the church,” he said. “God called your generation.”
Bryant agreed, saying “You guys have peeled away the traditions of the church from the essence of the church.”
Other students asked about how the church and its young adults can meet needs in their communities, about training student missionaries could receive to avoid being “neo-imperialistic,” and about the need to balance humanitarian concerns (mentioning Flint Michigan, for instance) and ecological concerns with doctrinal concerns when thinking about mission.
Watch the full 90-minute broadcast here.
Jared Wright is Southern California Correspondent for Spectrummagazine.org.
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