The final day of the North American Division Year-End meetings was a race to finish all the remaining agenda items. President Dan Jackson jokingly announced that a trap door had been installed, and if presenters didn’t stick to their allotted amount of time, it would open under their feet.
First up was the 2017 Stewardship Initiative Report. Director of Stewardship John Mathews began by saying, “If the Christian world in the United States would average 10% tithe, it would eradicate world poverty and hunger.”
Mathews and his colleague Bonita Shields, associate director of Stewardship, stated that the biggest challenge of funding the Adventist mission is consumerism. The zenith of Adventist giving was in 1955, said Mathews. After that, “you have real estate booming, you have people buying cars, you have retailers becoming sophisticated in selling their products, [and] you have the television taking off.”
Even though more dollars come in every year, “when you start factoring in wages, inflation, monetary value, decreased giving units, the trend has gone down since 1955,” he continued.
Shields shared that the average credit card debt per household in the United States is $16,883, the average total debt per household is $137,063, and the total U.S. outstanding consumer debt is $3.62 trillion.
“This isn’t just happening out there. Our members are suffering under the bondage of debt. It’s oppressive. They want to give, but they’re so overwhelmed. It’s not only affecting their wallets...it’s affecting their souls. And it’s affecting the mission of our church,” said Shields.
She told the audience that even though there are nine unions in the NAD, not one of them has a person solely dedicated to stewardship. Additionally, 27% of pastors never talk to their congregations about stewardship. The last time the Sabbath School quarterly was written on the topic of stewardship was in 1974.
Several new resources have been developed to help facilitate discussion on stewardship. Mathews and his wife Janice co-authored a book for kids, Smoky Mountain Rescue, to help teach the importance of stewardship from a young age. For adults, there is Stewardship: Motives of the Heart, also written by Mathews and published by Pacific Press.
The next item for discussion was on an updated and more modern approach to Steps to Christ that the North American Division could distribute. The working title is 12 Steps to Hope. A brainstorming discussion ensued. Les Pollard, president of Oakwood University, suggested that each chapter speak to a specific, modern problem plaguing people today and include an accompanying solution. It was also suggested that the format should be based on the 12-step programs that exists to combat addiction and that the church should consult sources “outside ourselves” to best understand how to make it relevant for people struggling with such issues. Keith Bowman from the Adventist Learning Community suggested creating a version that is highly pictorial to engage younger generations through graphic storytelling. The idea of bringing snippets of the book to social media through Snapchat stories and video was also discussed. The motion to pursue creating 12 Steps to Hope carried with 150 yes votes, 17 no votes, and two abstained.
The highlight of the day was a presentation about “Imagine Nashville,” a joint evangelist effort between the South Central Conference and the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference. Ben Jones, President of SCC, and Steve Haley,President of KTC, took the stage to introduce the project and the two pastors who are spearheading it.
Pastor Furman Fordham of SCC and Pastor Ken Wetmore of KTC shared their respective journeys from adolescence through college and now as pastors ministering in Nashville. Growing up, Fordham attended a primarily black church, academy (Pine Forge), and college (Oakwood), and now pastors Riverside Chapel in the regional conference of SCC. Wetmore attended a primarily white church, academy (Fletcher), and college (Southern) and now pastors the Madison Campus Church in the state conference of KTC.
And yet, their life stories mirror each other almost perfectly. Both ran for senior class president in academy (and lost). Both were double majors in college, ran for student association president (and won), and spent a year as student missionaries (Fordham in Australia and Wetmore in New Zealand). Fordham has been married for 21 years to Jennifer, a kindergarten teacher. Wetmore has been married for 18 years to Rachelle, a pre-K teacher.
The Riverside Chapel where Fordham pastors is the largest church in the SCC and grew out of Riverside Hospital. The Madison Campus Church where Wetmore pastors is the largest in the KTC and grew out of Madison College.
Wetmore went on to describe how he had been looking for an accountability partner to help him navigate the challenges of being a young senior pastor, ministering to the needs of his conference’s largest congregation. It never occurred to him that a potential partner, and one with an uncannily similar life story, could be found just 15 minutes away in the regional conference.
When they were both called into a meeting to discuss doing a joint city-wide evangelistic series, something bigger began to take shape. As Fordham and Wetmore’s friendship grew, their care and concern for each other’s congregations grew as well. “We have this friendship where we cross a color barrier, where we have become mutually accountable and supportive of each other, and [we thought what if] our churches actually start developing genuine, Christian relationships?” said Fordham.
Out of their partnership, the “Imagine Nashville” initiative became not just a joint evangelistic series but an outreach effort to touch the entire city through their combined efforts. At their first prayer meeting, in which all of the congregations in Nashville were invited, 500 people attended. “It was amazing to hear members that were 60, 70 years old saying, ‘I’ve been praying for this for 30 years,’” said Fordham.
Wetmore shared that his and Fordham’s conversations get uncomfortable at times. “As much as we have in common, we also have differences. Different life experiences. It’s important for both of us to listen to each other. . . . I need to hear [what he has to say]. I need to process it. What I’ve really appreciated out of our relationship is I’ve been able to ask questions that aren’t politically correct and get answers back that aren’t politically correct. It’s been eye-opening for me.”
At their second prayer meeting, they encouraged members to have those same conversations and provided a platform for them to be able to do so. They brought in an expert on relationship building to do a workshop for the audience. That second meeting brought in over 800 people, packed into a church that only seats 700.
“Our church members are hungry for this. They’re hungry to come together.” said Wetmore.
Through the experience, the congregations have grown not just across the color lines of the regional and state conferences; they have also set aside the competition that is sometimes felt among churches within the same conference. “What we’re seeing out of this is that instead of seeing ourselves as individual churches competing with one another, we’re starting to see ourselves as one body of Christ working in Nashville,” concluded Wetmore.
The Report from the Adventist Learning Community followed. The ALC team shared that one of the top five Google searches on Sunday morning is “churches near me.” Over 18,000 times a month “how to pray” is searched. “People are hungry,” said Adam Fenner, director of the ALC.
The ALC offers over 10,000 continuing education resources on its site for ministers, educators, administrators, and lay members. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people train on the site each month, 82% of whom are in the NAD. “The mission of the Adventist Learning Community is to train people to be ministers of the gospel wherever they’re at. We want to take people from passive to active church membership,” said Fenner.
Other initiatives from the NAD include iBelieve Bible for 12-20 year olds and The Haystack for 20-35 year olds. iBelieve Bible interacts with 110,000 people a week while The Haystack interacts with over 30,000 a month. The content on the sites is developed by a team of young adults, all under the age of 35.
“What we need is Adventist Buzzfeed. We need an army of young people building resources and content for young people to interact with online…We have pastors who minister to 65 people a week at a full time salary. I have someone on staff who interacts with 60,000 people a week at $12 an hour. We need to invest more in online ministry,” concluded Fenner.
The next report came from Verified Volunteers, the company that provides training and background screening for church volunteers in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.
Almost 25,000 Adventist volunteers have been trained this past year through the Verified Volunteers website, and over 20,000 have completed the background screening. Of those screened, there was a 16% hit rate for violations. Of violations, 85% were traffic offenses, 12% were misdemeanors, and 3% were felonies. Additionally, nine registered sex offenders were found through screening.
One of the last agenda items before lunch was a report on Gorgeous2God, a blog for teen girls and young women. The blog, which launched in January 2017, is reaching on average 60,000 people a month, with 94% of followers between the ages of 13 and 24.
Erica Jones, assistant director for Women’s Ministries, reported that the most popular section of the blog is “Guy Talk.” Another popular section is the confidential Q&A page where readers can write in with questions or issues they’re struggling with and receive guidance from a team of female Adventist mentors. "It's a privilege when teens and young adults come to us with their questions. Let's give them a safe place to land," Jones said.
A variety of presentations followed after lunch including Your Best Pathway to Health, ASI Ministries, AIM, and more. The bulk of the time, however, was spent on finishing up and voting on policy items that had been discussed earlier in the meetings.
Thomas Evans, NAD treasurer, came back to the podium to discuss the policy items to be voted in the Finance Agenda. The conversation that began the previous day on regional capital reversion funds was also continued. NAD officials were able to meet with the regional conference presidents the evening before concerning the topic. A resolution was not reached during the discussion, and the group concluded that future conversations should include officials from the Hispanic churches since both the regional and Hispanic capital reversion funds and scholarships could be impacted by any decision that is reached.
G. Alexander Bryant, NAD executive secretary, shared that the recommendation from the group that met was to allow an enabling action so the NAD administration can continue the discussion process and be authorized to follow up on that process with budget adjustments if necessary if an increase is agreed upon. The motion carried with 108 yes, 26 no, and zero abstained.
The policy item that took up a surprising amount of time was Children Protection and Volunteer Screening. The current policy requires that any church volunteer who works directly with children must go through the training and background screening by Verified Volunteers. The proposed updated policy was expanded to include more individuals. It reads:
All volunteers referenced in this section include all adults, over the age of 18, involved in any capacity in children and youth ministries and activities, and all church ministry leaders and officers voted or appointed by the local church consistent with the SDA Church Manual; volunteers voted or appointed by the conference, union, or the North American Division and its affiliates as well as all registered volunteers either from within or outside the North American Division voted or appointed to serve in the territory.”
The majority of delegates who spoke to the amendment were in favor. However, some expressed concern and felt the background screening was a violation of privacy and blurred the line between church and state. Still others said that though they were in favor of the amendment, they were having a hard enough time implementing the policy in its current state, let alone if it was expanded.
One delegate said that when he tries to require his volunteers to go through the training and background screening, they point to the General Conference Church Manual and say the only requirement there is to be a member in good and regular standing; therefore, they don’t have to do the background check. Several other delegates stood and shared similar stories of difficulties with implementation.
Karnik Doukmetzian, general counsel for the GC and NAD, reminded the body that the church is legally obligated to vet any volunteer who has interactions with children. If appropriate background checks are not done, the church can be held liable and financially responsible for any misconduct that then takes place which has happened in the past. “We’ve paid millions of dollars in losses because of people we brought into our midst,” Doukmetzian told the delegates, adding that he could tells stories from the hundreds of cases he’s had to deal with on this topic.
Dan Weber, director of communication, spoke in favor of the amendment saying, “We have way too many of these cases. We have to do everything we can on our part; the intent has to be there. We may not get 100%, but we’ve got to try. . . . And what do you tell the parent of a child when you say, ‘I’m sorry, we wanted to protect the privacy of the volunteers, so we didn’t protect you’?”
After the lengthy discussion, the amended policy passed with 120 yes, eight no, and one abstained.
A motion from the floor was then made that in addition to the updated policy, the NAD make a recommendation to the GC that it “strengthen the language in the Church Manual to include this policy for the protection of our children.” The motion passed with 109 yes, four no, and zero abstained.
A change to the NAD’s policy on sports in schools also generated passionate discussion. The current policy states that schools should not be engaged in intramural or interscholastic sports at all. Larry Blackmer, vice president for education, told the delegates that they know most schools are engaging in sports activities anyway, and so the policy should be amended to require any schools doing so to have a sports policy in place.
Blackmer explained that sports policies are needed so that guidance can be offered on issues such as traveling on a Sabbath afternoon to play a game on Saturday night, what GPA athletes are required to maintain, and the importance of properly training coaches.
Maurice Valentine, president of the Lake Union, moved that the wording be amended so that the preamble to the policy make clear that the Adventist Church still does not condone sports activity. After some back and forth over wording, the motion was that the policy preamble read “the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not encourage the spirit of competition.” Another delegate was quick to offer a point of clarification, saying this would also include the church’s Bible Bowls and all other forms of competition. The amended motion failed with 16 yes, 97 no, and four abstained. It was the only motion of the year-end meetings that failed.
The original motion as proposed by Larry Blackmer carried with 99 yes votes, seven no, and two abstained.
The meetings finally concluded at 6:30 p.m. The North American Division Executive Committee will meet again a year from now for the 2018 year-end meetings.
You can watch the entire business session on the North American Division’s Facebook page.
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
Image Credit: SpectrumMagazine.org
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