When I first read about the resignations of the four men associated with La Sierra University, I was sick at heart. The details are "unique" by any standard. And that's understatement. The story provides its own form of gallows humor. It's simultaneously comedic and tragic. There's a kind of primal comeuppance in the turn of events. But what a tragedy, whatever one's perspective.
As is almost always the case in the Adventist Church, details dribble out slowly and incompletely. There's rarely enough information to make valid, rational assessments. So onlookers operate on a lot of assumptions and extrapolations. Failure to release adequate information works wonderfully to ensure that no church leader or group of leaders can be held accountable—because, when taken to task, they can always come back with: "But you don't have all the facts."
And they're right. We'll probably never have all the facts. But what church leaders overlook is that members/onlookers always have something that substitutes for facts: It's called perception. In the absence of facts, perception is the "reality" on which concerned onlookers will base their response. Simply withholding information never leaves the church public feeling respected, fairly treated or a truly valued part of the organization.
As a people who wrap ourselves in the title "God's Remnant Church," it would seem we would always have as our default setting to bring healing and rehabilitation, restoration and salvation, instead of immediately moving to the accusation/punishment/execution phase. I would hope that we would concentrate our initial energies on saving and salvaging. However, the La Sierra debacle suggests we've not yet fully grasped that biblical priority. Instead, this bizarre saga quickly morphed into a game of "Gotcha!"
I have no way of knowing how many people had already listened to the faculty-meeting segment of the recording (the part the LSU board member intentionally recorded and intentionally circulated to at least a few) by the time it reached the North American Division headquarters office. Likewise, I don't know how many—if any—had discovered that the recording included a surprise addendum.
I've read no posted comments from any who say they'd already heard the unintentionally recorded part of the material before the news came out about the four forced resignations. That doesn't mean it hadn't been discovered by others. It just means I've not heard about it. (The lawsuit seems to speculate that the private conversation hadn't yet been discovered by others.) What I'm suggesting is that the unintended segment of the recording might not have yet become anything like "viral" by the time it reached the NAD office. It might have still been possible to contain it. I don't know. But it appears that no attempts were made to contact the man who originally sent it out to see what might be done to effect some damage control. Instead, the energies were spent building gallows, so to speak.
Further, I don't know if the recording was sent to the NAD specifically because of the damning post-faculty-meeting material, or if that material was accidentally discovered for the first time at the NAD office. It seems it was discovered at the NAD office. What we do know—if the Spectrum timeline is correct—is that a mere 10 days had passed from the original recording until the tape had been listened to by NAD officials, professionally transcribed, and sent to the chairman of the LSU Board.
Despite Jesus' model of focusing on salvation rather than condemnation, there's no suggestion that NAD personnel immediately contacted the four men from LSU to alert them to the recording's existence and to see if any steps might be taken to curtail further distribution and to discuss with them what solution might be worked out that would be most beneficial to the church, to the university, to the four men, to everyone.
By no means was this a matter involving just four men who were in various ways related to LSU. There are always ripples. At times, tsunamis. Serious questions need to be asked before action is taken. What about the impact on the employees' families if the men were terminated (whether by firing or by forced resignation)? What would be the impact on other LSU employees if the university's clearly articulated and openly published promises of due process were swept aside and ignored? What about the impact on the students, who had only a week of school left—a week that included exams, a time when they needed as few distractions as possible?
What about the chilling effect that such an action would have on the upcoming graduation ceremonies? What about the damage to the image of the university (which was already, justly or unjustly, embroiled in a major public-relations challenge because of the creation controversy? What about the image of the North American Division and General Conference (which had already raised the ire of many LSU supporters by taking the unusual step of overturning the accreditation recommendation of a highly qualified site-visit team of Adventist educators? What about the impact on secular accreditation?
My question is: Would the course of action have been the same if Dr. Cox's biblical perspective of the true nature of our mission had been foremost in the minds of the decision makers? Or if they'd taken into account the practical, down-to-earth principles that Pastor Coe advocated? Or if even the Golden Rule had been uppermost? Or if the duly voted employee promises of the university had been adhered to? Somewhere, there was a major spiritual disconnect.
A Systemic Problem. Even if the behavior of the LSU employees merited firing, the response of LSU's board chairman was inappropriate when viewed from a spiritual perspective. But he's not alone in having made wrong choices. A majority of the university board was unable to acknowledge that their chairman had made a mistake that carried in its wake the potential for tragic repercussions. Too many on the board , I would suggest, had been too well trained in the belief that defense of the organization is a member's first priority, no matter what. The system is always right. When there was no movement on the part of the hierarchy, the ex-employees filed a lawsuit, which merely pushed official denials to a higher level. The chief counsel in the General Conference's Office of General Counsel has declared for the record that the lawsuit filed by the three LSU employees is "without merit."
Since I'm not a lawyer, I can't speak with any professional authority about what constitutes legal "merit" and what doesn't. Since even lawyers seem divided on the topic, I'm not sure the GC chief counsel's pronouncement is anything more than a PR statement to rally the faithful and to dismiss as unworthy, undeserving and ridiculous the concerns of the plaintiffs. What I can comment on, though, is the mission statement of the General Conference Office of General Counsel. It says:
The Office of General Counsel in advising and representing the Church and its institutions shall in all matters and at every opportunity give legal counsel consistent with the laws of the applicable jurisdiction. Above and beyond basic legal requirements, the Office of General Counsel advises the Church as to what appears to be fair, just, moral and equitable, thereby seeking to direct the Church toward a position of moral and social leadership in harmony with scripture and reflective of Christian love (emphasis mine).
If I read that statement correctly, it says that not only are things going to be done appropriately according to the law, they're also going to be done in such a manner that the average pastor, the average layperson, the average onlooker will recognize that a high standard of spirituality is being met. That's the promise. And when the chief legal counsel says that the case filed by the three former employees of LSU is "without merit," he's definitely not adequately addressing the spiritual aspects and implications of what has taken place.
If he had said, "In light of the fact that the courts in the United States are extremely hesitant to take any action that might appear to breach the wall of separation between church and state; and in light of the fact that [at least some of] the men in question admit to violating a fundamental belief of our church, in our opinion destroying their spiritual credibility and rendering them ineligible to stand before our young people in a classroom or to lead out in any activities of the university; and in light of the fact that we're willing to spend however much is necessary to win this case (and our pockets are very deep): It's my opinion that the plaintiffs don't stand a chance of victory in this lawsuit--because we're going to win." If he'd said that, I would have to agree that he might well be right. (I wouldn't bet the family farm on the chances of victory for the three plaintiffs. As they'll discover soon enough, the church will fight them with the ferocity of tigers.)
But if the General Conference's chief legal counsel is going to live up to the high ideals of his mission statement, he should also say: "But let me hasten to add that while these men are guilty of breaking their promises to the church, made at the time of their baptism and reiterated at the time of their employment by the La Sierra University, they have reason to be angry at how they've been dealt with--because the university (by actions taken by the board chair and validated by the board itself) has clearly broken its promises of due process, promises that have been restated every time the various university handbooks have been updated and reprinted/reposted. While, legally, I believe we hold winning cards, we've done a botch job spiritually and should hang our heads in shame. There's a lot of confessing and apologizing that needs to go on, because, win or lose on the legal front, our leadership's actions haven't been stellar on the spiritual front." If he'd added that statement, I could agree with him even more strongly.
But cavalier, dismissive, sweeping statements such as "without merit" miss the spiritual mark badly.
Before You Ask . . . Allow me to comment on one issue that’s certain to be raised concerning what I've said here: If our mission is to save rather to condemn, why have I condemned the actions of the LSU board chairman, board and president as I have? Simply for this reason: The goal—the default setting—must always be redemption, healing and restoration. But that doesn't mean we turn a blind eye to wrong behavior. Jesus response to the woman caught in adultery avoided personal condemnation while acknowledging the impropriety of her behavior. Similarly, we should approach problems from the perspective of constructive resolution rather than condemnatory retribution, while always facing the facts. That's what we should want for the LSU4. And that's also what we should want for those leaders who've greatly exacerbated the problem by not approaching it from a correct perspective and by defaulting on our corporate promises.
I don't want anyone at any level thrown under the bus. I want us to work our way through such issues in a manner that seeks to save rather than to condemn. But for that to happen, we first must have an environment conducive to resolution. And, frankly, the due-process approach promised by the official publications of La Sierra University would have created just such an environment. That's why LSU personnel have spent hundreds of collective hours refining those documents over many years—just so such debacles can be prevented. Following corporate rules isn't rocket science. It's simply a matter of reading and following the instructions. First you do A. Then you do B. Then C. And D.
If the LSU employees who've been terminated, had had to face their peers as called for by protocol, I can imagine the kind of response they would have received: You messed up. But we love you. Now how can we resolve this in a manner that's redemptive for all concerned? ("Wounds from a friend can be trusted . . . "—Proverbs 27:6.) And I would want nothing different for the chairman of the LSU board. I would hope those to whom he's accountable would say: You messed up. But we love you. Now how can we resolve this in a manner that's redemptive for all concerned?
Unfortunately, that kind of spiritual leadership hasn't been forthcoming at any level. Not here. And not in an array of other situations throughout this division during the past few years. Nor is it likely, because it's contrary to a deeply entrenched corporate culture that can’t/doesn't admit mistakes. Instead of discussing nuance and admitting respective culpability, we declare or imply that the church is 100 percent right, and the perspective of the complainers is "without merit." Until we grasp what Christ's mission to save—and ours—is really all about, such totally unnecessary problems will continue to consume our time, our talent and our tithe dollars. What a tragedy.
Post Script. I wrote most of the foregoing article nearly two months ago. Then, on July 4, I received a phone call informing me that one of my nieces, just 36 years old and an exceptional young woman, had taken her own life—probably precipitated by an adverse reaction to a prescription drug known at times to lead to such results (a grim fact that the family now knows but didn't know beforehand). Since then my attention has been directed toward just being there for her family, preparing for a postponed memorial service and editing and working with a designer to produce a small book of some four dozen heart-warming tributes written by family and friends.
The great Dr. Samuel Johnson is purported to have said that nothing so focuses the mind as the knowledge that tomorrow you will hang. I would say something similar about human tragedies. Nothing so changes one's perceptions, one's values, one's priorities as a sudden reminder of how fragile life is and the level of pain and heartache with which some people must deal. Granted the amount of hurt in this world that's totally outside of human control, it's particularly tragic when a lack of judgment creates widespread hurt that doesn't need to exist, thus dragging our focus away from ministering to the victims of very real unavoidable human crises, which is where I think God would prefer to have us expending our energies.
—James Coffin is the Senior Pastor of the Markham Woods Seventh-day Adventist Church in Longwood, Florida.
This is the second half of part four in Pastor Coffin's series on the La Sierra University resignations.
Spiritual Considerations (iv.1)
The Lawyer Factor (ii)