The General Conference Executive Committee voted warnings for six union conferences on October 15, 2019, because they ”have taken actions that are not in harmony with Working Policy and practices on credentials” or “actions that are not in harmony with voted actions of the General Conference Session and the General Conference Executive Committee placing them in persistent non-compliance.”
Warnings were first voted for the Danish Union of Churches Conference, Norwegian Union Conference, and the Swedish Union of Churches Conference all in the Trans European Division, plus The North German Union Conference in the Inter–European Division. The vote was 164 yes to 124 no.
Public reprimand had been recommended for the presidents of two unions in the North American Division — the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference. However, an amendment to the motion on reprimand was offered and approved by the Committee that changed their status to warning. The vote approving the warning for them was 190 yes to 94 no.
In the document recommending discipline, given to Committee Members the night before, the General Conference administration laid out their case saying that on June 6, 2019, “a letter to certain division presidents requesting they follow up with perceived non-compliant entities within their territory, regarding plans they may have to come into compliance with voted policies and actions of the General Conference Executive Committee.” The recipients were requested to provide their reports by August 22.
After an hour of explanation from General Conference President Ted N. C. Wilson about the lack of response and meetings in September about the issue, the floor was finally about to be opened for discussion, but first there was a need to determine how long each person could speak. Victor Marley, president of the Norwegian Union, was first to the microphone. He began by calling attention to the short time frame that had been created by the distribution of the recommendation to the delegates only the night before. Referencing the discussion on the proposed changes for the Church Manual which had occurred earlier in the day, he suggested that he and his fellow conference presidents had not been given two weeks’ notice of this possible action. In the Church Manual, Chapter 7, page 65, under Fundamental Rights of the Members, it says, “No church should vote to discipline a member under circumstances that deprive the member of these rights. Written notice must be given at least two weeks before the meeting and include the reasons for the disciplinary hearing.” (The proposed change to the section spells out the word meeting to include church board meeting and two weeks before the business meeting.)
Regarding how much time would be allotted to speakers at the microphone, Marley asked that the presidents of the unions be given four minutes to speak rather than the two minutes being generally allotted. His request was granted and the presidents were told they could speak at any time — either before the rest of the house was allowed to comment or whenever they wanted. Wilson also responded to Marley’s suggestion that they had not been given proper notice saying, “Yes. Just to respond to you, you had more than two weeks' notice. You actually had at least one-year notice.”
As the discussion continued about the four conferences in Europe, Wilson responded to every person who came to the microphone.
Robert Sjolander, president of the Swedish Union was the first of the European presidents to speak. He proudly said that one third of their Union pastors are women. But he noted that the women were not pushing to be ordained. Because the Union wants to uphold Fundamental Belief #14 about equality, their union committee decided not to ordain anyone. Instead, commissioned credentials are given to both men and women. Regarding the 2018 Annual Council Actions, he said that the organizational level closest to them is the Trans-European Division, and that a process with the Division has been underway with meetings, but that more time is needed. Then he asked, “What happened to the possibility of appeal?
Wilson assured him of his right to appeal in spite of the fact that ADCOM decided not to use the Compliance Committees which were the place appeals were to be registered. Sjolander responded that he was asking about the right to appeal the recommendation that had been distributed the night before.
Wilson responded that the process was to go through the Division. Sjolander returned to the recommendation that had been distributed the night before — “that’s what I want to appeal according to what we decided last fall, but you’ve taken away that,” he said.
“Your division should have informed you of what the approach was going to be,” Wilson replied.
“Sir, I’m very disappointed. What we voted is policy and we are not following that. I am very saddened to hear about this. Very sad,” Sjolander concluded.
Norwegian Union Conference President Marley was the next president to speak. He had three questions: 1) Who is next on the list for warnings? 2) How ADCOM planned to address the inconsistencies between other church policies that require equal treatment of employment to all, and 3) the exit strategy for all this. “So, I would like some information, Mr. Chairman, on what GC ADCOM is doing to address that inconsistency because I think therein lies the key. Are we to do away with our basic principles and fundamental beliefs or are we to do something with the exception clause? Are we an organization that promotes discrimination or not?” he said.
“My third question is this, how does this end, Mr. Chairman? What is your exit strategy? How do you propose that we move on? What we need now are not warnings and reprimands. What we need now is constructive and creative leadership, leadership that brings consensus, not conflict.”
Wilson responded to Marley, thanking him for his opinions, saying, “For me to try and respond to an opinion is a little bit more difficult and we don't have the time, but I will try to do my best.” Regarding other areas for warning, he said financial areas are being considered. “There are a couple other areas that may come into play in the future in terms of institutions or organizations that are not promoting and living up to especially in the area of our biblical understanding of creation. The homosexuality situation is looming large, but we don't have anything at this point where we would have to take action but we could at some point.” Regarding employment discrimination, he noted the policy does have that exception (for pastoral ministry), and the Executive Committee would have to remove that exception.
To the question of the exit strategy, Wilson said, “I have to tell you I'm not quite sure.” He added that he is open to the Lord’s leading.
When it was his turn to speak, Danish Union President Thomas Müller said: At the moment we are commissioning our male pastors, and is that what we are receiving a warning for today? I was expecting something else of the Annual Council.” He said he could live with the warning, but what concerned him was the membership back home, which he said are being alienated from the world church. He also questioned the use of warnings and shaming as a way of discipline and solving problems. He urged the GC to dig a little deeper and find a better way.
Müller and Wilson then debated about the commissioning of pastors. “Did I understand you correctly when you say commissioning pastors is not inside policy?” Müller asked.
“The commissioning is,” Wilson replied, “but not ordaining pastors is not according to policy. As I understand it, you're not ordaining anyone.” Müller said that was correct. Wilson didn’t see any other thing that could be said and he moved on.
North German Union President Johannes Naether, next told the body, “In 2016, our executive committee from North German Union decided, or they voted for a document which was sent to the GC. In this document, we describe our position to the issue of women’s ordination. As we think, we give good people a reason for this issue. Since 2016, no one has spoken with us. We got no reaction to this document. This was three years ago. My question is what do you mean? What is our task furthermore that we have to take and to do in this issue? From my perspective, we are in compliance or in harmony with the working policy. We treat men and women equally. For us, this is a fundamental value, a human right that we think is expressed in the Bible and also in the Fundamental Belief number 14.”
Wilson responded that the reason for the warning to the North German Union is that there is no ordination taking place, only commissioning.
“But no one has spoken to us,” Naether said. “This document was voted in 2016 so for us, I cannot understand what is the problem to get in communication with us.”
“When the item was voted in administrative committee, information was sent to all three divisions. That is their responsibility to communicate with you,” Wilson said.
Retired General Conference President Jan Paulsen was one of the people who commented on the process. He said, “So I'm disappointed that we have this process. I'm also baffled by the fact that we are here setting a precedence which will come into force in respect to many other matters later on when we look at noncompliance in other issues around the world, that we now have started the process of stigmatizing and in this way rebuking publicly individuals. I ask myself, what's the end product of this? Where will it take us? What if they cannot? And we have to remember they have their constituencies, all of them they have to live with. What if they cannot make the changes that some of the leadership here hope for? What is the end product of the process? I fear where this will take us. I cannot see that this is the way God wants us to proceed. Thank you.”
After thanking Paulsen for his comment, Wilson reminded the body that they had voted for this process.
An hour later, it was time to vote on the warnings for the first four unions. The vote was 164 yes, and 124 no.
Next it was time to consider the personal reprimands that had been recommended for the two presidents of the North American Division: Dave Weigley of the Columbia Union and Ricardo Graham of the Pacific Union. Again people lined up at the microphone. Other union conference presidents expressed their support for Weigley and Graham. Gary Thurber, president of the Mid-America Union said, “I did some checking because, you know, we were all worried about things falling apart if all this goes through. Well, eight years ago, or they're in their eighth year of ordaining, in those eight years, the 375,000 members of these two constituencies, their tithe has gone up. Over $2.4 billion of tithe have been remitted these years. Their baptisms are up. Over 76,000 have been baptized. They've gotten clean audits every year for 30 years. They're extremely compliant. Their territories are growing and these are wonderful men of God,” he said.
Victor Marley, Norwegian Union President said, “I stand here of course with the honor of representing one of the first four unions having been warned in this committee and also for that union being faithful to the principles on which this Church is built. But anyway, I would like to propose an amendment to the motion whereby the unions in question are given a warning instead of a public record reprimand.” He offered two reasons for the amendment:
“First of all, I don't understand why we voted a process which began with a warning and then a reprimand, why we're stepping over the first step in that process in the case of these two unions. I think that is wrong, and I also think that it is unreasonable, as has been said, to reprimand individuals who are simply carrying out the vote of the vast majority of their constituents, those they represent.” The amendment he proposed was that these two unions also be given a warning and not a reprimand. The chair accepted the amendment and after discussion, the vote to amend was passed 162 to 92.
The amendment vote came as the discussion on the motion was coming to an end. Weigley and Graham were given an opportunity to speak before the final vote. Weigley pointed out that the process before the Executive Committee had been one sided and he asked for an opportunity in the future to respond to the body about the Union’s story. Graham expressed a concern that existing policy, B 95, dealing with noncompliance was never referenced. He asked why there was a need to create another policy. He also said no one ever came to meet with the Union’s Executive Committee. “I'm not a unilateral leader. No one came to pray with us and talk to us and convince the people who make the decisions to move in a different direction.” He concluded by saying, “I want to declare that I am a Seventh-day Adventist today. I'll be a Seventh-day Adventist tomorrow regardless of what this vote does, I'll be a Seventh-day Adventist believing in the 28 fundamental doctrines, believing in spirit of prophecy, believing in the Bible until the day I die. That is not a question. And nobody in the Pacific Union is talking about leaving the world church, as I have heard some people say. Finally, if this vote fails and we decide to reprimand, I will wear it as a badge of honor standing up for equality, recognizing the gifts in men and women that God gives. Thank you, sir.”
The final vote of the day was on the original motion, now amended to a warning. It passed 190 to 94.
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Image: Ricardo B. Graham, President, Pacific Union Conference, North American Division, (NAD). Debate regarding warning and public reprimand of unions. General Conference Annual Council 2019, October 12-16, 2019. Photo by Tor Tjeransen, courtesy of the Adventist News Network on Flickr.
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