A Brief Reflection on the Sabbath Sermon
Somewhat in line with his administrative legacy, Ted Wilson models a distinctive homiletical style that feels more like a string of fine points than broad concepts. For over 70 minutes during the 2022 GC Session, he preached a 25-point sermon titled “Hold Fast What You Have.” During the last dozen years or so, the titles of GC Session and Annual Council Sabbath sermons appear interchangeable, as they often have little to do with that day’s details. This Sabbath’s message, “Repairers of the Breach—God’s End-Time People,” aggregated Scripture texts and Ellen G. White quotes (and several compilation recommendations) for one hour and 11 minutes to ultimately encourage comprehensive health evangelism. At times, an ideological tension emerged in Wilson’s discourse. While emphasizing the need to help humans physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually, Wilson also warned against the Social Gospel. Encyclopedia Britannica defines the Social Gospel as a “religious social reform movement prominent in the United States from about 1870 to 1920. Advocates of the movement interpreted the kingdom of God as requiring social as well as individual salvation and sought the betterment of industrialized society through application of the biblical principles of charity and justice.”
Perhaps the most emotionally engaging part of the sermon occurred 40 minutes in when Wilson shared an anecdote of how he dislocated his right shoulder as an Andrews University student sliding into home during a baseball game. The story may not have been in the notes, but he was able to connect it to a point about the health message being the right arm of the gospel. After reading a quote from White’s Welfare Ministry, Wilson drew his message to a semi-climax by reading Matthew 25:34–40 and verbally underlining the need to serve Christ by helping the least of these. For the final 10 minutes, Wilson then read and commented on passages from additional White books, Christ’s Object Lessons, Testimonies for the Church vol. 9, p. 19, and then later from Testimonies for the Church vol. 9, p. 117. He concluded with an appeal for practical Christianity.
Business Resumes on Sunday
After a Friday and Sabbath of mostly inspirational meetings, business continued on Sunday, October 9. The morning brought a report from the secretariat department and the afternoon saw a long list of nominating committee reports. But the most dramatic portion of the day came when General Conference leaders presented changes to the Adventist Accrediting Association that will give the GC more control over Adventist higher education, continuing a theme established at the first business meeting when Wilson emphasized the goal to “keep Seventh-day Adventist education Seventh-day Adventist.”
Erton C. Köhler, GC executive secretary, introduced his department’s report in sweeping terms. “The Seventh-day Adventist Church fulfilled the great commission,” he said. “It left North America to go to Europe and from Europe; we went to the ends of the earth.” But while the denomination spread rapidly throughout the world in the 20th century, now over 90% of Adventist members reside in many of those areas that early missionaries targeted.
For a look at where the membership numbers are at today, David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics, and Research, discussed trends both from recent years and earlier in church history. The number of new church members went down during the first year of the pandemic and only partially recovered in 2021. Still, total church membership has continued to rise, at least according to the recorded numbers. In a moment of useful candor, Trim shared that mortality rates indicate the official numbers are likely inflated, with names remaining on the rolls that should be removed.
In a theme that he has pushed at many recent church meetings, Trim also shared about how 42% of members have left the church since 1965. According to the GC’s research, people rarely leave because of theological differences but rather due to life changes, conflicts in their church community, or feeling uncared for. Most people “slipped through the cracks,” Trim said.
“Addressing [the] low retention rate is a real challenge,” said Gerson Santos, GC associate secretary, taking the stage to address what the church is doing to stem the losses. In 2013, the church held a first Nurture and Retention Summit, with another meeting in 2019. Recommendations that have been developed include local churches or organizing bodies having a regular membership review process, actively reaching out to former or inactive members. Dovetailing with the remarks from David Trim, Undersecretary Hensley Moorooven presented on the strategic initiative to have a “redemptive membership review” that tries to establish more accurate numbers, reaching out to inactive members and removing names when necessary.
The final part of the Secretary’s Report looked at missionaries (international service employees in the official current terminology). The number of Adventist missionaries sent out peaked in 1970 but has been in decline since. The drop is especially evident when comparing the number of missionaries to church members.
With its “Reach the World: I Will Go” strategic plan, the current administration prioritizes revitalizing international mission work. For new roles, the church has developed a scoring system to classify different positions around the world based on need and potential impact. The thought and effort expended for cross-cultural mission work are evident, but they also contrast with the much smaller emphasis put on discipleship and efforts to retain members.
At the beginning of the afternoon, the nominating committee returned eight reports for final approval by the full executive committee. Positions included division field secretaries, Euro-Asia Division leaders, editors of major church magazines and Sabbath school guides, and members of the International Board of Education and International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education.
Incumbents were reelected for the majority of positions. David Trim will continue as director of the Archives, Statistics, and Research Department and Clifford Goldstein will continue as editor of the adult Sabbath school quarterly.
Some notable transitions include Justin Kim as the new executive editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. Last month, Spectrum broke the news that Bill Knott was not going to be reappointed to that position and that Kim was Ted Wilson’s favorite for the next editor. Most recently, Kim has been associate director of the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department. He is also known for being one of the founders of Generation. Youth. Christ (GYC) earlier in his career.
The nominating committee reports also revealed the next career destination for Knott, who was chosen to be the new associate director of the GC Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department. He addressed the executive committee, saying that he “thoroughly enjoyed the last 16 years” leading the Adventist Review and that Kim has his “complete support.”
Changes to the Adventist Accrediting Association (AAA)
At the end of the afternoon, the business meeting opened the constituency meeting for AAA, the organization responsible for accrediting Adventist universities and postgraduate programs worldwide. But as Karnik Doukmetzian, GC general counsel, explained, a significant change had been made to AAA’s governing documents. In the past, the AAA constituency, which carries the authority to change its bylaws, was its board of directors. On September 26, the board changed its policies to establish the GC Executive Committee as its official constituency. “All of you here in this room now form the constituency of AAA,” Doukmetzian said. “As a result, any amendments to the bylaws, the constituency meeting, the appointment of the board, all of those functions that the constituency has are now transferred to you in this body.” According to Doukmetzian, the change is to bring AAA in line with all the other GC entities also governed directly by the executive committee.
With the new constituency session opened, the names for the next term of the AAA board were brought for a vote. Before voting began, Andrea Luxton, president of Andrews University, stepped forward and addressed the committee. Luxton said that she had previously served for three years as the executive secretary of AAA and wanted to emphasize its importance to Adventist education. “I do have a question,” she said, “because one of the I think strengths of AAA has been that is a peer organization. . . . As I look at the committee now, it seems to have shifted from that peer focus. It seems to be way, way heavier in administration. . . . There may be a good reason for that, but it does just seem a significant shift, and I think it will shift the tone of AAA.”
“There is a good answer for that,” Ted Wilson responded. “There is good balance that needs to take place between academia and those who are, in addition to academia, in charge of scholastic levels of achievement and objectives. And it is with full intentionality that these administrators are now on this board. I will not comment further. But we intend to have a very robust emphasis on making AAA truly the highest standard possible. Inclusion of some of these administrators is going to help in doing that.”
Putting the General Conference in a position to have greater control over Adventist higher education aligns with the tone Wilson established at the outset of the 2022 Annual Council. “Keep Seventh-day Adventist education Seventh-day Adventist,” he said in conclusion to an address about education on October 6.
The new AAA board continued on to a vote, passing with 85% yes to 15% no, the closest margin of the 2022 Annual Council, where most other proposals had passed with 98% or higher approval.
“This passes with strong support and we appreciate that very much,” Wilson said.
[video of the full AAA portion of the Sunday afternoon business meeting]
Monday Money Matters
Monday’s Annual Council session started with a moving devotional by Kenia Reyes, senior editorial assistant for General Conference Youth Ministries. Instead of the often impersonal spiritual fare of meeting devotionals, Kenia shared the true story of Loida, a young Adventist woman in Central America who came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. She worked difficult jobs in New York City and encountered incredible hardships while persevering in her faith. The kicker: Loida is her mother.
The most important presentations of the day were the Treasurer’s Report and the General Conference Auditing Service Report. GC Treasurer Paul Douglas themed his report “investing in mission,” which covered three main areas: the GC’s current financial position, its 2023 budget, and the mandated “use of tithe” report. Cash, investments, and net assets are up between 7–9% from a year ago. While the GC is financially “stable,” treasury emphasized that it faces headwinds including inflation, post-pandemic tithe worries, and the dismal decline in mission offerings. Additionally, less than $30 million is left (and only $7.9 million remains unallocated) from the extraordinary tithe windfall from a family who gave the GC $160 million several years ago. The 2023 budget is based on a $3 million expected tithe growth to $78 million and a total income of $146,076,000.
In her General Conference Auditing Service (GCAS) report, Robyn Kajiura, GCAS executive director, noted the gap between what's needed and what's possible. She emphasized that this gap “represents a significant exposure to the church." (Those gaps, driven by a lack of personnel and resources for auditing, can be seen in the percentages on the green bars of the graph below.)
Of the GC entities that do initiate an auditing process with GCAS, 9% receive an “adverse” or “disclaimed” report. An adverse report means the auditor reports “a high level of material misstatements or irregularities . . . in which investors and the government will mistrust the company’s financial reports.” And a report with a disclaimer means the auditor is “distancing themselves from providing any opinion at all related to the financial statements. Some of the reasons that auditors may issue a disclaimer opinion are because they felt like the company limited their ability to conduct a thorough audit or they couldn’t get satisfactory explanations for their questions.” Kajiura also raised a concern that 79% of entities have at least one financial policy violation. Lack of internal controls is a major reason. A growing cause: church organizations struggling with remuneration and retention.
From there, much of the day involved reports—in person and video—from various parts of the General Conference, including Family Ministries, Women’s Ministries, Mission to the Cities, The Ellen G. White Estate, and the Biblical Research Institute. In a very rare non-GC entity presentation and showing his affinity for the fundamentalist-inclined self-supporting parts of Adventism, Ted Wilson introduced the executive team of Outpost Centers International. The bulk of their report was pictures of their institutions in various countries around the world. Many of these presentations could have been emailed to the executive committee, thereby saving money and time. The executive leaders sit in an auditorium for days with few impactful decisions to make. There have been no dramatic or close votes about the direction of the denomination or even policy to openly debate and decide.
For a second meeting, the video feed was disabled during a sensitive report on the Euro-Asia Division. This leaves the laity and the independent press in the dark on an important topic. Allowing in-person attendance—like at every GC Session—would remedy this.
More Coverage of the 2022 Annual Council meetings:
Remaining schedule for Spectrum’s coverage:
Tuesday–Wednesday, October 11–12: executive committee business meetings
Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum
Alex Aamodt is managing digital editor and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.
Title image: Paul H. Douglas, General Conference treasurer, presents the treasurer report on Monday morning, Oct. 10, 2022, by Enno Mueller / Adventist Media Exchange (CC BY 4.0)
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