Report on the 2022 North Pacific Union Constituency Session

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Published:
August 10, 2022

The broader cultural battles of America have reached church business meetings, whether Seventh-day Adventist administrators are ready for them or not. On August 7, the North Pacific Union Conference Constituency Session met at the Adventist Community Church of Vancouver in Washington State. The most contentious item was a proposed amendment to the union’s constitution and bylaws to encourage nominating and hiring diverse candidates, a vote that would come down to a single-digit margin.

The North Pacific Union includes just over 100,000 Adventists in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. In the proposed additions to the bylaws, appointments to union committees would need to “include consideration of diversity in gender, age, race and ethnicity,” and the nominating committee would need to “consider at least one woman and one ethnic or racial minority” for open positions. 

According to Doug Palmer, a lawyer and lay member of the NPUC Constitution and Bylaws Committee who introduced the proposal, his original inspiration came from the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” a requirement that NFL teams must interview at least one ethnic-minority candidate for open head coaching jobs. “We have a lot of old white men who tend to have these leadership roles,” Palmer said of the proposal’s goals. “If we aren’t naturally identifying a person of color or [a] woman to fill these leadership roles, we need to be sure that we’re doing that.” 

Palmer first took the idea of an interview requirement to Bill McClendon, NPUC vice president for administration and chair of the committee, but was advised that the Adventist Church’s process for “calling” pastors and administrators is not the same as interviewing candidates in the business world. Rather than advertising open positions, administrators often reach out to people they think would be good candidates and then nominating committees follow with official invitations. Coming from a business perspective, the process “feels off,” Palmer said, “but it is what it is.” He shifted his focus to the language of “consideration,” with the hope that even without requiring a certain number of minority interviews, the change would encourage current administrators to look beyond their usual professional networks. The constitution and bylaws committee embraced the idea, Palmer said, and over approximately five meetings throughout 2022 refined the language.

Yet when introduced to delegates as the final major voted item of the day, the reception was mixed. Multiple delegates voiced concern about how diversity in gender might be interpreted and wanted a “biblical definition” of gender. Others objected to the concept of promoting diversity in hiring at all. “The world is having inroads into the church, and the social definitions of diversity, inclusion, and equity [are] completely different than the biblical, traditional definitions,” said Vincent Onkoba, a delegate from the Upper Columbia Conference. 

Byron Dulan, vice president for regional ministries for the NPUC, spoke in favor of the motion. “This is about including, and I can speak as an African American born in America, that that has not always happened,” he said. “Just read the history of America.” As the NPUC contains no regional conferences, Dulan’s office oversees all the regional ministry work in the union—a part of the country that still grapples with a troubling racial legacy

The discussion stretched for more than half an hour. Some members of the audience began to clap and shout “amens” in response to speakers, and NPUC President John Freedman admonished the crowd to keep the meeting “a serious discussion among friends.” 

Doug Palmer watched the proceedings from the stage, as he had been asked to serve as the reporting secretary for the constitution and bylaws committee. “I was a little shocked at some of the comments,” he said later. After entering the day “cautiously optimistic” about the chances of passage, he became more concerned as he listened to the dialogue. 

The vote was held with the electronic devices used throughout the day, and the final tally was 63% in favor of adopting the language, 37% against. As constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority, the motion failed; with 217 votes registered, it fell short by eight votes. 

Palmer saw the opposition as related to wider movements in society. “We’re in a polarized age in the United States,” he said afterward. “The politics of the world is pushing its way into the politics of the church.”

Officer Elections Mean More of the Same

While much of the session’s energy focused on constitutional changes, the first half of the day also brought union departmental reports and officer elections. G. Alexander Bryant, North American Division president, opened with an energetic devotional, telling the audience that “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church when the church plays offense.” As is customary, Bryant had also chaired the union nominating committee before the session. 

John Freedman then gave his presidential report. He began by saying there wasn’t time to share everything that had gone on throughout the union but then spent more than five minutes giving what amounted to a mini-sermon to the audience, missing an opportunity to provide more details to constituents. In describing the union’s mission, he made a point to emphasize that the union exists to serve the conferences rather than dictate policy. To close his report, Freedman turned to several militaristic analogies. “I want us to think about Dunkirk here,” he said, referencing the famous World War II battle and how English civilians helped rescue thousands of soldiers. The point was people being committed together for a cause, but the Battle of Dunkirk also marked a massive retreat for the Allied forces. Freedman closed by introducing a song about Desmond Doss that had been written for the occasion. 

The secretariat report from Bill McClendon showed a fairly even rate of accessions in the union, averaging around 2% of the membership per year, but with that number cut in half in 2020. The treasury report from CFO Mark Remboldt highlighted clean audit opinions for all years and overall tithe growth in 2016–20. As has been demonstrated in financial reports at other levels of the Adventist Church, the pandemic did not have the negative effect that many feared. One commendable detail was reporting tithe growth versus inflation, which should be standard for all levels of the denomination.  By that mark, the tithe growth rate had been even with the rate of inflation for the past 15 years, with total NPUC tithe reaching $101 million in 2020. Concerningly, tithe per capita has not kept up with inflation.

All of the reports covered the years 2016–2020. Originally, the NPUC Constituency Session was scheduled for 2021 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In material given to the delegates before the session, the union explained that reports would cover the term as originally scheduled to keep on a 5-year reporting cycle. While useful for consistency, this scheduling also resulted in 2021 data being excluded from all reports, preventing a more comprehensive look at the pandemic’s effects. 

The report from César De León, vice president for Hispanic ministries, talked about the growth of Hispanic membership and revealed that in 2020, despite Hispanic members making up 13% of union membership, Hispanic ministries accounted for 22% of all baptisms. Then, in a regrettable scheduling outcome, Byron Dulan was left to give the final morning report. The previous presentations had run over, and by the time Dulan took the stage to report on regional ministries, people were supposed to already be breaking for lunch and the crowd was notably restless. “That’s the problem with giving mics to pastors,” Freedman quipped. If the union wishes to show greater support for its regional ministries, it could start with the schedule.

Officer elections were handled quickly through electronic voting. All of the officers (save for Dennis Plubell, vice president of education, who was retiring) had been reselected by the nominating committee when it met in June. No one spoke on the floor to make any objections to the process. Perhaps exemplifying how such votes often amount to a formality, a prepared slide with all six officers was awkwardly shown before Keith Hallam, the new vice president for education, had been voted. All of the officers received votes of 90% or higher.

Conference Caucuses

The delegates from each conference were supposed to have one and a half hours to eat lunch and select representatives to the union executive committee for the coming term. With the morning running over, that time was cut to around an hour. In the Oregon Conference caucus, there was some confusion about procedure. President Dan Linrud told his constituents that the Oregon Conference Administrative Committee had prepared a list of lay-representatives for the caucus to vote on. Some delegates were concerned by this, but Linrud explained that the union recommended the procedure. The caucus accepted the slate, minus one ineligible name that was replaced in a standalone vote.

When asked for comment after the session, the NPUC provided an email sent by McClendon to the conference presidents. “Some [conference] presidents have suggested that they would like to have their ADCO teams prepare some recommendations for their caucus,” he wrote in the undated message. “Whether you do that or not is entirely up to you.” 

When time is short, preselected names are likely helpful for efficiency. The NPUC’s Constitution and Bylaws state that the method for choosing names is up to the constitutions or executive committees of individual conferences. As the confusion of delegates demonstrated, there is likely room for conferences to provide more education ahead of the session, especially as two-thirds of the delegates were serving for the first time. 

Adventist Health and Walla Walla University Reports

Leaders from Adventist Health were supposed to present in the morning but were moved to the afternoon when the meeting went over due to the poor time management from NPUC officers. The Adventist Health board is chaired by a union president, despite being an independent nonprofit health system. Previously chaired by the Pacific Union president, in 2021, John Freedman assumed the position due to a tradition that it switches unions with each presidential change. Adventist Health has $5.2 billion in annual revenue and operates in more than 80 communities on the West Coast and Hawaii, most of which are found outside the NPUC.

Walla Walla University is the sole Adventist higher education entity in the union, and President John McVay led its report. The university’s new vice president for finance, Prakash Ramoutar, also took the stage, reporting that the school saw a profit every year during the period. However, McVay also shared that enrollment had dropped by around 300 students since 2016. Multiple times throughout the day, Freedman made comments about how the union has “a jewel” in Walla Walla University and called for constituents to support needed capital projects.

What Was Missing

In the wake of the neighboring Mid-America Union voting to allow women’s ordination in 2021, some constituents in the NPUC expressed frustration about the lack of movement in their territory. In the Mid-America Union, it was a conference president who made a motion to put women’s ordination on the agenda several years before the constituency session. With ordination not placed on the NPUC agenda beforehand, there was little opportunity for the issue to be addressed. “Honestly, I’m okay with them not bringing it to the table because I think it would have been more divisive,” said Lori Rusek, a delegate from the Washington Conference. Rusek supports women’s ordination but thinks individual conferences have been able to support women in ministry. “I feel like Washington Conference is very affirming,” she said. 

For those in the NPUC advocating for more diversity, there will be future opportunities. “I believe the bylaw changes as they were proposed, the actual wording . . .  would have passed,” said delegate Larry Witzel. “But because they were labeled with the title ‘diversity and inclusion,’ those are trigger words for a segment of people.” Witzel, who was selected to serve on the union executive committee for the coming term, thinks the language will be back in some form. “Look, the denomination has so much work to do in increasing representation to where it needs to be,” he said.

The NPUC officers kept the tone collegial throughout the session. On a day when temperatures outside the building brushed triple digits, approaching local records for the date, nothing boiled over inside the sanctuary. But while the officers expressed gratitude to their constituents, including for their faithfulness in giving tithe and offerings, better time management and adequate time for caucusing could have helped demonstrate those sentiments. With the next session set for 2026, the union will only have to wait four, instead of five, years to do so. 

 

The defeated changes to the NPUC Constitution and Bylaws, along with two other sets of amendments that were adopted by the delegates, can be viewed on the NPUC website, along with a recording of the session.

 


Alex Aamodt is managing digital editor and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.

Title photo by the author.

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