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2023 Annual Council Begins: New Strategic Plan & Adventist Review Rebranding

General Conference Executive Committee at the 2023 Annual Council in Silver Spring, Maryland

The first business session of the 2023 Annual Council began at 9:20 a.m. Friday morning at the General Conference headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Over the last several years, the GC has experimented with slight schedule variations. 2022 saw an additional business meeting added before the weekend (back in 2019, the first business meeting began on Sunday). Last year, the additional meeting took place on Thursday afternoon, but this year the entirety of Thursday was reserved for the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Conference.

This year’s LEAD Conference was focused on “Mission Refocus: Disciple-Making.” Mission Refocus was introduced at the 2022 LEAD Conference, with the first part of the initiative implemented in early 2023 by reorganizing missionaries who work outside of their home division.

At the beginning of Friday’s meeting, Erton Köhler, GC executive secretary, said that there were 422 GC Executive Committee members, along with 70 invitees, who were eligible to attend this year’s Annual Council, with 258 actually attending in person. The auditorium at the GC headquarters was quite full—it has been several years of transition back to meetings that resemble those from before the pandemic, with last year reintroducing a fully in-person event. James Winegardner, the president of Adventist Risk Management, gave the first worship presentation.

The 119-page Annual Council agenda was made available online earlier in the week, as is customary.

2025–2030 Strategic Plan: Simplified

It’s hard to believe, given that it was just last year that we were attending the GC Session, but the cycle of church business is already looking ahead to the next quinquennium. This year, the Future Plans Working Group met in Ouray, Colorado, to create an initial direction for the strategic plan that will govern 2025 to 2030. The group decided to keep the current plan’s title of “I Will Go.” The new plan won’t be voted on and implemented until next year, but church leaders from around the world are supposed to take the preliminary plan back to their territory to discuss revisions.

To provide data that guides the creation of the strategic plan, the church conducts global surveys of both members and church workers. David Trim, director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, presented the latest worldwide results.

Acceptance of some core Adventist doctrines “is not as high as we would ideally like,” Trim said. Over the past 10 years, the number of Adventists who “embrace wholeheartedly” that Ellen White was a prophet has declined 6 percent. One-third of members also report that they believe the soul lives on after death, in conflict with official state-of-the-dead doctrine.

Looking at how church members report their Bible reading habits, there was a significant increase between 2007 and 2013 followed by a plateau in the last five years. Trim noted that it looks like the church’s promotion of personal Bible reading had been effective during the first part of the 2010s but less so recently.

For the upcoming strategic plan, there will also be a shift in terminology. In recent years, church leaders have pushed to utilize key performance indicators (KPIs), of which the current plan has 59. The new plan simplifies things and adopts “measurable goals” instead of KPIs. Most people don’t understand what KPIs are, Trim said, and measurable goals will be easier to translate to a worldwide audience. The number of goals will also be reduced to 21.

Adventist Review New Branding

Justin Kim, who was chosen as the new editor of the Adventist Review at last year’s Annual Council, gave a report about the Review, which will be launching a redesigned website and brand identity. “We loved the mastheads of old,” Kim said about where they had looked for inspiration. A new logo takes inspiration from 19th-century typography and emphasizes the word “Review,” which was a commonality through the years as the magazine saw multiple name changes.

Adventist Review will also look to improve multilingual access through the redesign and increase digital traffic. While Kim mentioned several upcoming video projects, there were few other details about what the new Review website will look like or how the publication will increase its digital audience.

Ted Wilson also reiterated that the Review will be focusing more on digital media. “It is going even more in a digital way, because that is how the world is going,” he said.

Frequent visitors to the Review website will have noticed that over the past year, the paywall that only allowed access to a limited number of articles without paying for a subscription has been dropped—surely welcome to church members who already support the publication through their tithe dollars.

Meeting Transparency Concerns

As the business meeting entered its final hour, GC Vice President Geoffrey Mbwana said the live stream was ending, though there was one final agenda item. Without any further explanation, the public video feed was cut off.

Last year, the General Conference denied Spectrum’s request for press passes to report on the Annual Council meetings in person. One of the GC’s justifications for that decision is the live video stream that allows anyone to view the proceedings. However, Spectrum also noted how the video was abruptly ended without explanation during one session, which the GC later confirmed was to discuss sensitive material related to the Russia-Ukraine war.

When the feed was abruptly ended on Friday, there was again no explanation given. There is past precedent for not broadcasting sensitive geopolitical topics, but the church owes members better explanations for why limiting access to public meetings is necessary—especially given the GC’s recent history of limiting outside press access. It would be simple and appropriate to explain what agenda item is being discussed and the reasons for restricting video access before the cameras go dark. In a system that often discourages transparency, a little effort and intentionality would go a long way.

The 2023 Annual Council continues on Saturday, October 7, with the divine service and sermon by President Ted Wilson. Business meetings will resume on October 8–11.

Alex Aamodt is an editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.

Title image: Screen capture from live video stream of the 2023 General Conference Executive Committee Meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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