Proposed changes to the General Conference’s Working Policy and Bylaws led to the most passionate debate of the 2023 Annual Council during the fourth day of business meetings on Tuesday, October 10. The controversy involved a proposal to have all GC Executive Committee members attend Spring Meeting via video conferencing, rather than a smaller number in person, and to allow more types of policy decisions to be made during the expanded hybrid event.
While GC leaders presented the change as a way to ensure that all executive committee members could participate in the traditionally shorter, finance-focused meeting, some members expressed concerns that it might lead to major church decisions being made without all committee members physically present. Some administrators and laity stated that attending online does not give someone the same voice as being in the room.
In response, GC President Ted Wilson told the executive committee members that they would “have to trust administration” to only conduct routine business during the reconfigured Spring Meeting.
Annual Council and Spring Meeting are the main yearly gatherings of the GC Executive Committee. While all executive committee members, who number 352 this year, are invited to Annual Council, much fewer have traditionally attended Spring Meeting. Before introducing the policy changes, the GC showed a short video outlining the history of the executive committee meetings and how they have evolved. For many years, only a few representatives from the world divisions attended both meetings. In 2000, Annual Council was officially designated as the event which all executive committee members would be invited to attend in person.
Spring Meeting, on the other hand, has remained a smaller two-day event, its main focus being to receive the GC’s audited financial reports and deal with other finance issues. According to the GC, fewer executive committee members have been brought to the meeting in person due to cost concerns.
After the video, GC Undersecretary Hensley Mooroven took the stage to further explain the policy amendments. “Because Annual Council was the only time we had a full committee, there were some items that could be handled only at Annual Council,” he said, adding that with all members present virtually, both meetings can handle the same business. However, if the GC has “matters of [a] substantial nature,” they will be handled with everyone physically present.
As soon as Mooroven moved to send the changes to a vote, members went to the microphones to voice their dissatisfaction.
“We in our division realize that some important, as you may say, substantial issues are good to discuss, if ever possible, face to face,” said Norbert Zens, treasurer of the Inter-European Division. “I remember the discussion on compliance, where it was good that we wrestled with this face to face.”
The compliance discussions Zens referenced took place at Annual Council meetings in 2017 and 2018, when there was vigorous debate about the GC’s attempts to discipline regions of the church that continued to ordain women pastors. Many delegates spoke against the GC’s discipline proposals from the floor during those meetings. In 2017, following a six-hour discussion, one of the harshest proposals was voted down.
Zens also noted the vague language Mooroven used to describe what matters would be handled at the changed Spring Meeting. “I understand that you say substantial matters would be discussed on site, but who defines what is substantial?” Zens said. He asked committee members to consider defining what substantial would mean in this context.
Mooroven responded that there would be “close consultation with divisions” to decide what topics would be addressed at a given meeting.
Victor Marley, president of the Norwegian Union, proposed adding language to defer any Spring Meeting business to Annual Council with a vote of 10% of delegates. It was after Marley’s request that Ted Wilson rose to give a vociferous defense of the original policy amendment.
“You’re going to have to trust administration to work with division administrations,” Wilson said. “You will absolutely know that nothing of huge substance . . . is going to be brought to kind of sneak it past a group.” Wilson identified territorial adjustments as one category that might be done at a Spring Meeting. At this year’s Annual Council, the executive committee voted to remove Ukraine from the Euro-Asia Division as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, a move that potentially could have been done sooner at Spring Meeting if the proposed policy had been in place.
“By God’s grace, we will not try to slip something by people,” Wilson said. To illustrate the commitment to conducting important business in person, he gave the example of the GC flying in members to hold a special meeting in the late 1990s. Although he didn’t name the specific example, the description suggests he was referring to the executive committee meeting that led to President Robert S. Folkenberg’s resignation in 1999. With that, the GC president referenced the biggest scandal in modern GC history—the downfall of another president due to financial impropriety—to illustrate his case for trusting leadership’s commitment to integrity.
Visibly irritated, Neil Nedley, president of Weimar University and a frequent speaker at recent executive committee meetings, made a motion to end debate and proceed directly to a vote. The motion, needing a two-thirds majority, failed after receiving 64.3%. “I think it’s kind of appalling that we’re having this discussion,” Nedley said in response to delegates asking for more clarification. “Do we really lack the trust and confidence in our leadership that way?”
Addressing the power that leadership would have in defining substantial issues, Artur Stele, a GC general vice president, noted that current policy already gives significant power to small numbers of executive committee members. It only takes 15 of the 352 members to conduct “routine” business and 40 members for “non-routine items,” according to the GC Bylaws. In theory, 40 members working together could even dismiss elected church leaders. As it exists, the system is already predicated on a large degree of trust.
“I do trust the current leadership, but we don’t know about the future leadership,” said Niklas Rantanen, a lay member from the Trans-European Division. “Unless, of course, the current leadership is certain who the future leadership is, in which case I don’t trust the current leadership!” The audience responded with laughter. Rantanen asked for safeguards in the policy to ensure that future leaders would be held to the verbal promises being given by the GC.
In the end, the policy changes moved to a final vote. As is typical, the vote passed—though with 20% of the executive committee members in dissent, a higher percentage than most voted actions.
The concerns of some delegates do show, if not a lack of trust, at least a wariness for how much executive power the GC administration ultimately has at its disposal. With memories of the GC’s past threats to punish areas of the church over women’s ordination still fresh, not all delegates were ready to accept verbal promises.
Later in the day, amid other business, Ted Wilson spoke again about what had transpired, bringing up longstanding policies like the 40-person executive committee quorum. “You could elect a General Conference president with 40 people,” he said, but “we never do that.”
“Anyone who is in elected position of the General Conference . . . would never, by God’s grace, take advantage of what is even written in our bylaws,” Wilson continued, “because they would be foolish to do that. And they wouldn’t last very long. So my counsel is that let’s trust each other. And let’s understand that the policies, and even the bylaws which are there, are only to be used in the extreme cases.”
Alex Aamodt is an editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.
Title image: Neil Nedley, president of Weimar University. Photo by Lucas Cardino, Adventist Media Exchange (CC 4.0 license).
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