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At Spring Meeting, General Conference Votes More Control over Adventist Educators

Ted Wilson speaks at General Conference Spring Meeting 2024

On Wednesday, during day two of the General Conference Executive Committee Spring Meeting, President Ted Wilson urged Adventist Church leaders to adopt a proposal to combat worldwide member “slippage” in their affirmation of the 28 fundamental beliefs.

The GC leadership and division officers held a special meeting following the 2023 Annual Council that created three subcommittees, which then proceeded to meet in recent months and develop each part of the plan. “Please understand this is a change,” Wilson said. “Will it be accepted everywhere? Perhaps not. But we’re hoping it will. It’s an attempt to bring about change in research that has shown we’re slipping.” 

The plan, chaired by retired GC vice president Mike Ryan, has three parts. The first outlines global Bible and mission conferences about Adventist beliefs that the GC will fund. This will be organized by the Biblical Research Institute, the Geoscience Research Institute, the Ellen White Estate, and additional ministerial-orientated GC entities. In addition to these meetings—in-person and virtual—they will create videos and “prepare presentations in PowerPoint, Word, and other formats, and provide download links to local church pastors, elders, etc.”

The second subcommittee will focus on “global content and media proclamation.” This includes a wide variety of short and long form digital videos presented, in part, via social media. For example, they would produce “five explainer videos that are 10-15 minutes in length, with high production and animation value, to address doctrinal issues.” They would also revive interest in the 1980s DARCOM (Daniel and Revelation Series Committee) series with the BRI issuing a new eighth volume. 

Strengthening (GC Influence on) Education

But it is the third presentation that drew the most controversy: a plan for “strengthening” theological, pastoral, and member education. It was read by subcommittee chair Audrey Andersson, who has spent most of her career in communication. 

According to a presentation Spectrum obtained that was shared with executive committee members earlier this year, the subcommittee on education was described as an effort to allow church leaders to have more influence on hiring educators. “Currently, those responsible for hiring ministers have an advisory rather than a determinative role in the shaping of ministerial education,” the presentation said. “Equipping and empowering constituency-elected leaders at all levels to have a stronger oversight and involvement in what is taught, and in hiring is critical in addressing the gap between the Bible and practice.” 

The plan proposes creating a new assistant to the president or field secretary in every world division who will oversee hiring religion faculty and directing theological education curriculum. The GC will fund the position for the first year before the cost shifts to the division. 

In addition to creating this new position, the Biblical Research Institute would create a new graduate program in cooperation with the seminary at Andrews University to “address and strengthen the God-given truths for His end-time Church.” Each division would send someone to this program who would return to be a “broad-based resource” for promoting the church’s fundamental beliefs in their respective division. This person would act as an overseer, keeping an eye on how each teacher’s theology conformed to official denominational beliefs and statements from the BRI. 

The plan also calls for creating new criteria for hiring religion and theology faculty and reviewing core religion curriculum. The hiring criteria will include examining the ratio of theology faculty with terminal degrees from denominational institutions versus from non-Adventist schools. 

The final element of the plan calls for broadly defined changes to educational institution governance. All GC education institutional boards will include a BRI member ex officio, while other institutional boards will include a member from the local board of ministerial theological education. 

Before opening up the discussion, Wilson mentioned that two divisions of the world church have “very successfully utilized this approach.” These are the Inter-American Division and the South American Division. 

The presentations and the subsequent discussion took over two and a half hours, pushing the entire Spring Meeting long past its planned end time. The first wave of respondents expressed overwhelming support, many of whom are lay members on the executive committee. The first to speak was Harold (Hal) Butler, a lay member, who has written for the Fulcrum7 website. He expressed support for this initiative, citing Ellen White as identifying a parallel problem in the early Christian church in which he said believers did not follow the Apostles. 

Kathryn Proffitt, a lay member of the GC executive committee, shared effusive praise for the proposals. “When I read this last night, it brought tears to my eyes,” she said, though she also hoped more regulation of science curriculum could be added. Proffitt said that all four of her children have left the church and she blames the teaching of evolution in the Adventist schools they attended.

Educators Respond

While most respondents spoke in favor, a few shared their concerns about the proposals. 

Ginger Ketting-Weller, president of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, said that while she supported some of the broad aims, she could not vote yes on the education proposal. “It was clear to me that there were no educators working with the policy issues,” she said. “We can’t, for example, walk into a hospital and make decisions without consulting with the doctors,” she added. “I think the messaging that will go out . . . doesn’t bring us to collaboration and instead divides.” 

Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, director of the GC Education Department, spoke for over 12 minutes about very specific policy concerns, going page by page through the education section, her many annotations visible on the margins. Many of her concerns centered around how the proposal would conflict with existing policy. The GC Working Policy, International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education handbook, and other documents already have extensive guidelines for educational standards and hiring.

She also indirectly but clearly showed the contradictions in the document due to the steering committee avoiding consultation with educators. She reported on how well the current Adventist accreditation processes, including IBMTE, are working around the world. Drawing attention to the proposal of a new overseer for each division’s theological orthodoxy, she asked, “How will the field secretary relate to education and to the system and structure we have?”

Beardsley-Hardy also noted that trying to exert more control over hiring practices at colleges and universities could be difficult in many regions. “This will cause some challenges in some parts of the world where academic institutions are expected to have autonomy,” she said. “If they’re directly interposing between the institution and its governing board, that would be a challenge.”

GC Vice President Tom Lemon, who chairs the board of Loma Linda University Health, said he supported the document and would vote in favor, but he also worried about the tone it might set. “My concern is we have sometimes assigned a level of blame for the slippage either to our teachers or our pastors, which I think would be an unfortunate message to send out,” he said. “I hope we don’t go in that direction.” Lemon noted that many parts of the world have a difficult time attracting and retaining pastors and teachers. He said he hoped the GC’s efforts could be more about encouragement. 

The Vote 

The final comment came from Philip Mills, a lay member of the executive committee. “Long ago, Luther wrote: ‘I am much afraid that the universities will prove to be the great gates of hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the hearts of youth,’” said. Mills also asked for lay members with children or grandchildren in the Adventist education system to have input. 

“Thank you Phil for your encouraging words,” Ted Wilson said in response. “We appreciate that very much.” 

“We’re going to see inclusion of many of the concepts that have been shared in the final document,” Wilson said before it went to a vote, adding that he hopes it will be a “collaborative, redemptive process.” 

“By God’s grace, we’re going to see a difference that it will make through the Holy Spirit’s power,” he said. “But believe me, it’s not going to get any easier. The devil is after this church.”

The proposal went on to pass 125-29. The committee has 351 members.

Afterward, Spectrum reached out to educational leaders around the world, and one major issue many identified was the lack of representation on the committees. They expressed a worry that this signaled a new attempt by the GC to exert greater control over Adventist education processes, curriculum, and teachers by noneducators in church leadership. One educational leader called it “a massive statement of mistrust from the leadership of the church, all the while saying manipulative things in the text.” While Wilson repeatedly emphasized that educational institutions are beholden to leaders “elected by constituencies,” it was not lost on these observers that the chair of this project, Mike Ryan, is retired and thus not elected.

The South American Model

In explaining the need for worldwide implementation, Wilson mentioned the South American Division as an example of where these oversight measures are working. Indeed, the SAD’s administrative expectation of theological conformity is not limited to scholarly investigation of fundamental beliefs. In Brazil, Adventist ministers can be denounced by peers through social media or informal conversations with institutional leaders. For example, Edson Nunes, a Bible scholar and former Adventist pastor, had a meeting with his conference and union ministerial directors due to an academic event where he criticized the fundamentalist notion of biblical inerrancy and provided a literary analysis of Rahab’s speech in Joshua 2. Among other requests, church leaders asked Nunes to stop publicly recommending scholarship on Bible literary criticism. Nunes was also informally reproached by Latin-American Seminary director Adolfo Suárez due to a youth program in his church that discussed definitions of feminism. At the time, conference president Romualdo Larroca confirmed to local church leaders that he received informal complaints from his peers and leaders about Nunes and had to do something about those. A popular pastor with a church full of young professionals, Nunes, who has a PhD, and whose public presentations on creation have received praise in Adventist World lost his job a few years ago after Brazilian administrators gave him a document with fill-in-the-blank lines to test him on various theological concepts. 

The rigidity in theological approaches is especially acute in SAD seminaries. In a context that should generate plurality of thought and various critical approaches, professors are advised to conform to the fundamental beliefs of the institution both in the classroom and in their academic output. A notable example of stagnation in the production of the seminaries is Kerygma, one of the main SAD theological journals. Since 2005, Kerygma has articulated (with very few exceptions) an apologetic discourse on Adventist theology, within a peer review process that rejected studies challenging interpretations or its preferred methods. In 2021, one of its former editors even published an editorial appealing for more flexibility and plurality in the journal’s publications, hoping it would become a venue for critical debate. That same year, he was removed from the journal by SAD.

Expectations of theological conformity are not restricted to Adventist ministers but also extend to teachers of all fields in the SAD’s education system. According to a source that requested anonymity, in 2021, after “a tense conversation” with the Central Adventist University in São Paulo (UNASP) director Martin Kuhn, school teachers and university professors were required to sign a document agreeing to a “delimitation of their academic freedoms,” in harmony with “guidelines formulated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1940.” In addition to adherence to the 28 fundamental beliefs, the document explicitly forbids the teachers from “interpreting the Bible using methods that undermine the Bible’s authority” such as “high criticism,” as well as adopting theories of “macroevolution” or “theistic evolution” in their teachings. The teachers are also compelled to “support monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the divine standard” for relationships. All the guidelines are explicitly mandatory for both inside and outside the classroom, including posts on social media and private life. A minister who requested anonymity and who taught religion classes confirmed he had to sign a similar document between 2017 and 2019. 

This expectation and enforcement of theological conformity is reflected in the growth rates of the church among young people. In the territory of the South-American Division, in 2011 to 2020, 674,000 people from 17 to 30 years old left the church, against 534,000 people who joined in the same age span. This leaves the South American Church with a negative growth rate of 26.3% among young people in the last decade.

Read: Recommendations from Special GCDO Recommendation Steering Committee

André Kanasiro and Alexander Carpenter contributed to this report. 

About the author

Alex Aamodt is an editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. He graduated with degrees in English and Spanish from Walla Walla University and lives in Portland, Oregon. You can contact him here. His work is supported by donors who have given to the Bonnie Dwyer Investigative Journalism Fund. More from Alex Aamodt.
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