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Change Will Come: An Interview with Gary Patterson about the Once and Future Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Upcoming General Conference Session


During his 60-year career with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Gary Patterson has pastored small and large churches, served in a variety of administrative positions including as the administrative assistant to the North American Division President, and as a General Field Secretary at the General Conference where he was known for his detailed knowledge of Working Policy.

Question: In the history of the General Conference Sessions, is there anything similar to the current situation with the coronavirus that now threatens the travel of world delegates? Has the Session ever had to be cancelled or postponed? Is there anything in Working Policy to guide the Administration as they make a decision on how to handle the situation this year?

Answer: ­To my knowledge, I am unaware of any disease issue forcing a change in the schedule of a General Conference Session. Even though I was very young at the time, I do recall there being issues related to World War II and travel availability and safety, causing a delay in scheduling. Disease issues such as the flu, polio, ebola, and other medical threats have had worldwide implications, but they have not impacted the scheduled General Conference Sessions.

The interval between sessions has varied over the years. In the early days of the organized church — when membership was almost exclusively in North America — the sessions occurred every year. This practice continued until 1889, at which time the interval was extended to two years. This schedule was continued until 1905, at which time the interval was extended to four years. In my early days, this was still the practice until 1970, at which time the interval was changed again to the quinquennial sessions which prevail to the present. Until 1889, there were less than 100 delegates to the sessions, with the lowest number being 14 in 1871. The number remained in the 100s through 1950, and since that time the number of delegates has increased to over 2,000. Obviously, the nature of the meetings changed radically over the years, given these changes in schedule and delegate count.

In anticipation of world events impeding the schedule of such gatherings, Article V of the Constitution states, “In case special world conditions make it imperative to postpone the calling of the Session, the Executive Committee, in regular or special council, shall have authority to make such postponements, not to exceed two years, giving notice to all constituent organizations.” Certainly, there is cause for concern, not only for mass gatherings in North America, but around the world in the context of the coronavirus. Travel to and from the United States in several locations is already being restricted and such major events as the Olympics in Japan, and the national political conventions in the United States are placed in jeopardy. Even now, many sports events are playing to empty stadiums in parts of the world, and it may be expected that even if the Session goes ahead as scheduled, the attendance could be lessened by fear of contagion, unless there is a dramatic reduction in illness around the world in the next few months.

You have made it very clear that you believe the General Conference's actions regarding Women's Ordination are out of compliance with Fundamental Belief #14, as well as with policy BA 60 05 and 10. Are there any policies that outline how other levels of the church can hold the General Conference accountable for its noncompliance? It always seems like discussion of compliance goes from the top down. How do we make it work from the bottom up?

There is a perception that anything the General Conference leadership says or does is the final word on a given issue and that it never acts outside the bounds of policy. While I respect and appreciate both the personnel and the efforts of those in church leadership, this does not mean that everything they do or say or vote is correct and authoritative. Even though it has been 20 years since I retired from the General Conference, I still have many friends there with whom I served in a variety of settings and committees. Sometimes we agreed on issues, and sometimes we did not. That is still the same today, one of them being the gender equality issue. We did not agree when I was there and we still do not.

Perhaps one of the most egregious areas of disagreement to me is the misrepresentation of the 2015 vote regarding divisions authorizing gender equality in ordination. It has been spread around the world by GC leadership that the ordination of women was forbidden by that vote. It was not. What was voted was that divisions were not to make such authorization, which was not in their authority anyway. That belongs, by policy, to the unions, so the action itself was contrary to established policy and practice.

How can this be addressed, given that the bully pulpit is largely in the hands of the GC leadership? What must be done is to speak up. Unions, upon which the General Constituency is built, should take official action rejecting the false accusation of noncompliance made by GC leadership, insisting that unions are following both Fundamental Belief #14 and the gender equality position strongly stated and required in policy BA 60 05 and 10, as well as policy B 05 point 6 which stipulates the authority of unions regarding who may be ordained. Such officially voted actions by union committees should be sent to the General Conference Executive Committee in response to actions taken at the 2019 Annual Council giving warnings based on their misrepresentations of the 2015 GC Session vote. Also, the independent press must keep up the publication of the issues, as little opportunity for candid journalism is available in denominationally controlled publications.

Your career includes a significant amount of time pastoring — before and after retirement — in addition to your administrative experience. How has pastoring changed in your lifetime?

It was my privilege to serve as a pastor directly out of seminary at the very young age of 22, and my church members in the three churches in Idaho where I was assigned were kind and loving to me, putting up with my lack of experience and encouraging my vigor and eagerness for ministry. In those early years, I served in 15 different congregations, some with only a handful of rural members, and some with well over two thousand members. Then after 24 years in church administration, I began an unexpected post-retirement career, serving as interim Senior Pastor in 15 congregations, ranging from the best of high church worship to the ultimate contemporary style of the day. And they were all a privilege and delight.

Given the stylistic variety, the wide geographic spread, and the cultural and racial mix of these churches, on the one hand I can say that there is significant difference in both the change time has brought to the church and how we perceive our mission. But at the same time, at the heart of it all, is the desire of our people to live together in peace, to worship a loving God and Savior, to serve their community, and to support their pastor in the efforts made to serve the congregation. Of course, there are moments of stress and conflict, but looking back these issues tend to fade, and the joys remain.

Where do you see signs of strength and vitality in Adventism today? What makes you hopeful?

Admittedly, I have not been pleased with the direction some of our church leadership has taken in recent years. And I have not been silent about it. However, I seek to address issues, not individuals. For the most part I find earnest servant leaders seeking to guide the church in pursuit of its mission of bringing saving grace to a world in need. Even though there is both an ongoing attempt to make the church a top down organization, and a perception that it is, still the local church is where the church exists. It is the only place in the structure that has both members and money. And the rest of the structure is there to support the local church, not the other way around. We must constantly work to keep it that way.

In talking with the pastor of one of our largest churches in North America, I asked how all this uproar about compliance, and gender, and actions in general from the top would affect his congregation. He said, “very little,” as they had more important things to do. This bothers me a bit that leadership has gotten itself into a position that it is simply ignored as being irrelevant to the local congregation. But it also is something that gives me hope, because people are more interested in being the church, than stressing over the nonsense that goes on elsewhere.

You were present at the North American Division’s birth as an independent division when you were Elder Bradford’s senior assistant. Has the NAD matured into the Division you envisioned? What are the challenges that lie ahead?

When I joined Elder Bradford in April of 1987 as his administrative assistant, he was already looking ahead to the General Conference Session in 1990 and planning to finally establish the North American Division as an equal entity with the other ten divisions of the world church. Surprising as it may seem, the NAD had not existed as a division up to that time. It was assumed that the General Conference would run North America, and both the officers and departmental leaders were associates in the General Conference leadership structure, appointed specifically to service in North America. All funds received from North America were processed through the General Conference treasury, and a portion was set aside to be used for North American purposes. Also, at that time, over 90% of tithe which the General Conference received from the world church came from North America.

Elder Bob Dale was new to the post of Executive Secretary and I was new as Assistant to the President. Early on with this new team, Elder Bradford tasked us with putting together the documents, plans, structure, and committees needed to establish the North American Division by vote of the General Conference Session in 1990. Though there were some tensions here and there with turf protection and authority, things actually went quite smoothly, and the North American Division moved into the role of one of the leading divisions in the world field.

As time went on, there were some tensions which arose that made it appear that the two entities — the NAD and the GC — would operate better if they were not on top of one another in the same building. It was decided to move the NAD office a few miles up the road from the GC office, and the new arrangement has worked well.

Could the NAD have been more effective in its advocacy for Women’s Ordination? How? What do you see as the most important next step for Women's Ordination?

It was at the instigation of the soon-to-be established North American Division that the decades-long studied issue of advocacy for Women’s Ordination came to the 1990 General Conference session. There were those of us who thought this was unnecessary, given that such decisions were by policy under the auspices of the union. But President Neal Wilson — who by the way was in favor of women’s ordination — insisted that it should be by vote of the world church. That, I believe has proven to be a mistake. At the 1990 Session it was voted down, for the sake of unity. But as I have often asked, why is it only unity if it is denied? Why is it unity if areas of the church opposing gender equality impose their will on others? It has not brought unity to the church, but rather 30 years of disunity. Those seeking to establish gender equality in their territory are not seeking to impose their will on others. Why should those opposed insist on imposing their will on others?

Though it would be splendid if we could get beyond the current impasse amicably, it may be that unions will need to simply tell the GC Executive Committee that they are operating within policy, that the charges of non-compliance have no standing, given that the 2015 GC Session vote addressed divisions, not unions, and that they will continue the practice of gender inclusive ordination as voted by their constituencies.

Now that Adventism is truly a globally dispersed community with no single country, not even Brazil, having as much as 10% of church membership, has your view changed about the role and function of the General Conference? How? Will tithe parity change the GC?

When I was just a young lad in the late 1940s, I remember a visit by Elder Hallowell to the church my father was serving as pastor. He stayed at our house and I was privy to many stories and display items from his work by boat on the Amazon. It was lonely pioneering work, but he persisted. It was the mission offering from my Sabbath School that was funding such mission work around the world. At that point the church membership was still hovering near the one million mark, the bulk of which was still in North America.

Then in 1996 I was privileged to visit the Amazon region church work and on a Sabbath morning, attend a church in Manaus, Brazil on the shore of the river, with over 1,000 members. Those Sabbath School pennies paid off. That was our purpose, to see the other divisions of the world grow and prosper. Now that they have — with several of them surpassing the North American Division in membership — it is time for them to step up and help carry the work even as North America has for over a century. And they are doing that, joining in the vision we have carried since the founding of the church.

Tithe parity among the divisions is a concept whose time has come. It will call for some adjustments in world church budgeting, but North America will still be providing a major portion of the General Conference tithe fund for some time to come. Along with these finance transitions, the General Conference, rather than seeking to draw authority to itself, should seek to distribute operation and decision making ever more to the local fields, who are in the best position to make such decisions. This was the purpose in the establishment of unions by the church in 1901, and should be even more important in the church today.

For SDA Church members who want to see change in their church, what would you recommend that they do?

Change it. That is where the church exists — at the local level. There is ever the challenge of keeping the world church together and unified without strangling or smothering it to death. In both my pastoral and administrative experience, I have seen a vast variety of how to do church. And of course, we are always inclined to see the way we do it in our own location as the righteous way. But in service as pastor of some 30 churches, and as an administrator in local conferences and in world travel, I have seen vast differences in both behavior and thinking. Some of it I saw as helpful. Some not so much. But what I did learn was that fighting over it did not help. Rather it destroyed the effectiveness of our mission. Change will come. Your option is not to stop it, but rather to find a creative and constructive way to be part of it.

What is the most important thing that the General Conference delegates need to do at the GC Session in June?

Moving from a General Conference Session of 14 delegates in 1871 to over 2,000 today has produced marked changes in what a delegate can do. Obviously, it can’t be operated in the same manner. Personally, I find it ludicrous to think that over 2,000 people could carry on a productive, open dialogue in any meaningful way. Trying to operate with a democratic process that can be done well in meetings with a limited sized group, in a multi-thousand seat stadium setting is nonsense. The entire idea requires some new thinking.

There is no doubt that there is significant impact and worth of a world church gathering. I attended my first General Conference Session at the age of three in San Francisco in 1941. My sister and I were picked out of the audience to pose for a picture by the giant world globe, a picture that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. I still have a copy of that newspaper in my file. These are the kinds of things that create memories and a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself or your little congregation. Perhaps participation in such an impactful world gathering is the most important thing to come out of such a meeting. Be there. Drink it in. Cast your votes. Fellowship. Even speak up if you get a chance. And just maybe we can figure out a way to do business more sensibly. And maybe we will realize that we need to pass the operation of the church back to where it exists and belongs — the local congregation held together in unity with a world full of congregations doing church in their own unique way — just like we do.

A scanned copy of the May 25, 1941 San Francisco Examiner newspaper article in which a three-year-old Gary Patterson appeared. The photo caption reads: These children, left to right, Jean Patterson, Clarisse Linhares and Gary Patterson, listen to Ruth Dukes, right, holding pointer to big globe, explain how church activities are carried on throughout world.

Images courtesy of Gary Patterson.


Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.


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