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Policy Matters—It Matters a Lot!


Lowell Cooper, former vice president of the General Conference (1998-2016) clearly recognized that his title "Issues in Church Policy"—especially at the end of a day in which six hours had already been devoted to lectures and discussions—was hardly a subject guaranteed to set the intellectual pulses running.

He began with a quotation from American senator Marco Rubio: “Policy never matters until it matters, and then it matters a lot.” His carefully nuanced paper showed just how much it matters to the Seventh-day Adventist church in these days of sharply differing views and convictions about ministerial ordination.

Cooper’s long experience as a church administrator has brought him to the basic assumption that “a review of policy can provide important insights that may help in creating a path forward to the preservation, even enhancement, of unity in the worldwide Church.”

His subsequent review of decades of policy provided those insights in an amazingly riveting hour. His lecture combined a masterful overview of the history of policy with a suggestion that alongside Adventist theologians’ broad agreement on the theology of ordination, policy development might hold some answers in the church’s unity challenges.

He began by identifying the underlying assumptions of his paper and identifying the biblical basis of his ideas with a score of New Testament references. The church already lives with divergent practices, and he argued that it will have to continue to do so increasingly and pay more attention to the process by which it engages. Diversity co-existing in various partnerships and managed with the skills of a maestro can enhance rather than ruin the ecclesiastical music. Policy development may be more important than policy enforcement in a rapidly changing world.

In an exploration of the purpose of policy, Cooper summed up the spiritual challenges of policy development and enforcement together with the danger inherent in the exercise of power with a quotation from Eugene Peterson. “Because leadership is necessarily an exercise of authority, it easily shifts into an exercise of power.”

In a section exploring the dynamic relationship between policy and organizational mission, Cooper showed how policy furthers stability and systematic planning but it must also be a servant to mission and responsive to various changes in church practice like those which have taken place between 1901 and the present. Changes in policy and organizational patterns—some, but not all of them after years of successful experimentation—were made on the basis that they could improve mission. "Policy" and "mission" have a symbiotic relationship which needs continual monitoring.

Cooper then turned his attention to a comprehensive overview of the crucial relationship between policy and the governance and authority documents of the church: the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, the Church Manual, the working policy Constitution and Bylaws (for conferences and institutions), and Operating Policy (for units with "mission" status). He argued that policy should be the result of the collective pursuit for unity, not the cause of it and that policy-making must be a continuing exercise in the light of a growing organization and the rapidly changing/diversifying environments in which the Church works.

Problems with the interpretation or application of policy are opportunities to bring the family together to forge new understandings. If those opportunities are not taken, “the concept of enforcement, though present, has not been a prominent part of denominational life,” Cooper said. “Policy expects compliance because policy decisions come out of a collective process of deliberation and the negative connotations of enforcement measures in an organization based on voluntary participation where permanent relationships are assumed can be catastrophic.” Policy enforcement is a legitimate tool in organizational structure. How and when it should be employed are very perplexing questions bound to raise sharply differing views.

And so to recent developments and the proposal of bringing an action to Annual Council 2016 to dissolve two unions and take them over. It is not surprising, Cooper suggested, that the members of Council should respond with conflicted views about a proposal to exercise enforcement authority without any prior discussion of policy development or the exhaustion of other means of reconciliation. “This is uncharted territory and threatens to awaken many unintended consequences,” said the former vice president.

The presentation concluded with a look at ways forward for policy and practice via a variety of options which were not addressed after TOSC in the theology of ordination statement. Cooper offered numerous illustrations that, in previous development of policies regarding women’s ordination and female church leadership and the roles and functions reserved to an ordained minister which are not gender specific, provision has already been made to preserve unity in the presence of growing diversity. Furthermore, those leadership actions restricted to an ordained minister involve a group process rather than independent decision-making—not even a male minister could perform them alone! Inequalities between men and women leaders are compounded when one brings credentials and licenses into the picture. And the commissioned minister credentials which, since 1981 have been offered to people who were not ordained to ministry, create further anomalies in the system. Only an ex-vice president of the General Conference could find his way around it!

There is concern over the possibility that women ordained or commissioned in one part of the world may be a backdoor to imposing the practice elsewhere. “The essential message,” said Cooper, “is that ordination to any office in the church does not constitute license to function independently. Policy has safeguarded against such independent functioning describing pastors as "subject to the direction of the Church in regard to the type of ministry and their place of service.  Ordination to the world church as either deacons, deaconesses, elders or ministers does not mean license to go anywhere and do anything one chooses.”

Cooper offered a list of possible and very practical policy developments with respect to ministerial ordination. “This is only an example,” he stressed, “to illustrate that policy development can be an effective conflict resolution methodology in the present circumstances.” He suggested various possibilities including discontinuing the practice of ordination altogether, revising policy language, and recognizing that permission for women to serve in ministerial roles does not constitute an obligation to do so.

Cooper concluded his paper with a call for creativity and a continuation of the Church’s preference for policy development rather than policy enforcement creativity, allowing the church to function effectively in all the cultures of the world. “Diversity that is mission-sensitive need not be a threat to unity,” he said.


Helen Pearson is a counselor, psychotherapist, writer, and trainer from Wokingham in England and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. She is a member of the Spectrum reporting team at the London Unity Conference.

Papers presented at the Unity Conference can be downloaded on their website here. Additionally, the next issue of Spectrum (Vol. 45, No. 2) will be a special edition containing all of the papers from the conference.


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