A Change of Delegate Definitions Could Hurt Diversity

Written by: 
Published:
June 7, 2022

Editor’s note: In response to concerns such as those expressed below by the author, the GC Constitution and Bylaws Committee revised the language about frontline employees and removed the word “full-time.” On June 9, the GC Session delegates voted to approve the updated version. 


During the Monday business meeting at the General Conference (GC) Session, an amendment to better define “frontline employees” in the GC constitution and bylaws was brought up for a delegate vote. It appears in the agenda like this: 

It defines a category of executive decision-making participation that allows for non-administrative employee representation. Quite a few delegates had issues with the wording and it was sent back to the committee for revision. 

It is a fact that delegates to the General Conference Session are overwhelmingly male and much older than the average Adventist. They are also generally able-bodied and work full-time for the church. I am worried about the suggested proposal, as it has the potential to further reduce the diversity of delegates who make decisions about the future of Adventism. 

The proposal is quite simple. In the section that defines how many delegates each conference can send to the General Conference Session, a number of words have been added to clear up what exactly the constitution means with the term “frontline denominational employee.” That this clarification is necessary immediately became clear from some comments from the floor. For example, Paul Bhaggien, vice chancellor of the North East Adventist University in India, pointed out that he was glad to hear that frontline workers were not only pastoral workers, but also teachers. 

In my experience, the wording has been both abundantly clear and impossibly complex. The spirit of the constitution is clear: they want employees who do not work in administration. That these include people besides pastors is also clear. What other meaning could this phrase have: “church pastor or other frontline denominational employee?” In practice, this is much more complex. 

The key questions include:

1.      How much time do you have to spend at the front to be classified as frontline?

2.      Does administration only mean union, conference, mission or does it include school and hospital administration? 

3.      Is the principal of an Adventist school a frontline employee? How about if the school is very small and they teach four days a week? 

4.      How about the surgeon who also administers a mission hospital? What do we do for smaller conferences where many pastors also have some administrative position?

The revised wording does not solve these questions. The suggestion is to replace “frontline denominational employee” with “frontline, full-time denominational employee, such as Bible worker, health care professional, literature evangelist, teacher, etc.” The observant reader will notice what some delegates also pointed out. Besides giving examples, the wording now includes the term “full-time.” At first, one might think that this solves the issues above—a surgeon who does administrative work is disqualified from this category as they do not work full-time at the frontline. But the phrasing suggested instead adds another requirement to these delegates: they must work full-time for the church.

This discriminates against part-time employees, many of whom are women and disabled employees. Working Policy requires full-time employment for many employees. From experience, I know that these policies are not strictly applied (remember that 79% of the church organizations were non-compliant in 2018), but you never know when administrators suddenly feel a policy is core. 

A place where this happens regards credentials and licenses, which can only be given to employees who work full-time. The difficulty here is that almost no employee of the church can do their work without a credential or license. But especially for pastors, the ministerial license (ordination) or commissioned ministerial license is vital to do their work. From discussions with division administrators, I know some people feel very strongly about this. I have had senior administrators ask me, “If you cannot commit 100% to your calling, is it really a calling?” I hope I hardly have to mention that this attitude diminishes the available variety of lived experiences that contribute to good decision making. 

Fortunately, when I was union secretary in The Netherlands, local discrimination laws forbade us from applying this full-time policy. I know from colleagues that this is the case in much of Europe. Requiring full-time employment is seen as equivalent to sex discrimination and discrimination against disabled people. This allowed us to ordain and commission part-time employees, in noncompliance with church policy.

Yesterday in the GC Session, Johannes Bochmann of the Berlin-Central German Conference did point out that requiring frontline workers to be full-time excludes a number of his colleagues. The discrimination point was not strongly made, but we can still hope that the responsible GC Session committee will hear this. Later this week, perhaps they will bring back revised wording that is less discriminatory against the majority of Seventh-day Adventists. Otherwise, the church will take another step to ensure that delegates do not represent the helpful diversity of the church.

 


Tom de Bruin is a biblical studies scholar from South Africa, the Netherlands, and the UK. He has been a pastor and union administrator in the Netherlands, and senior lecturer in New Testament at Newbold College, UK. Find him on Twitter or his website, tomdebruin.com

Title image credit: Pieter Damsteegt / North American Division

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