The reach and significance of the 61st General Conference (GC) Session will not fully be clear for years to come, but I offer some immediate reflections on the business sessions from my experiences as a first-time delegate.
I was surprised to be selected. Various church entities are assigned a certain number of delegates, and I was part of the General Conference delegation. Perhaps my selection was due to my employment as chief legal officer for AdventHealth, though neither AdventHealth nor the General Conference ever directed that my votes should reflect a particular institutional perspective. All delegates were instructed to vote their private consciences, and the phone app ElectionBuddy voting mechanism, which allowed for secret ballots on every question, facilitated this. I hope that this electronic voting system, necessitated in 2022 by the participation of remote delegates will be used again in 2025, even if all delegates attend in person. This welcome voting reform drew strong objection from one delegate in St. Louis, who argued that secret ballots were seriously flawed because they lack transparency. Of course, the lack of transparency is exactly the virtuous point of secret ballots, and except for some frustrations early on, I did not hear complaints or objections from others.
I arrived Sunday afternoon just in time to participate as the General Conference delegate caucus selected its 20 delegates to the GC Session Nominating Committee. A decision had been made in advance by someone or some group that the GC caucus would be subdivided into groups, with those 20 delegate slots distributed by subgroup. I believe the GC Constitution allows this subdivision and it made for a more efficient process, although we did not, therefore, see our delegate slate as a whole and reevaluate it for possible tweaking and balance.
I do not recall any instruction to maintain the secrecy of the GC caucus and so I share our process briefly. The caucus was divided into an “Institutions” section with 23 delegates, directed to select two nominating committee members; an “Agencies/Services/Offices” section with 34 delegates, directed to select three nominating committee delegates; a “GC Employees/Church Employees/Retirees” section with 114 delegates (half of whom were disqualified from serving on the nominating committee due to being subject to nominating committee review), directed to select 10 nominating committee delegates; and a “Laypersons/Supporting Ministries” subsection with 50 delegates, directed to select five nominating committee members. Questions were raised as to why I and two others employed by Adventist-affiliated healthcare institutions were in this latter category. Undersecretary Hensley Moorooven came to our subgroup and explained simply that this was the place where it seemed best suited to place institutional health system employees. Of the 50 people in this group, about 15 were present in person on Sunday afternoon, and perhaps a few more by Zoom. I had not met any of these people, though they generally seemed familiar with one another. As we introduced ourselves, I learned that these were individuals affiliated with 3ABN, ASI, Weimar, and GYC, or who were successful in other lines of business and passionate about the church’s mission. In a collegial fashion, we settled on our five delegates.
Interestingly, until arriving in St. Louis at the caucus, I had not been privy to a list of the General Conference delegates, despite request. It would have been helpful to have had a list of possible nominating committee candidates in advance, and this is a change I would suggest for 2025. There may be sound reason to hold the delegate list very closely, but I think it would be even better if the list were available in advance, along with a brief biographical sketch of each delegate and their contact information, if they agreed to disseminate that information.
Now let me turn to some specific impressions:
There was a great deal of prayer at the General Conference session. For example, on Sunday night, Mark Finley led the overall GC delegation in prayer as it began its work, and then again as we broke up into smaller sub-caucuses. In our sub-caucus, we were then led in a group prayer at the start of our discussion, and once more as we closed it. The Monday devotionals to start the session, led by three preachers of renown, again featured numerous prayer breakout sessions. I could provide many other examples.
It would be interesting to understand more the motives and uses of prayer at a General Conference Session. How does a believer balance the confidence that having “come boldly,” our prayer has been heard against admonitions to “pray without ceasing”? Is nearly continuous intercession necessary to move the heart and hand of God? Having prayed with such intensity, may we then assume that every decision was the same as if made by God himself?
Gracious GC VPs
The sitting vice presidents divide the work of chairing the business meetings and I would say are the stars of the session. They all were gracious, accommodating, and patient. On rare occasions where impatience crept in, they were quick to apologize. They carried out the important work of leading a large discussion with skill. I was deeply impressed. Two examples stand out. On Monday morning as voting began on various important but non-controversial tasks—adopting the rules of order, etc.—the voting system faltered. On the heels of the difficulties in San Antonio, surely there had to be thoughts of “here we go again.” Artur Stele was chairing and was utterly unflustered by the snafus, moving smoothly into the adoption of the necessary framework items through the permissible use of “common consent.” In the meantime, the technicians worked, and supplemental instructions were given to delegates. Apparently, the voting system was fine but the internet was bogged down, and this was rectified.
I also single out Geoffrey Mbwana, who chaired the session during which the two controversial resolutions on Scripture and on Ellen White were debated. At one juncture, it appeared that neither resolution would pass during this session, an outcome that must have delighted those opposed but equally must have startled and alarmed the advocates. Mbwana remained statesmanlike throughout the debate, never placing a heavy thumb on the scales of the outcome. Some have faulted Abner De Los Santos for “rushing” to a vote on Elder Wilson’s nomination Monday night, but in truth, no delegate rose to oppose the nomination. It was an honor to join my fellow delegates in a spontaneous standing-ovation tribute to the retiring Ella Simmons, who was the first woman to serve as a GC vice president. I felt that all the vice presidents were exemplary models of Christian leadership.
Iron Pants Award
Todd McFarland served as parliamentarian during the entire session. He handled numerous questions and challenges in a professional and competent manner, keeping his patience even in the face of some provocative comments about process. McFarland undoubtedly wins the award for sitting on the stage the longest, including through some mind-numbing discussions.
Rice and Beans
The food service at lunch was a model of efficiency. Thousands of people were fed nutritious meals quickly. The menus focused on different ways of using rice and beans. Someone at my table on Tuesday said they were eating their first meal at the session. “How is it?” they asked. “Healthy,” a neighbor answered, not entirely joyfully. The Sunday night meal was haystacks. Hard to go wrong there. The efficient meal service was emblematic of the flawless execution of all logistics for the entire week, so far as I could tell.
Sing Song Voices
At one point I wondered whether it is a requisite for high church office to speak to delegates in a tone of voice as if they were children. I checked my impressions with some other delegates, and they agreed. There would be no charity in identifying the chief offenders. I felt Secretary Erton Köhler set a good example of talking straight to delegates, not down to them.
This is not the place for an evaluation of Ted Wilson’s substantive agenda. I left with a new measure of respect for his leadership skills, even though I did not vote for him. He is single-minded in his objectives and vision for the church, and he is skillful in exercising the levers of power to achieve these aims. Members do not linger in doubt about his views. Instead, you can predict with a high degree of accuracy where he will come out on issues of significance. He led his church through a successful business session, still in a time of COVID. He has given a clear voice to mainstream or right-of-mainstream conservatives, and they must be very pleased indeed with the past 12 years. He appears to have placed ideological companions throughout the GC leadership so that when he is gone, his perspectives will not disappear. Despite the controversies he has provoked and the unhappiness with him in some segments of the church, he nevertheless won reelection with 75% of the vote. He will leave office in 2025 (or so the rumor has it) on his own terms. So far as I am aware, he has been in high and visible office all this time without any hint of personal or other scandal. Those are hallmarks of effective leadership, whether or not one agrees with all of his perspectives. I appreciated the lengthy sections in his presidential report on forgiveness and reconciliation, featuring a story from Palau and one from the Philippines. It would be wonderful to think that he is turning his mind to these themes as he looks toward his final years in leadership. We shall see.
Paulsen was sitting on the front row of one of the rearward sections of seats. I often sat several rows behind him and could see various delegates walk by, sit down, chat, hug, and move on. He was gracious and friendly, an avuncular reminder of a different time. So far as I could observe, he played no substantive role in the session.
The Quality of the Delegates
By and large, the comments on an entire range of issues from the delegates were of high quality, in my opinion. This did not vary by geography. I trust there are no North American delegates, for example, with any sense of superiority over their colleagues from other parts of the world. Many delegates from each sector in the church came prepared to participate and did so with constructive, helpful comments. I admired the European delegates particularly. They work in highly secularized environments and are the “canary in the coal mine” for those of us in North America in that regard. Their courageous commitment to the church was evident from their careful, gracious comments on a range of issues.
Women’s Ordination and COVID-19 Vaccination
This paragraph title is an odd pairing, but bear with me. A critical step at the start of a session (and this is often true in secular business sessions as well) is the formal adoption of the agenda. If the delegates agree to the agenda, this then keeps advocates of stray proposals from interrupting the meeting with motions on unrelated matters. If you have such a matter that you want to bring to the body, you need to get it on the agenda that the delegate body adopts. And so, at the start of the meeting, it was rumored that leadership was anticipating attempts to amend the agenda to add discussions on women’s ordination and on the church’s stance in support of COVID-19 vaccination.
A delegate named Jonathan Zirkle moved to amend the agenda to add a discussion on the COVID issue, and he was quite critical of the church’s stance. During the ensuing debate, President Wilson spoke strongly against the motion, and after some procedural hiccups and further discussion, the motion was defeated, with only 10% of the delegates supporting it.
On the women’s ordination point, I had come to St. Louis prepared to move that the agenda be opened for a discussion of that issue. However, I sought counsel from some senior leaders who are very supportive of women’s ordination. They anticipate that the issue might appropriately be raised once again, with more preparation and notice, in 2025. We shall see, but taking their counsel to heart, I did not move to amend the agenda, nor did any other supporter of women’s ordination.
Nevertheless, the question of gender equity in our church frequently broke through in unexpected places. For example, I did not realize it before arriving, but apparently there is a vocal segment of the church that believes women should not be elders and that the church’s position allowing women elders is procedurally illegitimate. They looked for opportunities as the Church Manual was amended to roll back this situation, but their attempts were thwarted.
When the slate of divisional treasurers and secretaries was brought to the floor, delegates quickly noticed that although these positions do not require ordination, this was a mostly or wholly male cohort. Tim Standish struggled to reach a microphone in time to move the slate back to the nominating committee but did not succeed. The next day he delivered a fiery speech denouncing what he considered the procedural irregularities that prevented his timely intervention as well as the injustice of denying more female leadership in positions for which the church does not require ordination. This is an issue sure to resurface in 2025.
The GC Secretariat
I learned that most of the work of the session is devoted to parsing through proposed amendments to the Church Manual and to the GC Constitution and Bylaws. I had reviewed all these proposals in advance and, by and large, felt they were fine. And yet, as I listened to comments and concerns, I was impressed with the detailed inquiries of my fellow delegates. But what also impressed was the graciousness of the GC Secretariat—embodied in Hensley Moorooven and Gerson Santos—as they considered this nitpicking of their handiwork by the 1,000-plus crowd. They were patient, open, and receptive. Often, they supported taking their original proposal back to committee so that it could be strengthened and improved in light of the comments. Hats off to the secretariat.
Finish the Work; Coming Soon; End of Time
These were familiar words from the Adventist dictionary that were heard frequently during the session. Do we really feel that God’s designs are dependent upon our “finishing the work”? And what does that mean, in any event? What exactly is the “work” and when will it be “finished”? I am thankful that, so far as I understand it, Christ “finished the work” on Calvary. God’s time is the right time, and whether that is tomorrow or an eon from now, we can rest in the promise of John 14:1–3.
A GC Session is first of all a business session. There is work for the delegates to do there that cannot be done by any other body in the church. This work is to elect the leadership of the General Conference and to update and attend to the documents that frame the work of that organization: Constitution, Bylaws, and Church Manual. Often the document work is dull and tedious. And it is, I think, regrettable that we spend far more time debating particular words in a document than in considering the qualifications of individuals for the offices to which they are elected. But, again, I suspect most delegates do not know those individuals or their work performance very well. Probably there are far too many offices elected by the delegate body. I could argue that we ought to elect just the president and perhaps the secretary, treasurer, and division heads. Let those leaders then select their own teams, with the GC Executive Committee holding them accountable. I also could argue that the delegate body spends way too much time on the documents and that some way should be found to empower a smaller body to make certain kinds of changes. This would leave more time for questions of leadership and strategy. But in the context of the current structure, the 61st Session successfully accomplished the business to which it was assigned.
But a GC Session is not just a business session. It is a showcase, and the sessions that live on in memory and cultural impact are those that feature events or themes that transcend the business. With a truncated schedule and a mostly missing audience, it seems doubtful that the “showcase” element of the 61st Session will leave a long impression.
In closing, I am thankful to be a member of a community of faith that is committed to growth and advancement. The same is no longer true of all mainstream Protestant denominations, some of which are struggling with catastrophic membership declines. I am thankful for the fellowship of believers from around the world who, although we may differ on important subjects, can somehow remain united in Christ, finding common ground as we seek to live out the dream he expressed in his great prayer recorded in John 17. I am reminded of those wonderful lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock”: “The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.” Our church is still building.
Jeffrey S. Bromme, Esq., is executive vice president and chief legal officer for AdventHealth
Title image: Delegates at the 2022 GC Session. Photo by Pieter Damsteegt / North American Division
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