Finally, on Monday afternoon, the participants in the General Conference Annual Council meeting warmed up to a good discussion over, of all things, the difference between the words should and shall and whether or not deaconesses should be ordained.
With Vice President Ted N.C. Wilson chairing the meeting, consideration of the proposed changes to the church manual had begun. Homer Trecartin was taking the group through page by page and had arrived at page 61 where there is content on the induction service for deaconesses. An additional sentence was proposed to be added reading, “In some cases, if approved by the division executive committee, this may include an ordination service characterized by simplicity and performed in the presence of the church.”
The president of Central African Union was the first person to the microphone. He said that the house is divided on ordination and requested removal of the word ordination. Other speakers from Africa concurred. From Nigeria there was objection to adding ordination of deaconess, “so we don’t accidentally introduce ordination of women.”
The action voted a year ago in Manila at the 2008 Annual Council stating that deaconesses may be ordained in divisions where the process has been approved by its officers was read. And one woman delegate who had attended the annual council in Manila rose to say that the 2008 vote had made people in her division very happy and some of their churches had already gone ahead and ordained deaconesses.
The president of the church in China spoke on behalf of those in places where such ordination is needed. He told the gathering that 70% of his church members are women and that he has women church elders that pastor congregations with 3-4,000 members.
To those who would suggest that the topic is a cultural one, the Central African Union President said that his objection was not cultural but Biblical. There is nothing in the Bible that says that women should be ordained and he requested that the group avoid anything that is not supported by Biblical text. “Please keep unity in the church,” he pleaded.
Archivist Bert Haloviak came to the microphone with an 1895 quotation from Ellen White saying that women who are willing to serve should be set apart by the laying on of hands and prayer. He also said Mrs. White interpreted the text of Is. 61:6 as applying to women suggesting that in the mind of God, the ministry of both men and women is significant. Women should be paid with funds from the tithe he quoted Mrs. White as saying, and that means for more than work as deaconesses.
After a comment from a representative of the church in Uganda noting the Biblical text that in Jesus Christ, there is no difference between men and women, the additional sentence to the manual was approved.
At that point President Jan Paulsen rose to make an appeal. “Whenever the topic of ordination is raised, we have a problem,” he said. “In some parts of the world, ordination is good for our churches. In other places, ordination is not good for our churches. I appeal to you not to make this into an issue. . . Accept that it is possible to do things in one part of the world and not in others.” He suggested that language be softened, and not make situations more inflammatory by the choice of words. Then he noted the vote that had been made just a few minutes previously where the word should had been changed to shall (regarding conference presidents being ordained pastors). Shall is the language of the law, he noted. “I pray to God for miracles to happen,” he said regarding this. “Go back home and work with our people in a spirit of bonding and healing.”
His speech prompted confessions.
Don Schneider, president of the North American Division, rose and apologized for not speaking at the appropriate time regarding the change in the wording from should to shall. He told the audience that in North America there are conferences that have elected women as the executive secretary of the conference, a position that is often seen as the step before becoming president. That wording change just pinned a target on us, he said. “Don’t be surprised if you hear it has happened.”
Ricardo Graham, president of the Pacific Union, then went to the microphone. “I have the same confession to make as the previous speaker,” he said. “We have a female who is a conference executive secretary, and the time will come when she will be considered for president.” This is in our largest conference, he noted and the constituency has already voted not to have the union conference president preside at their constituency meeting.
As chair of the session Ted Wilson said that the document under discussion was the church manual, which is intended for use by local churches rather than conferences. He suggested that wording on conference presidents would need to be referred to committee for consideration in the working policy.
The next question from the floor was whether or not the pastor chosen for president had to be ordained or commissioned.
With that there was a motion to refer the item on conference presidents back to committee and the committee was notified that it would need to meet again at the end of the afternoon.
The lively exchanges of the afternoon were in contrast to the morning session in which the 2010 budget of $151 million had been approved with no questions asked, despite the fact that to balance the budget, the treasury department recommended taking $2.79 million from the working capital of past years. In his budget presentation, Undertreasurer Juan Prestol noted that treasury was anticipating tithe would be down, and that the budget numbers were based on using only 93% of allowable funds.
In other financial reports, General Conference Treasurer Robert Lemon said the extreme volatility in the financial markets over the past twelve months had an effect on tithe and offerings. “Worldwide tithe in 2008 was up 8.56% over 2007 and totaled US$1,934,565,008 as compared to US$1,780,527,081. Approximately 43% of that increase in the US dollar terms was due to the changes in the exchange rate from the weak US dollar during the first ten months of the year, but there were still increases in tithe in terms of local currency in most divisions.” However, he also reported that to date in 2009, tithe in the North American Division is down 3.0% and from the other divisions down 9.7%. In many of the divisions tithe is actually up in local currency, but because the U.S. dollar has strengthened compared to the same period last year, the amount received by the GC in US dollars is down.”
Regarding church investments, the majority of Church funds are invested in fixed income investments rather than equities. In the period of Jan. 1, 2008 through Aug. 31, 2009, there has been a net increase of $2.8 million on the approximately US$290 million of investments. That gain is approximately one-half percent per year—similar to what one would get from a savings account.
Those are the highlights of the second full day of Annual Council. There are two more days of meetings.