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Gender Inclusion, Church Finances Mark SECC Fourth Quadrennial Session

Riverside CA – Questions on the status of Church finances in an abysmal economy and gender-inclusive language provided heated discussion and hearty applause in turn during the Southeastern California Conference Fourth Quadrennial Session on Sunday, October 26.
Delegates from constituent churches descended on the La Sierra University Church to have their say in the course the Church will take over the next five years amid troubled times in America.
Morning Session – At Jesus’ Feet
With characteristic Adventist flair, the day’s events began as a costumed Jesus character in a half-convincing fake beard and hairpiece shook hands with delegates. As the Jesus character warmed up the crowd, the Azure Hills Children’s Choir took the stage to sing “At Jesus Feet,” also the theme for the session.
C. Wesley Knight, Senior Pastor of the Mt. Rubidoux SDA Church, led worship with a rousing homily that energized the congregation. Following more musical numbers and prayer, SECC President Gerald Penick called the meeting to order and delivered opening remarks followed by a financial report from conference Treasurer Thomas Staples. Staples’ reports revealed (unsurprisingly) that the current economic crisis has impacted the church. Tithe has declined over the past few years, and the conference has watched assets in stocks and bonds decline as prices tumble on Wall Street.
Delegates came to life for the first major vote of the morning on a project proposal to expand and improve Pine Springs Ranch, the SECC camp and retreat center. As soon as President Penick moved to approve the project, delegates streamed to microphones to voice concerns over the cost of the project (as yet undetermined), the date of completion (pending funding), and the method of raising funds.
After delegates voted against several amendments to the proposal, Penick and Executive Secretary Sandra Roberts revealed that without approval of the project, Pine Springs Ranch risks being closed in the long term because of continued failure to meet code. After this revelation, delegates overwhelmingly approved the project.
During the morning session, conference administrators won reelection by huge majorities:
Gerald Penick won reelection as SECC President by 93%; Sandra Roberts was reelected as Executive Secretary by 96% of voters; and Thomas Staples was reelected to the office of Treasurer with a 94% “yes” vote. Vice-presidential nominees also garnered vast margins of support: Rudy Bermudez won reelection as Vice President of Asian / Pacific Ministries by 97%; George King received 94% of the vote to be reelected as VP of Black Ministries; and Alberto Ingleton received 96% to be reelected as VP for Histpanic Ministries.
(Note: at the end of the Quadrennial Session, a delegate stood to speak to the delegates stating that democracy demands that there be options for voters. All those elected to office ran unopposed.)
A lunch break seemed to provide delegates with extra energy for the afternoon session; vigorous debate characterized the afternoon’s agenda items.
Afternoon Session – Heated Discussion
Soon after constituents reconvened, a delegate raised question on quorum forcing a head count of those who stayed after lunch. To maintain quorum required 488 members (2/3 of original attendees). The count came back: 491 in attendance. That prompted President Penick to jokingly request that the back doors be locked to maintain quorum.
Then debate resumed in earnest.
Before asking delegates to vote on changes to language in the SECC Bylaws, Adeny Schmidt (Sub-committee Chair) and Ernest Furness (SECC Ministerial Director) presented the findings of the 65% Committee, so named for the 65% of church members in the Southeastern California Conference who are women. In 2000, SECC became the first conference in Adventism to grant equal ministerial credentials to male and female pastors.
The 65% Committee, a sub-committee of the Bylaws Committee, collected numerous data on women’s involvement in ministry in SECC. The results of the committee’s research raise some interesting points for discussion:

    Currently, women comprise 8.5% of all pastors in SECC (down from a peak of 12%). Of the 19 women pastors that serve in SECC, only two are senior pastors: Chris Oberg of the Calimesa SDA Church and Hyveth Williams of the Campus Hill SDA Church.
    Data from constituent congregations reveals that while 80% of churches have women on their church boards, only 42% of board members are women. Half of all churches elect women elders, however only 1 church in 5 has a woman head elder. Women read Scripture during the worship hour in 88% of congregations, but on any given Sabbath, women read Scripture in only 4 out of 10 churches. While in 78% of churches, women offer prayer, from week to week, only 20% of prayers are offered by women. 81% of churches has had a woman preach in the past year, but on an average Sabbath, less than 10% of sermons are by women.

The findings of the 65% Committee demonstrate that though the SECC has worked toward a goal of gender inclusion for 30 years, much work remains to be done.
Following the report from the 65% Committee, delegates voted on proposed changes in the language of the SECC Bylaws. The first, and most passionately debated proposal dealt with a change in the language of the conference’s mission statement to reflect more inclusive language.
The amended statement read:

    “The mission of the Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists is the expansion of God’s kingdom through the preaching, teaching, publishing and living of the everlasting gospel by women and men in the cross-cultural communities of our territory,” replacing the original statement that said, “…living of the everlasting gospel throughout the cross-cultural communities…”

As soon as the floor was opened for discussion, numerous delegates raised objections to the proposed changes on the basis that it unduly put women ahead of men contra the creation order, it did not include children and therefore failed in terms of inclusiveness, and that perhaps the Spanish congregations had not been consulted before proposing changes to the language.
Delegates sought to challenge the validity of any vote on the matter by once again questioning quorum. With only 3 more than the required 2/3 of delegates after lunch, it seemed evident that the number of participants had since dropped below the required number to pass any motion.
After much debate, the vote went ahead. When the vote finally came, it seemed to lose as 255 “yes” votes divided into 491 members present at the last quorum count fell far short of the necessary 2/3 majority. After more discussion, Secretary Sandra Roberts announced that according to the Bylaws, a proposal required approval from 2/3 of members present and voting in order to pass.
After the tally, the vote received 255 affirmative votes out of 330 total votes, and passed with 68% to loud applause from voters.
A final amendment to the Bylaws that would require delegates to “reflect the ethnicity, age, and gender of each constituent congregation” lost in a vote over objections to the delineation of delegates along lines of race, gender and age.
When the voting process finally ended, the congregation joined in a powerful a capella rendition of “Blessed Be The Ties that Bind” followed by a benediction.
As weary delegates filed out of the La Sierra Univeristy Church, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Katie Esquibel, who at 16 years old was likely the youngest delegate in attendance on Sunday. Katie, a Junior at Mesa Grande Academy who is active in drama, Spanish, chorale and previously in bell choir, represented the Calimesa Church and shares some of her thoughts on being a first-time delegate:
“One thing that I liked about serving as a delegate is that I was the only teenager there,” she jokes, adding that she enjoyed being able to represent the youth of our church.
“One thing that I didn’t enjoy,” she says, “was how much the voting process became like a political campaign and some of the reports were boring.” She also notes that women are not as involved in Church leadership as she had assumed.
“If I was invited again I would most definitely go because I want to make a difference in the world and if by taking little steps, as in being a delegate of the church or anything, then that is what I want to do,” Katie says.

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