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General Conference Seeks to Clarify Relationship with World Divisions

During the 2012 Spring Meetings, the executive committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted [to accept]* the document, “The General Conference and Its Divisions—A Description of Roles and Relationships in Light of Organizational Structure Development, Current Governance Documents, and Practices.” It focuses primarily on clarifying the authority of the General Conference vis-a-vis its Divisions, with the stated hope to “encourage division administrations to ensure that, in the use of this and other information, sufficient orientation is provided to all officers in unions and conferences regarding the roles and relationships that pertain to the intended and effective functioning of all units in denominational structure.” The document’s conclusion states the following: 

Governance documents for the Seventh-day Adventist Church clearly identify divisions as a creation of the General Conference for the purpose of representing and acting for the General Conference within a specific geographic territory. A division is expected to speak with the voice of the General Conference—not with its own voice as separate from and in contrast to that of the General Conference.


The authority and responsibility entrusted by the General Conference to divisions is defined in rather general terms although there are specific areas of responsibility for which a division is expected to establish its own policies. The general terms outlining division authority and responsibility are to be interpreted within the context of the division’s role as an extension of the General Conference. Division supervision within its territory is to be exercised in harmony with General Conference policies and actions.


The distribution of authority and responsibility in the Church along with the recognition that “authority rests in the membership” present significant challenges in finding a balance between centralized authority (actions of the global Church) and the more localized authority (actions of the constituency) in churches, conferences, or unions. In the interest of preserving global unity the historical trend has been towards increasing the size of the General Conference Executive Committee and ensuring that there is global input in policy decisions.


At the same time as the Church has worked to preserve unity, the effect of church growth has enlarged the understanding of diversity and its rightful place in a worldwide community. To expect that every entity in the world church will look and function exactly like every other entity of its type may in itself become an impediment to mission. The development of structural designs in the history of the Church indicates that unity must be built on a stronger foundation than uniformity.


This committee concludes that current governance documents contain adequate language outlining the relationship between the General Conference and its divisions. But the committee also recognizes that governance documents cannot embrace every detail of general and specific authority delegated to divisions. There must be room to recognize the need for and legitimacy of local adaptation of policies and procedures that facilitate mission while not diminishing the worldwide identity, harmony and unity of the Church. Furthermore, divisions need to address situations for which no global policy exists. In doing so however, a division should also bring these to the attention of the General Conference for review.


Existing General Conference governance allows for divisions to make policies concerning certain operational activities within their geographic territory provided the policies can be harmonized with and not in conflict with the governing documents or policies of the General Conference even when working to localize or adapt to cultural needs within the particular division. Continued church growth and the inevitability of changing circumstances and environments will require the global church to have systems in place for dialog and consultation on matters that may be perceived as requiring some response other than doing things the same way everywhere.


Structural relationships in the Seventh-day Adventist Church are dynamic—they can change over time not by independent initiative but through deliberative, consultative, and collaborative action. The General Conference Executive Committee (in Annual Councils) is authorized to review, change, or create policies to facilitate the worldwide mission of the Church. However, the relationship among entities of the Church is more than a matter of law and policy. Therefore attempts to codify that relationship will always be inadequate. The primary strength of the Church comes not from its structure but from its collective desire to live out a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Such a commitment embraces a call to community.

The General Conference and Its Divisions (SM 2012)

*This sentence originally stated that the document was voted. But the committee merely voted to accept it. Therefore, it is not official policy.

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