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Holding Everyone Accountable

Bonnie Dwyer sparked an array of intense and opinionated feedback with her editorial about Annual Council. I found her report to be a good balance between support, hope and deep concern. As one who often reported on and editorialized about such events during my years as an editor, I know what a challenge it is to get to what George Carlin tautologically called “the true facts.” It’s hard enough to divine what’s really happening in open plenary sessions. What goes on behind closed doors at the General Conference is even more difficult.

I wasn’t there to see and hear what Bonnie saw and heard at Annual Council. Clifford Goldstein was. And he says she was not only wrong in her reporting but shows a decided bias in what she said. He may be right. On the other hand, he may be wrong. I make such a comment because at least some of the others who were present at Annual Council came away with much the same concern as Bonnie voiced. In fact, I’m not so sure they weren’t even more openly distraught than she was. Of course, I’m equally certain that there are many who share Cliff’s perspective. In fact, I imagine it’s a majority.

Since I wasn’t present, when I read a report such as Bonnie’s and read a response employing the immoderate language Cliff chose to use in condemning it, I have to go back to my own life experience to determine which may be presenting the more accurate picture. What I do know is that I’ve served on boards and committees, and participated in or reported on convocations, at every level of the Seventh-day Adventist Church structure. Congregation, conference, union, division and General Conference. And my experience has been gained both in North America and overseas. I also know that I’ve at times resigned from boards/committees or declined to be reappointed because of my abhorrence at what I’ve seen going on.

On rare occasion I’ve encountered chairmen who are the epitome of Christian grace and openness. Men who are committed to frank discussion and truly letting the voters–the church–decide. More often, I’ve seen chairmen who are near-replicas of their secular-politics counterparts, who are first and foremost committed to getting their agenda passed. (My concern, however, is more about proper process than about agenda–because I may actually agree with their agenda.) These chairmen are in many cases smooth operators, capable of getting what they want without the bulk of the board/committee members realizing that they’re being manipulated.

In far too many cases, the voters are there merely to legitimize the chairman’s agenda, be it good or bad. (Of course, the blame will be hung on the voters if anything they’ve voted fails to work out as envisioned.) Unfortunately, there are some chairmen whose manipulation of the voters is so egregious that it turns the stomach of those with any understanding of and commitment to proper procedure. Only those who are totally oblivious to the machinations of church politics could fail to be disheartened by such behavior.

The abuse of power in the church is actually more complicated than I’ve just described. In the Adventist Church, despite a plethora of policies, there are many processes for which there are no written rules. So a chairman can do whatever he wants and still not be in violation–though his actions may go against commonsense and commonly understood Christian obligation.

But even in cases where there are clearly written and duly voted policies, guidelines and official statements, such documents are ignored with impunity. Too often, if such paper statements are inconvenient to the chairman’s agenda, it’s as if they don’t exist. No structures exist by which the average church member can in any realistic way hold accountable anyone who works at a level higher than the local conference. And it’s extremely difficult and doesn’t happen often even at the local conference.

Like both Bonnie Dwyer and Clifford Goldstein, I want to see our new General Conference president, Ted N.C. Wilson, succeed. I would like to see the church become a more loving, more caring, more effective channel for God’s saving grace. That doesn’t mean that I’ll always agree with everything Pastor Wilson or any other leader does. Nor does it mean that I must refrain from all comment concerning the public statements and actions of church leaders.

Public comment is the nearest thing to an accountability mechanism that any of us as individual church members have at our disposal. And the only way to ensure that the voters who’ve supported a leader’s actions hear about our concerns is for us to speak publicly. (Committee/board member contact information often isn’t even readily available.) That’s what Bonnie did, showing both support and concern. I’m not surprised that Cliff might disagree with Bonnie’s assessment. I am quite surprised, however, that he found her assessment to merit the level of condemnation that he chose to heap upon it. The phenomenon called “bias” can apply in more than one direction.

The fact is, (a) the content of Pastor Wilson’s inaugural sermon at the General Conference Session, (b) his sermon at Annual Council, (c) his decision to send a copy of The Great Controversy to all residents around the General Conference office and (d) the suggestion (either from him or those around him) that the book distribution was a model to be copied elsewhere set a tone and, one would assume, gave insights into the new president’s values, priorities and methods. It’s inevitable that what transpired at Annual Council would to a great degree be interpreted in light of those very public comments and actions, as well as others not here enumerated. Those comments and actions caused deep concern among many–though, as Cliff contends correctly, it’s a relatively small group when compared to our total world membership. But it’s a group that could be of enormous benefit to the church. So why alienate anyone unnecessarily?

In his inaugural sermon, Pastor Wilson said:

Seventh-day Adventist Church members, hold your leaders, pastors, local churches, educators, institutions, and administrative organizations accountable to the highest standards of belief based on a literal understanding of Scripture.

His words constitute a strong mandate. But a strong mandate for what? What does he envision members will do to hold pastors accountable? (I single out pastors simply because that’s the role I play daily, so that’s the context in which I’m most acutely aware of the impact when ill-chosen words emanate from a high-profile, highly credible source.)

Should church members accost their pastor after every sermon in which they feel some statement has been made that could imply a non-literal interpretation of scripture? If the pastor doesn’t admit to being in error, apologize and promise to change his approach immediately, are church members honor-bound to report him to the conference president? Should they poll their friends to see how many they can get on their side so they have more clout when they go see the president?

And what if they feel the conference president takes their concerns too lightly? Should they appeal to the conference executive committee or the union president and condemn the conference president as well? And what about the pastor of the church in the next suburb, who’s not my pastor but about whom I’ve heard some rather disturbing stories about his heresies? Should I go confront him as well? The point is, Pastor Wilson urged members to take action. But at a practical level, what should that action look like? In the absence of any definition, zealous–some might say overly zealous–members will create their own template. It’s definitely happening. And it isn’t pretty.

It’s interesting that Pastor Wilson instituted a four-day week at the church’s headquarters, in part, so the reports say, because of low employee morale in the office. Quite frankly, I don’t think saying “Sic ’em” to those church members who needed no nudging is going to do a lot for employee morale in the field. It shows a disconnect with the what we as employees face every day. And while administrators may have to face complaints, it’s usually from a distance–especially administrators at the General Conference. The average pastor or teacher faces the same complainers and detractors day in and day out. And it’s usually face to face.

In short, giving license for such activity, though no doubt well-intended and sincerely motivated, was out-of-touch and irresponsible. I say that not in anger or derision or disloyalty. I say it simply as fact. And we haven’t even touched yet on what exactly is meant by “a literal understanding of Scripture.” Is the word “literal” meant to connote literal for every word of the Bible? Or is it meant to connote literal only for those sections that we’ve collectively deemed to be literal through some formal vote? Or is it just meant to connote truly taking the Bible seriously–whether the content happens to be literal or figurative? If people are being advised to hold others accountable to a specific standard, it’s imperative to clearly articulate just what that standard is.

Moving on, the plans to distribute The Great Controversy to all residents around the GC complex provides a similar example of disconnect. The interdenominational combativeness that was the order of the day a hundred years ago has all but disappeared. There’s a much greater openness than once existed. Even such things as worshipping on Sabbath rather than Sunday don’t pose the insurmountable obstacle they once did. In fact, many Catholics go to mass on Saturday evening because it fits better with their Sunday plans. We live in a time when, in the United States, it’s relatively easy to invite our friends to church, and simply through love, friendship and study lead them to membership. (We’ve long advocated it, under the rubric “friendship evangelism.”) We also live in a time when political correctness simply doesn’t countenance “attacks” on other faith groups. And in today’s climate, The Great Controversy would be viewed as an attack by many if not most. Especially when mailed to households indiscriminately.

It’s one thing for an Adventist who’s in ongoing spiritual discussion with a friend to offer The Great Controversy to explain the over-arching motif of our denomination’s worldview and understanding of history. It’s quite another to simply “throw it at” someone (of course, I speak figuratively). One allows for questions, clarification and ongoing discussion within the context of friendship. The other is abrupt, cold and likely to be misunderstood even by non-Catholics. This is not to say that all recipients will respond negatively. Some, especially those already upset by Catholicism, will respond favorably. But we must factor into the cost-to-benefit analysis the inevitable alienation that may well inoculate many against our denomination forever.

After the selection of Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson as our new world-church president, I wrote a couple of “editorials” for our church bulletin about the change. I noted the positive interaction I’d experienced over many years with his father and, to a lesser degree, Ted. I outlined several specifics I’d observed about Ted that I greatly admire. I stated my firm belief that he’s a sincere person with an unswerving commitment to God and to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But that doesn’t obviate the need for accountability.

It doesn’t mean that he won’t “get it wrong” at times–as we all do. It doesn’t mean that he won’t deservedly be taken to task. And Pastor Wilson, like all of us, has to deal with “baggage”–both good and bad–that has built up over the many years of our denomination’s existence. The lenses we wear are often years or decades in the making, custom-made on the basis of our own life experience. It’s a sad truth–but quite understandable–that no church leader today is going to get the benefit of the doubt that once might have been routinely granted. Thus it’s more crucial than ever to dot every “i,” cross every “t” and ensure that proper procedures are not only followed but are seen to be followed.

I felt Bonnie showed balance in both affirming and holding feet to the fire. She may or may not have ventured too much into the speculative. Based on my nearly thirty-five years of being in the thick of such things, I’d say she got it about right. To my way of thinking, there are questions that scream out for answers, not all of which she was capable of providing, even though she may have raised the issues. From my perspective, she was right in principle even if she may have been–or may not have been–slightly wrong in some specific detail. Others may disagree. And it’s right and good that they should do so. Bonnie Dwyer, Clifford Goldstein, Ted Wilson and the rest of us should all be held accountable. I would simply hope those of us who set about to do so will do it with as much grace as I think Bonnie showed in writing her editorial.


James Coffin is senior pastor of Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida.

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