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The Redemption of the Union Conference


Through most of my ministry, the conventional wisdom, shared by people from all across the Adventist spectrum, was that we’d outgrown the union conferences. Union conferences had been established at a time when there were no telephones, no airplanes, no internet. At a time when it was believed that pastors needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses at the very top—a whole chain of control. Our church may have gotten some of our evangelistic passion from our hatred of Roman Catholicism, but administratively we chose to operate much like them, with a stern and corpulent bureaucracy.

And that, children, is pretty much how the church worked back before you were born. I was astonished when I first started ministry about how much mail I got from my employers. Sometimes five or six letters every day, all sent from different departments in the same office. Ditto with phone calls. Even a small conference like the one I started in had one ordained pastor to lead every department, each assisted by an office secretary: Sabbath School, Temperance, Ministerial, Evangelism, Lay Activities, Youth, Education, several vice presidents, not to mention an entire treasury staff. The local church was at the bottom of a long assembly line of directives from denominational leaders. The General Conference sent their directives down to the North American Division, who added their stuff and sent them down to the union conference, who sent them on down to the conference, who sent them down to pastors, who brought them to the church. At first I believed that all the stuff they sent was important, or they wouldn’t have sent it. I tried to act on everything. It took me a few years to learn that a lot of it should go into the rubbish bin.

As time went on, two things happened. One is that money got tight, and people began to wonder if we required as many conference administrators as we had pastors in the field. If you think there are still too many people in your conference office, you should have seen it 30 years ago. The conference office staff that you have now is assuredly smaller than it once was.

The other thing that happened is that the culture changed. That pushed-from-the-top management style was no longer received cheerfully by churches. Some of the pastors who came of age in that system moved into offices themselves, and started cutting the flow. There is far less control exerted over churches and pastors than there once was. Fewer meetings, fewer programs, less mail generated, and leadership is less authoritarian. Administrators learned that things worked just about as well without their micromanagement. They began to think of themselves as resourcers rather than directors. A lot of what used to be done in offices wasn’t necessary anymore, anyway: where once we thought we needed a local administrator to count how many quarterlies each church got, the presses began sending them to churches directly. Offering appeals didn’t need to trickle down through four sorting offices, either, nor evangelistic programs.

That’s why we began to think that not only could administrative staffs be reduced, but the organization could be flattened. And the obvious target was the union conferences. We knew our local conference officers, knew they hired pastors and ran youth camps and academies. And we could see the need for the continent-wide regions that we call divisions, since they reflected a regional culture. But who needed the unions?

Dave Weigley is the one man more responsible than any other for saving the union conference in the North American Division.

The story is well-known by now. Most of the discussion about women’s ordination in previous years wasn’t about headship theology—that came later—but about the whole church not being ready, for cultural reasons, for change. Efforts to get regional self-determination on the issue were thwarted. The Columbia Union Conference office (and at about the same time in the Pacific Union Conference office) decided to treat ordination as a policy matter. Since the policy had always been that the union conference approved ordinations within their territory, the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference held that they could ordain whomever they wanted to, including women. Ordinations of female pastors followed, sparking a cultural war, masquerading as theology, that led to San Antonio, where female ordination was voted down.

From these union conferences there’s been no admission of defeat, no formal surrender. The union conference office is now thought of as the organizational fort for the rebel forces, the last redoubt against the dark side. The narrative now is that Ellen White was instrumental in creating unions in 1901 expressly to dilute the power of an overly-controlling General Conference. They represent a sort of “states’ rights” position, a bulwark against centralization and (an Ellen White phrase beloved of us dissenters) “kingly power.”

But notice this: the loudest voices for the abolition of union conferences have gone silent. Oh, a few angry people are calling for them to be taken over by the General Conference, their executives deposed, their constitutions manipulated, their policies forced into line with the monarchy. But people like me, who not long ago were quite certain that for entirely practical reasons (that they’re expensive and largely unnecessary) unions would eventually disappear from the church structure, are no longer saying it. The handful of unions and their officers who embraced women’s ordination are heroes, and the rest are safe because they have the potential to be courageous, too, even when, like the North Pacific Union, they choose not to be.

Dave Weigley found the one thing union conferences could do that no one else could. The one superpower the union conference had. The one ace card they held. The union conference could ordain women. So for the time being, union conferences are safe, at least from those who believe women’s ordination is important—and that’s probably the majority of North American Division Seventh-day Adventists. It may not have been Dave’s intention to find a use for his increasingly irrelevant institution. He did what he did because he really believes in ordained women in ministry, and thought the church had waited long enough. But the outcome has been to make the union conferences indispensable. They’ve exerted an authority that balances out power within the church, and we’re grateful for it.

Nevertheless, their new legitimacy leaves us with a problem. There is still too much church structure for a division that is running low on money and has less to manage (and less desire to micromanage) than it used to. Church bureaucracies have a metabolism problem: they go on a diet, but soon find their weight creeping back up again. (Contributing to this is that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church corporate culture, the only way for a pastor to be recognized is to move out of parish ministry into administration. We are not—I hope to write more about this later—a congregation-loving denomination, but an institution-loving one.) We still need to streamline our organization, to bring it into the 21st century.

In a number of European territories, pastors work for unions, which are considered the basic mid-range executive unit. Could it happen here? At least ten years ago, Raj Attiken, Ohio Conference president at the time, made the suggestion to the Columbia Union Conference that we eliminate the conferences and just run everything from the CUC office. He calculated an astonishing savings from eliminating superfluous personnel and real estate. As I recall, each conference in the CUC was to present it to their executive committee, and come back with a recommendation. With the exception of Ohio, every conference said no, even though it would have been worth millions to churches in their territory. (In retrospect, asking conference presidents to discuss with their leadership whether they all should be restructured out of a job probably wasn’t the best way to encourage adventurous thinking.)

How this will all turn out in the end is impossible to predict. My intuition tells me that our present General Conference doesn’t favor creative thinking from its subsidiary organizations, and will do whatever is necessary to keep them from becoming too independent. Some have said that the unions are legally impregnable, but I’m not so sure. Nor do I think it impossible that church entities would spend your donated money lawyering up against each other. Yes, power is that important. Elder Dan Jackson is the potential Desmond Doss in this war, taking fire from both sides. It remains to be seen whether he’ll survive to get his medal of honor.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and the recently-appointed Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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