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Reflections on Annual Council and the Association of Adventist Women Conference

Before Annual Council ended last week I left Maryland on a plane headed to Southern California for the Association of Adventist Women conference that was held on the campus of La Sierra University, a serendipitous appointment that offered a glimpse into the contrasts, politics, and delightful complexity of Adventism.

When I arrived at LSU’s Hole Memorial Auditorium, the first and most obvious difference was simply that I went from sitting in a room mostly full of men to being in a room mostly full of women. Responding to news reports from Annual Council, the women wanted to know every detail about the defeated motion requested by the North American Division for a variance to allow a commissioned minister to become a conference president. The men’s discussion of that issue had been very political. Some of the men (blessings on Pardon Mwansa, Lowell Cooper, Jan Paulsen, and Bertil Wiklander in particular) did see the issue as one of equality and justice. Others were more concerned about how the motion would be considered in their territory, even though the request was for a variance restricted to only two divisions.

During the debate on the NAD request for the variance, Johann E. Johannsson, treasurer of the Trans-European Division, stood to speak “on behalf of the ladies who are not here.” He noted the incongruity between the membership of the church where 60-70% are women and the General Conference Executive Committee that is 91% male. Referring to the 9%, he noted that most of the women in the room were not clergy.

If you exclude the lay representatives, it is 97% male and 3% female. In the 33 pastors chosen by the church (to sit on the committee), 32 are male and 1 is female. The majority has become the minority. This is a concern to me.

Carla Baker, director of Women’s Ministries for the North American Division, told the women at AAW that it will be important to see what occurs at the NAD year-end meetings in two weeks, as NAD president Dan Jackson has spoken of his determination to honor the division-level vote in favor of equality for pastors with comissioned credentials. I hope that is the case.

Like GC Vice President Ella Simmons, I wonder about the unity that is often cited as a reason for not giving women ordination privileges. Just how does disenfranchising 60% of the membership promote unity?

Beyond the debate over the NAD variance request, there was good news at this Annual Council. Specifically, the call by Secretary G.T. Ng to focus on discipleship and the use of the word “comprehensive” in President Ted Wilson’s vision for evangelizing the cities. Oakwood University president Leslie Pollard was eloquent in his comments about how the people who are in the cities and know the territory can play significant roles in this evangelism. I, too, hope that those people, and Samir Selmanovic comes quickly to mind in New York, are sought out by the leadership for advice and partnership.

As Eric Anderson, president of Southwestern Adventist University, said in a descriptive aside, Annual Council is part pep rally and part business meeting. I would add another—part week of prayer meeting with testimonies, calls to stand and support, and repeated prayer sessions with the person standing next to you.

One of the most dramatic of the testimonies was given at the end of the day on Monday when President Wilson introduced a guest that he had invited to tell her story of gratitude. It was Carla Lidner Baum, a dentist from Riverside, California. 

First, she told the story of her children. “I don’t think that I ever was grateful until my foster boys showed up,” she said. And then she became pregnant with twins, God’s gift to her that took her gratitude to a whole new level. Next she spoke of her mother’s gratitude to a church that had helped her to become everything she hoped to be.

But the real burden of her testimony involved her recent realization that there were multiple ways of holding Adventist beliefs.

I had no idea that anyone Adventist would ever think to change Adventist beliefs.

In her mind, combining evolution and the survival of the fittest with Adventism “make our gospel that much less attractive.” Her worries centered on these new interpretations being taught in Adventist colleges which she differentiated from the K-12 system, noting that the K-12 textbooks are being updated in a beautiful way.

“Why is there not more of an outcry about the erosion of our beliefs,” she asked?

She said she was worried that our leaders, who in their efforts to be tolerant, instead end up being like Eli or Aaron.

Because of my gratitude to God, I can never bow down to golden calves.

Next she talked of the “enlightened ones” who seem to suggest that they understand the Gospel better than other people. But the poor people will never be able to understand their gospel. Yet, she suggested, the enlightened ones say they are being attacked.

“I’ve fallen in love with the Adventist interpretation of Scripture,” she said calling it “beautiful, powerful, and close enough to get us through to the end.” Were the ideas about evolution true, “when Jesus came to earth He could have set the record straight,” she maintained. He could have told us that God only gave names and gave order.

“It really matters what story is told,” she said.

The stories that the enlightened ones tell have no gratitude in them. I can’t abide quietly because I think that our stories should be all about gratitude.

In conclusion, she said, “We will not be faithful until we are grateful.”

Ella Simmons was serving as the chairperson for the session. She turned to President Wilson for any last words.

“What more is there to say?” Wilson asked rhetorically. “The vast majority of church members believe in a simple but profound gospel.” Then he praised the professionals of the church and instructed the leaders present to connect with the professionals in their territories like Dr. Baum.

The next day, Dr. Baum also flew back to Southern California. While it was never mentioned before or after her presentation to Annual Council, she was a member of the Board of La Sierra University. She arrived in Riverside just in time to find out that she had been voted off the Board.

Adventist politics can be very hard on people. During Annual Council, the Middle East Union officers also experienced painful political outcomes by having their territory rearranged and attached to the General Conference with little say. It can be very difficult to watch. I do hope that Dr. Baum and others can hold onto their love for Adventism in the midst of unsettling times.

Perhaps it is specifically at such times that one needs to focus on reasons for gratitude.

At the Association of Women Conference, I, too, had a chance to share my gratitude to God for family and church at their Women of the Year banquet where I shared honors with Dr. Myrna Costa, vice president of the Inter-American Division. Beyond my amazing mother, supportive husband, kind son and overall wonderful family, my gratitude overflows for the women of the church who have focused on supporting each other in leadership roles. It includes the excellent teachers at our colleges and universities who model a religion of love, freedom, and present truth, and my mentors in the Adventist Forum who have given me opportunities and voice. It values the local communities/churches that have nurtured me as well as the wholistic concepts of Adventism that have provided balance to my life. And then there is my gratitude to the next generation that is inspirational to me in their creative technical skills and profound spirituality.

There’s nothing quite like the mixture of Annual Council and the Association of Adventist Women’s meetings to help one see the many faces of Adventism, count one’s blessings, and conclude that, while there is work to do, this is a blessed community intent on sharing God’s love.

Which is why we can all join in the song that was sung after the variance vote: “We have this hope that burns without our hearts—hope in the coming of the Lord!”

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