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Upcoming Constituencies–It’s Not Over ’Til It’s Over


The Columbia Union Conference’s Special Constituency Meeting to determine whether or not women will be allowed ordination into the gospel ministry is tomorrow. Spectrum will be live blogging the event as it happens.

As the North American Division discovered to its chagrin when it had to reverse its decision to modify its constitution and bylaws to allow for the ordination of women, the church’s governing documents can be a hard taskmaster. I’m not certain the union conferences are going to find it much easier. In other words, it’s not over yet.

Let me start with some disclaimers: I have limited time available at the moment and certain church documents haven’t been easy to find online. So I wish I had more links to send readers to original sources. The upside is that those who truly are interested can experience the joy of digging for themselves! In the time I had available, I couldn’t find the General Conference’s Model Constitution and Bylaws for Union Conferences, nor could I find the bylaws for the Columbia Union. But I did find the bylaws for the Pacific Union. The Pacific Union document contains what I remembered such documents contained. And I’m sure the Columbia Union bylaws are very similar–because they probably follow the GC’s model too.

Let’s look at the first paragraph of the Pacific Union’s Bylaws Article XIV: “The Bylaws of this Union, which are essential to the unity of the church worldwide, may be amended, revised and repealed from time to time in order to comport with the spirit of the Model Union Constitution and Bylaws as voted by the General Conference Executive Committee. Such amendments or revisions shall be approved by a two-thirds majority vote of the delegates present and voting at an duly called Constituency Sessions of the Union. The Bylaws may be amended, revised or repealed, provided such changes are in harmony with the spirit of the Model Union Constitution and Bylaws.”

Note the clause “which are essential to the unity of the church worldwide.” Congregationalism and its equivalent at higher levels of the organization (especially in North America) have been a deep concern for many General Conference leaders for at least three decades. The model constitutions and bylaws that sub-entities have been pressured to conform to are a hedge against the threat of the big “C.” So all unions are reminded that what they do in their territory has significant implications for church unity worldwide.

But it goes even further. Note that the provision to amend the bylaws isn’t open-ended. The only acceptable amendment is one that brings them into harmony with the model created by the General Conference. There is no provision for any other kind of change. And just in case you have reading retention problems, that fact is reiterated–because the preparers of the model bylaws want to ensure that the message gets through. Does such a restriction, once voted, hold legal sway in perpetuity? Someone more versed in law than I am would have to render that verdict. It may be a relatively toothless attempt to exert pressure. But it may also be a deal breaker. I don’t know.

How ironclad the restriction is may come down to how ruthless the players on each side are willing to be and who blinks first. If it’s a legally binding provision, it might come down to who has the best lawyers–and whether or not the courts would consider it a legal matter or an ecclesiastical matter. Certainly the courts would never rule on whether or not women should be ordained. But there’s a chance they’d be willing to rule on whether or not the bylaws have been honored.

The upshot of this restriction at a more everyday level is this: While it may be legal to amend the bylaws in such a way that they no longer comport with the GC-provided model, the implications of ignoring or amending such wording would be a truly radical step for many church members, I’d say. Some will have a level of loyalty that won’t allow them to live with such a departure from the General Conference’s expressed will. Couple that with the appeal made earlier by 40 GC officers, and my guess is that some pro-women’s-ordination delegates will wilt.

But the pre-emptive moves by the General Conference go beyond just seeking to restrict what kind of amendments can be made to a union’s bylaws. It also has to do with who has a vote at a union’s constituency meeting.

Note this from Article IV concerning who may be delegates: “Members of the General Conference and North American Executive Committees who may be present at any Constituency Session of this Union. The number of such delegates representing the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the North American Division shall not exceed five percent (5%) of the total number of delegates provided herein-above in Section 2-A-(2) of these Bylaws.”

A bit further down in Article IV, we read: “The number of delegates to Union Constituency Sessions shall not exceed 500 members including both regular delegates and delegates at large. Not less than eighty percent (80%) of the delegates shall be regular delegates, and, as noted in Section A, shall be chosen proportionally.”

Let me pause briefly to define a couple of things: “regular delegates” are chosen by the conferences, and the number from each conference is based on membership. If those delegates constitute 80 percent of a group of 500, it looks like 400 of the overall group will be regular delegates. “Delegates at large” are made up of the union committee, the nominating committee, the bylaws committee and other “Pacific Union Conference employees holding ministerial credentials, ministerial licenses or commissioned minister credentials.” That group totals a maximum of 100. But note that as many as five percent of the 100 may be from the NAD or GC.

Five delegates out of 500 isn’t really significant in one sense. But the provision for designating those five NAD or GC representatives as official, bona fide delegates does give the upper echelons of the hierarchy more power and influence. As official delegates, their speeches are legitimate “delegate speeches,” however impassioned or manipulative they might be. As church leaders who just barge in as non-delegates because they have the power, it would seem less appropriate and more intrusive even if the message and style were the same.

And there’s another point worth noting: Bylaws amendments require a two-thirds majority. At the best of times, that’s not an easy mark to reach. When the amendment in question requires both a controverted issue and so openly ignoring the stated will of the “brethren,” it’s even harder. Five votes could make the difference in that situation.

Whatever, it will be interesting to see what happens. The irony, of course, is that the fear of congregationalism and it’s equivalent at all levels, coupled with the resultant unwillingness of the Adventist Church’s highest leaders to assist various regions in doing what’s most beneficial for that region, may in fact be the single-biggest force pushing the North American church (and the church in some other regions of the world) in that very direction.

James Coffin, recently retired after nearly 36 years as a youth pastor, pastor and editor, is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

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