Many words have already been generated by events in our church last week. For me, as someone who has been trained to observe process, there was one piece of very good news about the meeting which kept European Adventists, including us, watching online till the early hours of Monday morning.
So first, here’s the good news! With a few exceptions, speakers at the microphones kept carefully to their two allotted minutes and made the best of them. The most effective had obviously chosen their words carefully. They had written and timed their remarks. The repeated appeals from the chair to be “sweet-spirited” seem to have worked. At the microphones, people were thoughtful and sensitive and put their different cases with respect. So many speakers delivered their words with conviction but without a trace of ego in their tones. While so much about what is going on in our church these days makes me sad and bewildered, I was comforted to see that we can still conduct an extremely difficult debate with directness and insight, with honesty and dignity.
This positive aspect of the meeting threw into high relief the unequal way in which the airtime was divided. The meeting lasted five hours. The first two hours were taken in introducing, explaining, and defending the policy. Reading the policy document aloud — as if none of these obviously highly responsible leaders had taken the time to read it beforehand — added to the impression that the various senior leaders’ contributions were deemed to be the most important part of the meeting.
The discrepancy between the different amounts of time taken by various people spoke volumes. Everyone expects chairpersons to speak more, and to use their expertise to guide their group members. But when people have traveled from across the globe to such a momentous meeting the airtime allocations seemed out of proportion. And to speak at such length when you are limiting everyone else in the room to speaking for two minutes? Compare the carefully crafted speeches, mostly given with respect to their two-minute deadline, with the rambling repetitiveness of what appeared to be ad-libbed introductions by the chair. Compare the amount of time taken by the introductions and the time allowed to the representatives of the church around the world whose job it is to communicate and defend the decisions taken. In the process before this gathering, the members of the administration have had a lot of time to make their points. The church representatives now found that their time to speak to each other was being tightly controlled.
The unequal use of available air time in the making of this significant decision suggests an organization where very little thought is given to the values (dare I say, the spiritual values?) expressed by process. The behavior on this occasion casts an unfavorable light on the top-down assumptions about sharing power in this organization. We have seen it in consistent opposition to the sharing of leadership between men and women in the church. Here it is again.
So…finally…some questions. Should we be measuring the airtime given to everyone in committees to be sure that there is rigorous equality between them? Absolutely not! Passion and expertise need to be respected. But does it matter that in this significant Adventist conversation, a disproportionate amount of time was occupied by a few leading men? Absolutely! They might call it appropriate leadership or “headship.” Others might call it “domination.”
Let’s be clear. This kind of directive approach is the type of leadership sought by many people, both inside and outside the church. If this isn’t the situation we want, how hopeful can we be? Is it too much to hope for a greater awareness of the value of shared airtime at least in professional church meetings? Is it too much to hope that church administrators become as aware of the sharing of airtime as are secular professionals? And in Bible study groups and in conversations after church, is it just too idealistic to hope for the creation of conditions where everyone’s view can be heard? Is it naïve to hope that inside the church and inside our families, we can learn to think about the importance of sharing airtime just as we attempt to care for the sharing of other resources like money? Whether we are Christians or not, if we care about equality — thinking about sharing airtime seems like a good place to start.
Helen Pearson is a counselor, psychotherapist, writer, and trainer from Wokingham in England and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. She and her husband, Michael, run the website Pearsons’ Perspectives where this and similar articles can be found. It is reprinted here with permission.
Image: General Conference Executive Committee members line up to speak during the Annual Council compliance document discussion. Credit: Flickr.com / ANN / Brent Hardinge
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