Business Sessions Don’t Have to be Bizarre: Experiences from the Swedish Union’s Constituency Meetings

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March 6, 2020

The first time I was a delegate at a Swedish Union’s Constituency Meeting was in 1993. I was 23 years old, representing my local church. At the beginning of the Session I was elected to the Nominating Committee.

The committee met in a classroom on the top floor of a school building. It was summer, and the sun shone in through the classroom windows, letting us experience a greenhouse effect long before Greta Thunberg was born. We were to propose names for the Union President, the Secretary, the Treasurer, a bunch of Departmental Directors, and the Executive Committee.

We discussed, we cast ballots, and finally we decided on a name. Once that was done, we had to hunt down our candidate. Sometimes it was easy: just sneak down to the Session[1] floor and try to discretely whisk away the candidate around the corner, to put The Question to him/her. (Doing that discretely in front of a few hundred spectators was… well, not always very discrete.)

Sometimes the hunting was harder because we first needed to — discretely, if possible — figure out where the person was, and then find a phone number where he/she could be reached. Remember, this was in the days before cell phones were ubiquitous! And if we failed to contact our candidate, we’d either nominate him/her anyway, hoping he/she would accept the fait accompli, or we’d have to drop the name. Neither alternative was appetizing.

To me, this was a somewhat bizarre experience. And it must have, at least sometimes, been a somewhat bizarre experience for the candidates as well. For a candidate, The Question from the Nominating Committee could mean that your spouse and children would have to move across the country. Friendships, schools and careers would be disrupted. The most bizarre aspect in this was that our candidate would be given a few hours, possibly a whole night, to think, to pray, to discuss with spouse and family. After those few hours we expected them to answer us, preferably with a “yes.”

Then repeat the process for the next position to fill. And it all had to be completed in half a week!

In hindsight, I believe this way of treating people was a quite efficient way of creating a “caste” of church employees, who were expected to (and used to) move around according to the whims of the Church. And it excluded “ordinary” people from serving the Church, because most ordinary people spend more than just two or three hours deciding on whether to change careers, sell their house and to move across the country.

***

Four years later, at the next Constituency Meeting, I was once again elected to a committee. This time it was something called the Proposals Committee.[2] It, too, was a bizarre experience.

The committee’s task was not well-defined, but we were supposed to draft some sort of “this is what the Union should do in the coming four years”-proposals, and then the Session was to debate and vote on these. As input we had suggestions from local churches and delegates, which they had entered in advance. Also, the Union’s departments and the Executive Committee had produced various documents and plans.

So there we were, a bunch of people thrown together in an oxygen-depleted room, expected to digest all this input, add some own thinking, and boil it down to something which then would be brought to the floor, and voted. No preparation, no forethought, not much time to analyze what the consequences would be, or what should be prioritized, or if there were budget and people for doing all this.

We ended up producing over a dozen things which were duly voted. There should be a full-time evangelist in the Union. There should be a committee to suggest improvements in the Church’s organization. There should be first-class youth camps and materials. There should be more staff in the Youth Department. There should be more responsibility delegated to lay members. There should be improved communication between the local churches and the Executive Committee. There should be a national gathering for pastors and local church elders once a year. There should be a crisis response team available in the Union. There should be training for lay preachers.[3] And so forth. It was like writing a wish list to Father Christmas.

Then four years later we would meet again at the next Constituency Session and wonder why Father Christmas, sorry, I mean the Union President, hadn’t delivered on all the wonderful things that had been proposed and voted.

***

To me this seemed a bizarre way of managing God’s business. Ad-hoc committees, treating both people and subject matters in this ad-hoc manner was discomforting. I was convinced the Church could do better than this. And I was by not any means alone with these sentiments, so changing things turned out to be easier than you might expect.[4]

Over the years we have, step by step, developed our Union’s Constituency Meetings. In this article I will outline a few of the key ideas which I think have improved the way our Constituency Sessions operate. They have added structure and transparency. They have made the Sessions more robust against manipulations and whims (of both leaders and laypersons). They have contributed to increased member involvement.

Some of these ideas might differ from how things usually are run (or supposed to be run) in the world church. Other ideas are slowly making their way into the comme il faut of the world church.[5] I am sharing these ideas, not because they are perfect, but to inspire revival and reformation also in this area of church life. And as we’re approaching the General Conference Session later this year, this might be a suitable time to reflect on our Constituency Sessions, at all levels.

Before we proceed, I probably should make a disclaimer. My observations are from the inside. I have been a delegate at every Constituency Meeting since 1993. I have served in the Proposals Committee, in the Nominating Committee, and more recently in the Constitution and Bylaws Committee. I have been vice chair of the Session. I have participated in ad hoc committees tasked with evaluating the Union’s Constituency Meetings. I am a Constituency Meeting junkie. You have been warned![6]

***

But first we must make a few comments on the Swedish cultural context. It is important to be aware that organizational procedures are influenced by local culture and history. What works in Nairobi, Tokyo, or Silver Spring might not fly in Stockholm. And the other way around.

Some of those differences might be mere technicalities. For example, we Swedes make no distinction between “Constitution” and “Bylaws”; we put the stuff in one single document. And we’ve never heard of Robert’s Rules of Order — but we’ve been running non-profit societies since 1766 or so.[7] We just run them slightly differently than General Robert runs them.

Other cultural differences are bigger. For example, Sweden has a strong culture of consensus. We like to discuss things, and everyone should be a part of the decision-making process.[8] We are also rather anti-authoritarian. We have a King, but already back in 1719 we stripped him of much of his powers as a Sovereign and gave the Parliament a lot of authority,[9] and today the Monarch has only ceremonial duties. Our Parliament has had representatives from various parts of the society, from peasants to nobility, since at least 1527. The idea of being a free man, owning your own land, and being empowered to partake in managing the nation’s business, is centuries old for us Swedes.[10]

The concept of folkrörelse, literally meaning “people’s movement,” is also deeply ingrained in Swedish history and culture. In the middle of the 19th century there were many folkrörelser: the temperance movement, the labour movement, and the free churches (in opposition to the Lutheran Church, which at that time was a state church).[11] Many non-profit organizations, including many Christian churches and denominations, were formed at this time. The ideals of folkrörelse shaped the way voluntary organizations are formed and managed in a democratic way in our nation.

It was in this context the Seventh-day Adventist Church was established in Sweden in 1881. How we are organized, and how we run our church, both locally and as a Union, is not only determined by (primarily American) Working Policy, but by culture that is centuries old. We have an entrepreneurial culture: when constituents see a problem, they are likely to take initiative and fix the problem. If orders from superiors cause problems, constituents will often ignore or circumvent such orders. Thus, a foreigner flying in from beyond the seas, and throwing a policy book at us, is doomed to fail if he isn’t sensitive to this. I am not saying it is perfect. I’m just saying that’s the way it is.

With that said, we’re finally ready to outline some of the key ideas.

Being a Union of Churches

If you haven’t paid attention to the finer details of Adventist organizational vocabulary so far, then it is time to do so now. We are the Swedish Union of Churches Conference (SUChC). In our case the local churches constitute a Union, not a Conference. This means that it is the local churches who elect their delegates to the Union’s Constituency Session.

Many decades ago, our Union was made up of three Conferences. In 1969 the Conference tier was eliminated.[12] However, this organizational model remained an anomaly within the world church for many years. It wasn’t until quite recently that the Union of Churches model was fully embraced[13] in the Working Policy[14] of the General Conference.

In my understanding, the elimination of the Conference level was mainly a pragmatic decision. Sweden is geographically large. Driving from southern Sweden to northern Sweden is roughly the equivalent of starting at the Mexican border, and then driving all the way through the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and not stopping until you’re in Montana.[15] However, the population is a mere 10 million. Sweden is also one of the world’s most secular countries.[16] In this large, sparsely populated, and very secular country, we are only about 3,000 Adventists. In such circumstances, you can’t have too much administrative overhead.

However, discussing the number of ecclesial organizational levels is beyond the scope of this article. But I am aware that in parts of the world church there are proponents for eliminating the Conference level. Whether that’s a good idea or not in general, I can’t say, but given our circumstances in Sweden, the Union of Churches is an organizational model that has served us well for half a century.

Standing Committees

Our Constituency Sessions always have three main committees: The Constitution and Bylaws Committee, the Nominating Committee, and the Proposals Committee.

According to the Model Constitution in Working Policy, only the Constitution and Bylaws Committee is a standing committee.[17] However, in SUChC all three are standing committees. They are elected at the Session and will work in preparation for the next Session four years later. All members of the committees will be delegates at large at the upcoming Session.

Having standing committees means, for example, that the Nominating Committee has much more time to nominate candidates and do background research on them if needed. Also, the candidates (and their families) can get more time for prayer and reflection before giving an answer to the Nominating Committee. This is beneficial for the well-being of Church employees and their families. It also facilitates recruiting people from other walks of life than those already belonging to the cadre of existing Church employees. In the SUChC there have been several such recruitments.

All three committees are required to have a majority of members not employed by the Church.[18] This is a way of maintaining the “representative and constituency-based system [whose] authority is rooted in God and distributed to the whole people of God.”[19] And it is also a way of involving more church members in the work at the Union level.

Furthermore, if a position filled at a Session becomes vacant between Sessions, the standing Nominating Committee will convene and nominate a replacement. The Executive Committee can only accept or reject this nomination from the Nominating Committee, it may not pick replacements at its own pleasure. This reduces the room for maneuvering by church leaders, in case they are inclined to advancing personal favorites into positions of power.

The Proposals Committee, and Placing Items on the Session Agenda

The Executive Committee may put items on the Session agenda. But placing items on the agenda can also be done by any delegate, or by a local church. These items are called motions in our parlance.

The main task of the Proposals Committee[20] is to comment on these motions and propose what the Session should vote. These are called proposals in our parlance. If there are several motions about the same (or related) issues, the committee may compile these motions into one proposal. It also happens that the committee adds some original work of its own, so that the proposal is coherent and complete on the topic it covers.

The Proposals Committee also prioritizes the motions/proposals, at least informally, by placing them in a certain order. Of course, the Session is free to amend the order, but mostly the proposed order is followed. At the last Session in 2017, 48 motions were received, and the Proposals Committee drafted 38 proposals. Unfortunately, only 21 of these proposals were voted on, and the remaining 17 proposals had to be sent to the Executive Committee because the Session ran out of time.

Since the Proposals Committee is a standing committee, it has time to deliberate and carefully craft its proposals. A prime example of this is when the delicate question of equal treatment of men and women in ministry was on the Constituency Meeting agenda in 2017. By breaking down the decision-making process into steps, and by carefully describing the consequences of each step, they guided us through this issue. “Should the SUChC strive for equal treatment of men and women in ministry?” was the first step. Yes or No? The Session voted “Yes.” Next step was to decide how to strive for this. Should we abstain from ordaining both men and women, even if it might conflict with Working Policy? Yes or No? This way the Constituency Session in the end voted that the Union should abstain from ordination altogether.[21] Everyone may not like what was decided, but I believe everyone agrees that all sides got a fair hearing, that it was an informed decision, and that the decision truly reflects the will of a clear majority.

An Impartial Presidium

According to the Model Constitution and Bylaws in Working Policy, the Union President shall be the chair of the Constituency Meeting, and the Executive Secretary shall be the secretary of the Session. We do this differently in the SUChC.

The Union President calls the Session to order, but one of the first items on the agenda is to elect the Presidium. The Presidium consists of a chair, two vice chairs, a secretary, and a vice secretary. These are elected among the delegates upon nomination of the Nominating Committee.[22] Once the Presidium is elected, the management of the Session is immediately handed over to them.

The task of the Presidium is to manage the Session in a fair and impartial manner, making sure that all opinions are heard, that Constitution and Bylaws are adhered to, and that clear decisions are made and recorded in the Minutes.

One advantage with the Presidium is that the management of the Session is not a one-man show, but a service done in community. I know from personal experience that chairing a Constituency Session is a very exhausting task.[23] Sharing the workload and getting the support of your colleagues in the Presidium is very valuable.

But an even more important advantage is that the Presidium is an impartial entity, focused on managing the Session.[24] A main function of a Constituency Meeting is to hold the Union leadership and Executive Committee accountable. The existence of the Presidium creates a healthy balance of powers at the Session when it comes to accountability and roles. The Union President is free to answer questions, defend past decisions, participate in the discussion, etc., and everyone understands this is done in the role of President. This avoids the perception that the President is trying to use (or abuse) his authority as chair to move the Session in a particular direction. (One has only to watch a video stream from GC Annual Council to see that perception come into play when the President-chair makes some particular comments on what is being said.)

Timeframes Supporting Transparency and Engagement

The local churches must elect their delegates at least five months before the Session. All the motions from delegates and churches must be sent to the Executive Secretary at least four months before the Session. The Session agenda, including all documents (the motions, the proposals from the Proposals Committee, the Nominating Committee’s report, the report from the Constitution and Bylaws Committee, the Auditors’ report, etc.) must be made available at least one month before the Session.

This makes it difficult for anyone to push any last-minute surprises through the Session. It also creates a timeframe which allows the delegates to prepare for the Session. I know of local churches where the delegates call the church to an informal business meeting, to brief the members on the agenda and to gain their input on the issues which are on the Session’s agenda.

One might fear that this makes the Constituency Meeting into a rubber-stamping session where we merely approve the pre-Session work done by the committees. I can assure you this is not the case! (I’d say rubber-stamping is much more likely when people aren’t given time to think.) There’s always a lot of discussion and amendments.

What Next?

Our current way of doing Constituency Meetings is in no way perfect. There are things we need to improve on. Maybe the most important thing, in my opinion, is to get through the whole agenda. So far, we have never managed to do that in the approximately three days a Session lasts! But the positive side of this is that it demonstrates the delegates’ engagement and enthusiasm, and sometimes frustration, in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sweden.

Our next Constituency Meeting will be in 2021, and I will be a delegate at my 8th consecutive Session. At that Session there will be some young people who will be there for the first time. I hope we have managed to change some things for the better, so that they will have a more positive, less bizarre, experience than I had when I was young.

No doubt, they will have opinions on how we do things. I hope that I will be mature enough to listen to them, and welcome them as fellow travelers on our journey of managing God’s business in the best possible way, in whatever times and whatever culture we live in.

 

Notes & References:

[1] I will use the terms “Session,” “Constituency Session,” and “Constituency Meeting” interchangeably. “Constituency Meeting” is the most frequent term used in Working Policy, but the other terms are used as well.

[2] This might also be known as the “Plans Committee” in some parts of the world church. In this article I will use “Proposals Committee” for two reasons: First, it best reflects the Swedish word Förslagskommittén. Second, in Working Policy, the “Plans Committee” seems to have been replaced with “Steering Committee” in later years, but that “Steering Committee” has a different function than our “Proposals Committee,” and I want to emphasize that difference.

[3] These are all real examples from the minutes of the 1997 Session. We could have produced more, but we ran out of time. It was quite ironic that e.g. most of the items sent from the Executive Committee to the Proposals Committee were in the end returned to the Executive Committee due to lack of time.

[4] Sometimes bad experiences catalyze change. The minutes from the 1993 Session contain a somewhat extraordinary entry (§ 92), where it is recorded that at the end of the Session the Union President declares the leadership’s aim of “finding new ways of working for the Constituency Meeting, so that more time is allocated for deliberations and to improve on the delegates’ opportunity for familiarizing themselves in advance with items on the Session’s agenda.” An incident during the Session compelled the leadership to make such a declaration.

[5] For example, I am happy to see that nowadays Working Policy has a “Note” in the Model Constitution and Bylaws for Unions, which at least tolerates the concept of standing committees.

[6] This article is primarily based on my personal reflection, but also on the minutes, etc. from the Constituency Sessions from the 1980s and onward. I am indebted to the Swedish Union for making those documents available either on www.adventist.se or via mail upon my request. I have also received input from some current and retired officers of the Swedish Union, for which I am very thankful.

[7] Pro Patria, established in 1766, is by some considered the oldest Swedish society. But the Vikings established guilds some 800-1,000 years earlier, and some historians argue that the roots for “our” non-profit societies are found there.  http://www.voluntarius.com/Svensk_foreningshistoria.htm

[8] An easy read on this is Management by consensus — the Swedish way by Olle Wästberg, published on the English-speaking news site “The Local” https://www.thelocal.se/20090121/17064

[9] For a brief history of Sweden, see e.g. https://sweden.se/society/history-of-sweden/

[10] The Riksdag of 1527 and 1540 are the first Parliamentary sessions where peasants were represented, see e.g. the Swedish Parliament’s website https://www.riksdagen.se/sv/sa-funkar-riksdagen/demokrati/riksdagens-historia/. But peasants had occasionally been represented even earlier, e.g. in 1435 according to https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bondeståndet_i_Sverige.

[11] See e.g. https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folkr%C3%B6relse

[12] The Conferences were Northern Sweden, Southern Sweden, and the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. To be picky, the Swedish-speaking Adventists in Finland remained a Conference until they were “moved” from the Swedish Union to the Finnish Union in the 1980s. Sweden is not the only Union where the Conference tier has been eliminated, there have been some other Unions (e.g. in neighboring Denmark and Finland) where a similar merge of the two tiers has been done.

[13] Well, almost. Working Policy still says that “A union of churches structure is designed for unusual circumstances…” (section B 65 22).

[14] The General Conference Working Policy is not a publicly available document, thus making it hard for us non-employed members to stay updated on the latest policy developments. Quotes from and references to Working Policy in this article are, unless otherwise indicated, from the 2016-2017 edition of Working Policy, which is the latest edition I currently have access to.

[15] A visual comparison of Sweden and USA can be found on https://www.mylifeelsewhere.com/country-size-comparison/united-states/sweden.

[16] A search on the Internet will reveal many sources for this. One such source, with a rather illustrative map, is https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/04/14/map-these-are-the-worlds-least-religious-countries/.

[17] Section D of Working Policy contains Model Constitutions and Bylaws for Union Conferences, Union of Churches, Local Conferences, etc. A Note therein states that “Division executive committees may authorize a process whereby the session organizing and nominating committees may be selected and empowered to perform their tasks in advance of the session.” This Note is not present e.g. in the 2009-2010 edition of Working Policy, which to me seems to indicate a slow evolution toward general acceptance of standing committees.

[18] By the way, this requirement also applies for the Executive Committee in the SUChC.

[19] This foundational statement on the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is found in Working Policy, section D 05.

[20] The committee consists of 9-13 persons, representing both church employees and non-employees.

[21] In the first step the vote was 137 yes, 66 no, 1 blank, 6 abstaining. In the second step, the vote was 136 yes, 67 no, 5 blank, 3 abstaining. https://www.adventist.se/info/en-dag-for-alla-som-gud-kallar-till-tjanst/5472/2

[22] As I will explain in the next section, all nominations have been publicized in advance, so the nominated Presidium is known to the delegates, and the Presidium has been able to prepare for the Session.

[23] I served as one of the two vice chairs at the Session in 2009.

[24] Members of the Presidium retain their formal rights as delegates, but they usually abstain from voting publicly (e.g. by raising their hand in a vote). If a member of the Presidium wishes to actively participate in the debate, decorum requires that he/she leaves the podium, and gets in line at one of the microphones on the floor, like any other delegate. Symbolic acts like these are effective in creating and maintaining trust between the delegates in their various roles.

 

Paul Annala, M.Sc., is married and a father of two children, and likes reading and writing. He lives in Linköping, Sweden, and is employed by Ericsson as a software designer. Paul is involved in his local church in many ways. He is also vice chair of the Constitution and Bylaws Committee of the Swedish Union of Churches.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

 

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