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Pluralistic Ignorance and Adventist Administrators


After finishing my PhD in Australia in 1970, I obtained a Fulbright travel grant that brought me to the Sociology Department and Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University for two years. I took the opportunity while there to audit two graduate courses taught by Robert Merton, who was then one of the best-known sociologists in America.

In one lecture, Merton told the class about a dissertation completed by one of his former students who had studied the Methodist Church in Texas. As part of his methodology, he interviewed each member of the diocese executive committee. The first person interviewed described his support for all the policies being carried out by the church in Texas. However, near the end of the interview, he suddenly adopted a confiding tone and told the researcher that he was, in fact, much more liberal than the other members of the committee but had chosen not to “make waves” and so had supported the bishop’s program in its entirety.

Much to the surprise of the researcher, his interviews with all the other members of the committee contained similar statements: each believed that he/she was the only liberal member of the committee.

Merton explained to the class that this is an example of what sociologists and social psychologists call “pluralistic ignorance.” Here is Wikipedia’s definition of the term:

In social psychology, pluralistic ignorance refers to a situation in which the minority position on a given topic is wrongly perceived to be the majority position or where the majority position is wrongly perceived to be the minority position. This can be more simply described as "an individual who does not believe, but that individual thinks that everyone believes."

This phenomenon has things in common with other group dynamics such as “groupthink,” “don’t rock the boat,” and “safeguard my job.” In the years since 2015, I have often found myself contemplating the extent to which these dynamics also explain the decisions made by the General Conference Executive Committee, the GC and Division Officers Committee (GCDO), the GC Administrative Committee (ADCOM), and also the committees at other levels of our church.

A different dynamic shapes the votes of church leaders in the developing world and of delegates from those parts who vote on committees of the General Conference and in General Conference sessions. Traditionally, tribal societies do not behave like liberal democracies: the chief makes the decisions or, if votes are involved, he delivers the votes. I have observed that church leaders in such societies tend to think of themselves as chiefs, or to employ a New Guinean phrase, as “Big Men.”

Once the president has been chosen at an Adventist General Conference Session or constituency meeting, he has a strong voice in choosing the other members of his team. In 2010, Ted Wilson set out to remove officeholders who were strongly identified with his predecessor or were likely to prove too independent: it became clear that he was seeking personnel who could be relied on to support his program.

Wilson’s education and career were planned with the help of his father, Neal Wilson, who was president of the General Conference from 1979 until 1990. Neal evidently saw his son eventually occupying the same position. To that end, Ted was placed initially in New York City as director of urban ministries and at the same time enrolled in a PhD program at New York University. As he climbed the ladder, he gained overseas experience as a department director, then secretary of an African division, and then as president of the church in the former Soviet Union. He then gained institutional experience as president of the Review and Herald Publishing Association and was elected as one of the vice presidents of the General Conference in 2000. In 2005, he was the major new contender for the position of president of the General Conference, when he came close to beating out President Jan Paulson.

Because of his conservative ideology and cherished policy goals, Ted Wilson knew that he could not count on much support for his candidacy for the position of world president from the churches in Europe, the South Pacific, and North America. Consequently, during his travel itineraries as vice president in advance of the General Conference Sessions of 2005 and 2010, he vigorously courted leaders in the developing world. I was given several accounts of such activities during interviews with people in a position to report on them. By emphasizing shared concerns and discussing the filling of positions, he was successful in gaining support in delegate-rich unions. Several of his main goals were not of great concern in the developing world, so to a large extent alliances were based on “one hand washing the other.” However, in the matter of the roles of women, he often struck gold when emphasizing his opposition to women pastors. At the General Conference Session in 2010, the nominating committee gave his candidacy a fast victory.

An analysis of Wilson’s sermons and initiatives suggests to me that one of his most cherished goals has been to restore Ellen White to the exalted position that she had occupied in the church in the 1950s. This had been severely damaged by a considerable amount of academic research that revealed the prophet’s widespread use of unacknowledged sources in her writings. When the General Conference chose to check out such research results by funding a study by Fred Veltman on the sources of The Desire of Ages, it confirmed the earlier findings, which was acknowledged in an article by Veltman in Ministry magazine. Wilson has quoted White’s writings extensively in his sermons, praised her, urged Adventists to read her, and promoted campaigns where copies of The Great Controversy have been scattered “like the leaves of Autumn” in mailboxes.

Another of his personal goals has been to end the ordination of women and reduce the number of women in pastoral roles. Wilson presided over the defeat of the attempt to allow divisions to choose to ordain women as pastors at the 2015 General Conference Session. He made his own opposition to the proposal clear, and when the majority of the members of the extraordinarily costly TOSC Commission surprised him by finding that there was no biblical reason why women should not be ordained, he chose to not report its findings to the delegates. Since then, he has managed a relentless campaign designed to force the unions that have been ordaining women pastors to reverse their policies.

In the same GC Session, he refashioned the 28 Fundamental Beliefs that together comprise the Adventist creed. The most important of these to him was the replacement of the statement about creation, which, because it had used wording taken directly from the Scriptures, had left room for many views, with a very precise declaration that God created the world and life in it in six contiguous 24-hour days, and that this was done so recently that any possibility of the evolution of life forms was removed.

His last cherished goal was to strengthen the Adventist refusal to welcome acknowledged LGBTIQ members, just as society was recognizing their marriages and many church members have come to realize that the Adventist position is not what Jesus would have us do. I have been told that Wilson has denied that he has gay family members. However, I have experiences that contradict his assertion. In 1983, when Grady Smoot, the president of Andrews University, was arrested in Washington during Annual Council for propositioning a plainclothes police officer, the publicity resulted in the immediate loss of his position. I had never met Smoot, but I was saddened that a life of service to our church could end so suddenly without concern from the church, and that the main motive of “the brethren” seemed to be an impulse to be rid of someone who had suddenly become an embarrassment to them. I decided to call Neal Wilson, who was then the GC president, to express that concern, and I found him sympathetic—he said he would get back to me. Some days later, he called to tell me that he had been able to find a position for Smoot at the university where his brother was Provost: Neal had prevailed on his gay brother to help Smoot, who was appointed as dean at the university. This means that Ted has a gay uncle, and I have been told by other members of SDA Kinship International, the organization that ministers to LGBTIQ Adventists, that he also has a gay cousin. I fear that his denial of the existence of his gay relatives models how he feels Adventists should respond to their LGBTIQ children and fellow church members.

Three of the five compliance review committees created in 2018 had very focused topics that point to three of Ted Wilson’s top policy concerns: issues of ordination, homosexuality, and the teaching of creation/origins.

I will return now to changes in the dynamics of Adventist leadership structures in the developing world and how these are pertinent to Adventist decision-making. Increasing exposure to the modern world is impacting loyalties there, especially in urban areas. For example, when I visited the South Pacific in the 1990s, I was told at the division headquarters in Sydney that while there was some support for women pastors in Australia and New Zealand, the division was not able to support ordaining them because of its fear of opposition in the island fields, especially Papua-New Guinea. However, when I conducted interviews in New Guinea, I was told many times that if the division okayed women pastors, they would appoint them. Today in New Guinea there are women pastors, and the division is encouraging women to train for the ministry and supports ordination for all pastors. In my travels, I met women pastors and department leaders in Africa and Latin America as early as the 1980s.

I have come to recognize that in countries that have traditionally had tribal structures, there are many tribes, and therefore multiple loyalties. The recent unrest in Kenya, both in the general population and within the church, illustrates this. Moreover, divisions in the developing world contain many countries. Consequently, the leadership dynamics and the control of the votes of delegates are much more complex than originally suggested. When the westernization of some of the membership, especially the urban educated, is added to this mix, the complexity of the dynamics at work increases further. The assumption of the church leaders who see themselves as chiefs—that they can count on the delegates to vote as instructed—is now less true. For example, in Africa, where church policy breaks up families and sends the polygamously married wives of converts away to fend for themselves, older church leaders told me that they opposed changing this travesty because although they were Big Men, they had foregone the most significant badge of that status—multiple wives—and therefore were determined to insist that wealthy new Adventists continue to rid themselves of all but one wife. However, the younger, better-educated pastors spoke about the importance of changing a requirement that has harmed many abandoned wives so severely that they have had to resort to prostitution in order to support themselves.

Questions also need to be raised about the so-called “Unity Survey,” whose methodology involved questioning division and union presidents about the views of their constituents concerning the issue of enforced compliance to decisions voted by General Conference Sessions and the GC Executive Committee. Its purpose was to legitimate the whole planned compliance process. As a sociologist who has had considerable experience with interviews and surveys of Adventists, I know that expecting presidents to have a sense of the opinions of the whole considerable membership of their units is absurd. When the interviews were face-to-face and the interviewer was someone they knew from the headquarters of the aggressive General Conference, then this greatly increased the likelihood that the results reported would be those desired by the administration—or, in other words, that pluralistic ignorance would occur.

As part of my study of global Adventism, I have completed over 4,700 long interviews with Adventists in 60 countries in all divisions of the Adventist Church. Because of concern for the protection of “human subjects,” I promised each person interviewed that what they tell me is confidential: that I will not cite their name in what I write or tell others verbally what they have said. As a result, I have been told many times by interviewees that they have given me information that they have chosen to keep from visiting General Conference personnel. This is because I have no ability to impact their employment or to discipline them and I will not report them to those bodies. The situation with the unity survey was the reverse of my interviews.

The voted process that was designed to bring non-compliant unions into compliance was ethically challenged. It stated explicitly that the process would use prayer between the GC official and the threatened president of a unit that is regarded as non-compliant. This is a total misuse of prayer, designed to cause the president to abandon his position and, for many, to go against their conscience. Also, when did the threat of public shaming in order to produce compliance become a Christian strategy?

The current GC administration is obsessed with its desire to end the ordination of women, and the whole compliance system was designed to control unions and conferences that have been convinced that God wants to use all available talent to heal the human mess. It is evident, given the declarations that have been issued and the foci of two other compliance committees, that the administration plans to ensure that no alternatives to the six-day creation that has been embraced as “correct” are presented in any serious fashion in Adventist academies and universities, and that churches or institutions do not become supportive of their LGBTIQ members and students. The administration much prefers the image of a gay Adventist who hates himself, who struggles to be celibate or even enters a fated marriage with an Adventist wife, and who breaks out into uncontrollable promiscuity, probably running the risk of contracting HIV and perhaps bringing it home to his beleaguered wife, to the image of a stable, loving gay Christian home.

Even though there is a great deal of other non-compliance to policies within the church, many of which cases threaten the reputation of Christ and his church, the administration has chosen not to put those in its sights. I have been told that unions where corruption is rife, where officials have climbed to high positions with forged degrees, where membership rolls have been deliberately overstated in order to foster wondrous personal reputations, etc., have been informed that the administration will not focus its attention on their non-compliance in order to gain support for its war on the ordination of women and those who facilitate it.

Meanwhile, the top committees—the GC Executive Committee, the GC and Division Officers Committee (GCDO), and GC ADCOM—seem all to be functioning as desired by the administration. (Well, I should note that Vice President Thomas Lemon took Ted Wilson by surprise in 2017 when he presented a key report that did not say what had been expected. He was removed from the chairmanship of the Unity Oversight Committee.) My data suggest that even in these committees, whose members were chosen with such great care to further Ted Wilson’s desired goals, there will be a number of instances of pluralistic ignorance. That is, there will be other committee members working to further goals that in their hearts they do not support.


Ronald Lawson, PhD, is a sociologist studying urban conflicts and sectarian religions. A lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, he is retired from Queens College, CUNY, and now lives in Loma Linda, CA.

Photo by Enno Mueller / AME (CC BY 4.0)

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