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Why We Should Reform How We Elect General Conference Presidents


There have been past musings about changing our church leadership electoral process. Nominating committee irregularities during the last General Conference (GC) session, where Ted Wilson was renominated and subsequently elected for a third term as GC president, amplified the chatter. But we need to understand our current situation in order to appreciate the necessity for change.

Our governance structure mirrors the United States political system in many ways. Perhaps this is not surprising, as the church was founded in America and our 1863 pioneers had no compelling reasons to look beyond its borders for a different model. The hierarchical leadership pattern in American politics—local, state, and national—is similar to the church’s organization, where leaders are invested with increasing power as they move “up” from local churches to conferences, unions, and ultimately the General Conference. Just as American politicians generally begin their careers in local districts and aim for upward mobility on the power ladder, church leaders usually begin at the local level and seek to climb up the rungs.

For many Seventh-day Adventist pastor-administrators, the GC presidency is a bit like the Holy Grail. Similar to newly elected American presidents who have free rein in putting together their cabinet, GC presidents have great latitude in who they select as their executive and ancillary officers. They also play an important behind-the-scenes role in picking division presidents. Consequently, GC presidents have historically had near-unfettered freedom in determining church direction, an added incentive to secure the position or resist giving it up. But, unlike secular politicians who spend much time fundraising for the next election, officeholders in Adventism need not fundraise, as they do not officially “campaign” for positions. Instead, hopeful GC presidents use a different political currency—alliances.

No one has been better at this than Ted Wilson. But the president’s alliance-forging tactics have often divided the global church into unhealthy camps. This essay focuses on how Wilson has exploited relationship-building to further his administrative goals, and the role African church leaders have played in facilitating these efforts. This is background that makes the case for reforming how we choose future GC presidents.

Wilson and the African Church

In full disclosure, I am an African from Ghana, with deep roots in the continent and close connections with the African church. While I have made every effort to guard against analytical bias in my assessment of the relationship between Wilson and his African colleagues, I am also trying to not be paralyzed by the concerns about potential bias, such that I don’t recognize some obvious “political” undercurrents in that relationship. In the end, I have come to the conclusion, from the perspective of an African Adventist looking on from the outside, that Wilson’s “strategic alliance” with African church leaders is one of convenience, which has damaged the image of the church and its leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is unclear when this collaboration was forged, but it was solidified in 2012 when women’s ordination became the overriding worry in Adventism. Early in Wilson’s first term, the Western church seemed united in support of women’s ordination, and several unions were on the verge of voting to let it happen. This appeared to have backed the new president into a corner, and he needed help from other global blocs to blunt the West’s momentum. I am certain that Wilson, whose first overseas missionary posting was to Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, is familiar with Africa’s strong patriarchal leanings. So, when the church’s perennial anxieties over women’s ordination resurfaced under his watch, he likely saw an opportunity and couched the debate in cultural terms that African ministerial leaders understood and appreciated. Soon these leaders were telling their pew membership that women’s ordination was another Western imposition on the African church, which President Wilson was resisting.

This was the beginning of how the African church and its leaders, their image flayed by a thousand cuts of small indignities, came to be maligned anew as Ted Wilson’s “lackeys.” Under normal circumstances, that label would have been summarily dismissed as silly, but it gained validation during the Theology of Ordination Study Committee’s (TOSC) deliberations, when all three African divisions fell in lockstep with Wilson in opposing women’s ordination. The running charge during this period of heightened tension was an unproven allegation that the leaders of Africa’s divisions, constituting a 23% voting bloc in San Antonio, had leveraged their anti-women’s ordination stance for influence. True or not, Wilson and African division leaders would be joined at the hip, and together they would prevent change on women’s ordination at the GC Session and subsequent Annual Council meetings.

From here on, Ted Wilson would tacitly or openly support controversial actions by African leaders that only deepened the mistrust. And the Western church would point to these as “payback” for Wilson getting African support. Through these actions, Wilson has unwittingly cast the African church and its leadership as reprobate before the world church. Take the case of Paul Ratsara, former president of the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division and a staunch Wilson supporter, who became embroiled in a doctoral dissertation scandal. Ratsara did what was expected in such circumstances and tendered his resignation. But Wilson, for no discernibly good reason, stepped in and asked the committee to reject the resignation. This deepened and extended the scandal. Ratsara’s resignation would eventually be accepted but the damage had been done. Where else besides Africa, the narrative suggested, would Wilson encourage an admitted plagiarist to continue in high office? This incident would serve as another touchstone in the storyline that there is a widespread rottenness within Africa’s Adventist leadership and it is propped up by GC support.

Then came the 2015 San Antonio General Conference Session. Here the really big “elephant,” that dwarfed all other issues, was women’s ordination. The years-long TOSC studies, with their ever-changing objectives, had created mistrust between progressive-leaning Western divisions and Ted Wilson and his supporters. Due to concerns about potential intimidation during voting, the GC contracted with a reputable firm to conduct all votes electronically. However, when the system was tested on the first day of the session, on multiple occasions it recorded an unusually high (25%) undercount between electronic and manual counting. When the contractor could not adequately explain the discrepancy, they suggested doing a division-by-division electronic count, as there was speculation that the test was being purposefully undermined. But before this could be done, the GC president went to the platform and “moved that we cease any more attempts to use the electronic system.” This was quickly voted on to applause from a cluster of delegates in the African section. Soon rumors in the dome had the African delegation as the saboteurs of the electronic voting system. And with that, another negative impression of the African church had been added to the growing list.

But it was what happened when Jan Paulsen, the GC president before Wilson, took the microphone that will likely go down as most regrettable. Paulsen spoke in favor of allowing each division autonomy to make their own policies on women’s ordination, and the result still drowns me in shame almost eight years later. For his suggestion, Jan Paulsen was booed. Loudly. In front of the church that he had dedicated almost half a century of service to.

There is no dispute that the booing came from the direction of the African delegates. There are many things wrong with that incident. Just five years earlier, Jan Paulsen was the GC president, standing where Wilson stood. Paulsen is an elder statesman with multiple missionary tours in Africa. He was there, educating Africans, at a time when no air-conditioned offices or homes for missionaries were available. It is this same Dr. Paulsen who was booed in public by my African brethren. And this in spite of deeply ingrained cultural respect for our elders, which proscribes committing such a taboo. And now, hopefully sobered, we should wonder what led us astray.

But much more unsettling than this ignoble act, which some would later attempt to excuse by blaming youthful indiscretion, was what the “adults” in the Alamodome failed to do. Ted Wilson was on the platform when Jan Paulsen was booed. And Ted Wilson did not say a single disapproving word to those who booed his predecessor. Nor did he offer any apology on the church’s behalf for the disgraceful breach of public decorum that took place in his presence. He, and his lieutenants on the platform and in the auditorium, just looked on. And by their inaction, they normalized this reprehensible behavior, ensuring that the stench of that moment would remain in the church’s consciousness.

I wish that was all, but there is also the role prominent African Adventist pastors/leaders have played in the LGBTQ+ criminalization drive in Africa. In 2009–2010, conference and union leaders in Uganda gave public support to a proposed legislation dubbed the “Kill the Gays” bill. At the time, a different GC president was in Silver Spring. He was quick to condemn the effort and succeeded in getting the offending leaders to not only walk back their support of the bill but also apologize for involving the church in it. Last year, another union president, this time in Ghana, waded into the same gay criminalization stream. The union leader declared publicly that the Adventist Church fully supported the bill under consideration in parliament, which criminalized LGBTQ+ individuals and their supporters. Not to be outdone, Moses Maka Ndimukika, current president of the Uganda Union Conference, has become the latest African Adventist leader to play morality policeman in Uganda’s never-ending prosecution of gays. But this isn’t “fun and games,” not when life and liberty are at stake. The recently passed law in Uganda demands life in prison for merely saying you are LGBTQ+, and the death penalty for those accused of LGBTQ+ sexual abuse. And important Adventist leaders in the country voice unequivocal support for these penalties.

Such high-level public support by Adventist Church officials of measures that other faith communities in both countries have condemned, for fear they will normalize the ill-treatment of a vulnerable group, brought calls for a GC response. Advocates hoped that some action, even if less decisive than was taken by Wilson’s predecessor, would at least distance the church from these leaders’ public support. But neither Ted Wilson nor any GC personnel offered a comment. Why not? If a US or European Adventist leader had made such a public declaration that Adventism supports criminalizing the LGBTQ+ community, would Wilson or his lieutenants have kept quiet? Why would Wilson’s administration ignore such morally challenged behavior when African leaders are perpetrators? Contrast Wilson and his administration’s shameful silence and inaction with Pope Francis, who in his recent tour of African countries spoke pointedly to both ecclesiastical and secular leaders. He denounced these draconian laws, calling this criminalization of LGBTQ+ people to be “a sin” and “injustice.” Then, in striking empathy with this beleaguered minority, he declared that “God loves and accompanies them.”

Better Models

These concerns bring us to the search for alternative models that are not so easily susceptible to manipulation. What other ways could the church reform its election mechanism so leaders don’t get into questionable alliances that could hamstring their ethics and hinder good governance? There are beginning discussions in Adventist circles about finding a better model. One such consideration recommends adopting an administrative posture based on shared geography and culture, to address the diverse non-theological issues confronting the church. This would be similar to our current church arrangement except the divisions would serve as terminus for each territory and would eliminate the GC’s involvement. In this conception, a division in sub-Saharan Africa could, for example, develop a consensus approach to polygamy without dragging the entire world church into a uniform position. Similarly, Adventism in the global north could determine its own gender-neutral ordination policies without the global south being bound by its approach. The entire model is premised on recognizing that the contemporary world church is ensconced in complex socio-cultural milieus that defy one-size-fits-all solutions.

Though the model envisages cobbling together large territories that may comprise many countries, it still evokes a congregationalist ethos where the divisions have too much “autonomy.” A drawback of this arrangement is that it sacrifices, or at least dilutes, the highly prized Adventist “universal” church ethos. And selling a model of 13 or more territories, with each constituency accountable only to itself, might be too fragmentary and project more divisions than the church would be comfortable with. Additionally, for a church whose leaders are used to meetings in Washington and across the globe, not having such a hub to discuss other shared concerns might be the death knell of such a plan.

If the regional/congregationalist approach proves unpalatable to a traditional Adventist mindset, a system that preserves and improves on the current one might be the solution. The corporate model practiced by large Adventist institutions like universities and hospital chains, though hardly ever used to elect/appoint church leaders, is still familiar enough to merit consideration. When leadership change becomes necessary in Adventist universities or large hospitals, search committees are set up to seek replacements. Usually these committees take months to complete their work. There is no reason why the church cannot have a similar process for choosing the GC president.

This may require having a standing committee, preferably well-represented by non-pastors, with all informed by predetermined leadership-qualifying criteria. Such a mechanism could spring into action within about six months before a GC Session, or in an interim situation. Their sole duty would be to identify, interview, and conduct background checks of prospective candidates to fill the top executive positions at the GC. This committee would have the power to winnow down potential “applicants” to three or four per position and send recommendations to a bigger body, such as the GC Nominating Committee, for a final vote. Though the bigger nominating committee would have roughly the same amount of time as the current system to conduct business, much of the leg work would have been done before that committee historically meets. This should produce a more thorough search process than we have presently.

I recognize these two models are still quite skeletal, but they can be a beginning and aim to facilitate reform conversations. While we may not yet be at the point of Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt,” it is fair to say that leaders in Adventism, just like their secular counterparts, become used to the allure of office and thus may seek ways to remain. The current system is increasingly becoming too prone to abuse. In my view, GC presidents, particularly Wilson, have sometimes compromised integrity and simple ethics to stay in office. A system that tempts otherwise decent leaders to strike Faustian bargains that blur ethical boundaries needs overhaul.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Adventist News Network / Denis Peniche.

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