After a two-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Seventh-day Adventist Church held the 61st General Conference Session from Monday, June 6, through Saturday, June 11, 2022, in St. Louis, Missouri. General Conference sessions are scheduled every five years. The 61st Session had originally been scheduled for June 2020 in Indianapolis.
Given the fundamental paradigm shifts that have taken place in business, travel, and communication because of the pandemic, the 61st GC Session was shorter, only one week as opposed to nearly two weeks as in previous times, and it was conducted in hybrid fashion—meaning both on-site and via electronic communication. Delegates who were unable to travel to St. Louis participated via Zoom internet video calls.
The following is a very brief wrap-up of a few of the items discussed and voted on. Links are provided on p. 22 for the full agenda, viewing the session, and other material.
The primary item was the election of officers.
The following are the newly elected officers:
President, Ted N.C. Wilson; General Vice Presidents, Guillermo E. Biaggi, Abner De Los Santos, Artur Stele, Audrey Andersson, Geoffrey Mbwana, Thomas Lemon, Maurice Valentine; Secretary, Erton Köhler; Undersecretary, Moise J.F. Hensley Moorooven; Associate Secretaries, Gerson Santos, Claude Richli, Saw Samuel; Associate Secretary, Adventist Mission, Gary Krause; Associate Secretary, Adventist Volunteer Service, Elbert Kuhn; Associate Secretary, IPRS, Karen Porter; Treasurer, Paul Douglas; Undertreasurer, J. Raymond Wahlen II; Associate Treasurer, George Egwakhe; Associate Treasurer, Daisy Orion; Associate Treasurer, Josue Pierre; Associate Treasurer, Investments, Timothy Hiroki Aka; Associate Treasurer, IPRS, German Lust; Associate Treasurer, Technology, Richard Stephenson.
Shortly after the officers were elected, GC Communications Director Williams Costa asked Elder Wilson, president, what he would do differently.
“Just to reaffirm that our true mission is to prepare people for the soon coming of Jesus and every way we can do that is how we want to accomplish the task, all being led by the Holy Spirit,” Wilson said.
The following is a brief recap of a few of the items discussed and/or voted on, and other general highlights.
On Monday, June 6, the first day of the session, the business meeting opened with Executive Secretary Erton Köhler, who reported that there were 1,876 registered delegates on site.
Discussion on various agenda items
Agenda item 406
RATIONALE: This amendment allows for consistency of wording between the sections on elders and deacons/deaconesses and addresses some confusion in areas where women are ordained as elders.
RECOMMENDED, To amend the Church Manual, Chapter 8, Local Church Officers and Organizations, page 73, Ordination of Elders, to read as follows:
Ordination of Elders—Election to the office of elder does not in itself qualify one as an elder. Ordination is required before an elder has authority to function. When a church in a business meeting votes the election of new elders, it also authorizes their ordination. Between election and ordination, the elected elder may function as church leader but not administer the ordinances of the church.
The italicized portion indicates the recommended change. The full text may be found on the agenda.
During discussion of this item, several delegates, including two from conferences within the Pacific Union territory, expressed their thoughts about it. The following are their statements, edited only for clarity.
“I would like to speak against sending this back because the reason stated for sending it back held with it very particular theological beliefs that I don't believe we as a church have voted that we all agree on,” said Sandra Colon, from the Central California Conference. “Therefore…if we are saying we are going to consider that belief, then we are condemning the freedom of conscience for many other believers within the church that do not believe that particular point of view. We know that we did in this session, it was voted not to ordain women in ministry. I myself have been commissioned to be a pastor, which is in accordance with what we believe, but before that vote was taken it was already agreed that areas could decide on whether ordaining their women in positions of church leadership or not, depending upon their conscience. Given that The Great Controversy has a whole chapter on the freedom of conscience, it's very important that we as a people do not force conscience on other members of our denomination, so we need to think carefully about our decisions regarding sending this back and what message that sends. Thank you.”
“The original motion is clear and I’m against referring it back. I see no problem with its wording. This is about facilitating mission, right? If this is really about facilitating mission, we should allow local churches to recognize who the Holy Spirit chooses,” said Mario Alvarado from the Nevada-Utah Conference. “It doesn’t sound like an imposition, rather a flexibility to let the Spirit lead where it is needed within its context. I can’t know exactly how the Spirit is working in other places, and stopping that means we are going against the work of the Spirit since we put limitations on allowing Him to choose who He wants and allow each local church to acknowledge the elders that are to serve the mission of the church. Talking about it later, tabling what the Spirit can and cannot do right now should not be left to later. The Spirit has been patient enough. The wording is good and only a miniature step forward to allowing the Spirit to work out His mission. Let the local church acknowledge who the Holy Spirit chooses as an elder.”
The recommendation to amend the church manual chapter 8, page 73, that requires the ordination of elders passed by a vote of 75.7% (1,088 votes).
During a different portion of the meeting, a motion was made by GC delegate Jonathan Zirkle to amend the agenda to include discussion on the church’s current position on vaccines.
“I would like to propose that we discuss the position that the church has taken on the vaccines, specifically related to the statements of 2015 and 2021,” Zirkle said.
Zirkle referred to the current statement as “very detrimental” to religious liberty. He said he had a document signed by 25,000 Adventists in 138 countries, including 1,929 pastors and 4,164 medical professionals, asking that the General Conference reconsider their stance on vaccination.
“Many people have lost their jobs, their livelihood, their homes, people, custody battles, and a lot of it is due to the fact that they're not able to assert their sincerely held religious health beliefs because of the position in the church,” Zirkle said. “I don't know what the right solution is, but I trust that this body can come to that solution, and I think it's very important that we have a discussion of this.”
Artur Stele, GC General Vice President, told Zirkle that GC session deals with items related to the constitution and bylaws, the church manual, or fundamental beliefs.
“The issue of vaccination is a divisive issue, and the document that was proposed by admin committee has given full right to everyone to follow their own conscience,” Stele said. “We plead with you because we have a shortened session that we not load our agenda with items that don’t belong there. But we really appreciate your concern.”
After some technical difficulties that delayed connecting to the session, a delegate from Canada seconded Zirkle’s motion via Zoom. A delegate from Tobago also expressed support for the motion.
As part of a lengthier statement, Elder Ted Wilson stated that the General Conference has stood on the position that everyone should make their own decision regarding vaccination, that the item is an administrative one, and he strongly encouraged delegates to vote against putting the issue on the agenda for the reasons already stated by Stele.
The motion to add an item regarding the statement on vaccination to the session agenda did not pass by a vote of 88.6% (1,579).
Another item from Monday’s business meeting was about unauthorized speakers in local churches.
Agenda item 401
UNAUTHORIZED SPEAKERS - CHURCH MANUAL AMENDMENT
RATIONALE: This item clarifies who may be invited to speak in the church and addresses confusion caused by the implication that a layperson could not preach because they do not hold credentials.
RECOMMENDED, To amend the Church Manual, Chapter 10, Services and Other Meetings, pages 120-121, Unauthorized Speakers, to read as follows:
Authorized Speakers—Only speakers worthy of confidence will be invited to the pulpit by the local church pastor, in harmony with guidelines given by the conference.* 24 The local elders or church board may also invite speakers, in consultation with the pastor, and in harmony with conference guidelines. Individuals who are no longer members, or who are under discipline, should not be given access to the pulpit. At times it is acceptable for government officials or civic leaders to address a congregation, but all others should be excluded from the pulpit unless permission is granted by the conference. Every pastor, elder, and conference president must enforce this rule. (See pp. 34, 32, 118, 119.)
The following are comments made by a few of the delegates on this matter.
“I am slightly concerned about this,” said Christopher Holland, GC delegate. “Pastors are hired with confidence to decide who is speaking from their pulpit, and the phrase ‘authorized by the conference,’ while I certainly understand the concern that may exist over some speakers, it seems to withdraw confidence, or at the very least display distrust in the pastor or the local church. I would urge this to be reconsidered by the committee.”
“My concern with this is that while it requires church boards to work with their pastor in terms of who preaches in the church, it does not require the pastor to work with the church board,” said Tim Standish, GC delegate. “It makes him only accountable apparently to the conference, but there must be some accountability of pastors to the local congregation that they serve.”
“My question is in the use of the word consultation,” said Mandla Se-Bantwini Lupondwana, delegate from the Southern Africa Union Conference in the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division. “My question to the committee would be in the phrasing of the paragraph. Were we looking for mere consultation or were we hoping that it would lead to consent?”
Delegate Chalmer Gevieso from the South Philippine Union Conference in the Southern Asia Pacific Division expressed his view that the list of unauthorized speakers should also include pastors or individuals who are antagonistic toward and not loyal to the church.
Motion to amend Church Manual, Chapter 10, Unauthorized Speakers, Agenda item 401, approved by a vote of 90%.7 (1336 votes).
An item that drew close to 20 delegates to the microphone to express their views was item 408.
PASTOR AND OTHER CHURCH EMPLOYEES - CHURCH MANUAL AMENDMENT
RATIONALE: This amendment expresses how important it is for pastors to focus on training the local church leadership in the mission and work of the church. It also explains the role of conference leadership and explains who may be invited to speak at the local church.
RECOMMENDED, To amend the Church Manual, Chapter 4, Pastor and Other Church Employees, pages 31-35
The entire proposed text may be found on the agenda.
The comments expressed by the delegates were varied, from commenting to the item itself to wording and other issues.
“I very much appreciate the focus on the rationale that pastors are there to train leaders and to equip leaders; I think this is a very important issue,” said Stefan Giuliani, Inter-European Division. “However, I want to point out that by amending the church manual, all we do is change the text, but we're not changing church culture. So my question would be, what measures are you proposing or will you be taking up in the future in order to change the culture and the role of the pastors, because just changing the text of the church manual won't accomplish what we're hoping for.”
“Excellent observation,” responded Gerson Santos, associate secretary. “If you want to see some change, you need to start somewhere, and several people, administrators, pastors, ministerial association working together came up with these recommendations.”
Santos said there would be follow-up with strengthening orientation, equipping pastors through the ministerial association, and influencing the institutions that offer theology majors in the areas of equipping church planting so that new pastors get training for the future.
“It's nothing new,” Santos added. “We're just trying to revitalize the principles and the values we had as a church in the beginning.”
“I call into question the rationale on the role of the conference president specifically, which is referred to as ‘he,’ which is out of context and not in alignment with the rest of the currently designated leadership mentioned in this recommendation—except for Jesus Christ who is the true and only head of the church and not men as stated in Ephesians 4:11 through 13,” said Flaviano Dalisay from the Southeastern California Conference. “When the word of God explains that God gave some apostles it does not say ‘men apostles,’ when it says [some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers, it does not say men only] for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ, who is the only man in this picture. We are all called to the royal priesthood, not just men.”
“I have to ask myself if God could call a woman to be a president of a university, why can't God call a woman to be the president of a conference,” said delegate Anthony Bosman, citing the example of Dr. Andrea Luxton, president of Andrews University, where he serves as a professor. “I've seen firsthand how under the leadership of Dr Luxton she's led us capably with excellence and faithfulness, and now we are emerging stronger than before the pandemic. This morning we recognized the leadership of Dr. [Ella] Simmons. We applauded her because we recognize that God had worked through her and put her in that position for such a time as this. I want to speak in favor of using gender neutral language in the description of a conference president so we do not restrain the Spirit in whom He might call.”
“In 1863, when the General Conference was organized, the records tell us there were 125 churches reporting a total tithe of $8,000,” reads the report prepared by Paul Douglas, treasurer. “Nearly 160 years later, with more than 90,000 churches, the data show approximately $2.7 billion in tithe, $1 billion in local church offerings, and $81 million in world mission offerings. This is God’s money to be used for the mission He has entrusted to us. Ellen White penned these words that ‘Every dollar of our means should be considered as the Lord’s, not ours and as a precious trust from God to us; not to be wasted for needless indulgences, but carefully used in the cause of God, in the work of saving men and women from ruin.’”
Douglas clarified that the Treasurer's Report includes only those funds relevant to the General Conference and excludes the funds of other entities that have no bearing on General Conference funds. He also addressed the impact of world currency changes and laws of certain territories to prevent the use of currency as the church has historically used them. A task force is already in place to study the issue further.
He assured the delegation that he will work with division treasurers to ensure every division is able to best implement the suggested working capital in each respective territory, taking into consideration those with unstable currency. He also recommended that [local] churches prepare for economic downturns. A link to the full and detailed report can be found to the left.
During his sermon on Sabbath, June 11, Elder Ted Wilson preached the third angel’s message, ending with words of hope and encouragement.
“These messages not only have a strong warning, but they have great hope through the righteousness of Christ as revealed in the everlasting gospel, so don't get weary or discouraged. Don't give way to complaining and skepticism. Do not turn away from the Lord and the task He has entrusted to us,” Wilson said. “Look to Jesus Christ and live, as you respond to God's instructions for His last day people. We are on the edge of the promised land as we view the approach of Christ’s soon second coming.… Jesus is the only one who can guide us safely to our heavenly home as we look to Him alone each and every day.”
The 62nd General Conference Session is scheduled for 2025 at the Dome in America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis once again.
Cynthia Mendoza is a freelance writer from Southern California.