Leaders, delegates reflect on top decisions at Session

Leaders, delegates reflect on top decisions at Session

Business Meetings | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Edwin Manuel Garcia/ANN

A recap of key actions on marriage, women and youth

Paul Ratsara, president of the church's Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region, offers the benediction during worship at the Georgia Dome on July 3. [photo: Josef Kissinger]
Paul Ratsara, president of the church's Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region, offers the benediction during worship at the Georgia Dome on July 3. [photo: Josef Kissinger]

Delegates vote on Church Manual revisions, Monday, June 28. [photo: Gerry Chudleigh]
Delegates vote on Church Manual revisions, Monday, June 28. [photo: Gerry Chudleigh]

Pastor J. Fred Calkins from Kentucky carves a maple lucet, an antiquated tool used to weave chords, to pass the time in the sparsely filled spectator seats while listening to a business session on the Georgia Dome floor.
Pastor J. Fred Calkins from Kentucky carves a maple lucet, an antiquated tool used to weave chords, to pass the time in the sparsely filled spectator seats while listening to a business session on the Georgia Dome floor.

By the time final prayer brought the 2010 General Conference Session to an end, and tens of thousands of worshipers streamed to the exits of the Georgia Dome, a group of chosen people in the crowd departed with the satisfaction of having set the Adventist Church's direction for the next five years.

The group of more than 2,000 delegates from across the globe made dozens of decisions for the church -- from the mundane to the monumental -- during numerous business sessions.

Among the delegates' most significant decisions:

-Selecting Ted N. C. Wilson as president of the 16.3 million-member Seventh-day Adventist Church, who clearly articulated the role that "revival and reformation" will play under his leadership.

-Editing the Church Manual to include more specific wording on topics that were in need of revision for a changing world, such as the definition of marriage, the authority given to deaconesses and how to handle members who go astray.

-Proposing that the church conduct a thorough review of its biblical theology behind ordination, which comes at a time when delegates from certain world regions are pushing for women to have greater leadership roles.

-Acknowledging the role of young adults and finding a way to increase their presence on the church's decision-making bodies.

Session Successes

Many in the diverse body of delegates -- whose membership hails from scores of cultures and who hold varying degrees of positions on the left-center-right of the Adventist religious spectrum -- noted the success that came out of the 59th General Conference Session.

"We need to praise the Lord because it went smoothly," said Paul Ratsara, president of the rapidly growing Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division. "We felt the Holy Spirit."

Wilson's nomination for president by more than 200 delegates assigned to the Nominating Committee was seen as key for those who believe the church needs to stay focused on its fundamental course of preaching the Advent message in the end times.

"What stands out the most about this Session is the vision that Pastor Wilson has launched of making sure the church marches toward the final stage clamoring for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit," said Armando Miranda, a General Conference vice president the past 10 years and former church leader in Mexico.

Indeed, in his public comments since being elected president June 25, Wilson has continually emphasized the need to seek counsel from the Bible and the writings of church co-founder Ellen White -- known as the Spirit of Prophecy -- for the "heaven-directed" church.

Others were cautiously optimistic about where the church was headed under Wilson.

"I think the church, from his sermons, is going to go back to the basics, but I hope it's not going back to the basics of a legalistic approach to things," said delegate Shirley Chang of California, one of three lay people from North America on the General Conference Executive Committee, which has more than 300 members.

In addition to selecting and electing a president for the next five years, which was considered by many to be the single most important accomplishment of the Session, delegates spent many hours revising the 78-year-old Church Manual.

Most of the 95 revisions were rather minor editing changes, but some of the proposals proved controversial because they delved indirectly into topics that weren't officially on the agenda -- such as the church's position against women's ordination -- which the diverse group of delegates wanted addressed.

The committee that spent years studying the Church Manual, for example, proposed to allow each of the 13 world regions to decide whether deaconesses could be ordained, thus potentially putting them on equal footing with deacons, their male counterparts. After all, that's the same way the world church has handled the role of women pastors -- the leadership in each region can decide whether they can be "commissioned."

Women and ministry

Perhaps it wasn't surprising, then, that the discussion on deaconesses turned into a polite debate about whether women should, or shouldn't be, ordained ministers, which prompted those chairing the meeting to urge delegates to stick to the topic at hand.

But it seemed to be the most natural venue for delegates to address the hot-potato issue, especially proponents of women's ordination from Europe, the Australia-based South Pacific region and the United States who said they were disappointed the matter was left off the agenda.

"We would like to hope that in the next Session there will be a motion for women's ordination," said Mariann Harbarth, a delegate from Germany.

"We would like to be able to move forward" on women's ordination, said Barry Oliver, president of the South Pacific region. "The South Pacific Division is in a situation in which unity in the church is being impacted by our failure to move."

Many delegates from Latin America and Africa, meanwhile, remained opposed. Some went as far as to say they opposed deaconesses being ordained because that action could later open the door to pastoral ordination of women.

But the delegates rejected the General Conference recommendation and settled on a blanket policy that makes deaconesses and deacons equal, in all parts of the world, even taking the decision out of the hands of regional leaders.

"I know a lot of us felt that with that vote on the deaconesses, there was such a feeling that it passed with such a large margin," said Chang, the delegate from California, "that maybe it would have been time that women's ordination would have gone through, too."

Discussion on Marriage

Perhaps the most controversial of all topics involving the Church Manual was the issue of marriage, and how leaders sought to solidify the church's position, which states "Marriage, thus instituted by God, is a monogamous, heterosexual relationship."

The proposal to add the words "between one male and one female" to the definition of marriage was bothersome to a minority of delegates, especially one, from the Netherlands, who publicly stated that the strict definition alienates gays and lesbians.

His proposed amendment -- "Marriage is a monogamous, loving relationship between two mutually consenting adults" -- drew gasps from the delegates and prompted many of them to line up at the microphones to oppose the position. The proposed amendment failed by an overwhelming margin of votes.

In the end, delegates approved the original proposal to strengthen the church's position, but again, the debate showed a stark contrast of opinions based on cultural diversity at a world conference of Adventists.

"I know that fellow was speaking in line with the reality of what is happening today, so yeah, one part of me says this probably isn't the right place," said Pastor John Leeman of the island Republic of Vanuatu, east of Australia. "Another part of me sees there's a need there, there's something there, there's a bell ringing there."

Leeman said that hearing the comment from the European delegate with open-minded views about homosexuality is a wake up call to church members: "If your uncle, if your auntie, if your brother is a gay, how would you deal with it? If they come to church, and sit together, and hold hands, what would you do? What would Jesus say?"

Church leaders didn't have answers for everything, but they paid close attention to the delegates' voices, even for matters that were not on the Session agenda.

The constant discussion about women's ordination prompted delegate Ray Hartwell, president of the Pennsylvania Conference in the United States, to call for a thorough study of ordination. As a result, the Session's Steering Committee, which oversees the daily agenda, agreed to order a comprehensive report on ordination within the next five years.

And the constant calls for more representation from youth and young adults surely got the attention of church leadership who agreed that their role is vital for the church's future.

Ratsara, the leader of the church in the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region, called the Session a "milestone" for the Adventist Church.

"I leave this place fully assured that the future is bright," Ratsara said, "because the Lord will do wonders."

The next session will be held in San Antonio, Texas, in five years.