As news broke last October of a global economic crisis, more than 300 members of the Seventh-day Adventist world church’s Executive Committee were meeting in Manila, Philippines, to discuss key issues of church administration. Jan Paulsen, president of the church’s General Conference, sat down afterward with Adventist World editor Bill Knott to discuss some of the far-reaching decisions that emerged from Annual Council 2008.
Bill Knott: How would you explain to a member in the pew or on a rustic bench how the church benefits from holding meetings such as the 2008 Annual Council outside North America? What does the church gain from this?
Jan Paulsen: Even as we met in Manila, the world was experiencing what has been described as an “economic meltdown.” This obviously impacts everyone—individuals, organizations, governments. And, of course, it impacts us as a global church also. Against that background one may well ask, “Why take an Annual Council outside North America, with the extra effort and expense that entails?”
I would answer: This is the cost of keeping the family united! Some 94 percent of our global membership lives outside North America, and so it is very important that when church leaders come together and sit in council that the membership around the world has a sense of being at the heart of what is happening, a part of the process.
We have some 700,000 members in the Philippines; we have universities and hospitals and other institutions throughout the country. The church is well known in the public media and government—we are a known quantity and a known name. Some 14,000 people attended the Sabbath program in Manila, and there was a wonderful sense of fellowship and a tremendous spirit of celebration.
I think it’s good for the leadership of the world church to emphasize the global character of our church family by holding events such as this. In past decades Annual Council has been held in South America, Central America, Australia, Europe, and Africa. And so it was right this time that we came to Asia.
You’re saying there are times when you have to physically move yourself to another place so that church members will find it credible that you are listening to other than North American concerns?
Yes, of course. It’s the physical presence that makes all the difference. Members throughout Asia see that we came, and we “hoisted the flag.” It was significant for the Adventist Church in the Philippines: members felt good about their church. They could celebrate its strength and be encouraged and motivated by that.
You referred earlier to the news of the global economic crisis that broke while we met in Manila. To what extent did this affect the course of the meetings, and how do you see this impacting the church in the weeks and months to come?
There’s no predictable path for a financial calamity such as this. No one in the secular markets knows how this will play out in the next day, the next month, or the next year. Those of us who work in church administration need to ask: How do we relate as a church to these matters? How do we even vote a budget? Our budgets are based on faith—on the faithfulness, in tithes and mission offerings, of our members next year; not on money we already have in the bank.
We’ve been wonderfully blessed in years past, and it has given us a strong base for planning. But the uncertainties of the current financial markets are unprecedented in recent history. So do we just proceed as though nothing has happened? No, of course not. When we presented the budget at Annual Council, we proposed that the General Conference Administrative Committee, the in-house operating council, retain the ability to make interim adjustments to the budget—to have the flexibility to respond and adjust our finances as we see how the global economic situation continues to develop.
How do you see these events affecting church operations through the 2009 budget year?
Church members need to know that we will be moving forward carefully and prudently as we wait for a clearer long-term economic picture to emerge. It’s important for them to know, also, that these circumstances will affect the amount of funding available for our operations at the world headquarters. We’ll be exercising restraint in our own staffing—holding off filling some current vacancies—as well as working to find ways to reduce expenditures in other areas.
It seems that the goal of retaining financial flexibility in order to deal with current economic realities providentially converged with another significant issue discussed at Annual Council: flexibility with regard to church structures.
Yes, the Commission on Ministries, Structures, and Services delivered its final report, and two important recommendations were adopted unanimously by the Executive Committee at Annual Council. What the Executive Committee is saying with these recommendations is: We’re a growing, dynamic, global community. So it’s right that we ask ourselves, every so often, What is the most effective and most responsible way forward? We have certain forms and structures that have been defined some decades ago. Are these the best, most efficient way for the church to fulfill its mission? Or does the sheer growth of the church and the changing environment in which it operates mean that we need to streamline certain processes?
The commission has been studying these questions for the past three years—its members have processed a vast quantity of information and input from each part of the world church. At the 2007 Annual Council we adopted the first part of the commission’s recommendations by embracing a principle of “flexibility”—providing the ability for the church locally to define, within certain boundaries, administrative structures that best fit its own needs and unique set of circumstances. We said: “There must be a high level of trust; there are times when we must allow the church locally to decide how it can best pursue our church’s common values, identity, and mission within its own particular context.”
Now, at this most recent Annual Council, the commission recommended that we look again at the best method for defining and staffing the General Conference departments that serve the world church. The commission is saying: “Let’s extend this principle of flexibility and trust, so that the world church Executive Committee meeting every year at Annual Council can respond in a dynamic way to current realities, review needs, and respond to challenges quickly if needed.”
So we will ask the General Conference session in 2010 to consider a recommendation to give the Executive Committee greater interim responsibility; to ask: “What will serve our church best? What is the most sensible, most prudent course of action? Should we continue doing things the same way, solely because we’ve always done it that way?”
It’s important to remember that in proposing that some responsibility be delegated to Annual Council, we’re not talking about a small or unrepresentative group.
Certainly not a telephone committee!
No, no! We’re talking about a group of some 300-plus church leaders, frontline pastors, and laypeople from each part of the world church who meet in council each year. It’s a unique body—there may be fewer in numbers than at a session, but it’s no less representative.
We’ve often said, and rightly so, that when the church meets at a General Conference session, God is uniquely present and guiding His church. But I believe that’s true also when delegates to a session choose to devolve some of their responsibility.
The blessing of God—His presence with His people—doesn’t end when the session terminates.
That’s right. There was a second important recommendation that the commission made and which was adopted at Annual Council: that is, that the election of associate directors for the General Conference departments and ministries take place at the first Annual Council following a session.
What’s the benefit of this? I’ve sat on the nominating committee of a General Conference session twice as a president and I know that there is so much—too much—that has to happen in just a few hours. In some cases, perhaps, it is not done as well as it should be. It’s a process that sometimes raises questions. But if the commission’s recommendations are adopted, it would allow future sessions more time to consider, in a more deliberate way, the selection of people who will be voted into core administrative offices, and who will give leadership to the departments.
Second, it gives to the directors who have been elected at the session some two or three months to consider, in consultation with the president and administration, how their team would best be composed. I also stated publicly in Manila that the nominating committee at Annual Council, which would be entrusted with putting forward names for departmental positions, must be composed in a way that fairly reflects the global church; it must fairly represent laypeople and local church pastors.
You have the impression when you look at the total Annual Council delegation that it admirably presents the racial and ethnic diversity of the world church. But church statisticians tell us that 65-70 percent of the world church is female, and no more than about 10 percent of the delegates are female. How do we address that reality?
This has historically proved to be a very slow process for us. Because previous GC sessions decided not to ordain women to gospel ministry, women haven’t had the same access to leadership positions. It’s been more difficult to find individuals with the background and experience to fully participate in the Annual Council process. But there’s no question that there has to be a more deliberate effort to correct that. We simply have to be more deliberate in choosing women as members of the General Conference Executive Committee. We also have to include more young lay professionals under age 35—not because they fill a leadership role in the church, but because they bring competencies and skills we very much need as we do the church’s business. We also need to ensure that they can serve for an adequate length of time—perhaps up to 10 years—so that they can function as productive and contributing members of the Executive Committee.
This model seems to me to be a much more responsible approach to planning, and lends itself to bringing together the best and most representative team of men and women to serve within the departments.
Where do these recommendations from the Manila Annual Council go from here?
They’ll be considered by delegates to the 2010 General Conference session in Atlanta, where I’m sure they’ll generate more discussion, as they should. You know, through all this process we’ve been saying: Let’s not imprison the church within rigid forms or structures that cannot be changed, which have become “sacred” simply because “we’ve always done it that way.” Let’s keep our eyes constantly on the larger picture; on the needs and demands of an ever-growing church; on our obligation to constantly look for more efficient, more effective ways of doing the work of the church. And in all we do, let’s stay focused on the paramount values of mission and unity, and then move forward confidently where the Lord leads us.
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