Working Together Seeking Consensus
Mission challenges around the world, the church’s organiza-tional structure, funding outreach in the 10/40 window, and attitudes toward cohabitation and same-sex partnerships—these were a few of the issues considered by some 300 church leaders from every part of the world church who gathered recently at the General Conference. In a conversation with Adventist World editor Bill Knott, General Conference president Jan Paulsen discusses some of the key decisions of the 2007 Annual Council, and reflects on the significance of this yearly event.
Bill Knott: Pastor Paulsen, what makes Annual Council an important event for the church?
Jan Paulsen: This is a unique occasion in the life of our global church. It’s the time each year when church leadership comes together from around the world—from every country where we have a presence. We meet together to counsel, plan, agree on statements, and decide how to share our resources. It’s a process of consultation and of seeking consensus. There are times when we can’t find complete consensus. But the mission of the church never stops, and so we work toward decisions with a spirit of deference toward each other and with sensitivity to how our actions will impact the world field.
Most committee members are elected church leaders or administrators of church institutions. But there are always a number of church pastors as well, who are not there by virtue of elected position. As a church we are saying: “We need to hear directly from those who nurture our congregations.” We also include a significant number of lay people from each world division; we want their voice to be heard clearly.
So this isn’t just a “magisterial” event?
It’s not. It’s not a show. We’re very deliberate about doing this with openness and transparency, and with the broadest possible spectrum of the church involved in decision-making.
I was struck by the fact that when a decision was almost evenly split, committee members seemed to be saying: “If we’re this divided then we’re not yet ready to make the decision.” There was agreement, among even the parties who differed, that we needed to stop, rethink, and reformulate and see if we could emerge with something better.
Exactly. I thought there was a wonderful spirit. I was so pleased when one individual, who had great concerns about the wording of a proposed statement, was able to speak out and have adjustments made. He came back later to the microphone and said: “This is what I love about my church. We can be open, and supportive, and work together to find a way forward.” I thought this said something about the spirit in which we do our work.
The issues are not always easy. One item at this Annual Council touched on how we, as a church, relate to those who make lifestyle choices that run counter to our values. And for some, these issues are difficult to even talk about: cohabitation; what constitutes marriage; those who establish relationships with a same-sex partner. [See “Safeguarding Mission in Changing Social Environments” at www.adventist.org/beliefs/other_documents/safeguarding.html.]
We have to remember that the church exists in the world; we cannot step out of it. We’ll encounter many different points of view, many things we may not like. And so at this Annual Council we needed to find language that could carry the same standards back into every part of the world church, into every culture. And do it with sensitivity to the will of God and to the frailty of humanity. The process of voting this statement became a typical example of our global church, which encompasses huge cultural differences, looking at a sensitive issue and finding a way to express a shared understanding.
And that, in a way, is the church at its finest. It’s an example of moving past a strictly democratic process to one that reflects the nature of the church as a Spirit-led entity. You can win a vote but damage unity at the same moment.
Yes. At Annual Council we do something that no other church does. When we make decisions about core issues—whether they are policies, position statements, or the sharing of resources—we come to agreement as a worldwide family. We pray together and we look at the authoritative documents—the Scriptures, the writings of Ellen White—and we search our own hearts. And then we affirm where we are as a global church.
A few years ago we made a decision to change the timing of Annual Council so we would always begin by celebrating the Sabbath together. This is not merely an “introduction” to Annual Council. Our first and most important item of “business” is to worship God. And then on Sunday we set aside the morning to look at the mission agenda of the church. Since 2005, we’ve focused on the “Tell the World” initiative. We spend time looking at how we’re doing: hearing reports and statistics, and considering challenges. By starting every Annual Council with Sabbath worship and with a mission focus we build a foundation for all that follows. It’s our intention that everything the Executive Committee does will be shaped and driven by the church’s spiritual mandate.
Perhaps, in times past, some have felt Annual Council has been primarily driven by financial issues. But are you saying this new agenda reflects our most basic concern—mission—and that church finances take their place merely to support this?
Yes, both during Annual Council and in our premeetings with division leadership, we constantly ask: How do we make sure that our use of resources reflects our mission priority?
This year we were presented with an unusual situation. The church received a large amount of money—funds that were given very specifically for the mission work of the church. How should these resources be used? We’re now in the process of consulting with each of the world church divisions to develop a list of core mission activities. I use the word “core” because we are not thinking of “novelties”—plans we might try out for a while, but then discontinue.
We are talking instead about what, for lack of a better expression, is the “bread and butter” of the church’s mission; things we have been called to do. We must be more effective in reaching into the “10/40 window” [a geographical region that stretches from West Africa, through the Middle East, and into Asia]. We must develop the resources that will allow us to go into these regions where so few people have heard about Christ. And there are other places outside the 10/40 window where we’re also very thin on the ground. I would include in this the large cities of the world, where more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives, and where the church does not have a strong presence.
There was an expression that Elder Bob Lemon [General Conference treasurer] used in regard to these funds: “It will move the mission of the church ahead by half a generation.” I asked him to unpack that, and he said: “There are plans we’ve had on the drawing board, which we saw happening perhaps in 7 to 10 years from now. But these have become possible much sooner.” As you listened to various leaders at Annual Council, did you hear a sense of hope because of this possibility?
Yes, very much so, from every part of the world field. These funds will be focused on the church’s global mission, and I expect in the next few years we’ll move forward with a number of core activities that will widen and advance the mission impact of the church around the world. These tithes have come to us as the expression of someone’s faithfulness to God, and in our use of these resources, we will demonstrate that same faithfulness to God.
Annual Council also voted—by an overwhelming majority—some recommendations that would seem to have far-reaching consequences for church structure. What was the significance of this?
This marks an important change in our mindset. Historically, we’ve defined church structure in a somewhat wooden, inflexible manner. The walls have been fixed and very specific: the local church, the local conference, the union, and then the divisions and the General Conference. Wherever you are, you fit into one of these “predefined slots.”
While we haven’t done away with these slots, we’re now saying to church leadership: Examine your needs, your resources, your capacity, the mission before you, and what makes sense within your boundaries—whether they are national, language, or cultural boundaries. And then ask yourself: “How can we best do mission? What structures will best serve the church where we are?” This is a significant paradigm shift—the needs of the church will drive its structure.
But it’s important to remember that there are two structural anchor points that will remain: on one end is the local, constituency-based congregation, and on the other end is the link with the global church family—through the divisions and General Conference. Regardless of how the church defines itself locally, it must never forget that it belongs to something that is larger—something global.
It seems that these new guidelines allow greater flexibility at the constituent level to determine the use of resources. I suspect one of the driving forces for this is the desire to reserve more funds for mission.
Yes, very much so. Lay people in many different countries have said: “We have to ease the burden of so much administrative structure. We’re short of pastors. Our resources are not sufficient. Our membership is small and seems not to grow. Can we find a better way?” Unions of churches are an alternative that may serve the church well in these areas. At Annual Council we affirmed that alternative and made clearer provision for unions of churches in policy.
But the new principle of flexibility goes beyond this: divisions now have the ability to make structural arrangements that meet other unique local needs. In areas where there’s rapid church growth—such as in some parts of Latin America or Africa—church leaders may want to have some local supervision in place before the territory is ready to be defined according to one of the preexisting slots. Once the area is settled and matured, and there is infrastructure in place, then one of the regular categories of structure can be used.
What the church is saying is: Consider the needs of the church—with a constant eye to mission and unity; consider its capacity in terms of resources. And let these be the defining criteria in the administrative structure that is set up.
A final question: What would happen to the church if we didn’t have an Annual Council?
It’s inconceivable to me that this church could function as a global family if we did not constantly come together around the table. If we didn’t, the church would very quickly start to come apart as a worldwide community. Annual Council represents a sharing of our resources, our plans, and our policies. It’s the moment each year when we reconnect as a global church, when we recommit ourselves to a shared vision and to the mission God has entrusted to us.