The General Conference president, Jan Paulsen, recently spoke with the Adventist World editor, Bill Knott, about the purpose and future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s world headquarters.
Knott: Imagine yourself sitting in a television studio, and the reporter says to you: “Tell me why your church needs a General Conference.”
Paulsen: Church structure must always be a servant of function, and so the most important question to start with is: “What do we need to achieve?” I would suggest two broad objectives—core functions—of church administration: unity and mission.
From the very beginning, we have believed that God wants this church to be one united family; not a regional church, and certainly not a congregational one. We have held very firmly to God’s model for us as a global, integrated community, with a shared faith, shared resources, and shared identity. Second, we have always been very clear that we are a missionary movement. This is what defines us.
It’s inconceivable to me that this church could hold together as a global community, with the same ability to maximize our resources for mission, if there were no General Conference—a structure at the world level that helps hold it all together.
Church structures must serve both unity and mission, and if they don’t, let’s change them! It’s important that we periodically come back to look at this.
And yet the last wholesale restructuring of the church was more than a century ago.
That’s true. We have another factor inside our church that acts as a brake to change, and it relates to both history and theology. We have those who say: “God led us to have this [structure]. It has worked well in the past. Don’t tamper with what God has given us.” And many people will walk away from the discussion at that point.
But neither God nor people stand still, and therefore we must be ready to ask ourselves whether obedience to God means obedience to precedent and formality, or to objectives and identity. I would suggest that it’s the latter.
It’s been suggested that, as the church grows, the best way to preserve unity is for the General Conference to streamline; that it needs to reduce its function to more of an advisory, facilitating role. How do you respond?
I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of streamlining. This has to do with our ability to engage in critical self-examination: Is this the best way we can use our resources? Are the structures we set up decades ago still the best way to do mission today? Are we recognizing that, as the church grows, professional skills and spiritual gifts are plentifully available throughout the church, everywhere? Are we acknowledging that the church locally is best able to define what it means to be the church within that place and culture?
The church must extent ownership rights and responsibilities to all its members.
Our lay members also demand that we be prudent; that we be very open and honest about how we use the resources of the church.
But in the process of streamlining, we have to be sure that we aren’t compromising those components that hold us together as a united church. At the end of the day, a purely advisory body—some kind of “superdiplomatic” organization that merely facilitates discussion—would be ineffective. We must be very clear about what we must do here, for the sake of the unity and mission of the church. The General Conference must carry a significant weight in matters that touch on global values and identity.
Is the General Conference too big? Yes, I think it is. Can we—should we—streamline it? Yes, I think we can and we should. There was a time when we were the primary delivery system for all kinds of different ideas and programs for the global church. We are no longer at that point. And it is arrogance for me to tell you, in another part of the world, exactly how it should be done where you are.
Some may say, “The General Conference is located in the United States: it draws its employees predominantly from there. Can it truly serve, in a representative way, our increasingly diverse church?”
Well, the General Conference has to be located somewhere. You have to ask: Where is there enough stability, both political and financial? Where does it make sense for it to be located? Of course, there is equal stability in other parts of the world. But there are other historical factors to keep in mind. North America has always been the huge provider of resources for the church’s mission, and this has been a wonderful blessing for the church.
Yes, support staff [for the General Conference] come mainly from here—this is a reality of immigration laws and other factors over which we have little control. But when we talk about elected leaders, there has been a significant increase in recent years in the proportion of General Conference leadership from places outside North America.
Does change happen quickly enough? It probably takes up to two decades before we begin to see significant leadership changes which reflect growth patterns of the world church. So there is a time-lag—a period when local leadership is maturing and becoming better equipped to take its place in international church leadership. But these changes inevitably happen. I believe we won’t need to look too far into the future for a General Conference president from the developing world, reflecting the tremendous growth of our church in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia.
The average member in the pew would probably illustrate their understanding of how the church operates by drawing a classic pyramid shape, where all authority flows downward. And they may assume that even the local pastor is getting orders from above. Is that an accurate description of the reality of the church?
I think there are probably aspects of that description which are true. I don’t know how we could do it differently. There are certain decisions that are made here at the General Conference—the use of resources, certain defined values or initiatives that need to be launched for the world church. We have an office of Adventist Mission which has an entrusted responsibility to engage in a global mission program. In a sense, these things could be seen as operating in an “above-down” model. Yet they are there to help the church catch a vision for these things, and to see how they can find life at the local level.
It’s vital that members of the Adventist community have a say in what the Adventist Church looks like; that they don’t have a sense of being saddled with something that they aren’t allowed to look at or touch. The church must extend ownership rights and responsibilities to all its members. Sometimes people talk to me about different issues, and then ask: “What is the church planning to do?” And I respond: “Why do you ask me? You’re the church!”
However, the church is growing and becoming more complex. As the 1 million in membership becomes 50 million, and as the $10 million you must spend one year becomes $500 million, the complexity means you need clear decision-making as you go. And this means that you will have defined forums, you will have proper consultation, but you will make the decisions that need to be made.
You spoke earlier about providing for greater local autonomy in church administration. Some people may fear that any decentralization also places theological unity at risk.
Here we come to the core question of Adventist identity: What are the values and beliefs that define us as a world church? And not only theological values, but those which belong to the world of morality and ethics. We have 28 fundamental beliefs—28 at this time—and they are not being “redeveloped” in any one part of the world. These form a significant body of identity values that we defend. And we will do our utmost to make sure the church, around the world, accepts and maintains loyalty to these.
We do not—cannot—operate with a “control” mind-set over other human beings. A hard, controlling, warlike mentality—“let’s crush them” approach—doesn’t work with people generally, and it certainly doesn’t work inside the church! But that doesn’t mean we don’t do everything possible to defend the integrity of the church when certain issues arise—whether they be at an institution of higher learning, or with a particular worship style that is developing. It’s important that these things be raised with the church leaders who have responsibility in those places; and this happens on a regular basis.
But I think we must also accept that obedience to God can express itself differently within different cultures. This is sometimes hard for us to talk about. A dozen African women can come into church bringing their Ingathering baskets, and they are moving to the music, singing “Other gods have I none….” There are some cultural realities, ways of expression, that you cannot remove people from, nor does the Lord require it.
So you are calling for a continuous act of faith—of trust—in one another; that the Lord is at work in you as much as in me.
I am. To me, the matter of trusting each other in this is of critical importance. I see people who demonstrate their passion for the church and their faithfulness to God in a manner that may be very different from mine. But they are serving God, and their witness is effective.
These really are immense subjects—church structure, unity, mission. There is far more to be said than can possibly fit into one conversation. They’re dynamic issues; they don’t stand still for very long. And so they’re questions that we will need to keep returning to, and see where the Lord leads us.