Recently, the Southeastern California Conference-which I believe is the largest conference in the North American Division – made history by electing Dr. Sandra Roberts as the first elected female Conference President in the history of our church.
I wanted to share with you my thoughts on her election and the events that took place as a result.
I remember a conversation I had with one of our Pastors, Elder Furman Fordham, Senior Pastor, Nashville Riverside Chapel. I cannot remember the discussion, but in it, Elder Fordham used a quote from Steven Covey that he said guided him. My middle-aged memory will probably prevent me from remembering the quotation verbatim. But it went something like this: In order to be understood, seek first to understand.
I thought about that quote when I thought about what I should say to you relative to the election of Dr. Roberts and the reaction to it, especially the reaction to the message that Dr. Ted Wilson, the President of the General Conference, reportedly sent to Dr. Ricardo Graham, President of the Pacific Union, who was chairing the constituency meeting that elected Dr. Roberts.
Dr. Wilson was reported to have told Dr. Graham that, if Southeastern elected Dr. Roberts, the General Conference would not recognize her election.
Dr. Wilson’s remarks engendered a lot of commentary around the North American Division (and probably around the world field as well).
As you formulate your own thoughts and ideas about what the leader of our church said, I would like to suggest the last part of the quotation from Steve Covey: Seek to understand. That is to say, one may not agree with what they think is the position of Dr. Wilson or the constituents of the Southeastern California Conference. But it might be helpful to understand why they may have taken the positions that they did.
Then, at the end of this series, I’ll tell you my position, and I hope that you will seek to understand that position as well.
Let’s start with President Wilson’s statement about not recognizing the election of Dr. Roberts:
It is probably not the most popular statement that he will ever make-at least, as it relates to the conference, union and division leadership in the North American Division. Furthermore, in all candor, there is not a whole lot that the General Conference can do about whom the Southeastern California Conference, or any other conference, elects as Conference President. The President of a conference is elected by the constituents of that conference.
I truly hope that no one takes this as being disrespectful of the General Conference President; that is not what I intend at all. To the contrary, I have enormous respect for both the Office of the President of the General Conference and the person who currently holds that office.
We had the privilege of having Dr. Wilson preach for our Camp Meeting in 2012. As such, I had the privilege of hosting him for a day. He and I went out to eat on Friday and I was with him all day on that Sabbath. He had dinner with my extended family on Sabbath.
I had a wonderful time-it is one of the highlights of my time in this office. He is an enormously nice, down to earth person. I have not heard anybody, including people who probably do not agree with him on anything, say that he is not a nice, sincere Christian man.
But like all of us in leadership, there are limits on what he can do. One of those limits for him is that whether the General Conference recognizes the election of a President of a conference or not, that lack of recognition has virtually zero effect on that conference or that Conference President. The election of Conference Presidents is not a function of the General Conference.
There is very little direct interaction between the leadership of the General Conference and the leadership of the typical conference. The General Conference leadership is more likely to interact with the leadership of a division.
In fact, one of the things that really impressed me about Dr. Wilson was the fact that when we ran into each other a few months after having met for the first time that he actually remembered who I was. I mean, here is someone who interacts with a zillion people around the world. He had no reason to remember who I was. But, he did.
But understand that Dr. Wilson pretty much had to react in some manner when Southeastern California elected a female as the leader of its conference. By policy, a person who is not ordained, male or female, cannot serve as Conference President.
Here is where things get interesting: I suspect that Dr. Roberts has been ordained-the Pacific Union allows female Pastors to be ordained. Ordinations are voted through unions, and almost certainly, the Pacific Union has voted her ordination, which would make her eligible under the policies of the Southeastern California Conference and the Pacific Union, to be a Conference President.
But the General Conference did not recognize the action of the Pacific Union, which voted last year to ordain Pastors without respect to gender. Essentially, therefore, the Pacific Union says that Dr. Roberts is ordained and can be elected Conference President, while the General Conference says she is not ordained and cannot be Conference President.
I do not know for certain how Dr. Wilson feels about the ordination of women (I could guess, but it would be just a guess), but on some level, it does not matter. As the President of the General Conference, he is bound to uphold the policies of the General Conference, whether he agrees with those policies or not.
As President of South Central, I sometimes have to deal with policies that I do not like. But there is a process for addressing policies that one does not like and generally speaking, that process does not allow for me to simply ignore the policies I do not like.
Policies are not the same as a Thus saith the Lord - and all of us need to remember that. But we also need to understand that policy represents the rules that we have agreed to guide how we all work together.
ANY organization HAS to have rules. That is true of your family, your job, your church, etc. But that would especially apply to an organization such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church that has millions of members, multiple thousands of workers, and institutions around the world-we have to have to rules or there would be chaos.
Part of Dr. Wilson’s job is to uphold the policies of the General Conference. That is what he did. He said that the policies of the General Conference do not allow Dr. Sandra Roberts to be President of Southeastern California Conference; and they do not. Whether the policy should say that or whether it should say that a female should be denied ordination solely on the basis of her gender, is a separate issue.
On some level, you have to admire the General Conference President. He had to know, for example, that his position was not going to find a whole lot of support among the leadership in the conferences and unions of the North American Division. Moreover, he had to know that there was absolutely no chance that saying that the General Conference would refuse to recognize the election of Dr. Roberts would change anything at all.
Because he had to know that saying what he said was not going to change anything at all, he could have just remained silent. But, he spoke out, saying that this is a violation of the rules that we have as an organization – because, it is a violation of the rules that we have as an organization.
But the fact is, agree with it or not, the General Conference’s policy is what it is. And it is Dr. Wilson’s job as General Conference President to remind people of what that policy says and the fact that there is a process – one that is going on right now – for the people who disagree with that policy to change that policy. He is supposed to uphold that policy until it is not the policy any more.
Now, it is quite possible – maybe even likely – that policy is what it is, in part, because Dr. Wilson wants that to be the policy; I do not know, that is way above my pay grade. But, in the end, that does not really matter. His job is to uphold the policies of the General Conference; including that one.
Next time, we shall look at what triggered all of this-the decision of Southeastern California to elect Dr. Roberts as President.
Until then-Happy Thanksgiving!