Two documents are coming up for discussion and vote at the Annual Council of Seventh-day Adventists next week (probably Sunday, October 11). The first spells out the consequences for any entity of the church whose official actions are out of harmony with world church policies. You can read that document here (https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/113G-Regard-for-and-Practice-of-General-Conference-Session-and-General-Conference-Executive-Committee-Actions.pdf). A second document lays out terms of reference for “compliance committees” that would be tasked to investigate charges of “non-compliance.” These are less interesting but posted here (https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/Compliance-Committees-Terms-of-Reference.pdf). The General Conference raise eyebrows by appointing five “compliance committees” a month later, before the documents calling for them were even approved. https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/general-conference-issues-statement-compliance-committees. While at first glance all these proposals and actions seem quite alarming, many safeguards have been built in to the processes to prevent many avenues for manipulation and abuse of these regulations and committees. I will try to explain this as we move along.
I share the key points of the first document here. It concerns what should happen when any entity of the church (institutional executive boards or committees) determines that it or another entity is out of compliance with some policy or belief of the church. A number of principles are stated first. 1) Complaints must arise by vote of an executive committee of the church and be expressed in writing. These are executive committees of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference Administrative Committee (also known as GCADCOM– a body of roughly 25 people that runs the day to day operations of the General Conference). Complaints are not to be taken seriously if arising from an individual or a committee outside the above parameters. And they must be made in writing. These are extremely important safeguards against abuse (and any regulation like this has potential for manipulation and abuse of power so safeguards are critical). These investigations are not to be based on disgruntled individuals or vague accusations.
2) Oversight for compliance falls to the nearest entity to the complaint. If a problem arises in a church, that is the responsibility of the conference, if a problem arises in a conference that is the responsibility of the union above it. If a problem arises in a union that is the responsibility of the division above it and so forth. If the problem is not resolved at that level it can be addressed at the levels above it and so on up the chain. The location of last resort is the GCADCOM, which could vote to refer the issue to the appropriate compliance committee for investigation and recommendation. A side note: for those not familiar with the SDA Church structure, there are six levels. The lowest level is the church member, then local churches, then conferences, then unions, then divisions and then the General Conference itself. The idea is that addressing problems should happen at the nearest level, but this document sets up a mechanism for higher entities to deal with lower issues if it is felt that intermediate entities are not dealing with the problem. That is a major change in church practice.
3) The process for dealing with non-compliance is to involve prayer and dialogue, confirmation of all charges and responses in writing, allowance of 60 days for a suspect entity to explain what they are doing, change it, or lay out a plan for change. The document calls for all that to be done in a supportive atmosphere, even allowing an extra 30 days when needed. If that process fails it is bumped up to the next higher entity (union, division or GCADCOM). If GCADCOM cannot resolve the issue it is referred to the appropriate compliance committee to investigate, work with the non-compliant entity, or recommend consequences for continued non-compliance. There is also room for an appeal of such a recommendation.
If GCADCOM concludes that there is continued non-compliance in the entity under review, it can recommend to the GC Executive Committee (GCEC– at Annual Council) consequences of progressive severity. 1) A warning to the entity, not just its president, that it is out of compliance and could face consequences. 2) If that does not change anything, the GCEC could vote a public reprimand. This would mean that at future meetings of the GCEC, the president of that entity would be placed in a “reprimanded” category on the attendee list and a public announcement of the same would occur at the commencement of the week-long meeting. This is a softening of the original proposal to make a public announcement of reprimand every time the president of the non-compliant entity gets up to speak. 3) If the non-compliance continues, at the next meeting the president of that entity could be “removed for cause.” The concept of “cause” is expanded from moral impropriety to non-compliance with a particular policy, but would require a two-thirds majority to implement, so this would be hard to do. If the president of a non-compliant union, for example, is removed from membership on the GCEC, other members of that union who are on the GCEC would retain their voice and vote. In terms of the Pacific Union, people like Pastor Randy Roberts and LLU President Richard Hart would retain their voice and vote even if the president of their union (currently Ricardo Graham) lost his position on the committee. And conference presidents from that union would retain voice in the meeting, as appropriate under current regulations.
Compliance Review Committees have been appointed to oversee five areas: 1) The teaching creation/origins, 2) policies regarding homosexuality and 3) ordination, 4) GC core policies (particularly concerned with finances), and 5) distinctive beliefs. The current membership of those committees can be found here (https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/general-conference-issues-statement-compliance-committees.). We will have more to say about these later.
The big unresolved question for me is: Who holds the president and/or GCADCOM accountable? No mention of such is made in this document, which suggests a top-down privilege that has high potential for abuse and manipulation. Based on past experience, the first line of defense when a president is “out of compliance” is the General Conference Treasurer, who needs to sign all financial transactions (money is a major compliance issue of course). The General Counsel’s office, with its team of lawyers, also keeps watch on the president. If the GCADCOM does something inappropriate, the GCDO (General Conference and Division Officers Committee—about 70 people) reviews all GCADCOM decisions before they get on the floor of the GCEC. A couple days ago the GCDO voted to pass on the above documents by a vote of 32 in favor, 30 opposed, and 2 abstentions, a razor-thin margin. It appears that top leaders of the church are divided on the usefulness of these documents. Going forward without address who holds the president and GCADCOM accountable may be one reason for the great hesitation, even among those who helped craft the document. Next time, a short history of SDA Church organization is needed to understand what is happening now.