Leadership Summit Concludes With Frank Discussion About Unity

Adventist Church top leaders meet in Portugal for "open" and "honest" dialogue.

Following several days of meetings, presentations, and dialogue, top Seventh-day Adventist leaders representing the world church’s headquarters along with its world divisions concluded the 11th Global Leadership Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, held on February 6-7, 2018.

Participants at this year’s summit grappled with multiple questions including: Which comes first, mission or church organization? Is it possible to be faithful and loyal to the church, while at the same time adhering to personal convictions? How does the denomination achieve a balance between a centralized church structure and the needs of various fields around the world? How can Adventist leaders complement discussions on church unity with attention to other pressing issues impacting the denomination?

Summits such as this have been held every February since 2008. Their goal is to facilitate discussion about issues related to the ongoing training of leaders around the world, primarily at administrative and institutional levels, explained General Conference associate secretary Claude Richli. “[Their] format is a series of mostly academic presentations, interspersed with reports from . . . divisions and institutions,” he said. “[Then], roundtable discussions take place to reflect on the topics presented.”

This year’s summit, themed “The Spiritual Necessity of Church Unity and Biblical Authority to Accomplish God’s Mission,” sought to address the issue of church unity and authority from different perspectives. Presentations included insights from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White—referred to as the Spirit of Prophecy by Adventists—and the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Leaders in attendance characterized both presentations and dialogue as “frank,” “open,” and “honest.”

For many church leaders, including Seventh-day Adventist Church president Ted N. C. Wilson, church unity is a topic of utmost importance. “It is vital to have unity only through Christ’s power as we proclaim the three angels’ messages,” wrote Wilson in an email to Adventist Review commenting on the summit. “Submission to God’s Holy Word, prayer, and the leading of the Holy Spirit are key to unity in the Advent movement.”

Wilson echoed those thoughts in a keynote presentation at the summit. “Our true heavenly unity can be accomplished only as we humbly submit to the instruction of God through the Holy Spirit’s promptings and our understanding of His will through the Holy Writings of the Bible and the inspired counsel of the Spirit of Prophecy,” said Wilson as he encouraged attendees to consider Christ’s “amazing request” for unity recorded in John 17.

Artur Stele, a general vice president of the world church, seconded. “Unity was a great concern for Jesus, as He was completing His ministry here on earth. Only if harmony exists can we truly celebrate the diversity of gifts, talents, services, and ministries.”

Chairman of the General Conference Unity Oversight Committee and assistant to the president Michael Ryan agreed. “With the greatest days of the church before us, it is critical that leadership understands, values, and protects the gift of unity,” he told Adventist Review.

During the two-day event, top church leaders delved into some of the contemporary implications, challenges, and nuances of church unity for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Mission First

“What comes first, mission or church organization?” asked assistant to the Adventist world church president and seasoned evangelist Mark Finley, who shared three presentations during this year’s summit.*

In comments to Adventist Review, he shared that in one of his presentations, after reviewing the first chapter of the biblical book of Acts, he explained that church organization grows out of the mission mandate to witness. “Church organization is not an end in itself, [because] God doesn’t glory in bureaucratic administration,” Finley said. “Organization is always a servant of mission. . . . It’s always the means to a greater end.”

Ryan agreed. “All functions of the church serve mission,” he said.

Tom Lemon, another general vice president of the world church, also stressed the pre-eminence and the commitment to mission he sees in church members around the world. “When it comes to mission, no matter who you are or where you are . . . there is no question about the mission, [or] about anybody’s commitment to mission,” he said.

According to Lemon, the priority of mission is an encouraging sign. “We struggle with unity on certain issues,” he wrote, “[but] I don’t think we’re that divided.”

The Question of Authority

Ella Simmons, also a general vice president of the world church, discussed the biblical fundamentals and characteristics of church authority in her presentation at the summit. “Any authority that the church or any of its leaders might have is actually as stewards of God’s authority,” she commented to Adventist Review. As such, “[church leaders] would have certain responsibilities, which would include requirements and limitations.”

According to Simmons, those “limitations” imply making sure that church authority operates “within the express will of God,” and does not venture beyond what He has clearly stated. “We are to require or to seek only that which is clear from Scripture, not allowing the authority to extend beyond what God has said,” she said. “So we are to prohibit what God prohibits and to require what God requires. Nothing more or nothing less. Anything else would be imposing the traditions or opinions of human beings.”

In this context, the role of church leaders is essential, stated Simmons. “[God] has placed us as leaders to take responsibility for the Church’s exercise of authority,” she wrote. “We must be sure that we align completely with God’s will, and that the Holy Spirit is guiding us.”

Faithful, Loyal, or Stubborn?

Lemon provided a presentation on biblical leadership at the summit. Basing his study on several keywords, his presentation, entitled “United in Faithfulness, Submission, and Loyalty to Accomplish the Mission,” Lemon defined the key terms and then applied them to several biblical examples. “My basic focus was that all of those things were God-ward directed long before they were man-ward directed,” explained Lemon to Adventist Review. “That a failure in faithfulness is a failure against God.”

Lemon went on to discuss differences between faithfulness, submission, loyalty, and stubbornness. “My definition of faithfulness was holding a position and working for mission in the face of immediate uncertainty, shortage, and opposition,” he explained. “Stubbornness is defending one’s own personal viewpoint at the expense of mission in the face of those same things.”

While Lemon acknowledged that some Bible characters easily fit into one of these categories—Saul and David, Cain and Abel, for instance—he said others are more challenging, especially in the New Testament. “When Paul and Barnabas argued, which one was faithful, and which one was stubborn?” he asked. “[And] when Paul came to Jerusalem near the end of his life and [leaders] forced him to the temple, was he being faithful or submissive or stubborn?”

Lemon didn’t answer every question he posed, though he quoted church cofounder Ellen G. White in cases when her writings shed light on a specific topic. In retelling the experience of Paul in Jerusalem just before becoming a prisoner (Acts 21), for instance, White wrote that in meeting the Jewish leaders’ demands, Paul felt “that if by any reasonable concession he could win them to the truth he would remove a great obstacle to the success of the gospel in other places.” White added, however, that “he was not authorized by God to concede as much as they asked” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 405).

Regarding loyalty, Lemon asked, “Does loyalty extend from the grassroots upwards, or does it extend from the leadership downwards?” In the last part of his presentation, he made a case that leaders “can inspire loyalty, they can extend loyalty, but they cannot demand it, and they certainly cannot command it.”

In comments to Adventist Review elaborating on the topic he presented, Lemon said that the call to unity in John 17 “is a gift that God wants to bestow upon His church” and “not something the church can achieve” on its own. “I think the church can receive it, and I believe it will,” concluded Lemon, “but it’s going to take at every level and in every person’s heart a willingness to be humble before God and before each other.” He emphasized that there is value in talking about unity as a way of reflecting and allowing the Spirit of God to use conversations to learn and grow.

South American Division president Erton Köhler agreed. “Unity has a direct relationship with communication, conversation, and the integration of leadership,” he shared with Adventist Review. “More dialogue among leaders and with God will solve most of our challenges.”

Unity, Governance, and Legal Documents

Adding to the presentation lineup, Karnik Doukmetzian, general counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, provided a legal perspective on unity in the context of church governance.

Doukmetzian explained and emphasized the role legal documents—such as the General Conference model constitution and bylaws—play in furthering unity in mission as well as in providing legal protection. “The wording that has gone into these models over the years has been put in especially to avoid legal issues for organizations,” explained Doukmetzian to Adventist Review. The Church’s lead attorney offered multiple examples of situations around the world in which practices that differed from agreed-upon governance documents created legal challenges. “These matters end up in court, and somebody else is telling us, ‘Hey, you’re not following your own rules,’” explained Doukmetzian. “So not only is it an embarrassment internally that we’re not following our own rules, but then it becomes a matter of public record before the whole world.”

Doukmetzian also reminded attendees that the role of legal documents is crucial in underpinning the historical organizational structure of the Church. “We have a theology that identifies and keeps us together as Seventh-day Adventists, but we’ve also agreed in the way we govern ourselves, our polity, the way we govern ourselves within the church,” he concluded. “We’re not separate, independent congregations. We do not follow the congregational model. We are a constituency-based organization.”

Richli elaborated on the value of the Adventist organizational structure in his presentation, as well. “There are also all kinds of advantages that the individual components of the [Church] derive from belonging to a system that is articulated on these premises,” he said, “such as the strength of working within a system, with policies and procedures that expedite process to facilitate the delivery of the mission and increase our chance of success.”

Beyond Church Unity

While acknowledging the importance of church unity, there are other related topics that should also occupy the mind of Adventist leaders, said Köhler. “[We must] also dedicate time to address . . . the challenge to invest and involve the new generations in leadership, the structure of the church and the best model to serve our unity and mission, [and] the role of leadership to strengthen our fundamental beliefs in postmodern times,” he said.

Köhler believes those and other topics are strategic issues challenging the church, and the role of Adventist leaders, present and future, is essential for tackling them. “More than solving the issues we have today, [the General Conference] needs to invest in the right people, [in] leaders that will be able to serve in top leadership positions . . . with balanced vision and clear focus,” he concluded. “The future of the church is directly related to the quality of [its] leaders.”

Finley agreed, highlighting that leadership training is an unending task. “It’s critical that as leaders, we constantly challenge ourselves to broaden our thinking process and to deepen our understanding of the responsibilities of leadership,” he told Adventist Review.

Against that background, Finley said he was impressed with the quality of the event presentations, a sentiment echoed by other leaders present. He also emphasized the overall spirit at the summit. “What impressed me the most was . . . the collegial spirit and the unified sense of mission on the part of the people here,” Finley said.

Stele agreed. “The atmosphere of the summit was very warm and friendly,” he told Adventist Review. “The friendship and the desire to move God’s mission forward among leaders was impressive.”

Leaders, including Wilson, left the Portugal summit on a very optimistic note. “I have full confidence we will see a fully unified church as a sacrificial and submissive spirit takes control in response to the Holy Spirit’s leading in our lives,” he wrote.

*Finley also serves part-time as an editor-at-large for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines.

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