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Church Chat: The evolution of Adventist World Sessions

From churches to stadiums, denominational statesman Beach on the countdown to Atlanta

Bert Beach is tied for holding the record for a living world church officer who has attended the most Adventist Church World Sessions.

Now held every five years, the gathering is a business session for the international denomination, known as the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Beach, former director for the church's Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, has attended 14 Sessions. Former church President Neal Wilson has also attended 14.

Beach was 17 years old when he served as a pageboy at his first Session in 1946, held at a church in Takoma Park, Maryland. At the time, there were about 600,000 Adventists worldwide. By comparison, there are now some 16 million members, and this summer's Session in Atlanta will be held in a football stadium.

Beach, who holds a doctorate in history from the University of Paris, has represented the church as a participant and observer in numerous interfaith councils. "I see myself as a bridge builder," he told the Adventist Review in 2001.

Beach, 81, sat down with ANN last week to discuss some of his memories of Sessions over the years. Some excerpts:

Adventist News Network: How has the atmosphere changed since Sessions have transitioned to being held in basketball arenas and now in football stadiums?

Bert Beach: The atmosphere is different now in the sense that there's much more professionalism you might say, the way things are more organized. Today it's much more professional with the television and production. It must be because it's much larger and we have, of course, much more experienced people when it comes to communication, for example -- people who really are professionals, not people who do it simply as a vocation after having served as a pastor or minister for many years.

ANN: What's it like to serve on the nominating committee [which nominates candidates for approval by the delegation]?

Beach: The atmosphere is very professional, very careful, people are friendly basically. The tendency is not to make very strong speeches against somebody. The tendency is more to make speeches for a person if you really want to promote a candidate.

ANN: What other roles have you had at General Conference Sessions?

Beach: Beginning 1954 I was a delegate at the General Conference Session and participated rather actively. ... I did a lot of translation. I would translate for people because I knew Italian, German, English, French, and so delegates would come and they didn't know English in those days. They know more English now. ... At later Sessions, I was the official at the General Conference who was in charge of protocol for the guests from other churches and from the government.

ANN: How old were you when you were placed on the Executive Committee?

Beach: Thirty-two. That's relatively young. There might have been some people that were even younger, [but] nowadays, it becomes a little bit more difficult because they've restricted the numbers of positions of the Executive Committee.

ANN: How does the Adventist Church's world Session compare to meetings of other denominations?

Beach: It's a very big meeting compared to other denominations. First of all, most churches around the world are not world churches. Obviously the Roman Catholic Church is a world church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, so is the Salvation Army, but most churches are national churches. Let's say the United Church of Canada, the Church of England, the Southern Baptist Convention, these are not world churches in the full sense of the word. They form alliances with other churches of the same belief.

ANN: What people or discussions over the years stand out in your mind?

Beach: We had some colorful people speaking at General Conference Session sometimes. I remember the famous Uncle Arthur [Maxwell] of the Uncle Arthur bedtime stories, who was editor of Signs of the Times, and was a very good speaker. I still remember him getting up at the General Conference Session and he was complaining that there were too many officers sitting on committees all the time and not enough other people -- pastors and departmental people and so on. He said, "And here we have a secretary and then we have on the committee an undersecretary, and then we have an associate secretary and then a treasurer and an undertreasurer and assistant treasurers," and so on. And so people started laughing in the audience. Then of course we had the meeting about the ordination of women, I think it was in Utrecht [Netherlands in 1995]; two sessions actually dealt with it. I still remember long lines of people. They had to line up at two different microphones. One was for those who had announced that they were in favor and those at the other microphone who had announced they were against, so they could balance. The chairman would ask [a representative] from one microphone and then from the other. I'm not so sure those speeches were that helpful, really, because I think most people had made up their minds. Things are debated really at Annual Council and at the meeting of the officers even prior to Annual Council.

ANN: What is the real business that takes place at Session?

Beach: Many think in terms of elections as the important thing. And that is important. But at some Sessions sometimes there comes a Constitution Committee, which deals with some very important issues. Then the Church Manual can only be edited or revised, amended at a General Conference Session. At Session it takes hours of discussion to deal with the Church Manual.

ANN: Any mishaps over the years?

Beach: I remember one of our speakers, who was famous, one of the great preachers in our church, who lifted his voice and somehow, he must have been speaking too loud and suddenly his voice broke and he couldn't speak anymore. It was more like whispering. Or, one sermon that went on and on and on, and it was a problem because on Sabbath afternoon the meeting was starting supposedly at 2 o'clock and the sermon went well past 1 o'clock. Of course, people who were involved were upset. Little things like that happen. But overall, I think General Conference Sessions have been extremely well organized, the music has been superb, and the spirit, generally speaking, is very good.

ANN: Are you going to Atlanta?

Beach: If I get invited. You can't go on forever, you know. It's been a great experience to have been a member of this church, to participate in councils and discussions and committees over the years, and I have great confidence in the leadership of our church.

GC Session 2010: Looking back with Bert Beach from GC Communication on Vimeo.