In a carefully balanced pair of actions, Seventh-day Adventist leaders in North America voted October 31 to fully participate in the world church's recently launched study of the theology of ordination while also reaffirming the division's unique policy of allowing ordained or commissioned ministers to serve as presidents of local conferences and missions.
The latter action, voted by nearly a 3 to 1 margin, broadens the opportunities for non-ordained leaders to be elected to the top position in any of the 58 conferences that make up the 1.1-million member church region.
The pair of votes came three weeks after the North American Division's request for a variance in the world church's model constitution to allow for broader leadership opportunities was turned down by the church's Executive Committee at its Annual Council. The model document states that conference leadership can only be held by an ordained pastor; the NAD policy, while valid within its territory, places the region at variance with the constitutional template.
NAD president Daniel Jackson put the day's discussion in the context of church unity. "The church is the apple of God's eye," Jackson said, referencing Scripture. "People around the world are interested in what happens here. But at moments of change there is some pain. No reformation occurs without pain. If there is some difference at the end of the day, how do we demonstrate that we are part of the body of Christ?"
Jackson also sketched several options available to the church leaders and delegates gathered in the world church headquarters auditorium. The Executive Committee's rejection could simply be noted; the NAD's policy, voted in 2010, could be discussed and rescinded; or delegates could reaffirm the policy they voted one year earlier.
More than two-dozen speeches from the floor followed in the next two hours, most urging the body to reaffirm the 2010 action to broaden leadership opportunities by allowing "commissioned" ministers who had not been ordained to hold top leadership positions in conferences. Though Jackson had clarified that the topic of the ordination of women to ministry was not the point of the discussion, numerous speakers spoke in favor of ordaining women, while others asked how the proposed NAD action would be viewed by leaders and members in other world territories.
Ron Clouzet, director of NAD's Evangelism Institute and a professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Theology at Andrews University, urged delegates to act on the basis of Bible teaching. Church "governance should follow theology," Clouzet said. "I firmly believe in the ordination of women. Once we have settled the issue of theology, [the rest] will be chicken feed."
Michigan Conference president Jay Gallimore said he concurred with Clouzet's main point, but also urged caution: "Unless we can find, unless we can produce the Biblical understanding to move on this, collectively and together, we're never going to convince either the world church or our own churches," he told delegates. "We're a biblical church, we're a Bible church ... I hope all of us have an open mind to say 'Lord, teach me what is right.'"
"We need this to carry the work forward and we wish to send the message that women are needed," said Gina Brown, dean, of the School of Health Professions, Science and Wellness at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. "Let God's work be done."
"We are structured to allow for differences," urged Arnold Trujillo, vice president of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, one of the largest of the nine regional units of the North American Division. "We were not designed to be a monolithic organization, but one where dynamic tension is allowed to exist. We need freedom to be different, without compromising our mission. We sing in harmony, not in unison."
Just before noon, a motion to reaffirm the 2010 action was put to a secret ballot vote and passed by a margin of 162-61.
Speakers on both sides of the discussion praised Jackson's sensitive handling of the difficult issue as well as the prayerful and civil way the discussion unfolded.
The delegates also discussed and unanimously voted the request by the October Annual Council that each division participate in a multi-year process to study the theology of ordination by establishing a Biblical Research Committee in each territory for that purpose.
According to the protocol voted by the world church's Executive Committee, reports from each region will be integrated into a comprehensive report to the 2014 Annual Council meeting. That gathering will then determine whether to recommend any changes to the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas -- the 20th anniversary of the historic debate and vote on women's ordination held at the 1995 Session in Utrecht, the Netherlands.