The 59th General Conference Session completely reorganized the Church Manual of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For several days of the business sessions the delegates worked through 95 proposed changes that had percolated through the church's committee procedure. Because this single volume is the world-wide application of structure and practice for the entire denomination I paid special attention to each part of the discussion. In the end it was an exercise in cross-cultrual understanding in how to make a world-wide church work in harmony.
There were some significant changes--some of which were, to me, milestones in how we view leadership in the local church. First, the most revolutionary in my eyes:
Gender-referenced ordination enters the World Church for the first time. The previous editions of the Church Manual provided for an ordination service for elders and deacons. Please note that "elders" is a gender-neutral office. In North America, Australia, and Europe there are both women and men who are elected as elders and through that election are eligible for ordination. But this gender-neutrality allows churches in places such as the African continent to bypass the whole discussion whether to ordain women elders--they just don't appoint elders who are female. And, of course, deacons are males by definition. The ordination issue for women is moot. But what about the deaconess?
The previous Church Manual designated an "induction" service for deaconesses elected to this church office. However, the practice of "laying hands of ordination" on deaconesses is increasingly practiced on an ad hoc basis in various parts of the world church. The debate on the delegate floor at this General Conference was whether to officially authorize the ordination of deaconesses in the Church Manual. The actual proposal that came from the General Conference Executive Committee would have allowed the 13 World Divisions to apply this individually--thus leaving it open for cultural application. As you can imagine, this whole topic elicited an intense debate. Various amendments were offered, debated, and defeated.
In the end, the language voted into the Manual was even stronger than the original proposal. I had a sense that some of the delegates really didn't appreciate how powerful this final action turned out to be. A service of ordination should be conducted for deacons and deaconesses without any wiggle-room for the various divisions to opt out of it. Granted, "should" is a middle ground between "may" (optional) and "must" (no choice). But it does do something that has never been done before--the world church has gender-specific ordination for a female. This is monumental, especially in Divisions of the world church that see "ordination" of elders, deacons, and pastors as identical in quality with the only difference being the functions of the office.
Sure, this is a small step but that is the nature of change when you're seeking to move 13 World Divisions together. And the vote came with a surprisingly clear majority.
I was thankful as we raised our yellow voting cards for progress in equipping every member of the church for service--especially the 60% of the membership who are women.
But wait....there's more! See GC #4: Church Manual, Part II.