Note: This article draws on the on-the-spot reports from Louisville published earlier at this Web site. However, much of the material in this article was not before on the site.
By Dixon Cartwright
LOUISVILLE, Ky.-Elders of the United Church of God came to Louisville for their third general conference in the church's two-year history to listen to speeches by home-office officials, make statements of their own and vote on 10 "ballot items" placed before them.
By voting margins that indicate a steady moving away from support for the centralized model of governance of the old (and new) Worldwide Church of God, elders decided the home office of the church should move from Southern California to Cincinnati, Ohio, and in several instances voiced their concerns about the concepts of individual member responsibility and initiative in preaching the gospel to the world.
The meetings, which took place March 8-10 at a Holiday Inn near the Louisville airport, saw most of the 10 ballot items approved or rejected as recommended by the management team set up by President David Hulme and his staff, but the margins were nowhere near as lopsided as they had been on votes taken at the second conference, in December 1995 in Cincinnati.
In those days a measure would pass or fail with 94 to 96 percent of the elders following the home office's recommendation.
Here in Louisville, for instance, the 1997-98 budget, recommended by Mr. Hulme and church treasurer Steve Andrews, passed with only 57 percent voting in favor of the measure.
The elders approved strategic and operating plans by considerably greater margins. The former, recommended by Mr. Hulme and Mr. Andrews and a majority of the council, was approved 310-55, or by 85 percent, and the operations plan 307-59, or 84 percent.
A constitutional amendment to prohibit the president from serving simultaneously on the council of elders (as is the case with Mr. Hulme) failed 154-210, with 58 percent voting against it. That amendment would have required a two-thirds majority to pass so had little chance of approval.
Still, supporters of the amendment note that 42 percent, almost half the ministry, supported the proposal.
The dramatic moment of the conference was the vote on the office-relocation proposal. After earnest pleas by elders on both sides of the issue, elders voted to move the office to Cincinnati. The Ohio city won by 20 votes, although the results on all 10 ballot items weren't generally known until two days after the conference. The vote tallies were delayed because of the process involved in counting votes from elders present and those who stayed at home and cast their ballots via telephone lines and fax machines.
Another theme of the conference was the ongoing discussion of local-member and local-church involvement, not just in preaching the gospel but in making decisions on when and how to preach the gospel.
The office also released the salary ranges of several church employees. Mr. Andrews read job descriptions and ranges, but said the church would not reveal actual salaries because of privacy considerations. Salaries on the high end approached $100,000, but all were below six figures. Mr. Andrews' list appears later in this article.
Although meetings spanned three days, the official business meeting of the general conference of elders lasted only three hours, on Sunday, March 9, from 2 to 5 p.m. The rest of the time was taken up with Sabbath services, question-and-answer sessions and what several elders said turned out to be a profitable part of the meetings, "breakout" sessions.
In those sessions the conference-elders and wives-split into eight smaller groups and discussed topics that have been much talked about lately in the United Church of God, an International Association. Subjects included communication; the role of the home office and church officials, including the president; whether congregations should be allowed to take the initiative in preaching the gospel; and relationships with other Sabbatarian groups.
The three days kicked off on the Sabbath of March 8 with services in the same hotel that would play host to the conference meetings that began Saturday night. Church president Hulme, from Arcadia, Calif., and council chairman Bob Dick of Kirkland, Wash., split the sermon.
Mr. Hulme spoke of the commission of the Church of God to preach and warn the world and cautioned that the UCG must be willing to help in areas in which the need is apparent. He gave India as an example.
"We must be found serving others rather than fulfilling any particular primary agenda we might have," he told the elders, wives and Louisville-area members. "The work of service is thoroughly outgoing."
He referred to a similar conference in Cincinnati 15 months before at which the delegates agreed to certain principles related to preaching the gospel, including the need to spread the Word throughout the world and "produce and maintain equity" among congregations of the church.
Mr. Hulme addressed the budget for the ending fiscal year, which had come under criticism from some elders and other members because of cost overruns. "It has been difficult to arrive at a balanced budget," he said. "We simply have had more demands put on us than available resources. We must care for the church but also set about preaching the gospel in a more public way."
He referred to new Reader's Digest ads in several U.S. markets and said United expects about 10,000 new subscribers to its magazine, The Good News, from those efforts.
He announced that the UCG hopes to produce a "prototype correspondence course" by this fall. "By then we also hope to have two more booklets in your hands. A sample correspondence course will probably come to you as a section in The Good News."
He mentioned that a television pilot program is under development.
"As we look back over the last two years," he said, "we are exhilarated but at the same time sobered by the task before us."
One reason God "rescued" many of the brethren from the recent crisis in the Worldwide Church of God "was to do the work," said Mr. Hulme. "One thing I feel very strongly about is that we must not get caught up in our own internal problems. We cannot afford to become so inwardly focused that we forget the primary reason for our calling now."
Someone recently sent Mr. Hulme a letter claiming that United does not "have a vision," he said. He used the letter to warn about becoming "overly inwardly focused."
"When the church has become overly inwardly focused, it has failed to get much done. It's happened more than once in the past 100 years. We must turn our attention to the world around us. We have to find a way to put it, our message, out there: a message that is both teaching and warning, a call to repent and as a witness-as both."
The president said the UCG exists in a "mode of continuity."
"We said that we wanted to come together as a group of people to continue our beliefs and practices, to continue to do a work together, and we have spent the first couple of years reorganizing ourselves so that we could go beyond that reorganization and do these things again. That is why we're here. That is why we were rescued from error, and I believe it was a rescue.
"The twin concepts that we should grow to become a godly community and preach the gospel to the world are rooted in Matthew 28:20."
Mr. Hulme ended his half of the sermon time by exhorting his listeners to be "subject to rulers and authorities," as he quoted from Paul's letter to Titus.
"Avoid foolish disputes," and some contentions "are a waste of time."
Be a work, says Mr. Dick
Mr. Dick, chairman of the 12-member council of elders, conducted the second half of services.
Before Mr. Dick's part of services, announcements were made regarding church members who were affected by the flooding in the previous several days of the Ohio River. (See related article, page 3.)
Mr. Dick's sermon could have been titled "What Is Vision?"
"Do you have the vision to see today?" he rhetorically asked.
He addressed the concept of a "work." Historically, the old WCG and later many of the groups that came out of the WCG have spoken of "the work." They have defined "the work" in different ways. It usually means preaching the gospel as a witness to the world. It also can include caring for the flock, the congregations of the Church of God.
"Is the real challenge," Mr. Dick asked, "doing a work or being a work?"
He quoted Ephesians 2 and concluded, "We are a work."
Newsstands, media efforts, other means of spreading the Word "are secondary," he said.
"We are God's workmanship," he quoted from Ephesians 2:10. "We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."
"The most significant step taken by any Church of God body in doing the work was taken by the United Church of God in the spring of 1996," said Mr. Dick, "when it chose to recognize a historic deficiency that has plagued us, then dedicated itself to the task of correcting that deficiency.
"I watched the council of elders [at a meeting in Birmingham, Ala.] begin to coalesce in spirit as they worked on the dominant historic problem of our heritage, of our fellowship, of our background, of our being.
"We came to the place of realizing that we have not always conducted ourselves in a godly manner in our roles and relationships.
"I challenge you to show me one single splinter group-and we are one of those-in the last 30 years that has made any truly significant growth, no matter what kind of work or work process they chose to use, no matter how much they spent in doing it.
"My contention to you, brethren, is that God is not going to give us the ability to bear fruit until we demonstrate ourselves worthy as an instrument. It isn't about money; it isn't about avenues used; it isn't about how many years or how much time is spent in the process.
"It is about God having a place to take tender, young, new converts and bring them into a fellowship that is warm and nurturing and hospitable and by example setting the stage for the kind of life that this new person should come to live. That is the core of the work. The rest springs from it."
Saturday evening's meetings
Most of the meetings Saturday evening were in the format of "breakout groups." The estimated 375 people present-elders and wives-split up alphabetically into eight smaller groups of 30-something each, with each breakout unit discussing the same list of topics.
Later a spokesman from each of the smaller sessions addressed the reassembled conference to summarize the questions and some of the conclusions reached in the breakouts.
A theme flowing through the whole discussion-the breakout groups and the later summaries-was the need for better communication in the United Church of God: among the general conference, council of elders and membership at large.
Need information officer
Darris McNeely, an elder from Indianapolis, Ind., summarized some of his group's points:
"We came up with 18 different points," said Mr. McNeely. "It was important for our group to encourage the home-office team, the general conference and council of elders to carry out their functions as stated within the bylaws and open up avenues for communication and processes for the flow of information."
Mr. McNeely's group had discussed ways to insure that the council will create policy only as instructed by the general conference of elders.
It also had talked about the perceived need for an "information officer" to distribute information to the general conference.
"Each of the three groups-the general conference, council and management team-should follow the guidelines within the bylaws," Mr. McNeely summarized. "The management should digest that input to implement the plan. The general conference should not micromanage the council of elder's duties.
"The general conference should formulate the policies of the church.
"But there should not be a mix of democracy with God's form of government."
Protection from politics
Jerry Aust of San Diego, Calif., summarized another group's discussion, although Mr. Aust drew chuckles as he carefully distanced himself from specific opinions that came out of his group's talks.
"No. 1," he said, "can we have prospectuses, resumes, of potential council-of-elders members before we vote on them?"
Mr. Aust's group also called for signed documents of personal doctrinal beliefs of members of the council.
Members of Mr. Aust's unit also asked if the conference agenda, which this year contained 138 items, could be released ahead of time to the general conference for its consideration and comments.
Also, should each country represented in the United Church of God separately nominate members for the council of elders who would then be voted on by the conference?
Also, could the whole process somehow be protected from being "politicized"?
David Evans of the Arcadia staff summarized the discussion of another group:
Why should the council of elders vote in secret; shouldn't the general conference be aware of specific votes?
Should the casting of lots be implemented for certain decisions in the church?
No, some in the group concluded, lots are based on an Old Testament model and do not allow for the Holy Spirit's influence in decision-making.
The elders need to understand United's governmental structure before expecting the whole church to grasp it.
Shouldn't individual members of the council of elders post their comments on the church's "elders' forum," which is a moderated function of the UCG's private E-mail network.
Silence isn't golden
Dave Myers, pastor of churches in Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, reported that his group discussed roles and relationships of the general conference of elders. He gave a sample of the questions and topics discussed in his breakout gathering:
Which body of the UCG is the policy-making body?
What is the status of those elusive rules of association? Are they only for international areas, or are they already defined for U.S. areas?
What is the responsibility of the general conference of elders if the management team or the council of elders does not carry out policies agreed to by the general conference?
Elders should read the constitution and bylaws.
Communication is vital. Lack of communication engenders a lack of trust. More communication is necessary from the management team, the home office and the council of elders.
Unfortunately, silence breeds unnecessary suspicion.
Paul Kieffer, pastor of six churches in Germany, reported on his group's questions and conclusions as follows:
How does the council interface with the home-office staff regarding expulsions and suspensions of ministerial employees?
Proper due process should be followed for terminated or suspended elders. The appeals process itself has not been devised, presented to and ratified by the general conference of elders.
Larry Greider of Kansas City, Mo., reported on his group's discussions:
The elders need "solid information" so they can help stabilize those still drifting between splinter groups.
Needed are statements of relationships between United and other groups.
Why can't elders see how council members vote on certain issues so they will know who to vote for themselves next time?
Would a ministerial newsletter and/or site on the World Wide Web of the Internet be a helpful addition?
Who answers to whom?
John Elliott, an elder from Cincinnati, reported on another group's conclusions and questions:
Who answers to whom is unclear. Where is the chain of authority?
It appears the home office is setting policy rather than the council of elders with general-conference input. Some say that it's upside down, when contrasted with the constitution and bylaws.
Is the home office more like a control center than a service center?
A perception exists that the home office is the control office of much of the ministry and other members, although the ministry doesn't necessarily hold that perception. Where do church members get these ideas?
Some feel a pastor-general system is in the process of evolving.
The UCG needs to quickly report to the general membership where the church is going and how problems are going to be resolved.
Should the chairman go to the membership and explain the duties of the home office, council and conference?
Mike Hanisko, who pastors at Milwaukee and Oshkosh, Wis., gave the final breakout-group comments:
Could the agenda of the general conference be made public in advance so people could pray about the items on the agenda?
A need exists to make available in more detail the minutes of council meetings, including how council members came to their conclusions, rather than just a report of those conclusions.
A need exists for a policy of involving the ministry and general membership to help with tasks that are now tackled exclusively by the council. Why not utilize them to ease the burden by delegating more tasks?
A feeling exists that the management team is developing systems, forums, etc., that may not be relevant to the present needs of the general conference of elders. Someone suggested that the management team can solicit input from the general conference about such systems and forums in advance.
The final activity of the day was a panel on stage to field questions from the elders in the audience. An elder would walk to a nearby microphone and ask one or more questions directed at the council members assembled, who were Mr. Dick (the moderator), Mr. Hulme and council member Dennis Luker of Irvine, Calif. Also on stage was church treasurer Mr. Andrews.
Elder Mike Regan of Salem, Ore., asked: Several reports have brought up the need for improved communication, but couldn't that be handled by the present secretary (Gerald Seelig of the home office)?
Mr. Dick replied that, logically, the communication functions would be carried out by Mr. Seelig, but Mr. Seelig is already overloaded with responsibilities and simply cannot do more.
Dave Havir, pastor at Big Sandy, asked: "Tonight the different [breakout] groups talked about the need for having voting records. Can you give us a brief history of why we do not have voting records. Then, No. 2, how quickly can we have them?"
Mr. Dick replied that he "cannot honestly tell you" the beginning of the present system of not revealing council members' votes, except for abstentions. At some point, though, the council looked to other nonprofit organizations' examples and found that votes frequently were not revealed in the meetings of other groups.
Mr. Dick said he and other United officials visited the international headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in July and found the SDAs had done a good job of keeping politics out of their church business, and one tool for doing that was "not attaching names" to votes.
Mr. Hulme then commented that just releasing raw data about votes could be misleading because the thought processes and discussions that preceded the votes would be lost. If it took nine hours to come up with the votes, the only valid way to explain the votes would be to take nine hours to explain them.
Mr. Luker, on the other hand, commented that he "wouldn't be against you knowing" the details of the votes.
Arcadia one of many?
Bruce Dean, an elder from Sydney, Australia, asked questions about the relationships of the non-U.S. branches of the UCG with the American office.
He suggested that the UCG office be recognized as one of several national offices instead of wielding authority over all the UCG branches worldwide.
"The management team that you have here should be for UCG U.S.A.," he commented, "while we are UCG Australia or UCG Canada or even UCG Germany."
Mr. Luker commented that Mr. Dean's suggestions were "excellent."
Jim Franks, council member from Houston, said some of the problems and misunderstandings about international relationships within the UCG were as a result of "omissions in the documentation" as United was being formed.
The role of president
Mr. Elliott asked Mr. Hulme to comment on his view of his own role as president.
Mr. Hulme answered with a question: "Do I want to be the pastor general? Do I think I'm the pastor general? The answer in my mind has always been no, but we realized that would be an odd thing to write into the constitution. Why not also write in pope?"
Mr. Hulme said he sees the role of the president as "more like that of chief executive of a business, as someone who operates according to policy we're in the process of writing."
Being pastor general, or pope, "is not in my mind. It's not my intention. I see this as being much more of a team-based structure."
Ed Szalankiewicz, an elder from Pittsburgh, Pa., commented about the council members who are not often heard from by the general membership.
"I'm assuming there is a minority group on the council," he said, "and that minority is often not represented at a table such as we're seeing this evening."
Mr. Szalankiewicz was apparently referring to the phenomenon that certain council members, notably Don Ward and Leon Walker of Big Sandy, are not usually present on the panel for a Q&A session such as this one.
The elder continued: "Couldn't we search for some venue for those who do represent a minority opinion on the council to share their views to the general conference in a way that is acceptable to everyone involved?"
Mr. Hulme quipped: "I hope so. Sometimes I'm a minority."
Mr. Dick explained that the minority votes on the council "rotate" so that different people are in the minority on different issues and that no one stands out as being in the minority.
"A person who's a minority on one topic is a different minority on another topic."
Council members on the forum
Wayne Dunlap asked if the council of elders could participate in the elders' forum on E-mail so the general conference could perceive some of the views of council members.
Mr. Hulme replied: "The elders' forum is something we need to review, and we plan to review it about a month from now."
A nonelder as president?
Tony Bosserman of Santa Rosa, Calif., asked: Does the president of the church have to be an elder? "Could there be someone with corporate experience in the secular world" who would be qualified to serve as executive officer of the church?
Mr. Luker answered that the constitution requires that the president be an elder, although some future conference could take up the question and theoretically amend the constitution to allow a nonelder to serve in the post.
Who is treasurer accountable to?
Mark Mickelson, Kettle Falls, Wash., asked about the accountability of the treasurer. Who is Mr. Andrews accountable to?
"First and foremost I believe I'm accountable to God," Mr. Andrews answered.
He said he is also accountable to the council and to the president.
Through a dark glass
Jim Hopkins of Columbus, Ohio asked about transparency, or openness and candor in communication.
"Mr. Dick, in Indianapolis [at the founding conference in 1995] I asked you would the work of the board [which later became the council] be transparent, and you assured me at that time that it would. I wonder what went wrong, because it seems like so many questions have come up tonight because there hasn't been open communication from the council.
"Since there hasn't been open communication, there has been mistrust, and a lot of people have said things that they didn't really mean.
"Since there hasn't been transparency, we didn't know how you were thinking, and therefore we weren't sure that you were moving in accordance with the way we believed the church should go.
"Are we going to see a difference here?"
Mr. Dick replied that the council wants to be transparent, and policies have been and are being implemented to help it be transparent.
Mr. Dick spoke of the need for a "reporter" to relay information from the council to others. (Later in the conference, the council announced that elder Clyde Kilough would move from Uniontown, Ohio, to Arcadia to serve as a reporter and liaison between the council and other elders of the church.)
"Our hope right now is that within the next two council-of-elders meetings we will have a system up and going that will greatly improve the communication system."
Mr. Hopkins, who owns printing companies in Ohio, returned to the microphone to follow up: "On most boards I've observed, the information is usually condensed by the secretary, then we okay the minutes at the following meeting. Why can't we just release those minutes? It would seem like the text of the general conversations could be released in such a manner that you could apply search engines [software designed to locate information] to it."
Mr. Dick commented: "I think the issue is whether if you saw the minutes that would really be what you would want. They're about as pasty-dry a document as you'll find."
What if budget not approved?
Braden Veller, an elder from Tampa, Fla., asked what would happen if the general conference rejected the proposed budget? (The budget passed 208-156.)
Mr. Andrews answered: "If the budget is rejected by the general conference of elders, it goes back to the council and back to me, actually, and the president to revise that budget."
The church as a corporation
Howard Davis of Eugene, Ore., asked about the legal structure of the United Church of God.
"I hear so much about this corporate, corporate, corporate model," he said, "but actually Jesus did not talk about a corporate model of the Church of God. He talked about the city on the hill, and all the elders are immediately accountable for everything they say and do. What's really apparent to me is that there is a confusion over the biblical model that you're operating from in terms of your individual accountability and responsibility for everything you say and do."
Mr. Andrews replied: "There is a somewhat popular notion that to be like the first-century church you can just dismiss the corporation. When you do that, however, you open yourself up to practical problems."
Tithes and offerings, physical assets, the people themselves, are all vulnerable without a corporate umbrella, Mr. Andrews said. Vulnerable church members are subject to attacks by Satan.
"We have a real adversary, and the adversary has from time immemorial tried to destroy the work of God."
The big news on the second day of the three-day general conference of elders of the United Church of God, Sunday, March 9, was the voting on eight constitutional amendments and the location of the church office.
The second day was actually the day of the official meeting of the general conference of the United Church of God, which ran from 2 to 5 p.m.
By the morning of the second day, elders here had heard the names of the two cities that had made it into the running for the permanent home-office location: Los Angeles and Cincinnati. Los Angeles was said to have garnered 40 percent of the votes in the runoff poll, and the other five cities-Atlanta, Ga.; Cincinnati; Dallas and Houston, Texas; and St. Louis, Mo.-had drawn a combined 60 percent of the votes.
In the afternoon, elders in attendance here and by telephone hookup from several countries voted on measures that included the office location. But Chairman Dick announced that results would not be known for three days. For one thing, the participants by phone didn't have to have their ballots faxed in to Louisville until the next day, and the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand wouldn't complete the vote tally until March 12.
Newsworthy on Sunday was the announcement-actually more implied than announced-that church administration might be cracking down on congregations of United that had built up sizable bank accounts.
An unnamed conference participant who wrote up a question that was answered by treasurer Andrews wondered why local churches should be allowed to maintain bank accounts when other congregations encourage their members to send money directly to the central office in Arcadia.
In a later comment, however, Mr. Hulme noted that congregations from the beginning of the United Church of God have exercised the option of collecting and banking tithes and offerings locally, and that policy would not change.
In getting ready for the voting-which in United conferences is almost always called "balloting"-council member Roy Holladay of Fort Myers Beach, Fla., introduced discussion of the strategic plan.
The plan, said Mr. Holladay, is "a process of building a vision and assembling the means to carry it out."
He compared the plan of God to a strategic plan, noting that "God has a clear vision, an understanding of what He wants to do" and the means of carrying it out.
The strategic plan comes first, elders learned. From that springs the operating plan, and from the operating plan comes the budget.
All three items were taken up during the conference, and all three passed, although the two plans passed with much wider margins. The strategic plan passed 310-55, the operations plan 307-84 and the budget 208-57.
Several elders spoke out against automatically approving the plans, claiming that doing so was premature, and more work needed to take place. The elders rejected that argument, although almost half apparently felt the need to do more work on the budget.
After Mr. Holladay spoke, Mr. Hulme addressed the assembled elders regarding the operational plan.
In asking elders to approve the plan, Mr. Hulme said they needed to ask themselves whether they felt the plan reflects "God's priorities for the church."
Mr. Hulme, in detailing parts of the plan, noted several former priorities that had been tentatively scrapped-until funds could somehow become available. Mr. Hulme and others had been the targets of criticism because of budget overruns in the fiscal year that ends the last day of March.
Regional council conferences have been scaled back for the next fiscal year. Regional congregational visits will be curtailed.
The area that took the largest hit was advertising, falling under the heading of "public proclamation" of the gospel. Several elders later in the day questioned the decision to decrease advertising efforts. Why couldn't something else be cut and the church leave intact plans for what is perceived by many members to be the most important work of the UCG?
Specific cuts include the scaling back of production of a television pilot program, production of CD-ROM videos, a corporate-logo design, reprinted articles and study papers.
A correspondence course is planned, although under the cutbacks it will debut as a section in the church's magazine, The Good News.
"We will also test advertising of the Web site in other media and on other Web sites," Mr. Hulme said.
Plans to hire a public-relations director have been shelved. "We acknowledge . . . we need more communication," Mr. Hulme said. Indeed, in discussion groups at the conference, a consistent theme was pleas for the church to communicate better.
The church is "investigating" a toll-free telephone number on which to receive inquiries and literature orders.
Most council meetings will be in Arcadia during the next fiscal year, said Mr. Hulme (assumedly only until the relocation to Cincinnati), because meeting in California is the cheapest way to go. During the current year the council has met in Birmingham, Ala., Boston, Mass., and Tyler, Texas, among other locations.
Mr. Andrews on budget
Mr. Andrews spoke on the budget, explaining that the UCG is limited in decisions it can make that affect spending and budget "because of the money that will be expensed on salaries."
Mr. Dick announced another question-and-answer session, first fielding written questions, then several oral queries from the floor.
On the answering panel this time were the council members who are usually on such panels, including Peter Nathan, chairman of the finance committee; Mr. Hulme; Mr. Andrews; Mr. Holladay; and Mr. Dick. On this particular panel Steve Sidars of the home office was also present.
One questioner wondered who the "we" is in the wording of the strategic plan. "If it is the entire church," someone wanted to know, "who decides how to apply the plan to local congregations?"
Mr. Holladay answered that "we" refers to the United Church of God as a whole.
Mr. Hulme read a question: "I feel," someone had written, "that postponing the television special [apparently referring to the TV pilot] may end up being our biggest mistake. Tithing simply to pay ministers' salaries is wearing thin. Why couldn't we seek out each church area to seek free or low-cost tine on access channels?
"I realize they wouldn't be superstations, but at least we would be doing something. This would get the membersh
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