United Church of God conference kicks off in Louisville
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--The weekend of the United Church of God's third general conference of elders kicked off here the Sabbath of March 8 with Sabbath services in the same location that would play host to the conference meetings that began Saturday night.
Services were in the Airport Holiday Inn, with President David Hulme and Chairman Bob Dick splitting the sermon.
Mr. Hulme spoke of the commission of the Church of God to preach and warn the world, and cautioned that the United Church of God must be willing to help in areas where 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, Ohio, 15 months ago at which the delegates at that time agreed to certain principles having to do with preaching the gospel, including the need to show the gospel throughout the world and "produce and maintain equity" among congregations of the church.
Mr. Hulme addressed the budget for the ending fiscal year, which has come under criticism from some elders and other members because of budget 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 these efforts.
He announced that in the fall the United Church of God hopes to produce a "prototype correspondence course."
"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."
Also, he mentioned that a television pilot program is "being developed at the moment."
"As we look back over the last two years, 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 vision for United, he said, "is the same as it always has been, and this afternoon we will just explore what it says. When we lose sight of our vision, that's when we fail to do the work of God."
The president said the United Church of God is 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 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."
Mr. Dick's sermon
Bob Dick, chairman of the 12-member council of elders, delivered the second half of services.
Before Mr. Dick's part of services, announcements were given regarding church members who were affected by the flooding in the previous several days of the Ohio River.
The flood could have affected the general conference; the hotel suffered some water damage and some events had to be moved to a different wing of the structure.
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 Worldwide Church of God and later many of the groups that came out of the Worldwide Church of God 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 God.
"Is the real challenge," Mr. Dick asked, "doing a work or being a work?"
He quoted Ephesians 2 and stated, "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 United Church of God can do a work, Mr. Dick said, but first its members must be a work.
"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 stood as the council sat in Birmingham, Ala., and we were laboring for something that can be sometimes phenomenally boring.
I watched the council of elders 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.
"As they worked and challenged one another, I stood and watched a common bonded spirit develop among those 12 men of understanding, agreeing that a simple statement was profoundly true: We came to the place of realizing that we have not always conducted ourselves in a godly manner in our roles and in our 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."
Mr. Dick said he takes encouragement from Philippians 1:6: "I'm confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ."
He quoted James 1:19-25, then commented: "For the moment, brethren, our dominant work is to be the work of God."
Saturday evening's meetings
Most of the meetings Saturday evening were in the format of "breakout groups." The estimated 450 people present--elders and wives--split up alphabetically into eight smaller groups, with each breakout unit discussing the same list of topics.
Later a spokesman from each of the eight groups addressed the reassembled general conference to summarize the questions and some of the conclusions reached in the smaller groups.
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.
Darris McNeely, an elder from Indiana, 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 micro manage 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."
Jerry Aust summarized another breakout group's discussion, but first Mr. Aust was careful to distance himself from specific opinions that came out of his group's discussions.
"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 council of elders members.
The people in the group also asked if the conference agenda, which this year contains 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 Arcadia 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 used for certain decisions?
No, lots are based on an Old Testament model and do not allow for the Holy Spirit in decision-making.
The elders need to understand United's governmental decision 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 United Church of God 's private E-mail network.
Dave Myers' group discussed the roles and relationships of the general conference of elders. He gave a sample of the questions and topics discussed in his breakout group:
Which body of the United Church of God is the policy-making body?
What is the status of the 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 absolutely vital. Lack of communication produces a lack of trust. More communication is necessary from the management team, the home office and the council of elders.
Silence breeds unnecessary suspicion.
Paul Kieffer, an elder from Germany, reported on his group's discussion, as follows:
How does the council interface with the home-office staff regarding expulsions and/or suspensions?
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 St. Louis, 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 Web site be a helpful medium?
John Elliott reported on another group:
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, according to 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 the membership, although the ministry doesn't necessarily have that perception. Where do the members get these ideas?
Some feel a pastor-general system is evolving.
The United Church of God needs to quickly address to the 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 gave the final breakout-group report:
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.
Develop 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 forms 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 Dennis Luker. Also on stage was church treasurer Steve Andrews.
Elder Mike Regan asked: Several reports have brought up the need for improved communication, but couldn't that be handled by the present secretary (Gerald Seelig)?
Mr. Dick answered 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 of the Big Sandy, Texas, congregation 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 many times 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 commented that he "wouldn't be against you knowing" the details of the votes.
Bruce Dean, an elder from Australia, asked questions about the relationships of the non-U.S. branches of the United Church of God with the American office.
He suggested that the United Church of God office be recognized as one of several national offices instead of being over in authority all the United Church of God branches worldwide.
"The management team that you have here should be for United Church of God U.S.A.," he commented, "while we are United Church of God Australia or United Church of God Canada or even 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 United Church of God were as a result of "omissions in the documentation" as United was being formed.
John Elliott of Cincinnati, Ohio, asked Mr. Hulme to comment on his perspective 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."
An elder from Pittsburgh, Pa. (unidentified here; if this quote appears in the printed version of The Journal we will find out his name) asked: "I'm assuming there is a minority group on the council, and that minority is often not represented at a table such as we're seeing this evening."
The elder was apparently referring to the fact 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 replied: "I hope so. Sometimes I'm a minority."
Mr. Dick explained that the minority votes within 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."
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."
Tony Bosserman 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?"
Mr. Luker answered that the constitution requires that the president be an elder, although some future general conference could take up the question and theoretically amend the constitution to allow a nonelder to serve in the post.
Mark Mickelson asked about the accountability of the treasurer.
Who is treasurer Steve Andrews accountable to?
Mr. Andrews answered: "First and foremost I believe I'm accountable to God."
Besides God, Mr. Andrews said he is accountable to the council and to the president.
Jim Hopkins of Ohio asked: "Mr. Dick, in Indianapolis [at the founding conference in April and May of 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 polices have been and are being implemented to help it be transparent. "Transparent," in this discussion, referred to openness of communication between the council and conference and, assumedly, also the general membership.
Mr. Dick spoke of the need for a "reporter" to relay information from the council to others.
"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, came back to the microphone for a follow-up: "In 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 to it."
Someone with an inquiring mind, said Mr. Hopkins, would be happy to conduct a word-processing or computer search for information, but at least it would be available.
Mr. Dick commented: "I think the issue is whether if you saw the minutes that would really be what you would want. It's about as pasty-dry a document as you'll find."
Braden Veller of Florida asked: What happens if the general conference rejects the proposed budget?
Steve 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."
Ideally, said Mr. Andrews, the general conference would "rationalize" its objections to the budget so the council would know that need to be changed about it.
Howard Davis of Oregon asked: "I hear so much about this corporate, corporate, corporate model, 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."
Steve 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 Journal: News of the Churches of God