Not asking for an extra Q&A
Mr. Elliott concluded the first part of his questioning by asking:
"Does the council see this as a potential for our future that we will have the opportunity that you do and that the administration does, to, before God, deliberate, confer and then make the decisions that are our responsibility?"
Treasurer Aaron Dean was the first to respond to Mr. Elliott's comments and questions. It was difficult to understand Mr. Dean because he talked fast and at a barely audible volume.
But Mr. Dean seemed to suggest that, as a solution to Mr. Elliott's concern, perhaps the council could conduct an extra Q&A session before each annual general conference.
Mr. Elliott then clarified that he was not asking for another Q&A.
Rather, he said, he was requesting "the opportunity to confer on our own business of the general conference."
Mr. Dean then said something about logistical concerns with scheduling a meeting of deliberation specifically for the elders to confer among themselves.
Mr. Elliott countered that the schedule for the annual conference could easily be altered. For example, the elders do not need to wait around for the results of the annual voting. They could learn the results after the conference via E-mail.
That one change, he said, would free up time during the conference that might be better spent with the GCE conducting its own meeting.
Let's be fair
But, protested Mr. Dean, allowing the general conference to discuss the qualifications and backgrounds of council-member candidates might not be "fair."
"We want to make it fair when someone's up for election," Mr. Dean said. "That's why no one speaks in services on the Sabbath who's up for election."
Mr. Dean seemed to think that Mr. Elliott was suggesting that elders of the GCE might simply be looking for a way to campaign for their favorite candidates for council seats.
Because discussions that The Journal is aware of have occurred over many years, this newspaper is aware that Mr. Elliott's idea is not a new one.
Indeed, some elders--and other UCG members--talked years ago of the lack of adequate opportunity for the general conference, the vast majority of voting elders--to talk formally but freely among themselves of the issues they're expected to decide by ballot after only a few brief announcements and maybe five minutes of consideration.
What's the big deal?
Council member Robin Webber asked Mr. Elliott if he viewed the 12 council members as members of the general conference as well. If so, he seemed to imply, then why the fuss? After all, "we've traditionally viewed the chairman of the council [currently Melvin Rhodes] as kind of the titular head of the entire GCE . . .
"In your mind you're saying there is a difference of function or there needs to be another layer? Am I correct in that supposition?" Mr. Webber asked.
The GCE needs its own chairman
Mr. Elliott acknowledged that, "technically, it's understood that the chairman of the council is also the chairman of the GCE."
But the system as it stands has its problems, Mr. Elliott continued.
"If you look at the GCE meetings we've had, it takes one officer [of the administration, such as the president or treasurer] to put an item on the agenda of the annual meeting. It takes four members of the council to put an item on.
"But it has taken 100 of us [in the GCE] to be able to put an item on."
Further, he said, to his knowledge "no chairman, no council member and certainly no GCE member has ever put forward a single item on the agenda for us to confer on."
Mr. Elliott emphasized and sharpened his point: "I think we need a focused chairman for the GCE who would be able to know what the issues are and focus on those issues."
Although Mr. Dean and Mr. Webber seemed to be taken slightly aback by Mr. Elliott's comments and questions, others on the council were more familiar, and even sympathetic, with the idea.
Commented council member Roy Holladay: "I could see where maybe there'd be a committee set up out of the GCE that would study some of these issues and come back with recommendations . . .
"I think it's a good idea in that instead of just saying, well, [your idea is] too broad and we can't do anything with it, it does need to be discussed and some suggestions brought forth."
John is right
Council member Bill Eddington responded positively to Mr. Elliott's concerns, noting that maybe the council, in meetings scheduled a few days after the conference, could "look at this and see if there is a practical way of doing what John wants to see done."
Another council member, Gary Antion, stated that "John is right." Even though the GCE has 27 designated official responsibilities, "the GCE has no direct leadership" in carrying out those responsibilities, he said.
Why does the GCE have no direct leadership?
Mr. Antion explained that it's "because the chairman of the council is also the chairman of the GCE, and sometimes the GCE's concerns are sometimes different from what the council may be choosing to do . . .
"I think the council chairman is usually more interested in trying to get the council and everything organized and does not generally have the time, in my opinion, to do both."
Mr. Antion recommended the council do a "study" of the matter to determine "how we can facilitate the general conference of elders fulfilling their responsibilities."
Harlan Spieker, an elder from South Dakota, changed the subject. Mr. Spieker said he had been thinking about executive sessions, the closed meetings the council has convened frequently since the church's founding in 1995.
Mr. Spieker sees a need for "more transparency" in the governing of the church. Perhaps "future disruption and emotional highs and lows can be held down a little bit if the whole body was informed" by minimizing the number of closed meetings of council members, he said.
"I'd like to know your opinion if you think that there's been any abuse of executive session."
Good reasons for secrecy
Council member Victor Kubik said he doesn't think there has been any abuse as a result of the closed meetings, and they're convened in secret for good reasons. What are the reasons? Mostly people's names, he said.
A typical executive session might be for the purpose of discussing a "member appeal."
For example, if a church member is suspended or disfellowshipped and appeals his suspension or disfellowshipping, it would not be appropriate to hold such a meeting in the open where other elders could hear who was being discussed.
"It isn't that it's secret," Mr. Kubik said to Mr. Spieker. "It's just that we're talking about names."
Other discussions that are properly private, Mr. Kubik commented, concern pending ministerial ordinations.
(For The Journal's coverage of UCG married couple's appeal of their suspension, see "Members' Suspension Appeal Unsettled and Unsettling after Three Years" in the June 30, 2000, issue. For coverage of a UCG elder's appeal of his suspension and disfellowshipping, see "Disfellowshipped Elder Requests Apology From Church," April 30, 2006, issue.)
Much too open
Mr. Kubik then made a fairly startling statement: that the council, over the years, has been much too open in conducting its business.
"This is just my perspective over 15 years here, that we've been far too transparent," he said. "I mean, we're talking about internal business." Some of the topics are not really secret, he declared. They're "just not the type of thing that you share with everybody."
On the other hand, Mr. Kubik foresees the need for fewer executive sessions now that the recent crisis is mostly over: the one that split the UCG and spawned a new church, the Church of God a Worldwide Association (CGWA).
Now that things have settled down for the leadership and the lay membership, "I feel that the time is past now where we had executive sessions that went on for hours."
Executive sessions in the Bible
Bob Berendt, 74, council member from Canada, said he sees a precedent in the Bible for executive sessions.
"Jesus Christ had executive sessions . . . many times," he said. "He'd take the apostles aside and talk with them" privately.
Further, he said, it is not appropriate for mothers and fathers to discuss everything with their children.
What it does to us
Jim Hopkins, elder from Columbus, Ohio, who for years has owned and operated printing businesses, commented that he has sat on many corporate boards.
Mr. Hopkins said many corporate executive sessions happen because a board tackles issues that are more properly the domain of the administration. In the case of the church, the administration would include the president and other corporate officers rather than members of the council.
"And so they end up kind of undermining the people that they hire," Mr. Hopkins continued, "because they start doing the work of their executive team . . .
"To be honest with you, I've served on a lot of boards, and our board [in the UCG] meets in executive session more times in a year than I have been in executive session in 20 years of board work."
Earn our trust or else
After more comments from other elders, the last word on executive sessions came from Mr. Spieker.
"As far as the executive sessions," he said, "I think we've got a good council, I really do. I think we need to trust. We need to have that measure of trust."
The audience applauded enthusiastically.
"And if you break that trust we'll cut your throats."
The audience laughed.
The 12 council members
As reported on page 40 of the May 31, 2011, issue of The Journal, the council of elders beginning in July was to consist of Gary Antion, Scott Ashley, Bob Berendt, Bill Bradford, Bill Eddington, John Elliott, Roy Holladay, Darris McNeely, Melvin Rhodes, Mario Seiglie, Don Ward and Robin Webber.