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Pacific Union Conference Quinquennial - 29th Constituency Session
Submitted: Aug 30, 2011
By Elwin Dunn

 August 29-30, 2011  Ontario Convention Center, Ontario, California

This meeting was not about worship, happiness, or back slapping. It was held because the bylaws of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists requires it. It was a working session held to fulfill the legal requirements of a rather tired and outmoded organization. 

Let me explain:

In the early years of the 1980’s, members of the Adventist Church were affected, as were all United States citizenry, by the country’s financial malaise. They demanded a review of business as usual, particularly in regard to funding, at all administrative levels of the church. One of those who truly heard the message was Tom Mostert, President of the Pacific Union Conference. By 1995, Elder Mostert’s re-organization program had eliminated almost two-thirds of Union employees - to less than 40 today. Similar was done in other Unions, but not nearly to the extent which occurred in the Pacific Union.
The end product not only streamlined the Union organization, but had the effect, even though they underwent some of the same reduction in force, of increasing the authority of the Unions component Conference Presidents, who make up the driving force of the Union Committee.   

This process left an organization which, in essence, made it the ATM of its constituent conferences. Union leadership primarily served as facilitators for its constituent conferences and as agent for financial management. The only oversight the Union had left was its constituent universities, Pacific Union and La Sierra, and its mission, Holbrook Mission School in Arizona.
Ricardo Graham, current President of the Pacific Union, in his reprise as the 'State of the Pacific Union,' at the session, made this point quite clearly when he said his current primary function is to serve as chair of some 28 committees, and a facilitator of policies (implementation) which generally originate at NAD or General Conference levels of Administration. His associates complement this process. Graham’s expectation for the future: “policies and more policies.”

During most of the 20th century, the Pacific Union was a completely different organization. It not only was recognized for its leadership in the denomination, providing countless talented leaders, and generally seen as the major funding source for 'the work.' Being called to serve in the Pacific Union, from other locales in the United States, was often viewed by workers as the closest thing as going to heaven, as actually doing so!
The Pacific Union Conference as it exists in 2011, is far more cosmopolitan than which existed half a century earlier. Currently, the Union church membership, ~225,000 strong, is very representative of the overall population, with over half of that number as non-Caucasian.  The Conference Presidents reflect this makeup. Of the seven, two are African-American, two are Hispanic, and the remaining three are of Caucasian background. Their associates reflect the same profile. Membership growth strongly reflects this trend.

With the Pacific Union Conference’s basic role limited to serving as facilitator and banker for its constituent Conferences, one must question the need of even the current level of staffing which exists.

As part of the North American Division hierarchy, what should constituent members expect from this level of governance?

Nathan Schilt
2011-09-01 12:05 PM

Very interesting and disturbing. What I find most ominous is the statement, "policies and more policies". Elwin, could you elaborate on what you think this means? This statement connotes to me the intensification of a regulatory Church, with reduced localism and accountability to the membership as Church leaders proliferate sinecures for themselves. Increasing the half-life of otiose denominational infrastructure is not the direction we should be going as a Church. What practical suggestions do you have for members to counteract this trend?

Elwin Dunn
2011-09-01 3:01 PM

Nate:  I was trying to reflect what I understood from Graham's "vision for the future" of the PUConference statement- namely his use of and repetition of the word, policies.  He actually said the word three times.  He did not elaborate further.

Edwin A. Schwisow
2011-09-01 3:06 PM

As a 27-year former communication representative for the northerly "sister union" bordering the Pacific Union, it appeared to me that our union, and perhaps yours too, functioned to some degree as a "Senate" to the Conferences' "House," forming with them a bicameral composite in which the union consisted (on average) of much older individuals with longer terms of office. The union also functioned, however imperfectly, as a bit of a judiciary. As I would travel creating video documentaries and chronicling inspirational news for Northwest Adventism, I would often be asked (probably about 10 times a year, in confidence), "Ed, do you think the unions are going to be around much longer; don't you think modern technology has made them redundant?"

My response generally ran along these lines: "Yes I do believe they will be around, but in smaller form. If we closed the unions, we would probably manage to reinvent them within 10 years or so. Here's why: Our conferences rarely represent entire state territories, so in our dealings with state governments (legally and in religious liberty aspects), the union (which by policy never shares a state’s geography with another union) serves a real function. Second, the academic and medical sides of the church equation at least in theory benefit from some executive-level formal liaison, and the unions’ wise old heads seem (again in theory) of a gravitas equal to that task. And third, and perhaps most important, the union serves as a mentoring body of wise [people] to help often very-gifted younger functionaries in the conferences. By having a union, we can afford to entrust administration of the conferences to younger, more energetic leadership.

At least in theory, I still believe the function of the unions is defensible, though I also believe the pressure to reduce the number of "levels" of conference administration continues to increase. In the old days, unions DID represent "another level." Perhaps today, in much more consolidated form, they represent a "wise forum," and perhaps ideally should continue evolving in that direction, if they are to continue to function at all. There was a time during my days in union work when the unions were unduly large, unduly powerful, and in many cases staffed by younger men and returned missionaries with their eyes on GC positions. Since then the unions appear to have done a better job finding specific roles and functions not duplicated in the conferences, while continuing to provide a resource of (ideally) sage, experienced counselors with strengths in mentoring.

Elwin Dunn
2011-09-01 3:13 PM

continuing:  As to my belief as to what this actually meant...  My sense was there was a fair degree of frustration that the present state of the PUConf (bare bones financing and staffing seemed to be the principal issue, for the elected officers and their associates seemed to be working well together and acted like a mutual a ppreciation society at the meeting). 
Reading between the lines during the overall presentation as to the state of affairs, and chatting with several Union Associates later, left me with the feeling that the dramatic cutbacks initiated by Mostert were well intended, but that the other Unions gave primarily lip service to these same efforts, thus continued to have huge budgets allowing them to agressively develop programs and provide services which the Pacific Union was now in no position to do.  In other words, the PUC was truly only able to serve as a conduit and banker for its constituent conferences.  This further left them no other options than to interpret policies. 


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