Where is the North American Division going?

Historically, there has been a unique relationship between the General Conference and North America that has resulted in a different organization and operation for the North American Division as compared to other divisions. Since the 1980 General Conference session, certain restructuring of the North American Division has been taking place, making it, in some respects, more like its counterparts in the rest of the world. Recently MINISTRY editor]. R. Spangler interviewed Charles Bradford, General Conference vice-president for North America, and Robert Dale, administrative assistant to the vice-president for North America, about the new situation and probed their aspirations and outlook for the division.

J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

Q. What exactly happened at the 1980 General Conference session in Dallas to alter the structure of the North American Division or the way it had been operating prior to 1980?

A. That session voted to add a section to the bylaws allowing the North American representatives on a GC nominating committee to recommend those officers and departmental directors who will be assigned to North America. This was the first time such an action had been formally taken.

You see, the North American Division, unlike other divisions, has almost always been administered directly by the General Conference. In fact, for many years the two have been virtually indistinguishable. This has been true because the General Conference offices have been located in North America and because for most of our church's history the greater part of the membership has been resident in North America. Now the situation has changed; church demo graphics are almost reversed, and the majority of church members now live outside North America. Nearly a decade ago serious discussions began on how we would relate to the new situation. A Commission on Church Unity, established in 1976, resulted in resolutions and recommendations presented at the 1978 and 1979 Annual Councils. These all led to the action taken at Dallas in 1980.

Q. Maybe we should clarify just what a division is and how it differs from, say, a union or local conference.

A. There is a great difference. A division is the General Conference acting in a certain part of the world field, a "branch office" if you please. Thus its constituency, like that of the General Conference itself, is the entire world field. A division has no localized constituency as does a union or a local conference. The North American Division is the General Conference in North America.

Q. Have we ever had the North American Division separate from the General Conference?

A.. Yes, but it didn't last very long. In response to a request from the North American union presidents, the 1913 General Conference Session organized a fully autonomous, constituency-based division. Other such divisions were organized in other parts of the world. The General Conference Bulletin for May 27, 1913, gives some of the speeches made during the discussion. The delegates passed the action, but the experiment lasted only two or three years because of certain inherent problems in the organizations they set up.

Q. What problems specifically?

A.. Mainly that the divisions were now bodies based on constituencies. They had separate constitutions and bylaws from the General Conference. They were no longer a part—an extension of the General Conference—but independent bodies. Also they had their own elections. This was vastly different from the system returned to a few years later in which the General Conference embraces the world field and works through its divisions. The present system brings a real strength and unity. Among church groups, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has an unusual degree of unity, not only doctrinally but organizationally.

Q. How has the action taken in 1980 changed the way the North American Division operates?

A. Well, certain individuals in each department and area have been assigned specifically to North America. This has enabled us to focus more directly on the needs and opportunities of this field and to bring about a more cohesive attitude throughout the division.

Q. In your thinking, do you envision North America becoming similar in organi zation and operation to the other divisions, as the recent changes seem to be tending, or will the special relationship with the General Conference continue?

A.  It seems there will always be a unique relationship of some type between the General Conference and the North American Division. The very fact that the General Conference resides here in North America makes for such an arrangement. The North American group feels that it is under assignment. The General Conference describes our parameters and gives us our job description. As the parent group, it gives us direction in how we ought to go.

Q. I take it, then, that you don't feel that in its proposed relocation the General Conference should consider a site outside North America to give the church more of an international flavor. Some have suggested Switzerland.

A. No. It's our opinion that the Lord planted the headquarters of the church here in North America, and this is where it ought to be. Few other places in the world could provide the access to world transportation, the ready exchange of funds, and the religious freedom avail able here. There was a divine direction and purpose in all this.

Q. What about the physical proximity of the North American Division to the General Conference offices? When the General Conference plans the new offices, should it plan a wing for North America? Or would it be better if North America established offices in some more central location within the division?

A. We'll leave that up to the brethren, although both of us have lived in the Midwest!

We know that when people are together, physically, in a group, there is a chemistry that takes place. We notice that even when our staff meets together. But at present we don't even have a room to call ours. We're like the couple that is still living in a parent's house. We have to share the kitchen and all the rest.

But division status is not physical separation necessarily. It is not even organizational restructuring per se. Constitutional changes would be minimal. There doesn't need to be a great reordering of priorities. What is important are operational concerns. The North American Division should be given its terms of reference and then be given the latitude to focus on the problems, the challenges, and the felt needs of North America.

Q. How do you see that latitude taking place for North America? What are some concrete examples?

A.  The work in North America, in our judgment, needs a system of organization and terms of reference from the General Conference that will give it greater accountability for its own actions. More responsibility. Division leadership would be able to have and expect this accountability throughout the field if it had a more distinct role from that of the General Conference.

Some of this is already taking place. The officers of North America do meet on a regular basis and bring about strategies developed specifically for the division. The Caring Church strategy is an example. This strategy has been developed uniquely for North America with accountability built in. So we feel the General Conference has already given us many areas of latitude and function that we are to carry out in North America.

Q. One of the big fears in many minds is that if North America becomes too independent, there will be a serious impact on the financial base of the world field. How do you respond to this concern?

A. It's true that the North American Division is still the financial base for the church. We need to face that. But the superstructure is outgrowing the base! Wouldn't it be wise to strengthen the base in order to strengthen the entire organization? If the church has a strong base, it will be more able to reach out to other lands to support the work that is going forward in new areas. If the financial base is weakened, or if it remains static, the programs of the world are going to be hindered.

Those who may be concerned that North America is wanting to turn inward to the detriment of the rest of the church will be interested in our thinking as expressed in our Statement of Mission. It says in part, "Recognizing that the work of the church will not be finished until all peoples everywhere have been con fronted with the claims of the gospel, the division is committed to maintaining its historical status as the backbone of support for the world mission program of the church." North America doesn't want to renege in any way on its responsibilities to the rest of the church. It is an integral part of the world church. But we also need to reach the specific culture of our own assigned territory.

Q. Let me probe this a little more. You have just put yourselves on record as being very firmly in support of the entire world field. But what happens if someonecomes to North American leadership in the future who is committed to keeping more and more funds in that division and reducing the flow of support to other areas? What safeguards protect us against such a possibility? .

A. The financial plans for the support of the world work are developed at the Annual Council, made up of delegates from the entire world field. All the divisions are represented. Power in the church is rather evenly distributed. In an Annual Council, with North America and the other divisions sitting together in decision making and looking over the needs of the entire world, it seems unjustified to fear that the support from North America as a part of the church family will be diminished. Church policies and recommendations are not really what force any of us to support work outside our own area of responsibility. We all do so because God's people want to see His work finished. Not a dime we give belongs to any particular conference or union, really. It belongs to the world church. As long as we have a strong General Conference guiding and directing all of us, the necessary support will be forthcoming.

There's another thing, too. Matthew 24:14 is valid in North America just as it is everywhere else. "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come." The gospel can't center internally on one little segment. We don't like the expressions, "separate division" or "independent division," or anything that would give the idea of a spirit of pulling away. North America has a mission as does every division, and it is concerned to strengthen that mission. But not at the expense of any other part of the church.

Q. Since this division contains probably the most complex and sophisticated society of any division, what needs do you see in terms of staff?

A. None of us connected with North America are interested in building up a large, superstaff. The General Conference is still responsible for what business calls R&D, research and development. As a division of the General Conference, we should be operationally oriented. We don't need a large staff for research and development, for producing materials. We intend to depend largely on the General Conference for resource materials. But we would ask that the materials relate to the felt needs of North America. For example, we have asked the Sabbath School Department to prepare some program helps for us, using the concepts of the Caring Church strategy.

Q. Would these materials be usable only by North America, or could they be adapted by other divisions?

A. In some cases we might need materials that would be geared specifically for North America, its culture and needs. In other instances the materials might be usable on a much wider basis. As an example, the General Conference Youth Department has prepared a baptismal manual. It will be provided camera-ready for all divisions including North America. Our group is also preparing a baptismal manual that will be designed for a special use in our division. But we will be able to use both of these; they are not mutually exclusive. They both fill a particular need.

Q. What effect will the new situation with the North American Division have on the financial overhead of the church? With the present division staff being made up of individuals assigned from the General Conference departments, is the net effect simply a transfer of workers to different responsibilities, or will more workers actually be required?

A. Our plans for North America shouldn't require additional workers at the division level. For one thing, we are drawing on the abilities and skills of persons at the conference and union levels. You said a moment ago that North America was more sophisticated and complex than other parts of the world. I'm not sure that is necessarily true, but to the extent that North America has reached a maturity that some other areas have not yet reached, then North America needs less direct help, not more. That is why we are reaching out to the total resources of the church wherever they may be. We don't believe that all knowledge is resident at 6840 Eastern Avenue, NW., Washing ton, D.C. The Holy Spirit is free and open, and He is in the total church. One of our tasks here is to be talent scouts for the church. We should be observers of what is going on. We should encourage the field and serve as a clearing house for concepts. We are a service team to those in the field who are doing most of the actual work.

In keeping with this idea, we have already developed several specialty committees made up of people from the division, the conferences, and unions. These groups are actively carrying forward certain areas assigned to them. Four of these are currently handling much of the work in North America. This way we don't have to add to staff here. Our staff may serve as chairman of some of these committees, or as secretary, and that ties the group to us. An example is our Faith Action Advance Ministries Coordinating Committee. This group cares for the total Caring Church strategy. A local president, Malcolm Gordon, chairs that commit tee. The secretary is our North American ministerial director, W. C. Scales. Several conference presidents sit on this committee along with people from our staff. We think it's important for the field to have a significant role. The three other committees are the FAA Services Committee, which deals with the 300 telephone number at Andrews University and our efforts to streamline resources and outreach through computerization; the Ministerial Training Advisory Committee, which handles the equipping of the pastor in his work of ministry; and the FAA Curriculum Committee, which cares for developing materials and tying it all together.

Q.  Do you envision a separate annual council for North America, perhaps following the world Annual Council or combined with it?

A. The time has come, we believe, when we need to give a higher profile to North American items at a time when the North American people can focus on them and translate what the General Conference has done into North American terms. The time has come for the brethren to say to North America, "This is what the General Conference wants done in the field. You go and implement it."

All the top companies in North America have this philosophy of management. The central office doesn't become involved in operational matters. But it holds tenaciously to the main objectives and purposes of the company. It keeps before the entire organization the centralities that make it what it is. "The people in the field know more about running the field than we do," they say. "So let the people in the factories run the factory. We'll encourage them. But we'll hold them to the aims and objectives-of the company." That is what FAA is all about. FAA says, "We have a mission. We must perform it." And our first priority is that we must strengthen each other. We must make every person in the organization the very best servant he or she can be.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

April 1984

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