Historically the secretary of the General Conference has not only kept statistics for the church but has also coordinated the mission outreach of the church. The editors of Ministry interviewed the secretary, associate secretaries, and assistant secretary—because these individuals are able to reflect on the state of the church worldwide. (One of the associate secretaries, Claude Sabot, was not able to be present for the interview.)
Nikolaus Satelmajer: On May 20, 1863, Uriah Smith was elected as the first secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Pastor Bediako, since you are the current secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, I’ll pose the first question to you. How do you think Uriah Smith would have described the Seventh-day Adventist Church then, and how do you describe it today?
Matthew Bediako: In 1863 the church was a North American church with about 3,500 members. At that time, the church had not even decided to take this gospel to other parts of the world. Today we have a church of more than 14 million baptized Seventh-day Adventists in 206 countries. Printing and preaching is in several thousand languages and dialects.
NS: What are some things similar between the church then and the church today?
MB: We haven’t changed the message; it’s still the same. The blessed hope, the soon coming of Jesus Christ is still what we talk about, what we pray about, what we sing about.
Willie Hucks: Please describe the primary functions of the General Conference Secretariat.1
MB: The secretary and his team are officers of the General Conference, and as the working policy states, the secretariat works with the other officers to guide the church. We are charged with preparing agendas for executive committee meetings, keeping minutes, keeping records, and also recruiting missionaries.
NS: What are some of your specific responsibilities, Pastor Evans?
Larry Evans: I assist the secretary, as directed, with his overall responsibilities. The undersecretary deals largely with administrative and personnel matters. He serves as a liaison to one of the world divisions. He also prepares agendas for executive and administrative committees as well as the policy review and development committee. A new policy book is produced each year and is now nearly nine hundred pages including the index. The working policy is much more comprehensive, by necessity, than when the first one was printed in 1926, which had sixty-four pages.
NS: How does policy aid in the mission of the church?
LE: One of the chief values of policy is that it assists with keeping the church unified through its emphasis on equity and fairness. Policy also helps incorporate key governing principles learned from the past. Policy is dynamic rather than static. But it serves an even greater purpose, at least from my perspective, in that it helps facilitate mission. If it does its purpose well, it will help minimize administrative tangents so that the real work of the church can be done.
NS: Larry Evans mentioned being a liaison with various divisions to the world. What does that mean for each you?
MB: Rosa Banks can start. She is the liaison officer for the West Central Africa and the East-Central Africa divisions.
Rosa Banks: It means being able to answer policy questions, train secretaries, help them with their agendas, and just about anything that deals with secretarial duties. We provide guidance and assistance wherever requested.
Agustin Galicia: The secretariat also relates to administrative issues concerning mission. When divisions have questions, or they want us to help them with the mission, they come to us and then we go either to Pastor Bediako, to the presidential office, or to the treasury office.
Vernon Parmenter: And we also recruit interdivision employees (missionaries) and volunteers for various parts of the world.
GT Ng: We do a lot of mechanical stuff, so our job sometimes appears to be a little mundane because we do the same thing over and over again. So, I’d like to look at secretariat from a bird’s-eye view. We are actually an integral part of fulfilling the mission of the church. There is the recruiting, the training, the sending, and the caring of missionaries around the world. That’s our job primarily, in a nutshell, because we have around a thousand missionaries in the field and all have been processed through this office.
LE: Also, we are involved with training union secretaries and division secretaries. We’re also very much involved, at least once every five years, in the assessment process of how the work is doing at the division level. The central role is to keep the mission going forward, to make sure we’re not bogged down in the mechanics of things. If we ever get so encumbered with policies to the point where they’re holding us back, then secretariat needs to take a look at that so we can streamline policies and procedures, making sure that mission goes forward.
MB: Let me add that secretariat is there to support the leadership of the division and the union. We are not there to take over but to support and to work with them, counsel with them to make their work a little bit easier. The secretariat is the face of the General Conference to the divisions and the unions.
NS: From all of your perspectives, what are some of the challenges—politically, economically—that we face as a church? What are the things you want the readers of Ministry to know?
RB: Recently I was in The Gambia, where we were interacting with government officials in regard to the church helping with various projects connected with their hospital—that’s a part of mission work.
AG: Inter-America is launching a division-wide program in order to reach the three million membership mark in May.
GN: We have a lot of good happenings in South Africa, but our readers should be mindful of the challenges of ministering to people of other religious groups. We have not found an active way of presenting the gospel to many of these people, so most of the people who have been baptized have been from other Christian denominations.
VP: My area is a little different from the rest because I oversee the volunteer program. That means for the whole world church, not any one division. I often tell people when I move around that I have the most exciting job in the office, because I get to see our church members involved in ministry around the world. There’s something about seeing these people, often not trained for the ministry, being used by God in a tremendous way.
NS: How many volunteers do you have out at any one time?
VP: That’s difficult to ascertain. It depends on what your question really is. Are you asking me how many interdivision volunteers, or are we talking about intradivision volunteers?
NS: I guess interdivision, people who actually leave their homeland and go somewhere else.
VP: Interdivision is around eighteen hundred. Intradivision, the numbers are so large it is hard to determine the number.
NS: Dian Lawrence—you take care of service records, I understand.
Dian Lawrence: Yes—missionary records—or interdivision employees.2
NS: It’s a very exacting job, I’m sure.
DL: Yes, it is. I also provide yearly statistical reports on different aspects of interdivision service, such as how many interdivision employees have permanently returned, and how many have been sent out each year. We also keep record of deferred3 mission appointees, which are usually dentists and physicians.
NS: Now, there must be times when you keep somebody’s record, you have no idea who they are, and then you meet them.
DL: Well, that’s really special. When I attended my first Welcome Home Seminar at Andrews University, it was thrilling to hear their experiences that they had in the fi eld. I see their names all the time, in minutes, in Appointees Committee; but to be able to put a face with a name is special.
MB: The Institute of World Missions, based at Andrews University, is a part of secretariat. It is our hope to also train the intradivision personnel within the divisions. We are now getting ready to begin training personnel who receive missionaries.
RB: The secretariat now has what we call a missionary care program, where we pray for these missionaries during their birthday months, write letters to them on their birthdays, and send special “Thank-you” cards and gifts during the Christmas season. These are some of the ways that we thank them for their service. I am always joyful when I get letters from them, thanking us for remembering them. The letters we write have all of our names on them, so when they write back, as they often do, they get to thank each associate secretary personally.
WH: Let’s change the topic. What is the “glue,” be it theological, operational, and so forth, that holds the Seventh-day Adventist Church together?
LE: It seems to me that the glue, at least from my perspective, is a sense of mission. Mission involves theology, it involves nurture and compassion, it involves finances, it involves all of those things. But the central point, it seems to me, is our passion for mission. And I think all of my associates reveal that passion as they work and inspire the missionaries that we send out. We must send them out with a sense of enthusiasm, with expectancy, with confidence that they will be cared for when they get there.
VP: When we look at our mandate in secretariat, I think we see that one of our major roles is to foster mission. Just recently we had a whole weekend retreat dedicated to the issue of how can we do mission better in the 10/40 Window.4 Yes, the secretariat exists in order to provide possibilities for mission service.
MB: What we need to remember is that secretariat doesn’t do things on its own. We are working together with others at the General Conference. We are all working together as a team to foster this mission that the Lord has given to us.
RB: I think it’s our love for Jesus too, and willingness to do the work that He left us to do. When I think of the “glue,” I think of Jesus as being the One who holds us together.
LE: It’s amazing how well organized and unified the church is. The human element is there, but the amazing thing is to see this huge structure work together. And there’s no secret that what we do is being blessed by God.
NS: The period between the nineteenth and twentieth century, at least from what I can tell in our history, was a period of explosion, with us sending people overseas, usually from North America and from Europe. I get the impression there were times that there were more missionaries than there were members in some countries for years.
MB: Yes, there were the years that we had only missionaries from the Western world. But we have been successful in training nationals to replace these missionaries in their own areas, so that these missionaries could move on to places where the church is not known or the church is not established. And thank God we have established many colleges and seminaries throughout the world, where nationals are now well prepared to do the work that missionaries had to do. And it’s interesting that people from those countries that once received missionaries are now sending out missionaries. That’s a successful program.
NS: That is a radical shift then, from the time when one part of the world would send to other parts. Now it’s really interconnected.
AG: We want not just to be recipients of the gospel, but to share the gospel in many parts of the world.
NS: What kind of individuals are you sending? What are some of the professions? They’re not all ministers, are they?
DL: Medical, for instance.
MB: The need is for medical professionals, or for professors in universities. When it comes to ministers, we prepare the nationals to do it. We send missionaries to these universities and seminaries so that they will multiply their talents by training more nationals who labor at the front line for their own people.
NS: Is that also true with the volunteers?
VP: It could be copied in many respects, but I think you’d see on our list quite a number of additional vocations. The list is quite exhaustive, and whatever the need is, we try to find the right kind of person.
GN: One of the major challenges in the twenty-first century is doing cross-cultural mission. Usually you go to a culture that is not yours, and therefore, there are a lot of things to learn. Thus I see Mission Institute taking on greater significance because of the world becoming a global village. We need additional training of these missionaries before they go out.
MB: We need to emphasize that, contrary to rumors, the General Conference is not withdrawing missionary budgets. What we want to do is to redistribute the budget. Some countries have received missionaries for the past fifty to sixty years. We feel that the time has come for us to transfer those budgets to the 10/40 Window, areas where the church is not known. Thus, we are not reducing missionaries. We are redistributing them.
NS: Where does the money come from for all of these appointments?
MB: The funding is provided by the church, through tithes, offerings, and mission offerings.
NS: So the Sabbath School offering supports the work of the missionaries.5
MB: Yes, and I can tell you right now that doors are opening in places that were once closed to us, and when that happens, we need the funds available to send people there.
NS: So are you suggesting another Pitcairn6 type of growth and interest in mission offerings?
MB: Well, we need to promote the total offering so that we can increase the number of missionaries.
VP: And we’ve opened the door with the new His Hands7 program we launched last year. We have tremendous need for workers in places like Africa and India and so on. But they just don’t have the funding, not even sometimes to provide accommodation for a volunteer. Because of that need, the Lord showed us a way, I believe, to encourage churches and institutions to catch the vision of the need and raise the money to send volunteers to serve in those particular areas. This is really quite a new direction, even though Ellen White years ago encouraged churches to unite together to send missionaries to foreign lands. But as a church we need to balance regular giving with special giving.
LE: We have a desperate need for more missionaries who know the language of unreached people groups. We need to have people learning the languages of the places where we do not have work.
AG: I was in a meeting last Sabbath, and one person was trying to raise money because they said that they have ten couples with Arabic background ready to go, but they don’t have the funds.
WH: What are some statistical trends that encourage you and some that concern you?
MB: Right now, accession for the past three or four years has been about one million people coming every year to our church. But when you look at the retention, we have many challenges. We are losing about one-third of those that come into the church. That’s a great concern. We need to be able to close the back door, so that people who come in will stay. How can we nurture everyone so that we can keep the retention very high? Right now, that’s our major concern when we deal with statistics.
LE: On the other side of the equation, the growth side, we’re baptizing someone on the average of every thirty seconds. That means about almost three thousand a day. An organized church is formed every four and a half hours. Now, that not only creates financial problems and the need for more church buildings, but it also means that we need to provide the infrastructure to support these new members. Literature is a big need in some of these places. How to help people become stabilized in their new faith is one of our great challenges. So, the strengths overextended become a weakness. We’ve got to find a way of meeting these challenges.
MB: Church unity is very high on the agenda of the church. Secretariat is charged with the responsibility of the preparation of the Church Manual. The manual guides leadership for the running of local churches worldwide and is updated every fi ve years and approved at General Conference sessions.
NS: We send out missionaries from all divisions; but don’t all divisions receive missionaries also?
MB: Yes, right now, our slogan is “From everywhere to everywhere.” Even North America, the birthplace of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, receives missionaries. And this is a good thing. It keeps reminding us that we are a world church, and I’m one of those who believes that even if a division has all the personnel, we still need to have somebody from another division working in that division to remind us of just how worldwide we are.
VP: We also have some other areas of concern. Things like the percentage of our church members engaged in regular Bible study, those members who are not involved in the community at all, those who don’t have regular worship and prayer. And as we look at the future, the church has taken these concerns seriously and is looking at ways to encourage our members in these areas.
NS: Here’s my last question: I’ll start with you, Pastor Bediako, and all of you who wish to respond can respond. How has your job impacted your life?
MB: Being the secretary of the General Conference has enriched my life because now I look at the church on a worldwide basis. It has helped me to know the power behind the gospel, how the gospel has entered places that once seemed inaccessible. And that brings joy to my heart. And when I meet people who are happy to volunteer their time, their lives, and their resources for this work, that’s really encouraging.
GN: I would like to say that I like the feeling of belonging to a worldwide family.
RB: I like the fact that all of us work together to reach people without distinctions of color, gender, physical status, and so forth. All of this diversity that surrounds us is joy for me.
VP: I came from one of the smallest divisions, the South Pacific Division. It’s a division that is somewhat isolated from the world. And I guess working there for thirty years or so before coming here, I now have a perception of what the world church is, and what it stands for and how it operates. I discovered, coming here, that my tiny little world was so unrealistic. When confined to a small area, you say, “OK, that’s the task that’s been given, it’s in this area, and we have to do this and this to finish the work.” But when you look at the world on a world scale, it opens your eyes tremendously. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, as I think about the difficult places we have yet to make an impact on, like the 10/40 Window, I can’t for the life of me see how we ever will achieve it. I think that the Lord will cut the work short in righteousness and some miracle’s going to happen. And, for me, that’s an exciting prospect.
LE: I think probably the thing that has impressed me is that, no matter how big the world is, the gospel comes to people one at a time. Yes, there are group influences and all that, but the good news still has to reach each person individually. I haven’t found one person in any part of the world who doesn’t need hope, a message of hope. We happen to have a message that the world needs, and I am so fortunate to be one of the ambassadors.
GN: May I say something to the readers of Ministry?
GN: Most of your readers are pastors, some elders. Many face budget questions. Sometimes it’s difficult to think of the mission in New Guinea when you are trying to see how you can survive for the month. And yet, we have to ask ourselves, how is this church fulfilling its mission, besides doing evangelism on the local level? How can I enhance the mission of the overall church? It’s natural for us to tend to give more to local church budget than to mission. Yet Ellen White calls it collective selfishness. So our appeal is to our readers, besides caring for the local budget, don’t forget mission offering, because by emphasizing mission and mission offering, we can help make sure that the mission of the local church will flourish.
MB: Let me end with this. We thank God for the growth that has taken place the last ten to fifteen years. We have entered many territories for the Lord, but we need to remind ourselves that the gospel commission is to every tribe, kindred, and people. What is twenty million compared to seven billion? This commission is for all of us, and to those of us who have experienced the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, there’s a responsibility that together we carry this message to those who do not yet know Jesus.
1 The Web site for the General Conference Secretariat is www.gcsecretariat.org.
2 Individuals who leave their home division (South Pacific, for example) and serve in another division (Southern-Asia Pacific, for example).
3 Individuals who make a commitment during their training that they will accept missionary appointments once their training is completed.
4 The imaginary rectangle called the 10/40 Window is located between 10 degrees north and 40 degrees north of the equator, and stretches from West Africa, through the Middle East and into Asia. Two-thirds of the world’s population live here and they’re the world’s poorest people, the vast majority of whom have never even heard the name of Jesus.
5 For additional information about such offerings, visit www.adventistmission.org/article.php?id=282.
6 In 1876 Pitcairn islanders read with interest the contents of a box of Seventh-day Adventist literature sent from the United States. A decade later, on October 18, 1886, Mr. John Tay, a missionary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, arrived at the island and, by unanimous vote, was allowed to stay and argue his cause. The islanders decided to make Saturday the day of rest. Conversion was greeted by the Seventh-day Adventists in America, and they raised funds for a missionary ship, which sailed for Pitcairn in 1890. The islanders were baptized in one of the rock-bound coastal pools. Information from library.puc.edu/pitcairn/pitcairn/history.shtml.
7 The His Hands program is a new initiative of the General Conference Secretariat and the Adventist Volunteer Center, which challenges every church in the world to sponsor and support a volunteer missionary and for every church to host a sponsored volunteer missionary. Institutions and individual church members can also participate in the program. The purpose of the program is to engage church members in the mission of the church on a full-time basis for a period of one or two years.