Polity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
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Power and decision making comes ultimately from church members in local congregations. Local churches select delegates to meetings of the local conference/mission. Meetings of local conferences/missions select delegates that govern Unions and Unions send delegates to General Conference meetings.
The organizational structure of the church consists of the following levels:
- The global church is governed by the "General Conference", which operates through 13 "Divisions" plus the attached MENA Union. Divisions do not have their own constituency, but are divisions of the General Conference. The Unions are the constituency of the General Conference.
- Each Division groups together "Union Conferences" and/or "Union Missions" (112 total). Union Conferences are self-supporting financially, while Union Missions are not.
- Each Union is composed of [local] "Conferences" and/or "Missions" (572 total). Local Conferences are self-supporting financially, while Local Missions are not. Certain Unions are composed of local congregations, without intervening local conferences/missions.
- Each local conference/mission is composed of local churches (congregations). Often a number of local congregations are grouped operatively as a district, led by one senior pastor. In the United States, these numbers tend to be smaller (2-4 churches per district, perhaps), while in most of the worldwide church, the numbers tend to be larger (5+ per district and per pastor, sometimes as many as 15 or more).
Each level of organization holds a "general session" at certain intervals, when elected representatives gather to vote on general decisions and church business. The president of the General Conference, for instance, is elected at the General Conference Session every five years.
Every inhabited location on earth is within the designated territory of a Union, even if there are no members in that territory. Unions and local Conferences/Missions are created, and occasionally consolidated, based on membership trends and other factors.
At the local churches, decisions are made by elected committees through vote of members. The day-to-day running of churches is governed by a church board formed by members of that church, together with the pastor of that congregation.
In contrast to congregational polity, the conference corporation owns church property, employs and pays ministers, and receives tithes from members. In contrast to episcopal polity, the ministers or pastors are a single level of ordained clergy and there are no bishops; elders and deacons are lay ministries. Moreover, it incorporates a hierarchical polity.
A 2002 survey of Adventists worldwide showed three quarters "affirm the structure, polity, and financial policies of the church."
Global church offices
The Seventh-day Adventist global church is headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland adjacent to Washington, DC. General Conference Division offices are located in various locations worldwide, usually within the territory served. The Inter-American Division is an exception which for logistical convenience is based in Miami, Florida, to serve territory from Mexico through the Northern portion of South America.
General Conference senior leadership
A President, General Conference Secretary, General Conference Treasurer, Division Presidents and other officers are elected at the General Conference Session every 5 years. The GC President presides over the Executive Committee.
Union and Conference leadership
Each organizational unit elects a President, Secretary (sometimes styled VP Administration), Treasurer and other officers.
Local church offices
Various church offices are elected by the church body as specified by the Church Manual. Positions must be filled by baptised members who attend regularly. Local church office terms run either 12 or 24 months. Offices are never elected permanently, although persons may be reelected indefinitely.
The most prominent church office is that of the pastor or minister. Adventists believe that pastors are divinely called to ministry and they are ordained by the church for their ministry. The position of church pastor is not elected by the local church, but rather appointed by a local conference. When the minister transfers to the local church for pastoralship he also transfers his membership to that local congregation. Adventist believe in clerical marriage and not a celibate priesthood. The pastor works with the head elder of the church and is responsible for guiding the church's spiritual direction, chairing the church board and leading out in services.
Working with the pastor in the local church is the elder who is elected by the local church and ordained by the local pastor. The elder is seen as a religious leader in the local church and is able to conduct ordinances. The elder, or elders in most cases (who are led by a "head elder"), is largely responsible for the running of the church and the distribution of responsibility in the church. In the Adventist Church "elder" is not a title. It's a function. The term "pastor" is a function and often used as a title. The "local elder's position authority is limited to the local church she/he is serving. The "pastor's" authority is universal. The local elder gets her/his authority from the pastor she/he is serving under or otherwise from the field administration. The pastor's authority is inherent in the pastor's position.
The deacon, like the elder, is an elected and ordained role. The deacon's primary roles are the assistance in running of services, the visitation of members, the care of the sick, and the maintenance of church property.
The deaconess holds a similar position to a deacon. Earlier no provision was given for their induction, but the 2010 General Conference Session held in Atlanta, United States, decided for the ordination of deaconesses as is the case of deacons, a polity change. The duties of a deaconess are very similar to the deacon, with particular emphasis placed on assistance in running certain services, and care of the sick and others in need.
The clerk is an elected position, and is responsible for the keeping of church records. The clerk facilitates the addition and removal of members from church records at the request of the church and helps with the generation of church reports to be presented to the conference.
The treasurer is an elected position responsible for the keeping of church funds. The treasurer is responsible for keeping accounts and the safeguarding of the money.
Criticism and affirmation
An estimated 75% of Adventists support items relating to the "cohesiveness of organization" of the church, according to a 2002 worldwide survey of local church leaders. This statistic is composed of the following four individual items:
- Question "39. Members have a responsibility to give 10% tithe to the local conference and additional offerings as able" – an estimated 81% agree
- "40. The Adventist church financial structure is a fair and proper way to support the world work of the church" – 79%
- "41. The Adventist world church organization was inspired by God" – 87%
- "43. Different world divisions should be allowed to have different church standards in order to meet differing needs" – 50%
William G. Johnsson forecasted a decreased role of structures and formal leaders in favor of initiatives by ordinary church members. He also argued that maintaining certain church institutions (like schools, hospitals, publishing houses, and health food factories) may in some cases not be worth the resources spent.
- General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
- Seventh-day Adventist Church
- History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
- "General Conference - Adventist Online Yearbook". www.adventistyearbook.org. Retrieved 2018-04-22.
- Pg 384 http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB2000.pdf
- "Three Strategic Issues: A World Survey", p7,8. Presented to the General Conference Annual Council on 7 October 2002. Accessed 2008-04-24
- Church Manual 2010 (PDF).
- Proposals for Structural Change by Harold Lee
- "The Case for an Independent North American Division" by Raymond Cottrell. Spectrum. Old url:
- "Three Strategic Issues: A World Survey". General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2002. See pages 20 and 29 especially
- William G. Johnsson, "Four Big Questions Archived 2011-10-17 at the Wayback Machine". Adventist Review 183 (May 25, 2006), p8–13
- Organizing to beat the devil: The development of Adventist church structure by George Knight
- SDA Organizational Structure: Past, Present, and Future by Barry D. Oliver. Andrews University Press (publisher's page)
- Adventist Yearbook The Official Organizational Directory
- "Seventh-day Adventist Polity: Its Historical Development" by Andrew G. Mustard, from the Biblical Research Institute website
- "Organizational Restructuring" blog by Jeff Crocombe, October 31, 2006
- Spectrum issue 8:4 (August 1977) articles on publishing houses and a proposal for church tribunals
- Articles about Church polity, Administration, and Organization (more pertinent to personal organization) as cataloged in the Seventh-day Adventist Periodical Index (SDAPI)
- Paper on the GC and it's Divisions