Thursday at Session
‘Be Thou My Vision, O Lord of my heart’ – the opening prayerful 8th century words of the English hymn with an Irish tune, set the tone of the Ninth Quinquennial Session of the British Union Conference (BUC). A session which takes place during incredibly challenging times, postponed and relocated once due to the Covid-19 pandemic, still very much with us.
197 delegates gathered from North and South England, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, to both look back and look forward regarding the progress of the Church’s mission in these isles. Chaplain to the session was Trans-European Education Director, Dr Daniel Duda who in his opening presentation invited us to ponder over a question before business got underway: “What would God want to say to us?”
“Once upon a time, in the history of God’s people” explained Dr Duda, “There has been a period of about four hundred years that God has been silent.” The people were waiting for God to speak. Had God forgotten them? Turning to Matthew 3:1-2 Dr Duda demonstrated the suddenness of God’s intervention: 'In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judaea proclaiming, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.' “Finally, a word from the Lord, with an invitation, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
And what is this Kingdom of God come near all about? “This is the Good News of God, available, to all people – free, a gift of grace, and accessible to whoever you are.” As ever, Dr Duda’s gentle conversational tone allowed his words to have impact through an immediate invitation to respond. “If you want to enter into kingdom living – to live under God’s reign… to be grace-filled beacons of God’s kingdom, the only option is to repent.” “Who needs to repent?” ended Dr Duda with the rhetorical question. We can only answer, “I do”.
It is always a poignant opening moment of a British Union Session when delegates remember ministers, Bible workers, teachers, and our publishing house workers who went to their rest over the past quinquennium. Did the roll call seem longer than usual at this session? Friends and colleagues suddenly taken, others after a long and projected illness, a few possibly due to Covid-19.
The first significant business item of the day was to consider the matter of department budgets for 2021-2026. At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis when BUC tithe income was down 35%, a decision was taken at the December 2020 BUC Executive Committee to recommend to this session the budgets be reduced from 8 to 5, but with a view that this was not fixed. As the financial situation looked more promising, by February 2021 the BUC Executive Committee voted to increase from 5-6. As if climbing an upwards ladder, the BUC Executive Committee took a further step at its September 2021 meeting to increase funding to support 7 department budgets.
In the meantime, the Nominating Committee during the spring of 2021 worked towards reconfiguring department roles based on the financial provision of five directors. Whatever extra resources were available for the sixth and 7th director, the outgoing Executive Committee voted that the “incoming Executive Committee make final allocation of these budgets in consultation with ‘its constituent fields’”.“We don’t like this idea” voted the delegates by a narrow majority on an amendment from the floor, “all positions should be sorted and voted here at session.” The Church “has been in limbo for long enough” said Mfakazi Ndebele. Not only that proposed Anthony Opoku-Mensah, “I want to recommend that we amend the motion to revert back to the 8.” The delegates agreed.
“Can we afford 8 directors?” asked Shelly Prince. In reply, the outgoing treasurer, Earl Ramharacksingh answered, “I believe we can.”
Given this new direction, the chair of the Nominating Committee, Pastor Raafat Kamal, made a point of clarification; “It is important to recognise that we are operating in a fluid time. The outgoing Executive Committee were preparing for a time in the future. You are now asking us to go back to the drawing board. Configuration needs strategic thinking, which falls outside the remit of the Nominating Committee.”
After further discussion on the matter, a general consensus grew that the Nominating Committee work towards keeping the existing configuration.
The President’s Report – Pastor Ian Sweeney
In a change from tradition, Pastor Sweeney felt it important to provide an overview of the purpose of the British Union, particularly as in his encounter with members, many continue to ask the question, “What is it for?”
“We are here for a purpose that is driven by Mission, the lens through everything we do as a Church, defining who we are.” And pointing to a picture projected on to the auditorium screen of a crowded London Underground station, full of people trying to enter the carriage of a train Pastor Sweeney asked, “Is it not our job to reach these people?”
Reviewing the history of the British Union Conference, it was noted that formed in 1902, by 1903 there were two Conferences and 3 Missions with a total of 1160 members returning a collective tithe of £3,080 (equivalent of £384,000 today).
As he homed in on his key point about the purpose of Unions, it became clear that contextualised mission was at the heart of the matter. “Unions were formed so that the Seventh-day Adventist Church might most effectively minister to the needs of varying cultures around the world. It was always about mission and understanding our role. Does Silver Spring understand how to effectively mission my town? We adapt, we apply and make Christ known in the best way possible in our territory.”
“It’s about making disciples where we are”, concluded Pastor Sweeney. “We share the Three Angels’ Message in preparation for His soon return, and our purpose is to keep focussed on mission.”
In a further break from tradition in the presentation of the President’s Report, Pastor Sweeney made time available to answer questions which were many and varied.
Lawson Riviere asked about the how the BUC adjusted its strategy during Covid-19 to meet the needs of the local congregation. In reply, Pastor Sweeney noted three realities:
1. We were fearful of collapse and wondered if the Union would survive.
2. We worked to ensure that our actions in consultation with the Conference and Missions would help build back our members into community.
3. In the early days of Covid the needs for pastors was great. We couldn’t visit, but we needed to make community.
Pastor Kwadwo Kwarteng-Ampofo questioned why are we still where we are with only 2 Conferences and three Missions, the same as in 1902? To this question, Pastor Sweeney replied that there is a plan for the Irish Mission to become a Conference, to which Pastor Jude Jeanville wondered in similar question why London shouldn’t also become a Conference.
Adam Greaves in his question noted that he hadn’t seen any growth to the general population. “I can only agree with you”, answered Pastor Sweeney. “This is not a new problem, but it is a struggle God has given us. We have made some inroads, but there is more to do. Our membership has not grown as I believe it should have, and that is why I want us to be aware of our missional needs wherever we are. BUC is a world field in the British Isles. There is so much work that is untapped. We have congregations disconnected from our communities. We’re not impacting with the majority population. This is not a new problem.”
The Executive Secretary’s Report – Pastor John Surridge
“Statistical tables and charts” reports Pastor Surridge in the Session report book, “can easily be dismissed as just a sea of numbers, but it is important to remind ourselves that every number represents a person – a mother or father, husband or wife, brother or sister – each one a valuable member of the community of the Church. An increase of just one should be an occasion for great rejoicing (Luke 15:6, 7), and the loss of just one should cause us to examine carefully why the loss occurred, and whether anything can be done to prevent such losses in the future.”
From the Session report book the following statistics are noted:
- Over the quinquennium, net membership of the British Union Conference increased from 36,142 at the beginning of 2016, to 39,970 at the end of 2020, an increase of 3,828, or 10.59%. It would have undoubtedly been higher had Covid-19 not prevented many baptisms from taking place in 2020. This compares to a 14.15% increase in the previous quinquennium.
- The number of churches has increased in line with membership by 19, from 278 at the end of the last quinquennium to 297 at the end of this. Companies, however, have seen a much more dramatic increase, from 41 to 111 in the same time period. This may be a reflection of the regularisation of many informal ‘groups’, which are now officially recorded as companies.
- The charts as presented (in the Session report book) show how these statistics are distributed across the Conferences and Missions of the British Union Conference, but special mention should be made of the Irish Mission, which had a remarkable membership increase of 28.06% over the quinquennium.
Pastor Surridge deliberately kept his presentation brief to allow for questions, but in a brief video report he used the illustration of the London Millennium bridge, built with a design flaw – and certainly not meant to swing from side to side. But that’s exactly what happened when London pedestrians crossed the bridge. There was movement – the bridge swayed. The pedestrians were worried. Metaphorically the Church should worry not! Because as we ‘walk together’ and ‘work together’, yes – even on policies and procedures, something dynamic begins to happen to God’s church – the denomination returns to being a movement again and the work of God is amplified.
In the question-and-answer time, Pastor Sam Ngui wanted to know how ‘migration’ is affecting BUC church membership?
Pastor Surridge responded by recognising that the membership database helps us analyse as far as possible such trends. However, it is not an exact science, but we continue to have ‘plenty of anecdotal information’.
Pastor Steve Roberts wanted to know what strategy is in place to grow the Church from the Union, in order to filter down to the Conference to motivate the pastoral team and members to grow the Church in the BUC. “I’m a pastor and I’m part of the BUC and I feel we need to get something from the top. We need to see something coming down. We need to think global and act local.”
Pastor Surridge recognised Pastor Roberts’ appeal by noting that in line with the current renewed emphasis on the world Church’s focus on the Three Angels’ messages, the BUC leadership team is giving consideration to how they positively and vibrantly share this message in the UK and Irish context.
Pastor James Shepley noted the optimistic statistics in the report, but wondered if they really reflected what might be taking place at ground level, citing a wider UK statistic he’d recently discovered that “more than a half of 18-30 year-olds are praying for the first time more than once a month.”
A question from the floor was raised concerning a continuing Human Relations matter within the BUC (also raised during a question to the BUC president). Pastor Jacques Venter (Associate Executive Secretary) responding on behalf of the administration “recognised areas within our own policies that need strengthening.” Continuing he said, “Our current action for dealing with employment grievances, is to refer the matter to an independent panel to investigate. As part of their response, they bring forward recommendations to put new and better procedures in place for the future. At this point in time these are actively under consideration.”
Pastor Clifford Herman wanted to know if BUC Secretariat had a strategy for encouraging church buildings to be insulated and become more environmentally friendly in the context of the climate emergency. In reply Pastor Surridge recognised the call, but admitted that gaining consensus on this matter with such a divergence of views among our members on this will be difficult.
“My appeal to you”, concluded Pastor Surridge is to “Walk with us, work with us, and let’s see if we can make some real changes in this world.”
Treasurer’s Report – Earl Ramharacksingh
As the Treasurer Earl Ramharacksingh began his report, he shared that it would be easy to “headline his report by saying that during the last quinquennium we made appropriations of nearly £10 million.” But what I want to focus on for our time together is the strategy and back story of how the Union worked to ensure continued financial viability for the Church in the UK and Ireland. (For the purpose of Earl’s report, this part continues as close as verbatim as possible.)
1 HM Customs & Excise.
During the last five years, HM Customs and Excise notified us of a ‘pre-2016 tax liability’. Their direct question to the organisation was, “Did we wilfully avoid tax?” To this enquiry we responded positively explaining the role and function in particular of the pastor, which resulted in saving tens of thousands of pounds each year in ministers’ tax liabilities.
2 Stanborough School.
This report could have easily read. “We tried, we failed and the school was closed.”
But it has always been my intent to help turn around the financial challenges the school faced. In autumn 2019 a forensic audit of the school’s operations was done, and we intentionally “drilled down” into the finances of the school so to speak, identifying those loss-making cost centres. This involved redundancies and finding other cost savings from mainly auxiliary services. In all we identified £750,000 of cost savings at the school. I believe there still needs to be continued support from the BUC, not least to ensure that Adventist secondary education in this Union continues.
During the early stages of the pandemic, tithe return had fallen by 35% in the context of net cash outflows from the BUC at about £100,000 per month. Prompt and urgent action was required to ensure the very viability of the BUC.
What did we do?
- Dialogue with all treasurers in British Isles.
- Ensured cash was available for all entities to ensure core costs of salaries, and that direct community evangelism costs could be met.
- In our schools there was much anxiety. We ensured that they received the right guidance as they navigated their way through uncharted paths.
- In a great spirit of collaboration during the pandemic, we received extraordinary support from the Trans-European Division, the Job Retention Scheme, the Seventh-day Adventist Pension Fund and a legacy totalling £1.2 million
- 4. Extra-ordinary Income from sale of land.
One mile east of the BUC office in Garston, our charity owns a piece of land which has recently become ripe for development, due to a relaxation of planning laws by the District Council. If developed, this could accrue for the BUC a possible one-off extra-ordinary receipt of up to £20 million. We have been working with the respective authorities, architects and developers to ensure the best possible outcome for the Church.
5. Motivation, mentoring & training.
If there is one aspect of this work I have most enjoyed, it is being with our local church treasurers. I continue to be impressed both with their dedication and skill. It is they who make our work so worthwhile. We have been able to meet (pre-Covid) on a number of occasions, and I have sought to stay connected during the pandemic.
6. God’s Calling.
It would be easy for the work of a treasurer to be absorbed by numbers on an accounts sheet. But in my ministry, I have sought to emphasise that God has given us talents and skill sets. As part of the Union leadership team, it has been important to ask the spiritual questions we all need to consider. What are you doing for the Lord? How can you make a difference? How can you be a witness in your world? Because God has given us a skill set, we are all servant leaders for Him. I also want to remind us that the most important stakeholders in our church are youth.
Pastor Kirk Thomas thanked and commended Earl for “always being evangelistically minded, and open to new ideas and innovations.” As did Pastor Steve Roberts who also thanked Earl not only for his ministry over the last five years, but over the last 30 while serving the South England Conference. He then continued with a question:
“My two children are all beneficiaries of the Adventist school system. What is the future of Stanborough Schools? What can be done to make the Adventist school system in the UK viable? It is mission!”
Earl Ramharacksingh replied that he is “passionate about Adventist education”, and I admit that “it has been a hard journey. But as a maths graduate, I am naturally a problem solver. Our first action was to identify the loss-making elements of the school.” But responding wider to the question, he responded by seeking a “renewed passion for Adventist education – and that has to start with Adventist families. Somehow we need to get through to our members that Adventist education is important.”
In a related comment from the floor, Pastor Steve Palmer suggested that the BUC take the money out of public evangelism and put it into our schools.
Noting that Earl recognises youth as essential stakeholders in the church, a delegate asked the question, “What plans do we have in the BUC to support our mission efforts with a tithe & offering app so youngsters can conveniently return their tithe?” Such a question was a good opportunity for Earl to share that the Irish Mission is currently running an app to this end, which if successful will be extended and adapted for use throughout the Union.
Elizabeth Benton asked about the £20 million extra-ordinary receipt. What could it be used for? To prop up the pension deficit? Earl in reply shared that there are a few more hurdles to cross before we are in receipt of this income. However, it is a reality that the Pension Fund trustees will need to be consulted on the matter.
Earl ended concluding his report with an appeal: “Whoever you are, you can share your faith with somebody.”
Over the quinquennium we have lost 1,092 of our members through death (2.73% of our total current membership), with the highest number of these deaths being recorded in 2020 – possibly a reflection of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the previous quinquennium we lost 833 members through death (2.3% of our membership). The increase during this quinquennium may be a reflection of the high number of older people we have in our churches. Of those who have died during the quinquennium we pay particular tribute to our denominational workers and their spouses. As we think of those who have died, let us remember the One who came to give eternal life to all who believe in His name. Let us also remember the reason for our existence as a church: to bring the good news of salvation and eternal life to a world of dying people.
Please check here again for further reports on the BUC session including departmental reports, constitutional changes, more pictures and proposed plans for the future.
Friday at BUC Session – 22 October, 2021
A Prayer, an Appeal, and Constitutional Change.
Using the illustration of Moses' experience at the burning bush, Session chaplain, Dr Duda concentrated his theme on the 'transforming power of holy curiosity'. "When the bush came into vision," explained Dr Duda, "the Bible says Moses, 'turned aside' – and that's what makes the story." (Exodus 3:4) "And what is the message from God?" he continued. "I want you Moses with all your warts and all, to experience my grace in a new way…, get a new perspective on who I am, and start a new type of community. Your shortcomings are no longer the truth about how you should see yourself. And be assured, I will be with you."
Challenging the delegates to turn the 9th quinquennial BUC Session from 'ordinary' to 'extraordinary', Dr Duda wondered if we continue to possess similar 'holy curiosity' as Moses, Christ's disciples, the Reformers, and Adventist pioneers. If we do, he believes, "God still rewards inquisitive faith, but do we still have that hope?"
Acutely aware that Session delegates on this day were meeting 177 years after the Adventist Great Disappointment, Dr Duda reminded delegates that "a movement was born because a group of people no longer wanted to walk a path simply because it was ancient… but commenced a journey to discover biblical truth. God wanted them to discover again, and He is still looking for people to turn aside."
As interesting and thought provoking as Dr Duda's insight into scripture always is, memorable on this day was his concluding prayer of confession and intercession:
God, we're so grateful that You have called us,
and we're so painfully aware that we are what we are
that in so many ways, we're inadequate; we're incompetent;
worse than that, we have messed up during this quinquennium.
Other people have been hurt because of our misplaced zeal.
But, Lord, far more than that, we're so grateful that You are the God
Who has come down to be with His people, though we are sinners.
And now, God, we want to turn aside,
and not only today, the last day of our session,
but also, for the coming days and weeks.
We ask you now to help us to set aside all our preconceived ideas,
improper biases and prejudices, polluted thoughts,
all other apprehensions that we have
and to listen to You now and to speak with You
to hear Your voice and to be in Your presence.
Help us to make good decisions,
so that we experience the transforming power of holy curiosity.
We pray this in Jesus' name,
A Reflection and Appeal from the Nominating Committee Chair
Prior to the nominating committee meeting together on Friday morning to complete its work, the chair, Pastor Raafat Kamal took time to reflect on the process.
Out of all the Sessions and chairing all the nominating committees in our 14 TED units, I would say by far, that we've had the best nominating committee on record in my experience. The group you voted, that has met together, have clearly been a blessing over 7 Sundays. But there are some concerns about the process we have relating to the Session, and there are, I believe some lessons we have to learn. "If we keep doing the same things over and over again, and expect different results…", Einstein once suggested, "that is a little mad."
I want to address if I may three disconnects:
- The BUC is a 'Union of Conferences' and the Union is here to serve its constituencies, namely the Conferences and Missions. Let me also add that the BUC is a complex unit. Therefore, our prayer, our planning, our dreaming, our designing, our discussion, our deliberation, our voting, has to keep in mind that we are dealing with a complex Union. It is a reality that we have a serious disconnect regarding the way we do session business.
For the past two sessions we have ventured into a new model which is protracted, which takes 6-7 months to deliver the business, (this year because of Covid it was 10 months) a model we note that the units we serve, SEC and NEC, have not adopted. As a result, we are experiencing disconnect, with rising distrust about how we function.
It's therefore clear to me that if you want to start a model of change, it's got to start with the Conferences not the Union, because once 'grass roots' members adopt into the plan, they will be cheerleaders for it to work.
- The model of doing business as a session has relied quite heavily on operational principles from the business world. While we can learn from the business world, we are not a business, but a faith organisation. We grow together with Jesus Christ as our head.
Under this current model, a distance has been created between the nominating committee and members/delegates that we serve when it comes to 'referring back' reports. Instead of the traditional invitation to delegates to 'meet with us in a room to share your concern', the email approach now used creates distance. It is as if the nominating committee has become a 'cold entity'. That 'at the door' dynamic is missing with a loss of the personal touch. The faith organisation needs the personal touch, and it is something our organisation needs to regain.
- Should the nominating committee engage with the nominee president regarding the team he makes? This matter arises because he is not elected until the Session delegates vote – at session. This is a serious disconnect, leaving the nominating committee to work in the dark. The president needs to have a say about those working in his team as someone close to the management and governance of the organisation. The nominating committee feel they need his input in the process.
The implications and advice
Two to three-day sessions are bruising, brutal even, for the people involved, for those elected or not. We forget to think about our families who go through and wonder about the reasons for being deselected. While we know that 'Your term ends when it's session time', the head does not always connect to heart. Under the current model of conducting a protracted session, the bruising and hurt is spread over 6-7 months and for this session 10 months. It is brutal and is very hard on our work force where we fail in our duty of care to our church employees. A 6-7-month process can also provide opportunity for 'political games', with the 'flying rubber bullets' which result in people getting bruised.
I humbly advise that you consider appointing a standing taskforce to look at the Sessions. Heavily populate with folk from the Conferences to make sure that there is synchronisation and ownership by the entities we serve. And keep evaluating the process from the grass roots up. In recent times we have learned a lot from the NEC Session. Keep the taskforce dynamic, because we cannot wait five years until things happen.
Another piece of advice. Let's be careful that when we design models that it's not only left to the left brainers. Administrators tend to be left brainers – I am one of them. They want order, they want structure and that is wonderful. But remember in the process of designing things, to work smoothly with processes using the head, do not lose the heart. There is sometimes a disconnect between the head and the heart. Make space for it! Many times, in my leadership, I did not read the heart issues, and many times I had to go back and apologise.
Finally, Sessions should not be a circus. When we come to sessions, we should be here to give praise to God and give glory to Him, we should celebrate. Yes, there is business to deliberate, but keep that in the back of your mind.
Changes to the Constitution
The bulk of Friday morning was taken up with proposed changes to the constitution. Leaders and delegates knew that this was going to be a complex session. This section of business was chaired by Pastor Audrey Andersson and presented by Pastor John Surridge.
"The purpose of our constitution is rather like that of a skeleton," Pastor Surridge explained to delegates. "Without it, we can't do anything, to allow us to do mission, or even enable the church to function. Our constitution has both a church and a charity element."
To help readers understand what actually happened regarding the Constitution at the Session, I caught up with Pastor John Surridge to explain the context.
It's my understanding Pastor Surridge that the big picture of what took place at the Session is that the whole constitution has changed. Is that correct?
Yes, Pastor Neal, the whole constitution has changed. There have been literally hundreds of changes to bring our constitution in to line with the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. This is the biggest change there has been to our constitution since we were first registered with the Charity Commission on 10 February 1995. The revised document has been worked on over several years, with input from the constitution committee, members, pastors, lawyers, and the wider Seventh-day Adventist Church, and a final version was presented to the delegates a month before this Session.
Noted. So at this Session it was amendments to this final version that were discussed. The first amendment was in regard to a cap on the total number of delegates.
Correct again – and not, I want to stress, amendments to the original constitution.
The cap on total delegates proposed in the final version was 350, but this was amended at the Session to 375. As this was discussed a number of factors were considered with a higher cap – including the costs of the Session, and whether or not it benefits the democratic process. One major concern raised from the floor was the feeling by some delegates about a 'loss of voice' with numbers capped and an increasing membership.
What was the second amendment about?
A decision was taken to go back to the old way of working, with the meeting of the recommendations committee and the nominating committee taking place at the Session, rather than before it. The change to the 'new' method was brought in in the 17 May 2009 Session and has always been viewed as something of an experiment. This was also the Session which voted the cap on regular delegates of 300.
I think it is fair to say that there are pros and cons of both ways of working. It was always the intention of the 'new' method to ensure that the nominating committee gave due diligence, giving time for a proper consideration of possible candidates for the positions of officers and directors. However, as the chair of the nominating committee has explained, the unwanted side effect was that it left people in limbo – between the time when they were nominated (or not) and the Session when that nomination would be ratified (or not).
Ever since I have served on the BUC executive committee, a TED Officer (or his delegated representative) has been in the room. Has his / their status changed with the third amendment brought to the Session?
There has been a complete change, already in the wording of the final document, not the current constitution. The end result is that a week ago the TED officers were all ex officio members of the BUC executive committee, and therefore trustees of the charity (jointly and severally liable etc.), but now they are not. They are simply standing invitees with voice, but no vote.
If I want to take look at the current constitution post Session, where can I find it?
The best place now to view the constitution is on my page at: https://adventist.uk/departments/executive-secretary/
So in short, John, what would you say are the benefits from the new constitution?
I'm very glad you asked that last question. There are three:
- Much closer alignment with the General Conference and the world Church
- We've gone back to 'old style' sessions
- We now have the possibility of a 'virtual' session, should another pandemic arise
Thank you, Pastor Surridge, for informing and explaining these details.
As the Session came to an end, the new Department Directors for the next five years were introduced. However, and perhaps unique in the history of BUC Sessions, Pastor Ian Sweeney invited delegates from the floor to share anything on their mind about their hopes for the work of the Church in the UK and Ireland over the next five years. And share they did! With messages from the heart – messages they want church leaders to take to heart, not so much about what plans and strategies, but as much about who we are. Keep a look out for more on this through BUC News and Messenger over the coming weeks.