When Union Conferences Started

I admit that during my 36 years as a pastor I sometimes wondered what the practical use of union conferences was. After all, it seemed resources weren’t plentiful and streamlining organizational structures had always been a topic of discussion. Being removed by distances in mileage and infrastructure, I rarely had much actual contact with them. They operated in a different world than my local churches. Were they useful enough to justify their existence?

What about today? Now we use Zoom meetings to conduct committees and training sessions, and the internet is our country's true transportation system. After all, union conferences were first organized in the "horse and buggy" era, even before telephones were in common usage. Should we revisit the subject of their existence?

My thinking has changed greatly. For the skeptics among you, I admit it looks like "Stan is just justifying the union because he's an employee of one now!" Point taken, but my view has changed partly because I'm close enough to see what the union does. And I'm incredibly grateful to be in one whose administrative leadership is quite dedicated to keeping a healthy focus on purpose.

Before I share briefly about that, let me add another thing that has changed my mind on this recently. I have been studying George Knight's book, Millennial Fever, and other materials on the way God has led in the founding of our church. The ups and downs are faithfully recorded and useful in understanding God's design for His people. As you recall, there was a hesitation in becoming anything like a regular denomination because of painful memories involving the harsh treatment from churches many received in believing and proclaiming the message of Christ's soon return. Many considered the object of becoming a regular church would guarantee that we would become Babylon!

This fear of organization would dog the church for decades. Slowly we started conferences and took the name "Seventh-day Adventist." But the growth of the church into new territories and the starting up of institutions (schools, sanitariums, publishing houses) required legal steps that forced the matter. However, and this is key, the lack of organization led to few people leading many. That is, administrative power was held by a small group of men over the many fields of labor. This led to what Ellen White warned as people exercising "kingly power." And she wrote extensively against this. The fact that a small group of men could retard and not encourage the growth of the church showed itself during the 1888 General Conference crisis. Just a few "at the top" restricted the work of the Holy Spirit on the subject of justification by faith.

The stubborn resistance to the leading of God via the Spirit of Prophecy led to the fires that destroyed the sanitarium and publishing house in Battle Creek. By the 1901 General Conference Session, there was a far more open spirit in the church to do things differently. Union conferences began to be formed. There were two reasons for this.

First, this spread-out leadership roles to far more people which would lessen "kingly power" temptations. Second, since they were physically closer to the fields, they could provide proper resources and management more effectively than from Takoma Park, Maryland, where the General Conference headquarters was located. I rather think that both of these original reasons for the birth of union conferences are still in play.

Now in conclusion, let me refer back to that point about what North Pacific Union's purpose appears to me to be. It is this: to provide resources in materials, counseling and training for our local conferences, churches and schools to support their own gospel ministries. Administration has consistently looked for ways of doing this more efficiently and more effectively. I believe this union has a heaven-sent purpose, and it's kind of fun to be a part of it.

Author

Stan Hudson

North Pacific Union Conference creation ministries director
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