On Tuesday morning at just about 9:30 am at the 61st General Conference Session, GC Secretary Erton Köhler, accompanied by Undersecretary Hensley Moorooven, GC associate secretaries Claude Richli, Gerson Santos, Karen Porter, Gary Krause and Elbert Kuhn, alongside Director of the office of Archives, Statistics and Research (ASTR) David Trim, and VividFaith manager Fylvia Kline, presented the Secretariat Report, which celebrated the mission work executed across the global Adventist Church over the past seven years.
Presenting their report under the theme “Secretariat: Where the Heart of Mission Beats!”, Köhler began by introducing the role of the Secretariat and its associated departments, referring to them as the “Mission Family”. These include Adventist Mission, The Institute of World Mission, Adventist Volunteer Service, International Personnel Resources and Services (IPRS), ASTR, VividFaith and Adventist Membership Systems (AMS).
“We manage strategic information for mission, we coordinate processes for mission, we research how to improve the mission, and we recruit, prepare, send and care for people in mission,” Köhler said, summarizing their overall function.
Köhler further summarized the integrated purpose of these entities into a clear, three-way framework adopted throughout his presentation: Data, Mission and People. “Our main priority is to connect data and people to mission,” he said. “As the remnant Church, we are called, in these times so close to the end, to fulfill an urgent mission.”
Although coordinating mission work is the overarching purpose of the Secretariat, Köehler acknowledged that this was greatly challenged in 2020-2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with health issues, isolation and lockdowns making much of the work impossible.
“Isolation created all kinds of problems, but the Church looked for new ways to take care of people,” he said.
Joining Köhler, alongside the associate secretaries and other representatives from the Mission Family on stage, were the executive secretaries from each division, as well as Dr. G.T. Ng, retired secretary (2010-2021) and John Thomas, retired associate secretary (2010-2020). Köehler acknowledged and thanked both, as well as Matthew Bediako and G. Ralph Thompson who were not in attendance, for their leadership and contribution to this year’s Secretariat Report.
ASTR—GROWING CHURCH, OR BUREAUCRACY?
First to take the floor was David Trim, who presented a comprehensive overview of church membership and statistics over the past quinquennium, and beyond. “My part of the report is, of course, entirely data—but it is also about mission and people. Because ASTR is also a place where the heart of mission beats,” he began.
i. Accessions and deaths
Looking first at global accessions, Trim highlighted that while church accessions have generally “flourished.” 2019-2020 was the first time that membership dropped to less than one million accessions since 2004. This drop was from 1.32 million in 2018-2019, to 800,000—a decrease of more than 500,000. Nevertheless, this increased again in 2021 to again exceed one million, with 1,069,234 accessions.
While averaging more than a million accessions per year seems positive, Trim emphasized that the Adventist Church has also faced significant losses, warning that “there will be more to come, as membership audits—which we are now calling ‘membership reviews’—are implemented around the world.”
Illustrating his point on a chart showing membership changes from 2017-2021, Trim explained that a total of 5.9 million people joined the Adventist Church in that timeframe, even despite a pandemic. Nevertheless, 3.6 million people left the Church during that time frame, as well. In fact, 2019 was the first time that “living losses” (people who have left membership, are missing, or are removed during membership reviews) exceeded one million people.
“Even this has positive implications for mission,” Trim encouraged. “For in certain parts of the world, church leaders now have an accurate sense of their membership. And that means they can plan better both for outreach and for nurture and retention. And that means, in turn, that both outreach and in-reach can be done more effectively and impactfully.”
ii. Conferences, missions and unions
Narrowing his focus, Trim then shared statistics on the overall growth of conferences, missions and unions, comparing today’s statistics to 1970, for perspective. While the number of union conferences and union missions has increased by 54%—from 75 in 1970 to 138 in 2020, local conferences and missions have increased by 93%—from 379 in 1970 to 731 in 2020.
From 2015 to 2019 specifically, local conferences and missions increased by 76—or 11%, plus three new unions were added to the global Church.
Trim acknowledged that while some members may see the increase of organizational structures as evidence of the Church becoming bureaucratic, that local organizations are actually a powerful force for mission. “They provide leadership that is close to the local church and therefore responsive both to challenges and opportunities, and they also provide training, resourcing, and equipping of local church members,” he said.
iii. Other institutions—pastors versus staff
Finally, Trim shared statistics on the growth in numbers of educational and medical institutions, as well as pastors and church employees. Specifically, while church pastors have increased by 142% since 1970, church employees have increased at a slightly higher rate, at 159%. Trim again acknowledged that as the Adventist Church grows, it faces the danger of institutionalization, but that many members may overstate this fear.
“The difference in the two growth rates is relatively small across a period of 15 years which suggests that institutionalization is not currently as much of a challenge as some members and leaders may fear, though it is something we must be on guard against. It must be remembered, too, that our 75,000 teachers in schools and colleges are almost like pastors for in many places, schools drive dynamic church growth,” he said.
I WILL GO STRATEGIC PLAN & LEADERSHIP
Following on from Trim’s presentation, Hensley Moorooven took to the stage to introduce the Secretariat’s Strategic Plan for 2020-2025, which has purposely customized the I Will Go framework to focus primarily on its leadership objective, seeking to promote transparency and organizational accountability.
He then introduced seven key strategic issues addressed by this plan, including mission strategies, ISE call process, missionary care, nurture and retention, membership audit, training and evaluation, and working policy. These were then the focus of presentations by the rest of the “Mission Family” during the Secretariat Report, beginning with training and evaluation.
I. Secretariat Evaluation
Presented by Claude Richli, associate secretary and officer in charge of secretariat evaluation, a focus of the GC Secretariat’s strategic plan is to ensure that the Secretariat across the Church’s 13 divisions is performing in an optimal environment and according to adequate standards. To do this the GC conducts on-site evaluations, anonymous questionnaires where honest feedback can be given, and through a range of review processes.
“I’m deeply impressed by the level of professionalism that we have witnessed around the world,” said Richli. “I thank the approximately 1500 executive secretaries, their associates, their assistants and their administrative assistants for their commitment to mission wfor their heart truly beats for mission.”
II. Discipleship, nurture, reclaiming
Presented by Gerson Santos, associate secretary and officer in charge of nurture and retention, another focus of the GC Secretariat is to strengthen pastoral care, spiritual growth and discipleship around the world. To do this, they are committed to providing data via membership review to identify shortcomings in the discipleship process. Santos highlighted various divisions—including the South Pacific Division, Inter-American Division and South American Division—that have innovated in this area.
“He counts and recounts the flock. He leaves the 99 within the fold, and goes in search of the straying sheep. He makes every effort to find that one lost sheep. We should have in mind that numbers do matter,” Santos said. “Counting is essential; it helps to see people behind the numbers. Accurate data provides excellent performance indicators for mission efficiency and pastoral care.”
III. Missionary care
Presented by Karen Porter, associate secretary and officer in charge of missionary care and IPRS, caring for missionaries is another focus of the GC Secretariat. She shared that since the last GC Session in 2015, 528 missionaries, or a total of 367 families left their homes in 66 different countries to serve abroad as missionaries in 82 different countries.
“During the pandemic, we saw God working miracles to facilitate visas, work permits and travel arrangements in spite of the lockdowns,” she said.
A short video then played, highlighting the sacrifices made by early missionaries and encouraging church members to adopt a sacrificial mindset—whether by becoming missionaries themselves or by supporting their work abroad, financially or otherwise.
Porter also highlighted the effect that the new Mission Reset framework will have on funding the work of missionaries going forward. For more information on this, you can read our article here.
IV. Missionaries and Volunteers
The Secretariat Report then highlighted the work of missionaries and volunteers around the world, and the role of the Institute of World Mission, Adventist Volunteer Service, and VividFaith in making this possible.
First, Oscar Osindo, associate secretary and director of the Institute of World Mission, shared how the GC Secretariat has innovated a new online mission learning platform called “learnmission.org.” With lockdowns and travel restrictions preventing this training from happening in person, it has inspired and educated many missionaries and volunteers around the world.
After this, Elbert Kuhn, associate secretary and director of Adventist Volunteer Service, shared an inspiring story via video of William, a full-time volunteer who left North American to serve in the Middle East and work with refugees. “A volunteer missionary is the one that is willing to leave home to live among those who are still to find the way to the Father’s house,” commented the narrator of the video.
Finally, Fylvia Kline shared a video and information on VividFaith, a platform using innovative methods to connect organizations and institutions in need, with volunteers who want to serve either abroad, or also locally.
V. Adventist Mission
Finishing the Report, Gary Krause, associate secretary and director of Adventist Mission, shared how the GC Secretariat is focused on nurturing new groups of believers in unentered people groups and areas around the world by sending Global Mission Pioneers to work as “frontline church planters . . . among their own people and culture group … to follow Jesus’ method of ministry.”
Krause highlighted that since the last GC Session in 2015, Global Mission has planted almost 3,000 new churches in unreached communities. Specifically, a top priority of Adventist Mission is reaching people in the 10/40 Window.
“Outside the 10/40 Window we have one Adventist for every 136 people. Inside, we have one Adventist for nearly 2,000 people. You can see the challenge!” he said[MF14] .
Other challenges faced by Adventist Mission are reaching people in major cities and urban areas, as well as sharing the gospel with people from other major world religions. To combat this, Adventist Mission has established six Global Mission Centers around the world, each with a specific focus.
Krause also briefly shared Global Mission’s Total Employment Tentmaker initiative, which supports Adventists to find jobs and share the good news in challenging areas where missionaries can’t travel, as well as their new Mission Priority System, which helps Adventist Mission to strategically focus on areas where there is little to no Adventist presence.
While recruiting and supporting missionaries is one aspect, Adventist Mission’s other primary function is to inspire church members with what’s happening with their mission offerings.
“Well, this is the Secretariat report, brought to you in a unified way,” said Köhler, finishing the presentation. In wrapping up, he emphasized the need for Adventist missionaries—both locally and globally—and the need for a mission reset and refocus.
“Our heart strongly beats for a renewed missionary movement,” he said. “We rely on the inspired recommendations of Ellen White, who says that ‘Together they are to carry the work forward to completion’ (Acts of the Apostles, p 276).”
Köhler then finished by thanking the leadership of the Secretariat and Mission Family, as well as some of the executive secretaries and missionaries on stage.
You can watch the live stream of the full Secretary’s Report for the General Conference Session 2022 here.
– Angelica Sanchez contributed to this report