Every five years Seventh-day Adventist delegates from around the globe elect our world church president. What does this person’s job actually entail?

Although the constitution of the General Conference does not give formal job descriptions for its officers, it states that it is their duty to “carry forward the work according to plans and programs voted by the General Conference in session and according to plans and policies agreed upon by the Executive Committee” (GC Working Policy, p. 7)

Specifically, the president or his designee shall:

  1. Preside at the session of the General Conference
  2. Act as chair of the Executive Committee
  3. Serve in the general interest of the General Conference as the Executive Committee shall determine
  4. Perform such other duties as usually pertain to such office

In his recent article “Job Description for a President” Gary Patterson points out that being the GC president is more than managing the business of the church. It also includes providing pastoral leadership and casting a vision for the worldwide work of sharing the gospel (Adventist Today 2015 General Conference Special Issue, p 24).

The article goes on to explore leadership strengths that manifest themselves in five basic areas: spirituality, suasion, celebrity, energy and intellect. Patterson states that these characteristics strongly influence the way a president operates and impacts the church.

He also quotes Jan Paulsen, past president of our world church, as listing five additional areas of critical significance:

  1. Personality (which Paulsen says is more important than experience)
  2. Ability to genuinely receive others’ perspectives with an open mind and without feeling threatened
  3. Capacity to understand that change is normal and welcome the opportunity to work with it
  4. Respect for the freedom God has given all to think, speak and act
  5. Possession of a generous mind that recognizes that sometimes it is better to be kind than to be right

Thomas Lemon, president of the Mid-America Union Conference, said that “while the job description is quite broad and there is much room within it for individualization, some themes do emerge. He must be an ordained minister of experience; he must be culturally aware and sensitive to the needs of a world church of more than 18 million members; he must be deeply rooted in Scripture, the Spirit of Prophecy, the historical precedents of church polity; he must be missionally focused. And more.”

The president is also a public representative of the church during his extensive travels. “He meets with heads of state and religious and civic leaders,” said Ray Dabrowski, who for 16 years assisted General Conference presidents in their communication ministry.

Central vs Local Authority

It is sometimes thought that the GC president possesses line item authority over all the different parts of the church, but that is not the case. Although the General Conference, as a constituent unit, does have a single president, the church does not.

In fact, within the structure of the church there are hundreds of “presidents” who serve its various conference and union constituent segments. Ellen White said: “God has not set any kingly power in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to control the whole body or to control any branch of the work” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, p 236).

GC authority is limited to actions that are within its jurisdiction. Determining exactly which matters are and are not in its jurisdiction is not always simple, except to say unequivocally that the definition of denominational beliefs is entrusted to the General Conference in business session.

While the process of selecting our leaders and identifying the scope of their authority is neither perfect nor easy, we can continue learning from our past and looking toward to the future in determining the best course of action for today.