Recently, I had the privilege of visiting Micronesia in the western Pacific with a team from the Lake Union. After some 20 hours of flight time and a day forward beyond the international date line, we arrived in the northern part of Micronesia which includes three U.S. territories: Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Wake Island, all part of the North American Division (NAD). This area has some 60 islands, nine of which have Seventh-day Adventist churches and schools, and each has been assigned to one of the nine unions in the NAD.
Our team from the Lake Union, along with two from the NAD, had a wonderful time visiting “our island,” the federated island country called Kosrae (Koo-she-rai). We appreciate that the NAD graciously covered most of our travel expenses for this initial visit.
Hosted by the Guam Micronesia Union Mission, we had a very busy six-day itinerary of meetings with the church and school to discover how we in the Lake Union can provide ongoing support.
What delight I felt in my heart as we approached the campus from beneath the overhead canopy of palm and banana trees. Before our immediate view was the Adventist church with a majestic mountain just behind. To its right was a well-maintained Pre-K through eighth-grade Adventist school that operates for the benefit of about 50 students from the island.
Our team asked hard questions relative to the prospects for growth to reach the rest of the 6,000 inhabitants of their island for Christ through both the church and school. What I saw led me to conclude that one of the best things our Adventist pioneers did was to organize our Christ-centered message to reach the world.
One of the first things identified and employed to accomplish that end was to move beyond congregations loosely joined together, to set up local conferences. A conference is an organization which combines the fiscal strength of a sisterhood of churches for the proclamation of the Three Angels’ messages, first in their territory, and then, eschatologically speaking, beyond.
The role of the conference is to help the local church stay focused on mission. Many years ago, a well-meaning church member told me, “We don’t need local conferences. Just let the largest church in the area oversee the work in its region.” I was the pastor of that large church and we had 41 ministries to oversee, not to mention many sub-ministries and ongoing care of its members, many of which were aged and infirmed. Suffice it to say, the amount of time in meetings to maintain forward missional momentum of our congregation already absorbed much of our leadership team’s time. Many were family people and business professionals with other responsibilities who still avidly supported the ministries of the church with their limited time.
The local conference plays a significant role in helping churches to stay mission-minded. Without it, most churches would certainly be overwhelmed. Each local church would have to care for and nurture church growth initiatives and maintain a distinctive Adventist identity, all while overseeing employee human relations functions such as healthcare and retirement administration which have legal implications and abound with many annual changes. In addition, payroll services and professional development functions are required for each full-time employee, be they pastors or teachers. Without the local conference, it would be a tough task, to say the least.
If each local church, in addition to its bevy of missional responsibilities, had to administrate, and if each church had to pay the heavy burden of healthcare cost for those in their employ, that alone would prove to be overwhelming for most small congregations, many of which would have to close their doors. The conference also is especially helpful in the hiring and releasing of employees from service. The annual negotiation of salaries of employees also would also have to be undertaken by the local church.
In addition, it is important to maintain strong connectivity between churches as well as the support of departmental-level initiatives, such as youth and young adult leadership training, conflict and crisis management, and funding for education and evangelism.
As a conference president, I provided level three counsel to departmental leaders and, in very sensitive areas, traveled many times to address congregational needs that rose above the conflict management scope of those on my staff.
Finally, the conference’s executive committee, with representation from throughout the field, is key to keeping a conference moving forward While the day-to-day decision-making rests with the conference, and the principle task of this committee is to plan for moving the work forward in its field, the committee also can provide some troubleshooting assistance from a conference-wide perspective.
Probably most overlooked is the fact that the local conference is the first level of church governance that pools the strength of each congregation throughout a territory. Tithe funds of all churches in a division rise up like moisture from the seas to accumulate and then fall as showers of blessing in faraway lands as the gospel of this Kingdom must be preached in all the world so the end will come.
The end of suffering under the weight of sin for the whole world rests on our shoulders. Thank God this wonderful message has reached a little island in the western Pacific called Kosrae. I wish you could have the privilege of visiting this small congregation and feel the joy I felt, knowing our message has reached this tiny unknown place for Jesus. The book of Isaiah declares, Keep silence before me, O islands; and let the people renew their strength: let them come near; then let them speak: let us come near together to judgment (41:1 KJV). Praise the Lord the messages of the Three Angels are already represented there!