A BRIEF HISTORY OF SECRETARIAT
The Secretariat of the General Conference was inaugurated at the same time the General Conference itself was established. On May 20, 1863, the “Constitution of General Conference” was approved by the 20 delegates, and among other items, states that there “shall be a President, Secretary, Treasurer and an Executive Committee of three.” Although the specific tasks of the Secretary were not delineated, the purpose of the General Conference and Executive Committee in particular, was threefold: essentially, to coordinate evangelism and pastoral ministry (“to secure unity and efficiency in labor”), to advance mission (“promote the general interests of the cause of present truth”) and to improve the administration of the embryonic Church (“perfecting the organization of the Seventh-day Adventists”).
The first Secretary was Uriah Smith (1832-1903), elected on the same day as General Conference was incorporated. Initially, the term for the position coincided with the annual GC Sessions in which the Secretary was elected or reelected, but later as the sessions became less frequent the terms correspondingly were lengthier. In total, Smith went on to be the longest-serving Secretary overall (22 years in all, in four separate periods), with G. Ralph Thompson serving the most consecutive years (1980-2000). Executive Secretaries (as the position is now known) continue to be elected at General Conference Sessions, which since 1970 have been held every five years.
In the first forty years of the church’s existence the Secretary featured prominently in its governance. His views carried great weight with other church leaders in debates and discussions; in addition, every major decision taken by General Conference Sessions or the GC Executive Committee was summarized and recorded by the Secretary. These included rulings on church organization; missionary strategy and placement; creation of new church entities; and decisions on policy, doctrine, financial matters, and the denominational stance on political and governmental matters. In addition, the Secretary played a role liaising between potential antagonistic parties, brokering agreements, drafting official documents, and dealing with dissident groups.
With the reorganization of the church governance structure from 1901 to 1903, however, the office of Secretary underwent an expansion. One could say the Secretary’s duties were lessened for, with new organizational structures like unions, the herculean task of church governance was parceled out, with responsibilities devolved to other levels of denominational authority. However, the Secretary’s responsibilities were actually increased, because, with more sophisticated governing structures, increasing membership, and expanding mission, ultimately there was more for the General Conference to oversee, and many new duties were given to the Secretariat; for example, a Statistical Secretary was appointed, working under the Secretary. Most importantly, in 1901 the General Conference Executive Committee took responsibility for foreign mission work from the Foreign Mission Board which had not functioned effectively. The Secretary became responsible for the General Conference’s missions operations—in effect, for the worldwide mission enterprise of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole.
At the close of the reorganization period, one of the most important Secretaries in the history of the church was appointed. William Ambrose Spicer (1865-1952) revolutionized the position, molding it to its present shape. Before Spicer’s election to Secretary on April 11, 1903, he had served as a missionary on three continents; he was also Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, and from this position he had exercised immense influence over church missions. Spicer brought this mission-mindedness into his role of Secretary: during his 19-year tenure (1903-1922), he established the administrative infrastructure for recruiting, sending and maintaining missionaries all around the world, and made it work efficiently and effectively.
The office of Secretary expanded at the 1918 General Conference Session with the creation of the Associate Secretary position. At the same Session its duties were also increased: It was now in charge of keeping minutes of church committees and collecting church statistics, as well as other duties pertinent to these responsibilities. Finally the Secretary, with the other officers, added to his portfolio the oversight of the auditing process.
At the 1936 GC Session, Secretary Milton Kern first used the term “Secretariat” at a Session. Kern stated in his report that year that “the Secretariat of the General Conference is charged with the responsibility of selecting and recommending to the Committee for appointment, workers for the mission fields…” He continued by providing a history and overview of Adventist missions. By this juncture the Secretary’s Report was almost entirely concerned with missions, and the statistics and minutes his office kept enabled it to lead authoritatively in this regard.
In 1973, a new General Conference Archives was founded, and in 1975 it was combined with the Statistical Secretary’s bureau to form the Office of Archives and Statistics, answering to the Secretary. In 2011, it was added the renamed Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, answering to the Executive Secretary, who thus has ultimate responsibility for institutional research, as well as keeping documentary and statistical records.
At the General Conference Session of 1975 the position of Undersecretary was instituted. The Undersecretary was: to assist the Secretary with his responsibilities and act for him in his absence; to serve as the agenda secretary for the General Conference Session, Annual Council, Spring Meeting, and officers' meetings; to be responsible for the General Conference Working Policy; to provide oversight to administrative and personnel matters within the office of the Secretariat; and to serve as secretary or member of various standing committees as well as the liaison for one of the world divisions.
During the 1990s, responsibility for mission diversified, with the establishment of new entities, including the Offices of Global Mission and of Mission Awareness—the two were merged in 2005 as Adventist Mission. But by 2010 it had become plain that more collaboration and unity of purpose was needed in the church’s mission enterprise. After the 2010 General Conference Session, all the General Conference’s mission-related entities were placed under the direct jurisdiction of the Executive Secretary: Adventist Mission, Institute of World Mission, Adventist Volunteer Service, and International Personnel Resources and Services (for which the Secretary shares responsibility with the Treasurer). In 2012, the Office of Membership Software was created, and placed within the Secretariat.
Today, the Secretariat’s responsibilities can be summarized thus:
· Coordination of mission-related activities to create synergy and move forward the mission enterprise of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
· The selection and appointment of international and volunteer personnel for all calls between divisions, as well as providing support, promotion and strategic input for the mission program of the church.
· The preparation of agendas as well as the writing and preservation of minutes of major General Conference administrative committees. Associated with this responsibility is coordinating the development and review of General Conference Working Policy as well as the Church Manual.
· The operation of the General Conference archives, and the production of the world church’s Annual Statistical Report and Yearbook.
· Administrative liaison for the General Conference to all world divisions.
The current Executive Secretary is Dr. G.T. Ng, originally from Singapore, elected at the 2010 General Conference Session, held in Atlanta, Georgia.
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