History and Development of Seventh-day Adventist Policy

Be Informed

What first comes to your mind when you think of “Working Policy”? For some, these words are synonymous with bureaucracy or administrative trivia. For others, they speak of unity, even handedness and mission.
What if the church didn’t have policies? What would govern the fair distribution of tithe and offerings? How would the church care for employee’s salaries and the retirement of its workers? Who would own our church buildings and what would ensure that our missionaries were treated equitably?

The policies of the church are mutual agreements made by representative leadership based on Biblical principles. They promote fairness and facilitate mission.

It may surprise some that during the 19th century the Seventh-day Adventist Church didn’t have a manual for working policy. The growing church operated largely on the collective memory of its leaders. Decisions were made by committees and then applied to church employees and organizations. As the church grew and became a worldwide organization, written policies became essential for the smooth functioning of the movement.

THE ROLE OF POLICY

When William A. Spicer was elected President of the General Conference (GC), he opened his address to the GC Session delegates on May 24, 1922 by expressing praise for the constitution that had been adopted during the session. He stated, “It is really more than a Constitution, it is a working policy. That is what we have needed, so that instead of having to decide things by committee action, we have the great principles laid down in the Constitution itself.”1

Elder Spicer affirmed that the corporate policies of the church united it in its evangelistic mission to the world, and that is still true today. Therefore, it is fitting that our Church allow our corporate policies to unify us at a time when some are questioning the authority and relationship between the General Conference and the world field.

The policies of the church are mutual agreements madeby representative leadership based on Biblical principles. They promote fairness and facilitate mission.

The early Adventist leaders never equated church policy with the authority of scripture. But they did see policy as a unifying factor in a worldwide church to facilitate mission. Let’s consider how these policies were developed and the role they should play in our 21st Century church.

HOW DID POLICY BEGIN?

From our earliest history as a church body, votes and actions by GC Sessions and the GC Committee were recorded in the official minutes. However, as younger leaders came into leadership positions, evidently there was a limited review of the minutes from previous committees. Consequently, voted policies and standard Adventist practices were chiefly preserved in collective administrative memory.

This worked well when the church was small, but as the church became a worldwide organization the need for more comprehensive, codified policies developed. When the first two generations of Adventists passed away, memory no longer served effectively and inconsistency of practice crept in. Church leaders recognized the need to collect, systematize and standardize the policies and protocols voted by sessions and councils.

As early as 1917, Irwin H. Evans, vice president for the North American Division, wrote: “It is essential for an efficient organization to have uniform regulations and a working policy for all its parts.”2

At the 1922 GC session, Evans, who was now president of the Far Eastern Division, shared what had been done in the Division over the previous four years. He then expressed the need for a world church working policy, the problematic nature of collective memory, and an increasing propensity at the local level to act unilaterally by stating:

“The union and local missions adopted a working policy in harmony with the General Conference constitution…This policy is a safeguard in mission fields where there is a continual agitation among some for independence of administration, and especially since many workers are young in experience or newly come into the faith.”3

Elder Evans’ point is well taken. Without adherence to a mutually agreed upon working policy, independent action is fostered and organizational unity is fractured. Working policy promotes organizational unity and unified action.

While the 1922 GC Session agreed that there was a great need for working policy by appointing a “Committee on Constitution and Working Policy” made up of division officers and three world church administrators, the task proved greater than
anticipated. The committee chair, GC general vice president C.
H. Watson, reported to
the 1926 Session: “It was intended that this committee should function during the four years, and report its work at this session.” However, ‘under the pressure of business here at the General session, it has been found almost impossible to give that report concentrated study such as its importance demands. Therefore, it is recommended to refer the report to the Executive Committee . . .”4

Working policy promotes organizational unity and unified action.

To this recommendation, President Spicer responded that the summative document church leaders had in mind “will make quite a complicated statement . . . it will doubtless have to be adopted at some Autumn Council. It is not to create new methods, but really to codify or gather together the actions we have taken . . . and get them in workable form.”5

At that 1926 GC Session, Spicer emphasized the importance of the task by commenting on how the church had voted various policies “concerning Sustentation . . . [and] holding church property”, and had adopted “something recommending this or that about transferring church membership or about calling workers for the mission fields, or about methods of transferring workers within the North American Division. But these items are scattered all through our minutes. The idea of a working policy is to collect these actions, state them briefly and concisely, and have them in a little pocket pamphlet, so that we can turn to it and see what the working policy is.”6

As a wise leader, Spicer saw the need of taking miscellaneous actions of various committees and placing them together in a systematic fashion for all church leaders to have the benefit of the collective knowledge of these representative committees.

A WORKING POLICY PRODUCED

A vote was taken to refer the responsibility of producing a working policy to the GC Executive Committee. This practice continues today. Some months later, the Executive Committee at the 1926 Annual Council finally approved the working policy:

“The General Conference officers, taking advantage of the presence of nearly all the division presidents, spent two days preceding the Council in a careful study of General Conference actions voted in former sessions and Councils. A careful digest of these actions was prepared and will be brought out in a leaflet form for the use of executives and workers. This summary of General Conference actions will constitute a working policy, providing valuable information to our leaders in every part of the world field.”7

Weeks later, the published Working Policy first appeared, a 63-page digest of official actions taken by the General Conference Committee. Church leaders had finally acted on the realization that, with the emergence of a larger and more complex organization, there was greater need of organizational efficiency than during the denomination’s earlier years, and a need for administrative measures to be in harmony at different levels of structure. Thereafter a revised, updated Working Policy, voted at Annual Council, was released once every two or three years, and beginning in 1977, annually.

The Working Policy was well received. Five years after it first appeared, an article in the church’s flagship paper declared: “The operation of a well-defined working policy in harmony with organization has been one strong factor in binding and cementing the personnel of the body of Seventh-day Adventists together as one in purpose in Christ.”8

The span of just one decade saw the codification of common practice and committee actions in the publication of the Manual for Ministers (1925), Working Policy (1926), and the Church Manual (1932). These resources continue to bring unity to church practice around the world, serve as an educational tool for new or inexperienced leaders, contribute to efficiency by conveniently organizing best practices and committee actions, and maintain harmony across all levels of church structure.

General Conference Working Policy has grown from that first “little pocket pamphlet” of 63 pages into a comprehensive book more than 10 times that size. However, as a church now more than 70 times larger in membership with 20 million members spread across the globe, the need for a document that organizes and summarizes the policies voted by the General Conference Executive Committee is more important than ever.

Working Policy is one of the Holy Spirit’s anchors that stabilizes church structure, unifies action, creates harmonious working relationships, and facilitates mission. It is not infallible. It can be changed. But it is

a valuable tool based on biblical principles that in the hands of wise church leaders gives the church direction in its administrative decisions.

We can thank those early leaders for their inspired foresight in pulling together those policies that have contributed to unity and effectiveness in our mission of sharing the Good News with the world in preparation for Christ’s soon return.


1William A. Spicer, “A Working Policy: Consecration, Co-operation, Autonomy,” Review and Herald, June 5, 1922, pg. 3.
2I. H. Evans, “Important Resolutions for the Churches,” The Church Officers’ Gazette, March 1917, pg. 2.
3H. Evans, “The Far Eastern Division of the General Conference, Review and Herald, May 25, 1922, pg. 6.
4“Proceedings: Thirtieth Meeting,” Review and Herald, June 10, 1926, pg. 2.
5Ibid.
6“Proceedings of the General Conference”, “Thirtieth 
Meeting,” Review and Herald, June 10, 1926, pg. 2.
7“Actions of the Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee,” September 29-October 5, 1926, GC Archives, RG 1, LF 6375, pg. 20.
8W. Cottrell, “The Growth of Denominational Organizations,” Review and Herald, March 24, 1931, pg. 1.

Originally published in the GC Executive Committee Newsletter, March, 2017, accessible at executivecommittee.adventist.org/newsletter