Fourteen and Counting
Denominational statesman Bert Beach reflects on General Conference sessions, past and present
BY ANSEL OLIVER, assistant director for news, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
ERT BEACH, longtime Seventh-day Adventist worker and religious liberty leader, and Neal Wilson, former president of the General Conference, share the record for world church leaders for having attended the most Adventist Church world sessions. Each has attended 14 General Conference sessions. Now held every five years, the gathering is the General Conference’s international business session.
Beach, former director of the General Conference’s Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, was 17 years old when he served as a page boy at his first session, which was held at Sligo church in Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1946. At the time there were about 600,000 Adventists worldwide. By comparison, there are now some 16 million members, and this summer’s session in Atlanta will be held in an indoor stadium.
Beach, who holds a doctorate in history from the University of Paris, has represented the church as a participant and observer in numerous interfaith councils. “I see myself as a bridge builder,” he told the Adventist Review in 2001.
Beach, 81, recently sat down with Adventist News Network and discussed some of his memories of sessions throughout the years. Some excerpts:
Adventist News Network: How has the atmosphere changed since sessions have transitioned to being held in basketball arenas and now in football stadiums?
Bert Beach: The atmosphere is different now in the sense that there’s much more professionalism. The way things are more organized. Today, it’s much more professional with the television and production. It must be because it’s much larger and we have, of course, much more experienced people when it comes to communication, for example—people who really are professionals, not people who do it simply as a vocation.
What’s it like to serve on the nominating committee [which nominates candidates for approval by the delegation]?
SESSION VETERAN: "I think General Conference sessions have been extremely well organized. The music [is usually] superb, and the spirit, generally speaking, is [characteristically] very good," says Bert B. Beach, 81, veteran Seventh-day Adventist administrator who has attending 14 General Conference sessions.
The atmosphere is very professional, very careful. People are friendly, basically. The tendency is not to make very strong speeches against somebody, [but rather] to make speeches for a person if you really want to promote a candidate.
What other roles have you had at General Conference sessions?
Beginning [in] 1954 I was a delegate at the General Conference session and participated rather actively. . . . I did a lot of translation. I would translate for people because I knew Italian, German, English, and French. . . . At later sessions I was the official at the General Conference who was in charge of protocol for guests from other churches and from governments.
How old were you when you were placed on the executive committee?
Thirty-two. That’s relatively young. There might have been some people that were even younger, [but] nowadays it becomes a little bit more difficult because they’ve restricted the numbers of positions of the executive committee.
How does the Adventist Church’s world session compare to meetings of other denominations?
It’s a very big meeting compared to other denominations. First of all, most churches around the world are not world churches. Obviously the Roman Catholic Church is a world church, [as is] the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Salvation Army [is also a world church]. But most churches are national churches. The United Church of Canada, the Church of England, the Southern Baptist Convention—these are not world churches in the full sense of the word. They form alliances with other churches of the same belief.
What people or discussions over the years stand out in your mind?
We had some colorful people speaking at General Conference session sometimes. I remember the famous “Uncle” Arthur [Maxwell] of the Uncle Arthur bedtime stories, who was editor of Signs of the Times and was a very good speaker. I still remember him getting up at the General Conference session and he was complaining that there were too many officers sitting on committees all the time and not enough other people—pastors and departmental people and so on. He said, “And here we have a secretary and then we have on the committee an undersecretary, and then we have an associate secretary and then a treasurer and an undertreasurer and assistant treasurers,” and so on. And so people started laughing in the audience.
Then of course [there was] the meeting about the ordination of women; I think it was in Utrecht [Netherlands in 1995]. I still remember the long lines of people. They had to line up at two different microphones. One was for those who were in favor and . . . the other . . . [for those] who were against; [this was to provide] balance. The chairman would ask [a representative] from one microphone and then from the other.
I’m not so sure those speeches were that helpful, really, because I think most people had made up their minds. Things are debated really at Annual Council and at the meeting of the officers, even prior to Annual Council.
What is the real business that takes place at session?
Many think elections are the important thing. And they are important. But at some sessions there is a constitution committee that deals with some very important issues. The Church Manual can only be edited, revised, or amended at a General Conference session, [and it usually would] take hours of discussion to deal with [that].
Any mishaps over the years?
I remember one of our speakers, a famous person and one of the great preachers in our church. [In his sermon he] lifted his voice and somehow, he must have been speaking too loud and suddenly his voice broke and he couldn’t speak anymore. It was more like whispering. [In another case] a sermon went on and on and on—which created a problem because of Sabbath afternoon [programs scheduled to commence] at two o’clock. Of course, people involved [in those programs] were upset. Little things like that happen. But overall, I think General Conference sessions have been extremely well organized. The music [is usually] superb, and the spirit, generally speaking, is [characteristically] very good.
Are you going to Atlanta?
If I get invited. You can’t go on forever, you know. It’s been a great experience to be a member of this church, to participate in councils and discussions and committees over the years, and I have great confidence in the leadership of our church.