#171: The President (of the Seventh Day Baptist Convention)

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #171, on the subject of The President (of the Seventh Day Baptist Convention).

One subject that intrigues me is what is called church polity, that is, the way various churches and denominations organize and operate themselves both locally and globally.  We call our various subdivisions synods, presbyteries, conferences, and quite a few other names.  Among the Baptists, a highly democratic and congregationalist group (“congregationalist” polity means that the church is run entirely from the bottom up, as church members decide what the denomination believes and does, and anyone who disagrees either goes along for the sake of unity or leaves the group), divide themselves into “conventions”, gatherings that attempt to agree on what is important to them.  Each convention elects a president, who sets the agenda for his term; they also hire staff to provide services for the member churches, such as publications.  I am not an expert on church polity, with only passing familiarity with a half dozen or so denominations, but my mind was caught particularly by the practice of one denomination, the Seventh Day Baptist Convention, and I thought it might have lessons for non-religious people immersed in the secular political world.

Seventh Day Baptist Churchof Plainfield, New Jersey
Seventh Day Baptist Church
of Plainfield, New Jersey

For those who care about such things, the Seventh Day Baptists were founded in England and are the oldest denomination in America to observe a Saturday Sabbath.  Some are perhaps a bit legalistic about that while others are more relaxed–much as found in Sunday-observing churches.  (I have written On Sabbath elsewhere.)  They are otherwise like most Baptist churches.  Once a year–in the United States, it happens in August–they hold a major meeting of the convention, Conference, hundreds of members getting together somewhere for a week of meetings and services and discussions.  (The week prior to this, they have a major gathering for the youth of the denomination in the same location, many of whom then stay for the convention itself.)  It is at this conference that they elect a president.

The interesting aspect is that the president does not at that moment take office.  He is elected to replace the current president, but it is expected that he will take time to tour the denomination, talk to the churches, and develop his “vision” for the denomination during his term.  He remains effectively “president-elect” during this time–an entire year, as the following year at conference he will step into the role, introduce his vision for the year ahead, and oversee the election of the person who will replace him as president elect.  He now has a year to serve as president of the denomination, to make his vision a reality, before the new president takes the office at the next annual conference.

There are a lot of interesting aspects to that.  For one thing, I don’t believe anyone has ever served two consecutive terms, but in the several centuries of history (our local congregation was established before the American Revolutionary War) I could not say whether anyone has filled the position more than once.  It is a small denomination, the sort in which ordinary members all over the country know each other, partly because in addition to this annual meeting they have another annual business meeting one weekend to which everyone is invited, hosted by one of the member churches, and several smaller multi-church gatherings.  So the fact that I know a father and a son who both held the position (many years apart) does not suggest nepotism as much as tradition.  It also means that no one runs on his record–you are not going to be elected to serve two consecutive terms.  Interestingly, you are not really elected based on what you promise to do; you are elected based on the belief of the electorate that you will do something that needs to be done, something that will be good for the denomination.  You are elected, in essence, because people trust you to discover the needs in the church and address them.

Ultimately, too, the system reminds us that all leaders are temporary.  In a democratic system such as a representative federation, almost all leaders serve terms of office which end after a few years.  (Our federal judiciary is appointed for life, but even that ends eventually.)  Some can be re-elected, but many have term limits, and re-election is never guaranteed.  The people we have picked to be our leaders were picked because a large number of us from a very large area of the country thought they would do what needed to be done.  It was not exacty because we liked their policies, although that is part of it and in truth it was also partly because many of us feared the policies of the alternative.  It was, rather, because we perceived these as people who would try to do what America needed to have done.  It might not be exactly what they intended to do initially, and they might not succeed in their objectives, but we needed to change the course of the Ship of State, and this crew seemed to be the best chance to do so.  We know that we are committed to this choice for the short term, and if we are unhappy with it there will be a chance to change in the not too distant future (already serious politicians are working on their twenty twenty presidential campaigns).

Every once in a while I find myself trying to reconstruct the sequence of Presidents and Vice Presidents who have served during my lifetime.  They are all important, and they all have done things that mattered at the time.  Some have also done things with long-term consequences, but despite their importance at the time there are few who can tell you what significant actions were taken by the Eisenhauer administration, or that of Johnson, or Ford, or Carter, or even Clinton.  We remember the scandals, but what Presidents do is rarely remembered outside history books.

So stop worrying about it.  A Presidential term is really a rather short moment in history, even in the course of your life.  There will be other Presidents, some better and some worse than the present one.  Let’s see what this one does, and build from there.

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