by Alvin Masarira, Johannesburg, South Africa, February 1, 2017:     The consequence of instant digital communication is that information about the church organization is quickly available to members. Rather than relying on the official reports like in the past—magazines or newsletters that took weeks—it is no longer surprising to hear about the resolutions made by a committee in real time, because some members of the committee messaged those outside with their phones. By the time the committee officially communicates its decisions, it is already old news.

This has changed our sense of leadership accountability. The challenge of holding leaders accountable is linked to the amount of information members have. The less information they have, the more difficult it is for them to query leadership decisions or ask questions. The more they have, the more likely they are to challenge leaders’ decisions, behavior, or performance.

The methods used to hold leaders of any organization accountable, or to review their performance, are linked to how leaders are appointed. In many organizations, the recruitment and appointment methods have built into them criteria about expectations for the role as well as methods of continuous monitoring, evaluation and appraisal. As soon as they are appointed, leaders have a picture of what is expected of them, what the KPIs (key performance indicators) are and how these will be reviewed.

Although the Executive Committee has authority to act on behalf of the constituents between sessions, it is not just an oversight body but is itself part of the leadership that members would expect it to “oversee”— a conflict of interest.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, however, has a unique method of electing church leaders, from the local church to the General Conference level. The nominating committee recommends a single name for each position that needs to be filled, and delegates vote this name up or down. In the majority of cases, not much is said about the proposed name, no résumé is presented, no outline of the person’s qualities and no listing of previous accomplishments and performances are made known. The assumption is that the nominating committee in its deliberations has looked at all these before making the recommendation. Unless there is something terribly concerning which is known by the delegates, these recommendations from the nominating committee are generally accepted by the delegates.

The nominating committee also recommends persons to serve on the Executive Committee. Because the regular general constituency sessions are held once every 3 to 5 years for conferences, in between sessions the church leaders are accountable to the Executive Committee to represent the general church membership.

This means that the average church member does not have any direct influence on the church leadership other than in his local church where members and leaders interact on a regular basis. At all three conference levels (Local, Union, General) the member’s voice is represented by delegates appointed to attend the constituency sessions or by the Executive Committee.

It needs to be mentioned that this method of governance is not unique to the Adventist church, but it does pose some serious challenges concerning oversight and accountability. How should church leaders be held accountable? Who is responsible?  Although the Executive Committee has been delegated the authority to act on behalf of the constituents between regular sessions, the Executive Committee is in essence part of the leadership and not just an oversight body: it is itself part of the leadership that members would expect it to “oversee,” which could be seen as a conflict of interest.

It is my opinion that this model is flawed. Unless the leadership itself (and that includes the Executive Committee) is willing to be transparent to the membership, it would be difficult for the members (“shareholders”) to exercise any other form of oversight. Although the church is a faith-based organization and we don’t expect it to be run like exactly like a business or corporate entity, there are times the when questions of accountability and oversight rise to the surface. The church is God’s institution, but it is in human and sinful hands.

I have often wondered whether lay members have a right, a duty, even a mandate to directly hold their leaders accountable and monitor performance. In theory the answer to this question is a resounding “yes of course”, but its not that easy in practice. At the local conference level, the process requires that a local church business meeting or church board makes a submission on an issue of concern to the conference leadership. The conference leadership would then decide whether or not to entertain the matter at the Executive Committee meeting. If the leadership decides not to do so and also chooses not to respond to the local church that has raised the matter, the matter could just die a silent death.

When that happens, members feel that organizational processes can be manipulated or circumvented at will by whoever is in charge of these processes. This leads to members resorting to other means in an attempt to “force” church leaders to be accountable or transparent about issues of concern, usually by going public (e.g. using media/press, writing open letters to leaders, internet websites, etc.) in an attempt to expose a matter which leaders are perceived to be unwilling to deal with. This never goes down well with the affected leaders, or with other church members who don’t believe in using methods of protest not defined in church policy.

When members feel that organizational processes can be manipulated or circumvented at will by whoever is in charge, they resort to other means in an attempt to “force” church leaders to be accountable, usually by going public (media/press, open letters to leaders, internet websites, etc.) to expose a matter which leaders are perceived to be unwilling to deal with. This never goes down well with the affected leaders, or with other church members who don’t believe in using methods of protest not defined in church policy.

Although 1 Timothy 3: 2-12 is written about elders and deacons, the injunction that leaders should be “blameless” applies to all. Church members expect nothing short of honesty, integrity, ethical behavior and a high standard of Christian living from leaders. (Of course the members too should exhibit the same characters.) My observation is that in their quest to hold leaders accountable members will use the processes defined by the organization as long as they are convinced that leadership will respond.

But sometimes members feel that no progress is being made, or leadership is avoiding dealing with the matter.  And so we have members using these controversial alternative methods to get the attention of the leaders. As I said, we are divided in our opinions about the acceptability of using these alternative methods in the church. But let’s first focus on the following three things.

First, God expects all of us (leaders and members) to reflect his character in all that we do. If we did, there would no need for church members to feel that they need to take drastic steps to get the leaders to do what is expected of them. As someone said when asked why he was hanging the family (church) dirty linen in public, he responded by saying “we shouldn’t have dirty linen in the first place”.

Second, the church belongs to God and He is not pleased when His name is misrepresented through what takes place inside the church. We shouldn’t sit on the sidelines while God’s name is dishonoured.

Third, the leaders do not own the church. Members have an equal stake in the organization, and when they raise concerns they are not encroaching into some foreign territory but are dealing with their church.

Church leaders do not own the church. Members have an equal stake in the organization, and when they raise concerns they are not encroaching into some foreign territory but are dealing with their church.  

Church leaders will have to realise that church members have greater access to information, and are more critical than they were decades ago. They need to take member concerns seriously, engage them, and not immediately assume that whoever raises questions is a trouble maker. This demands both humility and wisdom from leadership. It also demands that members be patient with leaders, who wrestle with very complex matters and are not always at liberty to post updates on what’s going on behind the scenes.  

When Peter declared in front of the Sanhedrin “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) he knew what we all know deep down: that our leaders are not infallible and they will make mistakes, and that when push comes to shove God’s teachings trump man’s.

I would appeal to church leaders at all levels to remember that the members are the church, and not the leaders themselves. The worst things leaders can do when challenged by the membership is to keep quiet and hope the questions would go away, or become evasive. History has shown us that questions posed to leaders will not go away unless a satisfactory answer is provided.

Although the governance system of the Seventh-day Adventist church has served the church very well for the 150 years of its existence and indeed continues to do so, we should not assume it is able to deal with every challenge the church has to face. We need wise leaders (and members) to prayerfully deal with new situations that arise.  


Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is now a Structural Engineering Consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.

 

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