by Ron Preast | 1 July 2020 |
To say our world has changed in recent months is a profound understatement. I don’t believe any of us could have imagined a time when the world would practically shut down. Businesses are closing, millions have applied for unemployment and even churches cannot hold their regular services.
Presently the unemployment rate in the United States is at 14.7%, with some saying 20% may be a more accurate number. There are over 20 million people without jobs. It has been estimated the unemployment rate could easily be at 25% before the economic impact due to COVID-19 comes to an end; the worst it has been since the Great Depression.
The current economic predictions do not expect a quick recovery to our present crisis. “One result of the coronavirus pandemic could be as many as 25,000 store closures announced by retailers this year, as the crisis takes a toll on many businesses, and already has pushed some over the brink and into bankruptcy.” “We expect that a return to pre-crisis levels in offline discretionary retail sales overall will be gradual, as we expect consumer confidence, demand and spending to be short of normal for some time” (Coresight founder and CEO Deborah Weinswig). “A separate report by eMarketer is forecasting total retail sales in the U.S. to fall more than 10% in 2020 and that they won’t bounce back to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2022.” (CNBC Published June 9, 2020).
The economic crisis is already affecting many of our churches and local conferences. I know of two conferences that are being forced to cut their current yearly budgets by $1 million. Churches are being redistricted where pastors must minister in two to four churches. The day of single church districts is coming to an end for many places of worship.
We still have no idea what church will look like when restrictions are eased and we are allowed to once again meet together. Will people feel safe returning to a crowded church? Will all the members return or will some get used to not attending church and remain to stay away? With so many people losing jobs, will the church have the necessary funds to continue their present ministries? Only time will give us answers to these questions.
Through all of this we have discovered firsthand the blessings of technology. Videoconferencing has allowed us to stay in contact and conduct some businesses in ways which were not possible ten years ago. Courts are holding trials online and doctors are treating patients without their having to leave the safety of their homes. Churches are holding board meetings, Sabbath School classes and church services all via videoconferencing.
Some will argue that Ellen White founded our present structure. I have nothing but respect for Ellen White and believe she is a true prophet of God. I read her writings almost every day for spiritual insights, as well as for her counsel. I also realize that like the Bible we must remember to place her writings in her culture and time period. Her ministry was from 1844 to 1915 and the world has greatly changed since that era. I am sure she never imagined a time of computers, cell phones and videoconferencing.
When the government mandated the shutdown of churches, my local church was left with the task of figuring out how to maintain some semblance of ministry. How were we going to carry on with church business, church services and stay connected to one another? More importantly, how were we going to continue reaching the public with the good news of Jesus Christ? The local congregation made this happen without the aid of the conference office .
Now we are in a time where holding meetings via videoconferencing is becoming the new normal. Many businesses are giving their employees permission to continue working from home even after the present crisis is over. Many state Supreme Courts are meeting by way of videoconferencing to settle matters of law. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of Texas recently stated, “The COVID-19 pandemic has required many adjustments to the justice system. Rather than proceed without argument, we have decided to proceed through remote connections.” He went on to say, “I can’t imagine that it’s not going to outlast the pandemic and change the way we do business generally, pretty profoundly” (National Center for State Courts; April 17, 2020).
Do We Need the Conference Office?
With all that is taking place in our world, here is a question that I would like to hear discussed: Has the time come to consider restructuring the Seventh-day Adventist organization? I realize this is going to be controversial among many, especially among church administration, but with the current world conditions, has the time not come to remove much of the administrative overhead presently serving our church? If nothing else, the pandemic has revealed that the local churches can survive and function without the aid of the local conference offices.
Has not the time come to consider if the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t also requiring adjustments to the Seventh-day Adventist system? Think of the funding that could be contributed to the operation of the local church if the conference offices were eliminated. In a random observation of conferences, I found in the same union one conference with six people in the treasury department and another conference with seven employees. The Union Office has another seven people employed in its treasury department. That is over a million dollars in salaries in just one department found in three offices.
It seems everything the local conference is providing could be done from the union conference office, with one or two field representatives for each conference. Workers’ meetings could be held by way of videoconferencing, as they are presently. Many of the questions the pastors have regarding church issues are now answered over the phone. Just the savings from the upkeep of an office would save hundreds of thousands of dollars which could be made available to the local church.
I have asked several church members and pastors to tell me how the local conference aids them in the ministry of the local church. I have yet to receive one positive answer. Many of our local church members don’t know the people are who are working in the conference office. Many seem to have the impression that’s just the way we have always done things and have never considered there might be a better way.
I wish to clarify that I am not angry or bitter towards the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. I have faithfully served this church in pastoral ministry for over forty years, and truly believe we were called by God to carry our message “to every nation, tribe, language and people.” I love this church and don’t want to see any harm come to it. I am only asking, “Is the way we are presently structured and doing ministry the most effective means available?”
What do you think? Has the time come to consider restructuring the administration of our church? Could we not run more efficiently by abolishing the local conference offices and administering only from the Union Offices? I am praying for an open discussion that doesn’t attack people or specific conferences. We don’t all have to agree with one another; hearing different opinions is how we grow. Perhaps you have a plan that would be even more efficient.
Ron Preast served the Seventh-day Adventist Church 44 years as pastor and conference evangelist. He is now retired, living in Arlington, WA.
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