Church Leadership Accountability
by Alvin Masarira | 10 June 2021 |
In October the General Council Annual Council voted “113-18G: Regard for and practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions.” It describes a process to enforce compliance with organizational policies, as well as actions voted at General Conference (GC) sessions and executive committee meetings. Those that fail to comply face some disciplinary measures as outlined in the document.
Since this action has never been rescinded, it is still binding and enforceable.
The issue of women ordination had been on the agenda of many church committees for many years and came to a head at the GC Session 2015. The 2018 GC Annual Council came on the heels of the vote against the proposal to allow individual Divisions to decide whether to ordain all ministers in their territory irrespective of gender. Some Union Conferences had been ordaining female ministers and some had been following other practices that have been viewed as policy violations by the General Conference leadership. The General Conference leadership felt a need to have an action voted that would “remind” entities about policy compliance, and implement means of intervening—some call them punitive measures—in cases of policy violation.
It goes without saying that this action was controversial and did not have the unanimous support of all union conferences or divisions. However, the majority prevailed, and the action was voted, and is now official General Conference policy.
During the course of the 2018 Annual Council the question was often asked whether this action was adopted in order to punish union conferences that violate the ordination decision of the 2015 General Conference Session. GC President Ted Wilson was very clear that any policy violation should not be viewed lightly, no matter in what area of the church. This action would apply to all policy violations. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has hundreds of policies, and these should all be complied with. This position of the General Conference President is highly welcome, and ensures consistency in the application of actions and policies.
However, it opens the proverbial can of worms, as it is common knowledge that there is widespread policy violation across the worldwide church. Some of the church leaders in union conferences or divisions who are critical of the women ordination policy violations by unions in the North American or Trans-European Divisions, are themselves in charge of entities that violate policies in other areas. In an essay here in September of 2018 I shared my perception about the position that leaders of the church in Africa take on such matters.
Selective Policy Enforcement
I engaged further with the issue of policy compliance in the article entitled “Policy Violations and Compliance Committees – A Deadly Minefield” in the Winter 2019 Issue of Adventist Today. I highlighted my concern about selective enforcement of policy. General Conference Auditing Services reported that in 2018 non-compliance was up 2% over the previous year to 83% of all entities.
It would be irresponsible and reckless to argue that policy does not matter, and compliance with policy is a trivial issue. Organizations as big and global as the Seventh-day Adventist Church need order, rules, regulations and policies to function optimally. Otherwise they disintegrate into a chaotic bunch of individuals. However, there is a very real risk of selective policy enforcement, depending on who does the enforcing and who are the violators. It is common knowledge that some entities and leaders get away with policy violation, depending on who is in charge at the higher organization that has been tasked with policy enforcement.
This happens at all levels of the church. Some church members get away with breaking rules depending on who is the church pastor or elders or church board members. Some pastors get away with it depending on who the conference president is. Some local conference leaders get away with it, depending on who is leading at union conference level; some union conference leaders get away scot-free depending on who is leading at civision level; some division leaders get away with it depending on who leads at the General Conference level.
It is not a policy problem, but rather a human nature problem. Any inconsistencies in policy application undermine the integrity of those charged with applying it, and any selective enforcement of policy also undermines, in the sight of the membership and general public, those tasked with enforcement. This applies not only in the church, but also in general society. There are many cases in society where some lawbreakers get away unpunished because they are connected to some leaders (e.g., to the state governor or city’s police chief).
This creates cynicism and also general disrespect of the law. If some people get away with it, why should the rest of us obey the law? Such practices are even more detrimental in the church, which serves a God who has very high standards of integrity. The apostle Paul says in Romans 2:11-12 (NLT),
For God does not show favoritism. When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it.
Our church teaches servant leadership, where church leaders have a duty to serve God, the organization and its members, as they are there to facilitate and enable the mission. Leaders do not “own” the church, but are accountable to God and the members of the church.
This therefore begs the question; how should leaders be held accountable? We all know that in the final judgement, God will hold everyone to account, and that is His prerogative. But until then, there is need for some way of holding leaders accountable.
The Adventist Church works through committees with the biggest committee at the conference level being the constituency meeting, which meets every 3 to 5 years depending on the conference (local, union or general). It is at this meeting that leaders can be asked to give account of their tenure in office. However, during the course of the term, an executive committee, composed according to a formula in the constitution, is tasked with providing oversight and ensuring that the administration operates within approved organisational policies and good governance principles. The executive committee (ExCom) is empowered to act as a “session in between sessions” and make decisions on behalf of the church membership.
However, the composition of the Executive Committee is favors, numerically, church employees. In an ideal (and sinless) world, that shouldn’t not be an issue. But it is evident that the relationship between members the ExCom members who are church employees and the administration is that of boss and subordinate. The administration has significant authority and influence over the church employees on the ExCom. It is not a secret that these members of the ExCom generally view the president as their boss, whether directly or indirectly.
This severely curtails the freedom of the ExCom members to be critical of the administration. Committees with a significant number of members who are church employees who feel beholden to the very same leadership they should hold accountable are often not suitable to perform their duties. For example, the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division ExCom has just over 90 members, and over 80% of these are church employees. The South African Union Conference ExCom had 38 members, with also over 80% church employees. The career paths of many church employees is highly influenced by leaders whom they sometimes have to hold accountable, making one wonder how much oversight such employees can have.
The church needs to develop a better system of ensuring accountability by leadership. There are two critical issues that need to be changed.
Chairman of the board
First, it should not be the conference president (the “CEO”) who chairs the executive committee (the “Board of Directors”) that is required to exercise oversight on the administration. It is very evident that such an arrangement leads to management being accountable to itself. The proposal would be to have a chairperson of the conference ExCom elected at every business session. This would be a lay member (with competencies to serve in that office).
This of course necessitates changes to General Conference Working Policies. The world church had a sad experience in 1999 which led the resignation of the then-General Conference President Robert Folkenberg. Due to some allegations made against him, the church had to hold their most senior leader accountable. Since the chair of the GC ExCom is the CEO of the organization, the church had to appoint an outsider to lead the Special Ad Hoc Group to examine the allegations, and then bring the report to the GC ExCom. Dr Niels-Erik Andreasen (then-President of Andrews University) had to be roped in to chair this investigation.
On Jan 28, 1999, President Folkenberg was placed on administrative leave, and his resignation was then accepted at the General Conference Spring Council in March. It was a tense moment in the church, and it exposed once again the challenges faced by the church administrative system. Some could argue that the executive secretary or a vice-president could act in the absence of the president or if the president needs to be held accountable, but this ignores the fact that the executive secretary or the vice-president is an intricate part of the Administration and could very often be part of the matter under review. They are often not independent or far removed enough from the matters.
Composition of committees
The second aspect that needs change is the general composition of committees which administrators report to in between constituency sessions. The current system assumes an ideal scenario, where the ExCom membership develops adequate independence from the administration it is meant to hold accountable. It assumes there is no victimization that would limit its functions. It should be a requirement that the ExCom be composed of mainly independent members who can execute their duties without fear or favor. Short of that one runs into situations such as the one recently in the Southern Africa Indian Ocean (SID), where the Division Executive Committee conducted elections without involving the usual lay representation as per General Conference Policy B20 15. An Executive Committee overwhelmingly composed of church employees made the decision to go ahead.
We could have a long debate about policy interpretation, but it is for me clear that the outcome would have been different if the SID Committee had had more independent voices. One could speculate on what transpired in those meetings, but it would not be surprising if it turned out that there were some voices which could have opposed the process if they had not been concerned about the repercussions this would have on their church careers. There is always a conflict of interest among many conference ExCom members. The administration (e.g., president) often wields significant authority and influence over the members. The Seventh-day Adventist Church administrative system needs some significant overhaul if it is to become more efficient and ensure that good governance principles are implemented and followed.
It is reported that an erstwhile General Conference Executive Secretary, as he was testifying in one litigation case, described the Seventh-day Adventist Church operating like the Roman Catholic Church, with power devolving from top to bottom, the General Conference President having the ultimate say.
This is not precisely true, but it is true that the president at every level has significant authority. Contrary to popular belief, power in the Seventh-day Adventist Church lies at the top of the organization the vast majority of the time. It is only for a very brief period, during elections at the business sessions, that the membership has the power to decide whom to relinquish (called delegation of authority) it to.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.