by Alvin Masarira  |  29 July 2020  |  

When the COVID-19 global pandemic started, there was a hope that this was a bump on the road over which we would pass, and we would all go back to our usual ways of doing things. But it’s becoming increasingly likely that this crisis is ushering in a new normal, both for the secular world and for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

It will certainly affect us financially. Church gatherings might resume, but tithe and offerings will decrease because some church members will lose their jobs and businesses. Already, say some studies, only 30-40% of Adventists return a faithful tithe, and this number is likely to decrease. Many worshippers only bring tithe and offerings when they come to the physical church on Sabbath—electronic deposits aren’t yet common. The church at all levels will face financial challenges.

Another challenge is how to keep believers in fellowship during the weeks and months of separation. Already many church structures operate without a long-term strategic plan—at least none that outlives the current leadership’s term of office. One would have expected this in politics, where officials plan only until the next election because of the very different political viewpoints of the contesting parties. One would have hoped for a longer-term plan in a church where we all share a philosophy, goal and mission. 

Resistance to change

The Adventist Church shies away from innovation and new ideas. We prefer the “old paths,” the “faith of our fathers.” We talk about the “good old Adventist days” and we sing “old time religion”. In all of this we send the message that change is bad. This is one of the reasons why the church generally appoints conservative people to leadership positions. They are considered a safe pair of hands. We like that we know where they will lead us. We say we distrust “liberals” because we fear they would bring false doctrines into the church, like some of the evil kings of the Old Testament. But in reality, perhaps it’s just that we don’t want leaders who rock the boat, who keep things the way we are used to. 

That is to say, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is highly resistant to change. Because of our fear of change, the disruption caused by the pandemic is pushing us into uncomfortable spaces, where we can no longer do things the “good old ways.” Deep down, most of us believe we have all the truth—and by truth we mean not just doctrinal truth, but policy, practice and methods of doing things. Try changing the order of worship or liturgy in the average Adventist church and the saints may stone you. Change is hard in the Adventist Church, because we conflate form with content. We don’t separate our symbols and forms of worship from the content and substance of our beliefs.  

Because we conflate form and content, many are struggling with changes in the way we do things. Some of our church policies don’t apply in lockdown conditions. And many of our church leaders (at all levels) find themselves in a state of paralysis, because it is not in our nature to be nimble, to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, to venture courageously into unfamiliar territory, to anticipate circumstances foreign to our usual way of doing things—or even to be strategic in our thinking. We are never ahead of the curve.

That’s why many Adventists (leaders and members) hope the pandemic goes away quickly and life goes back to the old normal.

The New Normal

It now appears likely that these disruptions will be with us for a long time, and will change both society and the church permanently. In some countries, there won’t be large gatherings for months. Where gatherings have been allowed, it is only under strict conditions.. In South Africa churches can only open for services of 50 or less people who should also observe strict protocols, And given that some experts believe the infection numbers will peak again and again, who knows when congregations will be allowed to meet without any restrictions?

That brings the church into a terrain no one in their wildest dreams had ever imagined. And this is surprising, given that the Adventist theology of the end-times  speaks specifically about a time when the church will be scattered, as the devil unleashes his final onslaught on God’s people. One would have expected that, more than other Christians, the Adventist church would be prepared for such times. Instead, we now see that we’ve become extremely settled and complacent.

Now that we are in the eye of this storm, what should church leaders do?

Seeking Help

Church leadership is generally made up of people trained as pastors. These men have a tendency to think that consulting with others makes them look weak and incompetent. But good leaders have always been characterised by their ability to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. In 2003 Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Inc., said,

Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room. In professional circles it’s called networking. In organizations it’s called team building. And in life it’s called family, friends, and community. We are all gifts to each other, and my own growth as a leader has shown me again and again that the most rewarding experiences come from my relationships.

Church leaders should avoid the mistake of believing that because they were elected and appointed means they know all there is to know about effectively running the church. Now is the time to surround themselves with competent lay members who are experts in relevant disciplines such as health, business and finance, organisational development, technology, community development, etc. They will need help as the church is forced to develop new and effective ways of conducting business. 

We are grateful for online media, but to expect that watching sermons and presentations on the internet at home would keep congregations together would be naïve. There is a need for interactive fellowship and community among believers. 

The lockdown is showing that it is cost-effective to run more church programs online, as well as committees and governance meetings. In early 2020 the General Conference EXCOM had its Spring Council online. Maybe that should be the norm going forward for many of our denominational meetings even after COVID-19, eliminating costly travel. Because we’ve learned how much can be done by staff working from home, do we need so much office space anymore?

Streamlining Leadership

This pandemic will have a major impact on church finances across the globe and will force the church to seriously think about adjusting the world structure as has been advocated by many in the past. This is an opportunity. Is the current structure 1901 model still relevant in a technology-driven world? 

We’ve long discussed how difficult it is to justify as many levels of governance as we have. Divisions, for example, are part of the General Conference and they don’t even have their own constituency. Their role is often to contextualise and domesticate General Conference programs and policies, a task union conferences are capable of doing. 

The pandemic is an opportunity to implement changes that should have been made many years ago, to identify elements that can be eliminated with the intention of not having them again even after the pandemic. 

What about local pastors? With no church services, no sermons to preach and in some countries no member visitation allowed, their role needs to be looked at. This disruption has exposed one of the weaknesses in our Adventist pastoral training curriculum: it hasn’t equipped pastors to be innovators and strategic planners in a complex world. This would be a good opportunity for pastors to acquire more competencies that would be useful even after the pandemic is over. 

Finally, the pandemic has shown us that real leadership is demonstrated during times of crisis. We rarely think about this when we appoint leaders: we assume the good times will keep rolling, and not a few let the organisation run on “cruise-control” while they practice church politics. Now we know that we need leaders who can lead in crises. If one was not a competent, unifying, capable, hard-working and strategic thinking leader in good times, they won’t suddenly become capable and competent in times of crisis. 

We have an amazing opportunity right now. Will we take it?

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.

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