How the Adventist Church Is Wired Not to Change
by Admiral Ncube | 16 May 2023 |
In his essay titled “Redundancy, Relevance & Resources: Taming our overgrown church bureaucracy,” retired church administrator Raj Attiken made a compelling case for how structural transformation is one of the church’s greatest and most urgent needs. He ends with a passionate plea for the denomination to
apologize to its members for the self-protective stance it has repeatedly taken when offered credible research showing that the current structure is too top-heavy for the needs of the church. Radical institutional repentance for squandered resources must include intentional action to eliminate redundancies and waste.
Raj’s case for change is clear. But how and why we have maintained for decades a structure for whose efficacy there is so little evidence raises many questions. Is the church leadership oblivious to the need for change—or there are other interests at play?
I contend that probably the greatest obstacle to change in Adventism is Adventism itself. There’s something about us that makes it difficult for us to self-critique, or even to imagine we could be wrong, or that we should change.
That is, we are wired to resist change. This resistance to change is premised on a sort of consistency which we construe as faithfulness to the ethos of Adventism.
But when looked at closely, it is nothing but glorified self-interest and naivete.
Designed to defend
Following the disappointment of 1844, our pioneers found it necessary to demonstrate to the world that theirs was a movement of God. They adopted a defensive tone as they preached that 22 October 1844 was a “magnificent disappointment” and part of a grand divine plan. They developed a doctrinal framework centered on the sanctuary message, along with an argumentative doctrinal focus insisting that Seventh-day Adventists are the church whose existence is proven in Bible prophecy.
It follows, then, that our ways are, by definition, the best expression of God’s will for his remnant church. And you don’t go against God’s will. Even though the pioneers had started with a learning attitude, open to self-critique and questioning, we evolved to resist any suggestion that we could possibly be in error or make mistakes, because we are God’s remnant church.
Consequently those who raise questions are enemies, and we cannot hear the issues they are raising. We must defend the status quo regardless of clear evidence that it isn’t working. By attaching moral significance to all that we do, we become sensitive to critique. We begin to see enemies under every tree. We are threatened by criticism. We become idolatrous in that we won’t allow ourselves to see other points of view.
The current organization structure was developed by our pioneers as a response to conditions facing the church during their time. They did their best to develop a structure that took the best of the denominations with which they were familiar.
But rather than clinging to what they left us, we need to ask the same questions they asked. If mission is our heartbeat, how sure are we that the current configuration is still bringing the best value for money and effort? Do we still need a redundancy of roles and offices, at every level from the local church up to the General Conference?
Politics and pulpits
Whenever elections take place, we suggest that the hand of God is choosing leaders. The nominating committee system is an attempt to ensure broad representation during elections. We want to believe that the process is free from political manipulation—that the Spirit of God will sabotage any selfish interest.
But after a president is elected, he becomes part of the nominating committee, using his new position to influence the selection of other officers. At this stage, the same hand of God that elected the new president ceases to be trusted. Nothing is more political than the new president’s arm-twisting the nominating committee to exclude people he doesn’t want to work with, while bringing in his buddies to join him in a plum office assignment.
Is that how the Holy Spirit works? To place the representative system under a leader’s authority? No, this is a practice borrowed from secular politics. We profess to have a representative form of governance where power resides in the members; instead, we have a system that creates bosses out of those we have elected.
When we confer executive power on those we elect, we make election into office a career objective. Pastoral ministry isn’t a career, but merely a stepping stone to something better. The vested interests of the elected executives give them no incentive to reform the structure—for what ambitious executive would want to restructure himself out of power?
The church is now run through presidential initiatives, typical of what we see in political processes in many countries. Instead of submitting to the collective vision and priorities set by the church, we have leaders who set their own vision and priorities, which the church is then supposed to rally behind. Whoever is elected comes in with his initiatives and experiments, supported by slogans and special days on the church calendar.
After some time, the new program is quietly abandoned without evaluation or feedback—and another program kicks in. If a new leader is elected, he will abandon whatever his predecessor had done and start adding his own programs and special days to the church calendar.
Nothing could be more wasteful. How can we possibly expect any changes to a structure that bestows this kind of executive power and privilege?
Law of the instrument
The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” It’s called “the law of the instrument”: when we acquire a new skill, or a new bit of knowledge, or some power, we will see opportunities to use it everywhere, even where it isn’t appropriate.
Over-reliance on a familiar process means we get stuck in a certain way of doing things. Consequently, nothing changes.
Though certain leadership positions are open to any, regardless of gender or theological background, church structures are dominated by male pastors. Thus the church is robbed of an opportunity to harness diverse skills and experience from its members.
No wonder issues of organizational development and change don’t get attention! Pastors aren’t trained for that! It is unreasonable to expect them to lead a thinking process on organizational restructuring. That is, generally speaking, outside their competency. And as I said above, there is no incentive to restructure themselves off their throne.
We have competent and God-fearing members running large corporations, but who aren’t given space to contribute to these processes. Even the executive committees at each level of the church are incapacitated because they are composed mostly of church workers. The chair of the same committees is a serving president. How can he be expected to be objective when reports about the performance of his team are discussed?
Nothing could be a greater barrier to change than a governance structure that is riddled with conflict of interest and unclear segregation of duties. Again, the law of the instrument: our clergy leaders are using the tools they have, but they aren’t the right tools to change a stubborn church structure.
Where do we go?
We are stuck with a system designed to resist change, coupled with a mindset that dislikes to be critiqued or corrected.
But a global movement with over 22 million members demands that we be more efficient, agile, and impactful. This cannot happen when we are configured for the 1900s.
In many parts of the world, what is happening is exactly the opposite of what we need. For example, in many parts of the world church it has become a mark of success to create new conferences and missions and union conferences every year. This means pulling more pastors out of parish ministry and rewarding them with office jobs and travel budgets. It means taking more money from front-line ministry to run the growing number of offices, meaning more expenses.
To make it worse: the system rewards pastors serving in administrative offices more than front-line pastors. Local congregations are nagged to be good stewards by leaders who are not demonstrating good stewardship principles at a corporate level. I have heard of conferences that demand 50% of all offerings collected at local congregations in addition to all tithe remittances—while the same local churches are expected to then fundraise for their own operational costs, building efforts, and evangelism programs.
No wonder we end up having toxic election processes and constituency business meetings that focus more on elections than church development and strategy! No wonder we can’t figure out how to dismantle the out-of-control structure we have created!
Something needs to change.
- Maslow, Abraham (1966). The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. South Bend, Indiana: Gateway Editions. ↑
Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.