by Raj Attiken  |  5 November 2020  |

Church and change haven’t usually been friendly allies. Introduce the topic of change to any group of Adventists and you’ll hear a wide range of opinions about what should be changed. You’ll also sense a degree of misgivings and cynicism about the possibility of significant change. After years and decades of talk about change in the church’s structure, policies, and operations, individuals have become skeptical that talk can translate to any meaningful action.

Despite the current skepticism, a long-term view of the church shows that changes have, indeed, happened over the years at every level of the church organization. Perhaps the important question for our time is not whether the church can change, but rather how more members can be agents of meaningful change. What can members do? Can their involvement make a difference?

Although many of us may be tired after years of talking about issues and not noticing much visible action about these matters, it is essential that we keep talking! Conversations are an important catalyst for change. The changes that have occurred in the denomination were birthed in conversations – often informal, mostly among a limited number of persons – occurring over time.

Conversations influence perspectives and shape convictions. Intentional conversations facilitate intentional change. It is in conversations that vision, possibility, and opportunity are created, people are engaged and mobilized, and actions are spawned. Conversations hold in them seeds of action and change.

Change by Design or Default

The local church is the one place in the church’s structure where members have the greatest opportunity to effect change. Here they can act on the wide range of issues over which local congregations have significant autonomy and for which they do not need authorization from any level of the organization.

Members who serve on their church board or other program committees have the power to act to shape the life and ministry of the local congregation. Board membership confers a degree of authority and power to those who serve on one.

In some places, members can also influence the selection of a pastor when there is a vacancy. While the hiring and placement of pastors is done by conferences, more and more conferences are involving local congregations in the pastoral selection processes. In some conferences, local congregations are granted a great deal of freedom to choose their pastor, although the formal action to hire is taken by the conference executive committee or one of its subcommittees.

Organizations have found it effective to create climates that encourage members to develop prototypes of services, processes, methods, etc. While some prototypes may fail, the strategy could yield others that become replicable models for churches and the denomination. Conferences will be well served to hold space for innovators and entrepreneurs to develop models for congregational life, community outreach, social involvement, etc., that lead to new paradigms of thinking and engagement.

Sometimes a domino effect is created by what churches do. An action taken in one church is replicated in another, and in time the practice spreads far and wide. In the early years of my pastoral ministry, the practice of electing women as church elders and particularly of ordaining them was unheard of. But, one by one, churches adopted the practice until it became widely acceptable.  

There was a time a few decades ago when conference executive committees were staffed almost solely by persons employed by the denomination. As a means of providing a forum for lay members to express their concerns and give suggestions on conference operations, some conferences organized “Lay Advisory Committees.” As their name implied, these committees were advisory in nature, with no authority to act. It was a matter of time before conference constituencies voted changes to their bylaws and constitutions requiring a certain percentage of lay members on conference governing committees and boards. That action, in turn, set the stage for more accountability among elected leaders in their leadership roles and functions. It also brought in more expertise to the governing boards in such areas as finance, budgeting, management, law, human resources, etc.

The voted actions by the constituencies of two union conferences in North America to authorize the ordination of women to pastoral ministry was the result of a string of prior actions by churches and conferences. Conversations about ordination had been ongoing for years. But action on this matter might have been stimulated only when one church on the East coast took the step to ordain its women pastors. A series of ensuing actions by churches and conferences over a period of about two decades led to the actions by the two union constituencies in 2013. Those actions, in turn, precipitated actions by entities in other parts of the world regarding ordinations. 

While action can lead to more action, inaction can also have its effects. Some well-established practices become obsolete and fade in significance by mere neglect – intentional or otherwise. When pastors and members gradually disregarded the practice of “Harvest Ingathering,” for example, it eventually ceased to be a feature on the annual calendar of local churches. 

Change Beyond the Congregation

While the local church is the arena in which members can have the greatest influence for change, members can impact changes at other levels, too. Selecting individuals to represent their congregation in conference-level committees and constituency sessions is an important responsibility available to members. 

Local congregations, through their delegates, influence the selection process of persons to conference-level leadership and to committee membership. Often, these committees establish polices and guidelines that impact the operation of the local church, conference, and other entities. These are venues where members can have an important voice in shaping policies and practices. While these committees hold potential to be change agents, they often spend their time in merely keeping the church’s machinery working. Serving on such committees can be a frustrating experience for advocates of change.    

Structural change in the organization requires focused actions by church leaders and their governing boards. My opinion is that despite calls for structural change for decades, such change has not occurred primarily because the elected leaders and boards have not strategically, steadfastly and seriously pursued change. The reasons for such inaction may be many. There is an unstated expectation, in the choice of leaders, that they are to keep the structures intact and functioning. When those who are chosen for such positions have been enculturated within the organizational system, they seldom are able to imagine or create a fresh or different paradigm. Conditions or problems created within a paradigm often cannot be resolved from within that same paradigm. 

In most cases, affecting meaningful change cannot be a solo endeavor. Members who wish to see change in the organization should cultivate a broad network of relationships with people inside and outside their church whose support can be essential to implement their initiatives. It is a fact of human nature that several people who are collectively advocating an idea exert more influence than a lone proponent. Coalition building, therefore, is a vital part of influencing change. Rather than being isolated voices scattered across a church, conference, or union, coalitions become a single body of constituents advocating for change. Coalitions can be strongest if they include people whose political support can benefit your cause, or who have access to important resources or influential individuals, and whose buy-in is crucial to the success of your initiative. 

Money and Change

I have heard it said that Adventists are among the most generous Christians in the giving of their tithes and offerings. The Adventist denomination is well funded in its operations because of the generosity of its members. Some have advocated that change in the church – especially structural change in the denomination – can only occur if members either withhold their tithe, give it as church offerings or give to causes other than the church. This is seen by some as a way of diminishing the funding available to the denomination to sustain the current obsolete and redundant administrative levels and some of its leaders. I am skeptical about this as an effective strategy to force change in the structure of the denomination. For one thing, unless there is across-the-board large-scale withholding of tithe, the financial impact of such a strategy is unlikely to flatten the organizational structure. Also, the initial and greatest impact of such a strategy would be in the reduction or elimination of services available to the local church – the services of pastors, teachers, and other personnel.   

Some members do not wish for their tithe funds to be used to benefit certain structures and policies of the church. In the somewhat complex and confusing policies and practices about the use of tithe funds, there is no provision for the individual member to choose which one or ones of the church’s entities or ministries his or her tithe given through the local church is to be used for. Some have circumvented this reality by sending their tithe as a monetary contribution – not labeled as tithe — to be used for specific designated purposes within the Conference. Since the giving of tithes and offerings is not a requirement for church membership or fellowship, some have chosen to exclude the church altogether in their giving practices and to give to other humanitarian causes. They not only find it rewarding and fulfilling to do so, but also find in such actions the satisfaction of protest. 

I have heard it argued that the current model of tithe-sharing needs to be replaced altogether with a more congregational model. In this scenario, each congregation will be responsible for the expenses related to hiring pastoral staff, teachers, and other personnel. A portion of the tithe could be forwarded for the operation of the denomination. This is the practice in churches that follow a congregational model of governance. It is common, however, in many such churches to have bi-vocational pastors because the church is unable to fund the salary of a full-time pastor. The Adventist Church’s system for tithe sharing permits every church or a group of churches in a district, to have a full-time pastor. This is significant because the funds generated in many Adventist churches are not sufficient to provide for a pastor’s wages. In many cases, even when two or three congregations go together in a district, their combined tithe isn’t sufficient to pay the salary and benefits of a pastor for the district. Our current tithe-sharing plan assures such churches and districts of a pastor. The practice of utilizing volunteer pastors or bi-vocational pastors is growing within Adventism as well, mainly for financial reasons. Restructuring the denomination by eliminating one or more levels of the hierarchy could release more funds for pastoral staffing and front-line ministries. 

Change in the church is possible. Change has occurred. More change needs to occur – in church structure, policies, and practices, in what we consider “fundamental” in our canon of beliefs, in matters of diversity and inclusion, gender injustice, and more. However, substantive change is unlikely to occur unless members are engaged in the change process. Steve Jobs is credited for having said that “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” The Adventist Church can benefit from a whole lot of people who are crazy enough to think they can change the church. They actually will!

Dr. Raj Attiken is an adjunct professor of religion at Kettering College, the Adventist higher education institution in Dayton, Ohio, and former president of the Ohio Conference.

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