by Larry Downing, February 27, 2017: Make America Great Again! This statement Donald J. Trump repeated time and again to assure his audiences that he was the candidate who will restore the United States of America to its predominant place. Enough people bought into Trump’s pledge to elect him president. Got me to thinking: What if this catch phrase were reconfigured to read, “Make the Adventist Church Great Again!” Some people would respond by saying, “How do you define ‘Great’?” These individuals might well continue, “What do you mean by ‘Again’?” We’ve never not been great. We are greater now than we’ve ever been. Look! We once took pride in our tens of thousands of members; now it’s millions.”
A few people might reply, “Becoming great again is an impossible dream. We’ve strayed too far from a Truth that can never be recovered. The Adventist church has become like any other organization. We’re so big that individual members are lost in the crowd.” For others, the response might be, “‘Greatness’ is not the objective; we are to be faithful to God’s commandments.”
Each of the above potential responses has some validity. Our numbers around the world have increased. I have heard people express that the feeling of family does not exist as it once did. There was a time, for example, when we Adventists knew one another. We met friends at scheduled gatherings, such as camp meeting. We knew who the conference president and other conference officers were; they might have known us. We attended the same schools, sang the same hymns, studied the same Sabbath School Quarterly. Our common beliefs provided an experienced identity. We did not work on Sabbath. We, along with others in our congregation, read books bought at camp meeting; we subscribed to the Review and Herald, shared a similar end-time theology and we knew who the enemy was. That was then. Things have changed, and so have we.
Today, camp meetings are a vestige of a past age, or, if they do exist, the sessions often take place over a weekend or two. Conference officials, from the GC to the local, are frequently unknown and irrelevant to the congregants. Numerous church members have dispensed with the weekly lesson quarterly; they do not purchase denominationally published books. However, this is true: there are millions of Adventists scattered about this earth. Does not the remarkable numerical growth evidence greatness? Maybe yes; but again, maybe no. Numerical growth does not translate into greatness. If numerical growth does not equate to greatness, what does? When we consult scripture, a risky venture, we find that someone once said, “Let him who is greatest become a servant (slave).” Who, in our time, link greatness with humility, with servanthood? Preachers now and again do. Various well-respected business gurus do, too. Secular writings promote humility and servanthood as part of the mix that distinguishes great corporations from run-of-the mill organizations.
Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good To Great, evaluated a representative group of successful American businesses in an attempt to determine what made some more effective than others. He identified specific qualities that each of the great corporations shared. Humility and servanthood are two he found evident in each of the top organizations. In addition to humility and servanthood, other qualities top management shared in common included the following:
- Humility & Servanthood
- Leaders Hired the Right People
- Leadership Confronted the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lost Faith)
- Executives Had a Passion to Be the Best in the World at What They Did
- Leaders Took Advantage of the Flywheel Effect
- Leadership Promoted a Culture of Discipline
I believe that most of us Adventists want our church to be a great organization; this desire reaches from the local parish to the various administrative components. Mediocrity and failure are not satisfying! With this belief in mind, a question that kept whirling about my head was this: Then why do we not give more attention to the qualities associated with great organizations? Agreed, the church is a religious organization, not a secular business. But the church is a business, make no mistake about it. The church is concerned with numbers, budgets, balance sheets, P & Ls, personnel and other components of a modern enterprise. There is one difference that we have that a GM or Apple does not have, and it’s a big one: our reliance and contact with the Holy Spirit and the other members of the Godhead. We are not excused, however, from responsible, creative and effective management.
In thinking about what Collins found that are common traits shared by effective organizations, I asked myself how the Adventist church can apply his findings. What follows are responses to this question. I will add my two cents to the above bullet points one by one.
- Humility & servanthood
Robert K. Greenleaf, in this book Servant Leadership, defined the servant-leader as the person who serves his/her stakeholders, customers, employees, and society. The servant-leader asks “What do you need to be successful?” “How can I help you achieve this?” “What hinders you from achieving your goals?” The person’s response guides the servant-leader’s next actions. One of Greenleaf’s significant questions for leaders is, “In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?” There are numerous occasions when church leaders would have been of greatest assistance had they said nothing.
- The leaders hired the right people
“Riding on a bus” is the metaphor Collins used to illustrate how executives led their companies from good to great. Rather than select a destination and hire people to get them there, they first populated the bus with the right people (and exited the wrong people). The next task was to determine where they wanted to drive the bus. How this applies to a church setting flummoxed me. We are used to being told where we are to go and how to get there. You mean we are to relinquish this management style for the risk of letting competent people chart their course? Yes! And be prepared for an occasional off-course trek. But detours happen now, too. What Collins found is that the great corporations trust their people to figure out what the company needs and they use their creative skills to get there. This approach, if adopted by the Adventist church, would revolutionize how we function and how power and resources are allocated.
3. Leadership was willing to confront the brutal facts (yet never lose faith)
Facts that now impact the Adventist church are complex and significant. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The decline of the North American English-speaking church
- The resistance to incorporate women as equal partners in ministry
- The aging of the NAD church
- Acceptance of the GLBTQ communities. (For further reading see the February 2017 Notes From the President, “Talking about LGBT identities” by Richard Hart, MD, DrPH, president of Loma Linda University Health. For further reading, see the January 2017 National Geographic )
- The unease among science and theology professionals employed in our institutions of higher education
- Ministry to those of a more liberal mindset, as well as to those who value a conservative belief system
Collins found that every great corporation maintained a solid faith that, in the end, one can overcome adversity. At the same time, it is vital that one has the discipline to confront reality.
- Executives had a passion to be the best in the world at what they did
Paul Cone, PhD, a long-time friend and colleague in the La Sierra University MBA program, championed superior performance as the goal for any organization. (He defined Superior Performance as results that are significantly above the norm.) This is a high expectation that applies to every organizational level, including those in the Adventist church. We have an applicable quote that affirms this statement:
“Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children. Godliness–godlikeness–is the goal to be reached. Before the student there is opened a path of continual progress. He has an object to achieve, a standard to attain, that includes everything good, and pure, and noble. He will advance as fast and as far as possible in every branch of true knowledge.” Education, Ellen White.
- Leaders took advantage of the Flywheel effect
Leaders of successful enterprises realized that change does not take place overnight. “There is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment” (Collins, p. 14). Management recognized the accumulative effect of small initiatives. A giant flywheel takes effort to initiate and maintain the first turns, but the small nudges build momentum until good things happen. It is not realistic to expect every endeavor to set the world on fire.
- Corporate leaders promoted a culture of discipline
Every organization has a culture. In some organizations, such as a religious institution, charisma, personality and adherence to a set of beliefs or behaviors are emphasized. Collins found that great companies had a culture of discipline. The organizations that had disciplined people did not need a hierarchy. “When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls” (p. 13).
Here we have the identifiers of successful organizations, all put into a tidy bunch; a representative array of benchmarks commonly evidenced within an organization that has moved from good to great. Note that we have not created a syllogism: If “High St. Church” incorporates attributes 1-6 into its ministry and moves from good to great, and “True Church” does the same, with similar results, then “Hi-Hope Church” will, if it follows suit, move from good to great! No! It is not so simple. There are other factors, the intangibles, that have a role in producing a great organization. It is true, however, that when one or more of the factors that make an organization great are absent or scarce, the odds are the organization will not find itself among the great ones.
In the above excursus we have taken a brief, and very limited, look into the corporate world. Religious organizations can also benefit from what Collins discovered when he examined secular corporations. What he would find should he examine the Adventist church with the same care as he did a GM or Apple is an open question. I feel confident that within the Adventist system there are great components. Our educational system has produced more than its share of superior learning centers. The Adventist health system is ranked near, or at, the top in many areas where our hospitals and clinics are located. Adventists’ response to community and national crisis has set a benchmark for effective ministry. We have numerous examples of great local churches and a significant number of excellent people who fill various pastoral and administrative positions. However, challenges abound. One challenge is to improve the effectiveness and impact of the local parish.
The individual congregation is the foundation upon which all other Adventist entities rest. We may have a phenomenally well-functioning organization, but if our local churches do not thrive, the organizational success is irrelevant. It is short-sighted and irresponsible to limit the resources necessary for the local church to thrive. Unlike in the administrative components where people are paid to perform their assignments, the local church depends on the services of volunteers; you cannot fire a volunteer. If the members of a congregation accept the challenge to move from good to great, there may be some benefit to consider what Collins found as he evaluated the great business organizations. Secular organizations do not have a patent on superior performance. Collin’s study of what successful organizations share in common provides a model that, when incorporated by a church, can prove beneficial. Each congregation has the opportunity to chart its own future and is responsible for its performance. The parish that makes superior performance a goal, that strives to move from good to great, has the potential to find its place among the other successful organizations that have moved from good to great.
 Jim Collins, Good To Great, Collins Business, 2001. Page numbers in parenthesis reference this book
Lawrence (Larry) Downing, D.Min., is retired after more than 40 years as a parish minister serving Seventh-day Adventist churches on both Coasts. He was also an adjunct faculty in the School of Business and the School of Theology at La Sierra University. He is married to Arleen. Together, they have three grown children and six grandchildren. Larry and Arleen reside part time in Rancho Cordova, CA and in San Luis Obispo, CA.