by Raj Attiken, November 2, 2016:

“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

It is becoming increasingly evident that the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s multi-layered organizational system is no longer functioning well to serve the needs of a global church. The system, which was initially designed to work for a few thousand mostly-North American Adventists in the late 1800s, is showing itself to be inept for the approximately 19 million-member Church today. Our current processes of decision-making are painstakingly slow, inefficient and incredibly costly. We don’t seem to be able to understand or respect the particularities of the different regions and cultures that are now attempting to live under the same denominational tent. The way we function within the system is driving us apart more than it is drawing us together as a global community.

The questions, therefore, that Adventists should be asking at this particular moment in our history regarding our multi-layered hierarchical system are the following: Is this the best we can do in an increasingly flat, globalized, connected, third-millennium world? Is our organizational system doing for us what we need today, in order for us to be a vibrant, flourishing global community?

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who is recognized as one of the most influential business thinkers in the world, describes research that he once oversaw for a fast food chain to learn how to improve its sale of milk shakes. The chain had spent significant time and money studying the problem in great detail. It even asked customers how it could improve on the milk shakes. Make them thicker? Chunkier? Sweeter? Chewier? After doing what the customers said they wanted, the company discovered — to its dismay — that sales volumes did not change!

The researchers then approached the challenge with a different question: “What job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to this restaurant to ‘hire’ a milkshake?” The assumption here was that
customers were not simply buying a product, but that they were “hiring” the product to perform a specific job for them. By asking customers “What job did you hire the milkshake to do?” they learned that customers wanted the milkshakes to keep them occupied while they drove to work; they wanted something that would be easy to consume while driving (unlike eating a donut!); they wanted something that would last for the duration of the trip, etc. The research led to what Christensen calls the “Theory of Jobs to Be Done.”

An application of Professor Christensen’s theory could go like this: What “job” do we “hire” the church’s administrative levels to do for us? As we think of our life of faith, devotion and service to God, what do we need from our local Conferences, our Union Conferences, Divisions, and the General Conference? What is their usefulness in our faith journey and discipleship? How do they add value to the congregations with whom we worship, learn, fellowship, and serve?

Yet another insight that Professor Christensen provided to the business world is that of “disruptive innovation.” He described how, at one time, computers occupied entire rooms and only a very few experts knew how to operate them. Then came mainframe computers and minicomputers. In the next phase of evolution we had desktop and laptop computers. Smart phones and other hand-held devices followed. Each of these inventions disrupted the former order of things and hence was seen as a disruptive innovation. These innovations led to decentralization, which is often disruptive, hard to manage, and dramatically shifts the locus of expertise, authority, access, etc. In most cases, the heads of companies did not ask for or commission the innovations. These emerged from unexpected places, often at inconvenient times, and caused significant angst in the company or the industry they impacted. In time they captured the market with their preferred product or service. We no longer need the experts in the few centralized offices to get work done on computers. A good part of the world is able to access, transmit, and utilize information via technology.

The phenomenon of disruptive innovation can be seen in a wide range of technologies, industries, and businesses. But, can the phenomenon be observed in the social sectors? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Vast numbers of people are motivated to contribute their creative and innovative capacities for all kinds of social causes that improve the life of those in their communities and nations, and improve the institutions that provide them services. It is happening in the church, too, in the area of missions. Enterprises such as Maranatha Volunteers International, Adventist Frontier Missions, REACH International – to name a few of the better-known ones – create opportunities for people to be involved with their time, skills, and finances, in a space parallel to the church’s formal organizational structure.

It seems to me that we have at least three possible paths ahead of us with regards to our organizational structure in the church. One is to preserve, protect, and perpetuate the system that we have inherited from over a century ago. A consequence of pursuing this path is that the enterprise could sink deeper into irrelevance and paralysis, all the while consuming large amounts of human and financial resources. In this case we are likely to continue to bemoan the loss of emerging generations, particularly in the church in the West.

Another path is to address the issue of organizational redesign with serious and urgent attention. This will require reimagining how we can transform our organization to be responsive, efficient, and nimble. It will involve answering difficult questions such as: If we were designing the Seventh-day Adventist denomination today, would we opt for the current organizational design? How can we be a global sisterhood of churches without all the administrative layers we now have? How can we stay connected and networked? How can we preserve our representative form of governance and prevent authority from being concentrated in unwholesome ways? How can we inspire and manage mission expansion? How can we develop fully-committed disciples of Jesus who worship and serve in and through flourishing congregations? Is there a better way for us to organize ourselves to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations, languages, and peoples?

This second option faces immense challenges. Church organizational systems are highly complex. The structures and culture that defines them tend to be tenacious. Over time they develop into self-reinforcing systems that are difficult to reshape. Often they get trapped by their current ways of doing things. Add to this a belief that the organizational system was divinely conceived, and change becomes almost impossible. This is where we seem to be in the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s century-old organizational paradigm. Some theorists have noted that certain conditions created within a paradigm cannot be resolved or reversed from within that same paradigm. Administrative leaders in the church are not elected because of their creative or inventive skills. Additionally, they have to work with complex and diffuse power maps that include boards, committees, trustees, and constituencies. Often, those who comprise these constituencies are not familiar with the broader issues of church governance and structure, and, therefore, cannot effectively participate in empowering change. Also, leaders are not entirely invulnerable to the impulses of self-preservation.

A third pathway into the future is to cultivate the emergence of “disruptive innovations” that more effectively and efficiently do the “jobs” that we consider to be vital for a world-wide organization. This is no simple task, either. If this pathway opens up, it will be because there are people who are able to harness the power of coalition, the power of language, the power of inclusion, and the power of shared interests to contend with the structural power of the organization. The most likely places for such effective innovations to emerge from are the many resourceful, imaginative, future-oriented people, in all places and all demographic segments, some of whom are currently on the margins of the church. They see possibilities where others don’t. They relate to the tsunami of technological change with fearless openness. They view the global citizenry in fresh ways and see far fewer barriers that separate, divide, or stereotype people. But, they don’t see value in contributing their creative skills to perpetuate an organizational system that they see as archaic and irrelevant.

This commentary is not about altering the identity, purpose, or mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It is not about our core values and fundamental beliefs, except as it calls to question how responsible we currently are in the stewardship of our resources – both human and financial. The issue I raise is not even about reorganization. I believe that reorganizing, rightsizing, streamlining and the like do not meet the demands and opportunities of our time. My commentary here, instead, is about redesign. It is about designing organizational networks and systems that perform for our global family the tasks that are most essential for our ministry and mission. It is about believing that the dreams and visions that the presence of the Holy Spirit inspires in our time in both young and old, as foretold by the prophet (Joel 2:28), include dreams about new and fresh ways of being the church.

The church needs some new paradigms in organizational design and functions. If these appear, either within our organizational framework or as external movements, they could well become the very innovations that steer our Church into a more robust future. Disruptive innovations could well become sustaining innovations. That’s my take!

attiken-raj-2015Dr. Raj Attiken is a student of the interconnections between faith, culture, gospel, and church. He is an adjunct college professor of religion and a mentor of church-shapers and innovators. He is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Worthington, Ohio.