by Loren Seibold | 5 November 2019 |
There were a lot of short reports today from various departments, most of which I’m going to ask you to read at Adventist Today‘s twitter feed. I think it is the full fatness of these reports, their glorious professionalism, the reach of all that the North American Division (NAD) can do in comparison with what’s happening in churches, that makes people start to realize just how flush with money and talent the division office really is. As one of my friends said, “They’re acting like they themselves have to go around doing the ministry for the whole division.” More on that later.
How Much Money Will Be Left?
A few days ago, a long-time friend at the NAD meeting said to me, “Remember that slide Randy Robinson showed with the items in the ‘parity’ plan that are still left to negotiate? Wait and see: they’ll suddenly find some of that money will be needed further up the administrative ladder.”
Dan Jackson, NAD president, said that “every single net cent” that is retained by the NAD as a result of parity will go to the conferences. “We will not retain that money for in-house purposes, none, zero, zip, nada. We will honor that.” Except, he added, that some of those items on the to-be-negotiated will cost the NAD. The conferences will get the net proceeds.
All of which is to say that my friend is right. 4% over five years going to the conferences is just a number. It remains to be seen what will be left after all the negotiations are finished. “We’re not talking about withholding money,” Elder Jackson says, but my experience is that money is very portable stuff, and has a hard time moving out of the first pocket it comes to.
A Cut in Future Benefits
Ray Jimenez of Adventist Retirement returned today to tell us that the church could no longer keep up with health insurance subsidies for retirees on into the future. There are too many of us retiring, and even though we’re dying faster than we thought we would (see yesterday’s report) it’s going to be too much.
To explain: in retirement, church workers get some subsidy toward the Medicare supplement insurance. At one time, Adventist Retirement supplied that insurance. But with a 9% annual increase in health-care costs, they were facing a $1.5 billion liability. So a few years ago they decided to just subsidize Medicare supplement insurance from the market. That knocked that $1.5 billion down to $400 million.
But, Ray Jimenez explained, the previous plan was for those under the less-generous defined benefit plan—which was frozen in 1999. The defined contribution plan promises a lot more money in retirement than the defined benefit plan did—as Ray pointed out, a person starting today and working solidly for 40 years could easily have a million dollars in retirement.
This whole discussion elicited a lot of poor-mouthing at the microphones. Many pastors feel they don’t have enough.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you ought to be able to live decently on a church worker’s salary. A lot of our church members live on less. When you say how poor you are, it’s sounds ungracious to them.
So what to do? It seems unfair to take away benefits people are depending upon currently, or at least soon. But does it help us find new employees if we take away future benefits? The second seemed less onerous. Samantha Young, communications manager of Adventist Retirement, sent me this:
Here are the five points that were voted today (164 in favor, 29 opposed):
- Pre-2000 (Defined Benefit (DB)) Employees continue to accrue Service Credit towards the maximum benefit.
- Post-2000 (Defined Contribution (DC)) Employees do not accrue Service Credit (for SHARP healthcare assistance) after July 1, 2020.
- Not offered to post-June 30, 2020, employees.
- No Joint & Survivor Benefits for those not vested (vesting = minimum 15 years’ Service Credit by June 30, 2020).
- No new employers admitted to the Plan after June 30, 2020.
- Employees with any Defined Benefit (DB) Plan service are not affected by this vote.
- Employees with at least 15 years of Service Credit by June 30, 2020, will qualify for the minimum assistance.
- Current employees who are affected have many years before they retire to invest and plan for how they will pay for healthcare in retirement.
And that, friends, is probably way more than you wanted to know. But here’s the important thing: the current situation probably wasn’t sustainable, and the change was, simply, necessary. As Ray Jimenez said, either you cut benefits for the future, or we come back and ask all of you for a lot more money.
Statements on Ellen White and Abortion
The statement on Ellen White that flowed through the GC executive committee with fairly little discussion was taken quite seriously here—albeit too late.
When I shared the Ellen White statement on a mostly-NAD, Europe and Australia/NZ pastor’s group on Facebook (FB), I was surprised at the pushback against it, especially that second paragraph, that says that “rather than replacing the Bible,” Ellen White’s writings “correct inaccurate statements imposed upon it. They also help us overcome the human tendency to accept from the Bible what we like and distort and disregard what we do not like.”
Now, I don’t know how you see that, but it looks to me like it’s saying that Ellen White (EGW) always trumps the Bible. That she tells us what the Bible means, and corrects all of our Bible study. At one time that would have been unremarkable, but at least in the NAD Ellen White isn’t any longer above the Bible. When Stewart Pepper of Pennsylvania Conference pointed this out, GC VP John Thomas, who was speaking on behalf of the GC, responded, “I’ll be glad to take your observations back, but it’s already voted.” So why did you bother? (I never was smart enough to be called “up higher,” so there are a lot of things I probably don’t understand, and this is one of them.)
Darrell Lindensmith of Dakota Conference said that the statement placed EGW above the Bible and “I personally would never support this statement.” Ron Carlson of Kansas-Nebraska Conference said, “I’m uncomfortable saying we ‘receive’ it, as though we’re implying we’re comfortable with it. I know we’ll say we don’t [put Ellen White above the Bible] but it says that Ellen White can correct the Bible… we have always said that the Bible interprets the Bible, but this says that Ellen White interprets the Bible.”
In the end, the motion was that we “receive” the statement, but “note the concern on the floor to review this particular statement for consideration.”
The “Statement on the Biblical View of Unborn Life” was presented in the same way. “It’s already approved, but here it is, we want you to ‘receive’ it.”
“This is not a medical statement on abortion,” John Thomas said. “They will be working on that as a secondary. This is a biblical statement on the sanctity of life, and it does apply to abortion.” Well, at least, “The role of the church for those who find themselves in the difficult situation of having an abortion is to support them, not to condemn them and throw them out the door.”
But “it’s still a woman and a woman’s baby,” one female commenter said. Replied Thomas, “The realm of doctor/patient privilege is not addressed in the biblical view. This [statement] is what we can research from Scripture about the value of life . … A patient will always have the right to make a decision with a doctor that has nothing to do with the biblical view per se.” The world church, Ella Simmons said, made a distinction between guidelines and the biblical statement, and was only focusing on the biblical statement. (A distinction without a difference, perhaps?)
Doesn’t all this strike you as a totally backwards way to go about this? A little group in the GC generates something, approves it, and then says, “Here it is, please ‘receive’ it,” and a whole division of the church has to say, “We don’t like it. But all we can do is say we’re concerned about it after the fact.” Good grief.
Over and Over Again
I’ve been banging on for years about our fattening administrative structure. Back in 2015 the Church Governance Study showed that if we kept just union conferences and eliminated local conferences, we’d save $145,000,000 each year in the NAD. What’s been done about that report? In a word: nothing.
We have major problems ahead. Colleges are struggling, churches are struggling, and there seems to be no will on the part of anyone in authority to cut back.
Still, others are recognizing the problem and sounding the alarm.
Throstur Thordarson, a pastor from Indiana, said, “Like a supertanker, we’re very slow to change, but I’m afraid that like the Titanic, we’re ignoring the iceberg in front or us. People are anxious to see changes, and not wait until we hit the iceberg.”
Elder Jackson replied, “Radical change is needed, but that will mean radical sacrifice from every institution: churches, conferences, unions and the division .…There are serious, serious issues confronting the church today, and some of them affect its well-being.”
Sandy Roberts from Southeastern California Conference said, “Every time we come to these meetings, whether about education, or the retirement plan, we are dealing with a symptom of a larger problem in the North American Division. We are not addressing our structure, technology, collaborating, downsizing, and until we do that, we are going to be constantly dealing with symptoms.”
Randy Roberts of Loma Linda University Church, responding to a stewardship report, raised the question of “where money actually goes.” “I get a significant amount of pushback” when young adults “think it’s just going to support a structure …. Questions like, ‘What are we doing to streamline that structure, to make it not so top heavy?’… What can we do to keep more money locally? And with all due respect to our conferences, I’m actually talking local church. … We need a promise to people in our pews that something is indeed happening,”… “a change in the structure.”
Several responses had to do with communicating more clearly how the tithe money is used. Elder Jackson: “So the idea is that we invite our conferences and churches to describe the wonderful opportunity they have of giving to the church and how the church in different areas of governance blesses others with the funding—boy, that’s getting pretty ethereal.” Randy Roberts agreed: “We’ve had many attempts to tell what happens with the tithe dollar… but in a church that is very heavy on administrative structure… we need to be looking at how to streamline and how to keep ministry funded at a local level.”
Elder Jackson’s Response: “I know it’s painful, it’s hard to even think about… but I think it would be a tragedy if we faced a General Conference in 2025, and the North American Division still looks like it does now. It’s good to explain how funds are allocated, but it will be mandatory in the future to show how we’ve reallocated the funds in order to satisfy our need to minister to a world in need. On the other side of General Conference Session this needs to be the NAD’s top priority. Things should not look the same in five years.”
Can anything actually happen with this? I’m pessimistic. Dan talks about it, lots of people talk about it, but it comes down to this: “I want you to change everything, as long as you don’t make me change anything.” Yes, church, please change so we can save all of that money, but don’t make me close my church, my academy, my camp, my college, or the administrative office where I work. Keep everything the same for me, because I’m essential. Just change everything else.
Human nature, I know. But what it means is that it’s far safer for an elected officer to simply keep things as they are. It’s only as they’re going out the door, like Dan Jackson, that they can shout over the shoulder, “Hey, now that I’m leaving, you guys need to trim this whole business down!” Sorry, Dan, I love you, but you’re saying it too late. It’s unlikely your successor is going to do what you didn’t.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.