by Monte Sahlin

By Adventist Today News Team, May 14, 2014

Church administrators from the Seventh-day Adventist denomination's North American Division (NAD) are meeting this week to discuss the organization's structure and other strategic issues. The current organizational plan was developed more than a hundred years ago, from 1901 through 1910. At the time travel was largely by railroad and horse, printing was done by steam presses and manual typewriters were new technology that took special action by denominational leaders to permit employees to use.

The denomination has five tiers of organization: local churches, state conferences, union conferences (eight regions in the United States currently), the NAD and the General Conference (GC) worldwide denomination. This structure reflects century-old technology and realities. There are a total of 59 local conferences and nine union conferences; 68 organizations plus the NAD itself.

A central question, which has been studied repeatedly by the NAD since it was reconstituted in 1985 is whether the cost of five tiers of organization is actually worth the cost or continues to be a practical necessity. Various estimates of the cost run from a few million dollars a year to as much as $50 million, although all of these are based on a variety of assumptions that have not really been examined in term of the real impact they might have. Other Protestant denominations with many more members and congregations operate with half as many administrative units.

The rate of church growth has slowed in the NAD from 3.7 percent in the 1970s to 1.5 percent in the last decade. It is still the fastest growing Christian denomination in the United States, but that is seen by many Adventists as testimony to the decline of other groups rather than the success of the Adventist Church. There has also been significant demographic change:  The "graying of Adventism" marked by a median age of 51 among Adventists compared to 36 in the U.S. Census and 35 in Canada. And much greater diversity than in the general population, driven in part by the large role that immigration plays in Adventist growth in the NAD.

There are indicators that the socio-economic profile of the Adventist community is changing too. There are fewer upper-middle-class active members who regularly return a full ten percent of their earnings to the denomination's Tithe Fund. A growing number of members are retirees on limited incomes or from lower-middle-class and poor families. And surveys have shown an increase in those who report putting at least part of their tithe into other funds or projects.

"In many ways the business model that the denomination has operated on since the late 1940s is no longer working," a retired administrator told Adventist Today. "The GC leaders and Adventists in the rest of the world may not like it, but the NAD has to make major changes or we are going to run out of gas."

For many years there has been the question, "Do we need the union conferences?" This is often backed up with references to today's instant communication and rapid transportation, portraying union conferences as having been necessary a century ago because of distances and old technology. In fact, that represents a misunderstanding of the role of the union conferences. Outside the U.S., the union conferences are the primary vehicle for the national churches. For example, one of the union conferences in the NAD constitutes "The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada," which has become its official name.

The noted evangelist H. M. S. Richards, in the late 1960s, was the first to suggest a bolder solution to shrink the denomination's structure in the NAD; remove the local conference layer and let the union conferences deal directly with the local church. That would cut the structure from 68 entities to about ten. That would likely represent the largest savings in dollars.

This is an organizational alternative that is used throughout Europe and other places in the world field. It is officially labeled a "union of churches" because it operates like a local conference in dealing with congregations and like a union conference in dealing with the GC and other institutions. In 2009 the GC Working Policy was amended to specifically permit this kind of structure, although Pastor Ted Wilson, the current GC president, has stated that the GC must carefully review any proposals. At least one union conference in the NAD has already had such a proposal presented by one of its local conferences.

What makes this kind of decision more complicated in the NAD is the 1944 decision of the GC executive committee to permit the historically African American congregations in parts of the U.S. to withdraw from their state conferences and form "regional conferences." These became the first structures in the denomination actually under the control of African Americans at a time when many of the state conferences had pay scales that were racially discriminatory, a practice that would be illegal today.

The Regional Conferences have been a great success. Until recently their growth rates were much more rapid than those of the state conferences and, as a result, the percentage of Adventists among African Americans is about three times greater than among other ethnic groups in the NAD. As more and more Adventist African Americans have become middle class the growth rate of the Regional Conferences has slowed to about the same as that of the state conferences, but that fact also means that hundreds of thousands of African Americans have been lifted out of poverty by the Regional Conferences over the seven decades of this organizational arrangement.

Contrary to what has been published in some articles, there are other places in the world where Adventist entities are structured along ethnic lines. But they are few or hidden in geographic boundaries that follow cultural patterns. One example is the Swedish Conference in the Finland Union Conference which overlaps geographically with the Finnish Conference.

One solution that has been discussed would be to merge the state conferences into the Regional Conferences in the five union conferences where Regional Conferences exist. Because four of the union conferences have only a single Regional Conference, this would probably also involve merging the Mid-America and Southwestern unions and maybe the Atlantic, Columbia and Lake unions. The net result could be as few as 42 units instead of 68, and perhaps as much as a one-third reduction in the cost of operations. This plan targets the areas in the U.S. where consolidation is probably most needed and steps around the potentially explosive issue of organizations with white majorities instructing organizations with black majorities to go out of business.

What are your suggestions for changes in the denomination's organizational structure in the North American Division? Adventist Today will prepare a report based on the suggestions posted here and share that report with the NAD officers.