by Raj Attiken | 20 April 2023 |
I spent more than half of my years in ministry as an administrator in the Ohio Conference. My 26 years of service were fulfilling and enjoyable. I liked being part of a team working to sustain the system that had been bequeathed to us. That, after all, is what the church members who sent us to these offices expected us to do.
In time, however, another awareness deepened in me: that what we were about as conference and union conference staffs was increasingly irrelevant to the flourishing of local Adventist congregations.
During my lifetime, many of us have become desensitized to the wasted resources, both financial and human, of our multilayered denominational organization. At the end of 2021, the Seventh-day Adventist world church operated 1,092 conference and mission organizations, which maintain similar staffing levels in most areas of the globe. The number of administrators, departmental leaders, and staff working in these offices could approximate or exceed the number of full-time and part-time ordained pastors worldwide, a number that was reported to be 20,924 at the end of 2021. The resources represented by these offices and employees—both in terms of their personal contribution in ministry and in the finances of the church—are enormous.
Perpetuating an Ecosystem
So, why do we continue to perpetuate a system that consumes so much of the church’s resources?
Christianity began as a marginal mission movement. In time, the movement became an institution and moved from the margins to the center. Institutionalization brought with it some benefits, but also drawbacks. When early Sabbatarian Adventists organized, they followed the reigning pattern of churches at that time. Mission was chief among the driving factors in the initial organization of the denomination in 1863 and its reorganization in 1901.
With time, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has become an ecosystem of sorts: a subculture with its own language, norms, rituals, and values. The mission statements it produces, the goals it sets, the campaigns it launches, and the reports it issues all reveal signposts of how the system sees itself. Those immersed in this ecosystem become enculturated to seeing it as an essential element of the church—in fact, seeing it as the church.
The hierarchy’s norms seem normal—until they’re scrutinized.
The denomination still sees advancement of the gospel to be an essential function, a priority that appears in many mission, vision, and strategy statements. However, policy and strategy documents that use missional language but leave institutional life unaltered are misleading, even counterproductive.
Discussions about structural reform have persisted for decades. Now and then, someone steps out of the embedded paradigm to question the relevance, or at least the size, of one organizational level or another. Occasionally someone even proposes elimination of one level in the hierarchy.
The typical response to such proposals is to appoint a study commission. These commissions come and go, their reports largely ignored. A study commissioned by the North American Division (NAD) in 2015 showed a potential annual savings of $145 million if the functions of the conferences in the NAD were consolidated at union conference offices. I wasn’t there, but I was told that the response from the floor was enthusiastic that it should be done—by every conference “except ours”!
Another time a conference executive committee even took the “we’ll go first” step of voting to propose to its constituency that it disband the conference and restructure with the union conference as the base-level judicatory. This decision didn’t persuade any other conferences to act similarly.
One conference president defended his committee’s decision to reject the idea by saying, “It wasn’t God’s time!”—though a cynical person might conclude that it had more to do with the prospect of losing his leadership job!
Why We Should Make Changes
The current denominational system includes many features that are relics of a bygone era. The multiple layers of hierarchy have produced redundancies of function. If the General Conference elects a director for a specific ministry, the practice has been to establish a similar office at the division, union conference, and conference levels.
All of them, in some way, see themselves as helping local congregations or their pastors perform some aspect of ministry. They often operate on the premise that all clergy and all congregations share a similar call, possess similar gifts for ministry, and have similar needs or potential. This one-size-fits-all paradigm has seldom been true.
The relevance of our current denominational system to the flourishing of local congregations has become a growing question in recent years. The reality in the 21st century is that congregations do not need much from the various levels of the organizational hierarchy. A wide range of ministries are pursued with energy by most healthy congregations. Most pastors receive quality education and training in the various aspects of ministry.
We are now in a culture of mass communication and diminished control. Unlike in the past, no center of organizational authority and power can direct the functioning of congregations or the flow of knowledge and information. It has become obvious that wisdom does not reside solely in denominational offices, and God has not reserved the biggest visions for church executives. Offices and titles are overrated; church members aren’t waiting for denominational leaders’ approval.
Most importantly, the biggest challenges facing congregations today cannot be resolved through the application of authority from some distant administrative office.
Ministry resources that denominational staff once produced and published are no longer needed; a plethora of resources are now available online, often at no cost. Therefore, a church executive can’t offer much to enhance the effectiveness of a congregation or its pastor.
Conversely, the imposition of programs, goals, and expectations by denominational entities can often burden, demoralize, and render ineffective the ministry of local congregations. The institutional paraphernalia, administrative complexity, and prescribed activities are burdensome and dispiriting. Denominational campaigns that are promoted with slogans announcing, “Every member…” or “Every church…” or “Every pastor…” are seldom relevant to their target audiences.
Undergirding all of these concerns is the matter of resources—both in personnel and finances. Many competent, skilled, and Jesus-loving people who are involved in ministry at the various levels of church administration offer service that has little or no impact on mission expansion. Believing that institutional hierarchy confers status, some pastors feel that serving in a denominational office is more valuable or a higher calling than serving as a parish pastor. This is a regrettable misuse of the giftedness and skills of people.
Admittedly, pastoral ministry can be demanding, exhausting, and demoralizing. Some congregations have unrealistic expectations of their pastor, and the burden of their demands extends to the pastor’s family. The appeal of a more structured, predictable, and reasonable schedule that comes with an office job can be irresistible. Many skilled and effective pastors are lost to parish ministry as a result.
The world church uses an enormous amount of financial resources to sustain this organizational system, which is only marginally effective. We cannot escape the question: How will we faithfully and responsibly steward the resources we receive for the mission that Christ has given us?
Radical Institutional Repentance
We Adventists want our first loyalty to be to Jesus, not to an organization. But we also want the entire world church to be healthy, relevant, and robust. In order to achieve that, we need radical institutional repentance for the resources that we have squandered. We have taken pastors from the front line, making them administrators with higher status but diminished influence. We have led congregations to believe that they can’t function locally without direction from administrators, who are often out of touch with boots-on-the-ground needs.
If the Adventist Church is to embody the gospel, it must be open to critique and change. Its aim must not be to merely preserve denominational structures, but to promote the flourishing of congregations and of those who serve on the front lines.
A good starting point for structural reform would be for the denomination to apologize to its members for the self-protective stance it has repeatedly taken when offered credible research showing that the current structure is too top-heavy for the needs of the church. Radical institutional repentance for squandered resources must include intentional action to eliminate redundancies and waste. That means we should quit employing familiar tactics of defending the current paradigm by delaying commitment to change.
Acknowledging that we have for too long resisted needed structural transformation would be a matter of honesty, not defeatism. Apologizing for it will demonstrate integrity, not disloyalty.
- “Membership Statistics by Division for 2021,” 2022 Annual Statistical Report, New Series, Volume 4 (2022), pp. 17-36. I obtained this figure by adding up the number of missions and conferences in each union conference within each division of the world church. Because the division and General Conference offices maintain much larger staffing levels than the local conference and mission entities, I did not include them in the total of 1,092. ↑
- “Denominational Employees” Chart, Seventh-day Adventist World Church Statistics, prepared by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (updated Feb. 14, 2022). ↑
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.