Self-Evaluation: Adventist Denomination’s North American Division
by Monte Sahlin
From ANN, June 22, 2014
Why the Adventist denomination’s oldest territory is actually one of the newest organizations. Officials of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s North American Division (NAD) held a large meeting in May to examine ways of doing its work more effectively. It was announced as the biggest self-evaluation in more than 80 years. The meeting included the top three officers from each of the division’s 59 local conferences and nine union conferences, as well as representatives from the hospitals, colleges and universities affiliated with the denomination. More than 230 people attended the meeting in Chantilly, Virginia.
The meeting comes at a time of change, as the NAD overhauls operations of the denomination's two publishing houses in the United States. NAD leaders are exploring the further development of mission methods largely because of one little-known fact: NAD is actually one of the newest of the Adventist denomination’s 13 world divisions. Although the global Protestant denomination was established in the United States in 1863, a separate organization specifically for Adventists in North America is less than 30 years old. Prior to 1985, NAD and the General Conference (GC) were one in the same. Now, nearly three decades later, the separation of the two entities is still unfolding.
“It’s kind of a paradox in a way. [NAD] was in existence for so many decades before, but it didn’t have any identity,” says Juan Prestol, GC undertreasurer who served as NAD treasurer from 1998 to 2007. In a sense, NAD is still in early stages of development. For decades it had a “unique relationship” with the GC, according to meeting minutes from the 1980s. It has not yet evolved with its own operation of a magazine, TV channel and various other institutions that the GC operates in the U.S. ostensibly for global consumption.
Many of the well-known organizations in NAD territory are owned and operated by the GC. These include the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and Andrews University in the state of Michigan, Adventist Review magazine, Hope Channel television, Loma Linda University in California and Oakwood University in Alabama. Last week, NAD was given ownership of Pacific Press in Idaho. The Adventist colleges and universities in North America have been operated by the union conferences.
Strong physical and administrative links remain between NAD and the GC. The NAD office is located in the GC building in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Additionally, the NAD secretary and treasurer are also GC associate secretary and associate treasurer.
“In ways you don’t even think about there is an interconnectedness of the General Conference and North America being one,” says Pastor Kermit Netteburg, who served as an assistant to the NAD from 1996 to 2004. “Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, maybe that’s totally indifferent, but North America is different than any other world division.”
The process of separating the two entities is still playing out. Several church leaders say it’s a natural progression as the rest of the worldwide denomination develops. More rapid church growth often comes when local leaders are empowered to implement goals best suited for their territory, an Adventist researcher told ANN.
The early church
The Adventist Church sent its first official missionary in 1874, and denominational leaders were strongly advocating a commitment to world mission by the 1890s. As part of that commitment, the first "divisions" of the GC were created in 1909: the European and Asiatic divisions. But initially, these were geographic distinctions rather than organizational units, according to David Trim, director of the denomination's Office of Archives, Statistics and Research (ASTR).
In 1913, the “North American Division Conference” was formed, but was disbanded in 1918. It wasn’t until 1950 that GC officers formed the “North American Division Committee on Administration.” Meanwhile, as denominational structure developed overseas with the creation of more divisions, the newly formed units functioned more as branches of the GC. Even until the early 1980s, the GC held an annual meeting of “Home and Overseas Officers.”
“There was a sense that North America was the ‘homeland,’ and divisions overseas were ‘foreign attachments,’” says Pastor Monte Sahlin, a researcher and retired church leader who worked on the NAD staff from 1987 to 1998. Even until the early 1980s, the denomination in North America was administered by GC personnel. Its first president, Pastor Charles E. Bradford, was elected in 1979 with the title “General Conference Vice President for North America.”
A new division
A number of papers were written by church members and Adventist academics in the 1970s and early 1980s advocating a "real" NAD. The major change came at the 1985 GC Session, when delegates voted to remove from the GC Bylaws all special language referring to North America, Sahlin said. At the end of that session, there was only language about “divisions.” There were 11 at the time.
When Sahlin arrived at the GC building in Takoma Park in 1987, office space for the new division was still being hashed out. “We literally had some people with desks in the hallway at that point because we were still identifying space that was available,” Sahlin recalls.
In 1989, the GC moved into its new building six miles up Route 29 and NAD came with it. In 1990, NAD implemented its own separate accounting structure. In 1991, the Adventist Review reported that NAD had its first Year-End Meeting (governing body) as a wholly separate entity, just like the 10 other divisions at the time.
In 1996, the GC gave the NAD control of the Adventist Media Center in southern California. Last year the NAD began to develop a new, comprehensive media strategy and decided to close the center, encouraging the television and radio ministries to move to areas of the U.S. that have lower costs of living.
Today, NAD is comprised of the United States, Canada, Bermuda, and a number of small island nations in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. They include the French possession of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and the U.S. territories of Guam and Wake Island, Johnson Island, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Midway Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and Palau.
Funding the mission
Though the division has developed more autonomy over its own programs, policies and administration, NAD officials say they are committed to mission in their own region and to the funding of other divisions. NAD provides nearly half of the denomination’s overseas missionaries. It also provides nearly half of the GC budget, a significant portion of which is appropriated to the 12 other divisions. Appropriations to the other divisions range from $1.3 million to $4.9 million each.
While NAD currently provides nearly half of the GC budget, that percentage is down from 90 percent in 1990, said Dr. Gary Patterson, who served as an assistant to the NAD president from 1987 to 1994. Part of the reason for the declining percentage of NAD’s contribution to the GC budget is that church membership has increased in other countries over the years. Also, incomes have increased among members in many emerging market countries, which in decades past had a scant middle class, including India, Brazil and South Korea.
Yet much of NAD’s large contribution to the GC budget stems from the denomination’s current funding structure, in which NAD contributes a higher percentage of its tithe than any other division; 7 percent. That percentage is a voted policy of the GC Executive Committee and is slowly being reduced. That percentage has dropped from 10 percent in 2000, according to GC Treasury officials. By 2020, that figure will be reduced to 6 percent.
In contrast, the denomination’s 12 other divisions contribute 2 percent of their tithe to the GC budget. That figure has increased from 1 percent in 2000. Tom Evans, the NAD treasurer, said the division is still committed to helping fund world missions and the denominational structure worldwide, but the percentages could be adjusted again in the future. “North America may always contribute more tithe [to the GC budget]. I’d be the first to say I don’t want to take apart the structure, but it’s a matter of how much NAD should contribute,” Evans said. He said leaders from both the NAD and the GC are committed to examining the best ways to conduct business in the division and around the world. “It’s a growing experience for both of us as NAD is coming into its own and then figuring out the direction to make that happen,” he said.
Last month’s NAD meeting on self-evaluation was designed to help identify new directions and set key goals. The division in previous years has held similar meetings on a smaller scale to discuss matters such as tithing percentages and retirement benefits. Pastor Dan Jackson, the NAD president, affirmed the administrators for attending the meeting with “open hearts and open minds.”
“This selfless spirit demonstrates a real desire to honestly examine our current organizational and missional delivery systems and how they need to be adapted to make the Adventist Church more relevant in our communities in the 21st century,” Jackson told the group. An NAD spokesman said the participating leaders wanted to identify challenges facing the region and make necessary adjustments in denominational programs and structure.
The first question posed to the leaders was, “Would you be willing to sacrifice your position if it meant more effective mission in the territory.” Ninety-five percent of attendees agreed, a vote tally that was met with applause. “Once they had that commitment, that drove the rest of the conversation,” said Dan Weber, NAD communication director.
Challenges to the Adventist Church in North America include declining numbers of young adults attending church, declining membership among the native-born population, and only 30 percent of eligible Adventist elementary and secondary students attending Adventist schools.
The discussions at the strategic planning sessions identified three top goals: building stronger branding among the general public, streamlining operations and exploring alternative methods for funding outreach. A committee has been assigned to explore the new three goals and prepare a report with ideas for implementation for the division’s Year-End Meeting in November. “Change is scary,” said Weber, “but if you look at it through the eyes of the healthiness of the organization for mission, then you have to do it.”
The Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news service of the Adventist denomination. Ansel Oliver from the ANN staff was the primary reporter on this story, with additional reporting by Rowena J. Moore and Ethel L. Bradford.