The Toxic Politics of Church Leadership Elections
by Alvin Masarira | June 19, 2019 |
The period leading up to the end of 2020 will be marked by some events that have a significant impact on the church in the Southern Africa Union Conference. Towards the end of this year, two local conferences (Trans-Orange Conference and the Northern Conference of South Africa) will have their triennial constituency meetings. And then the Southern Africa Union Conference itself will hold its quinquennial business session towards the end of 2020.
And somewhere between these constituency meetings will be the 61st General Conference Session, from June 25 to July 4, 2020 in Indianapolis. The General Conference Session doesn’t only elect leaders at the General Conference headquarters in Silver Spring (Maryland) but also leaders of all world-wide divisions, including those of the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division.
With this in mind, some important questions need to be asked. How much progress have we made as a constituency since the last business session? What levels of growth (both qualitative and quantitative) have we experienced? Are we in better shape since the last business session? How have we dealt with the challenges we have faced? And as we look forward, do we have a clear picture of the organisational future we want? What strategy exists for organisational development? What challenges are we facing as a church in this part of the world and how do we deal with these? And knowing our challenges, what type of leaders do we need to guide us through these murky and turbulent waters?
All these issues bring me to the issue of leadership appointment in the church. Leaders in the Adventist Church are generally elected at a constituency meeting for a limited term. Although it is an election, the rules are different from world political elections which are characterised by campaigning and public contestation resulting in winners and losers. In the church, the constituency meeting appoints committees which are tasked (within a limited time frame, and sometimes even within a few hours) to come up with one name for each leadership position. This is voted either up or down by the general meeting. More often than not, the meeting accepts the names presented. The idea behind all this is the belief that God’s Spirit leads the consultative process to appoint the right people. A contestation for positions is shunned since it is believed to bring with it a spirit of human machinations and manipulations and therefore an inability to listen to God’s guidance in the process.
In the Ministry Magazine (June 1995) John Fowler wrote an article entitled “Choosing Leaders”. In it Fowler outlines the “qualifications” we should look for in a person considered for leadership. He based these qualifications on the appointment of leaders in the early church. Fowler then presents 3 principles to be followed in the selection of leaders, and these are, pray for the leadership of the Holy Spirit, submit to God as the ultimate chooser and then recognise that we chose leaders to advance God’s purpose. Fowler says “The church we are part of is a transcendent body, however frail and human it might be. It is not a political institution, it does have elections not to prove democracy, not to convert the body into a perpetual political arena for choosing leaders”.
However it would border on gross naivety to believe there is no political contestation when it comes to church elections. One of the worst kept secrets in the Adventist Church is that as we approach business sessions a lot of campaigning takes place for positions that are up for grabs. But somehow we convene these constituency meetings pretending that delegates arrive there with open minds, without any names that would have already been privately discussed, days, weeks, months or even years before the business session.
There are even cases of delegates being offered financial bribes to vote for a specific person at session. There are also cases of some aspiring leaders (usually the incumbents) who, just before the session, suddenly have time to visit as many local churches or institutions as possible to “campaign” and to be seen to be working. Leaders who were rarely seen on the ground are now seen all over the constituency territory. And in some parts of the world, the pre-session campaigning is even marked by threats of or even real physical violence on rivals as various factions fight for positions.
The problems recently encountered in the Burundi Union Mission have often been presented as a religious liberty matter, but in reality it is a fight for church positions and power among rival factions. This movie has played itself many times over in many parts of the world. This fight is often driven by a desire to control church resources as well as a desire for authority over church systems and church people (e.g. pastors, employees etc). That results in business sessions becoming battle grounds for control. Of course the Holy Spirit can put to naught plans devised by human beings prior to the session. The Holy Spirit has sometimes surprised session proceedings by leading the delegates to appoint people no one had thought of before. It is however important that we don’t live in denial about what transpires in the build up to business sessions.
The pre-session campaigning has many detrimental effects on the church, one of which being the huge focus on personalities rather than on the developmental vision and strategy of the church. Rather than first asking “What do we need to do as a church to grow and make an impact in society?” people ask “Who do we want to become the conference president?” Organisations that succeed start by developing a vision, a strategy and a plan to achieve their goals. Only then do they ask “what type of people do we need to drive this strategy?” They do not start by appointing people and then later wonder what to do now with these appointed people.
We therefore sit with a dilemma as a church in many parts of the world and even at division and General Conference levels. Do we have a clear developmental strategy which forms the basis of appointing people? What do we do with the current system, since we know that people campaign for church positions? This campaigning has brought toxic politics into the church. I would like to propose a reform in the way the church elects conference leaders. The church needs to accept that campaigning for leadership positions exists and will not go away soon, and start managing the process rather than let it happen in the dark corners and in secret meetings.
The starting point would be for conferences (local conferences, union conferences and the General Conference and its divisions) to have a clear developmental vision, plan, programme and strategies. That strategy and programme should form the foundation of conference development and plans for the future. A significant amount of time should be spent, during business sessions, on debates and discussions concerning the developmental agenda and how it should be implemented. Then and only then can the question be asked “who are the people that are capable of implementing it?” Personality discussions should follow strategy and programme discussions and not the other way round. The proposed reforms would then allow some form of “campaigning in order to convince the constituency”. Since each conference is unique, it would need to implement this process in a manner that suits it. Using a local conference as an example, the following is recommended.
- One year before the business session, the union conference appoints a search committee (which includes lay members of the local conference)
- Any person wishing to run for conference president submits a resume and vision/strategy for the conference for review by the search committee
- The candidates are then interviewed by the search committee and a short list of (maybe three) candidates is then finalized
- These can hold town-hall style meetings across the conference territory. These would be public meetings where church members attend and listen and ask questions to interrogate the vision presented. The union conference leadership facilitates these public meetings
- The delegate at the business session would then make a final and informed decision on who is to be appointed as president.
Because there would have been a one year process of “interrogating” the vision of potential presidential candidates, the appointed leader would be someone the church knows and whose vision has been articulated. This would also increase the levels of accountability of church leadership.
The current church election process often places into leadership positions unknown people whose vision and strategy is hardly known by the general constituency. I am sure that the majority of church members in most conferences have no idea what vision or strategy their conference leadership is pursuing. And if there is any strategy, it would have been developed by the conference executive committee after it was appointed and not by the constituency business meeting.
This proposal would eliminate the clandestine campaigning that is currently taking place as we approach local conference, union conference and General Conference sessions. If any campaigning is to take place, it would at least be done in a controlled, transparent and public manner.
The church needs to finally grasp what it means to be an organisation that has a multi-billion dollar budget and operating in a complex world. And organisations that runs schools, hospitals, sanitariums, colleges and universities. Some of the conference leaders serve as chairpeople of boards of these institutions and have to deal with the state or government agencies or private corporations in ensuring that the church and its institutions operate effectively and efficiently.
The world today is very different from that of the 19th century in the northeast of the United States. One of the reasons we struggle with some complex issues as an organisation is due to the process we follow in appointing leaders. When one sees the responsibilities of our presidents, for example, one wonders if the session delegates think about all these issues in the 10-15 minutes between the time the names are presented to the floor by the nominating committee and the final vote. We often don’t seem to have an overarching vision or organisational development strategy that informs the type of leadership we appoint. And when we do appoint leaders we leave them to figure out what they will do during their term of office, rather than giving them a clear mandate and ensuring they can be held to account both during and at the end of their term.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.