by Alvin Masarira | 9 February 2024 |
The church can only be effective in its mission if it has good leaders and structures. The history of God’s people has been shaped by the leaders it has had. God has always had a group of people who believed and worshipped Him, starting with Adam and Eve.
The first hint of a movement—as opposed to just a family—is seen among the Israelites in Egypt. During Egyptian slavery there were undoubtedly some leaders, but the first one we know about was Moses. God called Moses, hand-picked him from the deserts of Midian, and gave him an assignment. In anticipation of Moses’ rejection by his own people back in Egypt, God told him what to tell them: “I Am has sent me.” So Moses led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
When Moses died, his successor Joshua was already known. After Joshua came the judges, who led the people until the appearance of the prophet Samuel. All through this period the people understood that it was God who had appointed their leaders. The leader was to be the mouthpiece of God, since he received instruction from God.
When Israel asked for a king they were not asking for a spiritual leader but for a political leader, and for the first time the leadership trinity of priest, prophet, and politician (i.e., the king) came into existence.
There is no clear record of how leaders were appointed in the New Testament church. The apostles were invested with the authority of prophets, but because they were itinerant they appointed resident pastors called presbyteroi and episcopai to be teachers and presiders in the local house churches. It is also recorded by that busy letter-writer Paul that as he set up churches he appointed elders over them.
In many cases the house church pastors were probably also the hosts and/or owners of the homes in which the assembly met. One looks in vain for evidence of a leader of a world-wide church; the Christian church grew and leadership evolved locally.
The post-apostolic church
The letter of I Clement (bishop of Rome 88-97 AD) written in the 90s of the first century led to the emergence of a formalized leadership hierarchy. Cities with multiple house churches periodically met as an informal council. The councils would then choose one of their own to speak, to correspond with Christians in other cities, to chair council meetings—to do and say what the council advised.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the Ephesians in the early 2nd century in which he describes the shift from the council telling the bishop what to do, to honoring the bishop such that he tells the council what to do. The chair evolved into an “overseer” not of a house church, but of the leaders of the house churches, with authority over other pastors. And at some point the term episcopas began to be used exclusively for the chair of the council, and the distinction between “bishop” and “priest” was born.
Most Adventists know what happened with the hierarchical authority among bishops in Rome and Constantinople subsequently.
Centuries later the Seventh-day Adventist Church formally organized, on May 21, 1863, when 20 people met in a business session in Battle Creek, Michigan. They elected Jotham M. Aldrich, a 35-year-old convert (at that point only three years in the Adventist faith) as chair and Uriah Smith as secretary.
There are few details of how these elections were conducted, but it is unlikely that someone had a vision or a dream or heard a loud voice from heaven indicating who the leaders should be. It is more likely that there was lots of discussion and prayer, followed by a vote.
The way in which our leaders are appointed has evolved in the 160-plus years of our existence. Methods vary according to institution: choosing a president of an Adventist university differs from appointing a local church deacon or the officers of a local conference.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on what I consider to be serious flaws in the way we elect senior leaders such as presidents of union conferences, divisions and the General Conference. The main area of concern is that often the electors are those whose positions in the church will depend on the authority of the person they are electing, which can’t help but diminish the oversight role of the electors on those they are choosing.
(I believe that choosing officers for local conferences differs slightly from choosing officers for these so-called higher offices; local conference leaders are usually close to the local churches, and their committees include more lay members whose jobs aren’t influenced by who is in the conference office.)
The games we play
In an earlier essay I described some of the toxic political machinations in the elections of senior church leaders. If we want to see honesty, transparency, and candidness, holding each other accountable and offering each other honest advice, we’ll need policy changes. As it stands now, committees are advisory to the president and his team. For this to be useful, the advisors need independence and autonomy from those with more authority than they have.
In some national governments, autonomy and independence from the executive is so important that some offices—e.g., the state prosecutor or the judiciary—are not appointed by the president but by an independent body such as Parliament or the legislature. This ensures these offices have independence to execute their duties without fear or favor.
We see this in Scripture, too: the prophet Nathan could rebuke King David (2 Samuel 12) because Nathan did not owe his office to the king. Imagine how difficult it would have been for Nathan if he were appointed by David! He might have behaved like the prophets in 1 King 22 who told the king what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to hear.
In our church it isn’t unknown for church employees to refuse to express views which contradict the president. This robs the church of their wisdom—hence the need for another look at how leaders are elected, and what authority they wield over those who serve with them.
Protecting independent thinking
In many church elections the president has significant influence in the appointment of those who work in senior leadership. A newly elected General Conference president will be invited to sit in the nominating committee of the session that is nominating people for other offices. Surely the president will wield undue influence in that committee: who would want to oppose the newly elected president who will preside over many processes in the world church for the next five years?
Similarly, why should the president of the “higher” organization chair the nominating committee of the “lower” organization? The newly elected leaders know that the president of the higher body wields significant influence over their nomination and election, and even over possible future re-election.
Religious organizations are rarely comfortable with critical thinkers. Church organizations have a strong belief in their “truth,” and are convinced that they have little need for other perspectives. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is typical in this: we adopt strong, almost immovable positions and offer little room for critical thinking.
Even though we know that the success of an organization depends on the team the leader surrounds himself with, we also know that insecure leaders surround themselves with individuals who tend to agree with them—the so-called “yes men.”
Effective leaders, however, recognize the importance of diverse perspectives, and actively seek out team members who challenge their thinking and bring new insights to the table. It is exactly for this reason—to help leaders build such a team—that our policies need to dampen the authority of presidents to choose who serves with them and sits on their advisory committees. Even with good intentions, the president will surround himself with like-minded people—people who won’t criticize him or question his actions.
The General Conference (or division or union conference) president should not be able to dictate solely who works with him, but have help from laypeople and others to choose a team that will balance his tendency to isolate himself from good advice and criticism.
These changes require a simple tweaking of church policy: appointing a different chair to the nominating committee and changing election procedures to ensure independence of those who serve on committees.
Surround leaders with those who challenge them
The church can only benefit from changes that would result in leaders’ being surrounded by thoughtful and challenging people. We would eliminate the tendency for committees and offices to be echo-chambers, and introduce critical thinkers who could bring a wider range of ideas and perspectives. The leaders themselves would grow through the expansion of their own knowledge, as well as growing their people skills as they lead people who are better at some things than they are.
Such teams would bring fresh insights, assist in the identification of blind spots, and stimulate robust discussions within the church structures. Executives at all levels need this, and all of us in the church would benefit.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe. He is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.