Turmoil in the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA)
by AT News Team
Updated June 24, 2012
Correction added (at the end of the story) June 28, 2012
Dr. Rudi Maier was fired as president of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) during a special meeting of the governing board on Sunday, June 24. The Adventist Review immediately reported that he had been given an opportunity to address the board and participate in a question-and-answer period. The vote to dismiss him was "overwhelming," but not unanimous. The board also formed a search committee to look for a successor and asked Robert L. Rawson, who retired as treasurer of the General Conference in 2002, to serve as interim chief executive.
According to the story published by the Review immediately after the board ended its meeting, Maier's problems were due to "a suprise March 2011 reduction-in-force … terminating 16 employees out of a workforce of 88 [and] another 14 employees [who] have resigned or found other employment in the last 16 months." There was no mention of the issue of the competitive pay scale which has been repeatedly proposed by ADRA administrators and blocked each time by GC officers on the board.
"It is certainly disappointing any time you have tomake a change in the leadership of a dynamic organization," the Review quoted Pastor Geoffrey Mbwana, chairman of the board. It also reported that he said that it is ADRA board policy not to publicly discuss reasons for employee terminations.
On June 5, Pastor Ted Wilson, GC president, asked Dr. Rudi Maier, president of ADRA, to resign. The next day Mbwana sent an Email to Maier with the same request. “Counseled to resign” is a favorite mechanism among employers in the denomination, its institutions and agencies, because it limits the amount of severance pay due under policy and is thought to be a defense against subsequent litigation in improper terminations. It appears this mechanism was used in this situation, but Adventist Today has been told that it is not likely to go smoothly.
At some point in recent weeks, Robyn Mordeno, ADRA’s vice president for finance, wrote a letter to Mbwana describing problems that she saw with Maier’s leadership. Mbwana discussed the letter with Maier, who disagreed with the criticisms. Mbwana then met with all three of the vice presidents and the other two seemed to agree with Mordeno’s observations.
On June 6, Dr. Ella Simmons, vice chair of ADRA’s governing board, met with a group of about a dozen ADRA employees in the GC office to compose a list of complaints against Maier. She suggested that all of those present sign a memo documenting their concerns, but half the group left the meeting and refused to sign the document. It appears that at least some of them feel that Maier was being unfairly criticized.
On June 14, Mbwana informed Maier by Email that he should “suspend any involvement with ADRA matters and take unpaid leave with immediate effect,” asking that he “leave the office when you receive this Email.” Later in the day it was clarified that the demand was paid leave. The same day Mbwana informed the ADRA staff that Maier was not in the office they should deal with the organization's vice presidents. He also told ADRA employees that a special meeting of the board had been called for June 24 and “the purpose of the meeting is to review the current direction of the organization and to review the leadership of ADRA.”
Adventist Today has confirmed these details with multiple sources. None were willing to speak on the record and several refused to be unidentified sources. In fact, one of the Adventist Today reporters resorted to an old technique from All the Presidents Men, the movie about the Watergate episode, telling one individual, “You don’t have to say anything. I just want to know that we are not mistaken. I am going to wait one minute to hang up. If you are still on the line that means we are headed in the right direction with this story.”
This episode raises many issues for the denomination’s primary humanitarian agency. Of immediate concern is the ethics of board members meeting with employees to hear complaints about the agency’s administration. There may be some situations under which this would be ethical, but no allegations have been made about moral misbehavior. It is generally believed by experts on organizational dynamics that it is dysfunctional for this kind of communication to go on.
Many of the rumors refer to “lack of direction” and Maier’s leadership style. Some complain that he is “too German” and that he was disliked by students at Andrews University where he was a professor for several years before being appointed president of ADRA in the fall of 2010. Those complaints seem petty and even racist.
Maier’s ideas about the direction of ADRA are well documented in a number of papers that he has shared with the governing board and at many meetings with ADRA personnel. “Establishing Effective Leadership Systems and Structures” introduces a process for strategic evaluation in each country where ADRA has projects or a branch. “ADRA Professional Leadership Institute” sets goals for a program that has existed for some years designed to upgrade the capacity of the organization and the professionalism of key personnel. “Vision for a Changing World” specifically addresses how to advance the agency with excellence.
Wilson wanted a change in leadership at ADRA when he was elected president of the denomination in the summer of 2010. He quickly asked for the resignation of Pastor Charles Sandefur, the previous ADRA president, and evidently had a hand in the selection of Maier. With a PhD in international development from a secular university, Maier had been an ADRA worker and overseas missionary before he joined the faculty at Andrews University where he taught for two decades. In fact, he served as director of program evaluation at ADRA’s headquarters from 1981 to 1988. He is probably the most qualified individual among the four who have served as chief executive officer of the agency.
Adventist Today has obtained a copy of a letter from Maier to Mbwana, and evidently each board member has a copy, in which Maier poses five important questions about the allegations made against him and the process by which they have been handled. It is unclear the extent to which these questions were discussed during the June 24 meeting.
The board has 37 members, according to the most recent annual report. Of these, only eight are Americans; 24 are people of color and nine are women. It is an exceptionally cosmopolitan group and it is not all clear there will be immediate consensus on firing Maier. Five are GC officers, 12 are division presidents and another four are division officers. Those 21 board members constitute a majority and are all part of the administrative inner circle of the denomination. Of the other 15, eight are not employed by the denomination, four are administrators at Adventist health and education institutions, two are union conference officers and one is an ADRA regional director.
The board’s transparent independence in this situation is probably more important to the future of ADRA than whether or not Maier is an effective leader. If donor organizations were to decide that the board operates at the whim of Church leaders, it could cost ADRA much of its funding base.
At least three different explanations for all this turmoil have been suggested by former ADRA workers in off-the-record conversations with Adventist Today reporters. One, which has been suggested in material published by Spectrum, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums, the largest organization of Adventist academics, focuses on Maier’s leadership style and inter-personal politics. Another focuses on the long-standing differences between the way ADRA’s work is approached by European Adventists and the way it is approached in the United States. The third points out that there have been massive changes in the politics surrounding foreign aid in the U.S. and the role of the largest donor to ADRA, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
ADRA is actually not one organization, but a loose coalition of national organizations in 89 countries. ADRA International is an American organization and gets almost all of its funding from American sources. As the political climate has changed USAID has become more demanding in its grants, requiring greater alignment with current foreign policy goals of the U.S. and more cost efficient operations. This has reduced the amount of money that ADRA can invest in developing church institutions overseas.
Institutional development and humanitarian relief have been the two poles of tension in ADRA from its beginning. It was created in 1984 from a merger of Seventh-day Adventist World Service (SAWS), a humanitarian relief agency, and institutional development grantsmanship activities conducted by some overseas division treasury personnel. The two goals have “lived together, but never really got married,” says one former ADRA worker. Conflicts surface regularly among ADRA staff and the current situation may simply be another battle in the same old war exacerbated by the financial and political pressures of the current situation in America.
Adventist Today obtained a copy of ADRA’s most recent Form 990 report to the Internal Revenue Service, the annual statement required of all tax-exempt public charities in the U.S. It is for the calendar year 2010, the most recent period on record. It includes only money raised in the U.S., not the grants from the European Union or governments in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc.
ADRA took in a total of $74.7 million during the year: $34.5 million from U.S. government grants, $22 million from other donors and $16.1 million in gifts-in-kind (school books, medicines and medical equipment, clothing, etc.). It spent a total of $69.5 million, of which $55.4 million was the direct cost of projects, $6 million was for payroll for its employees, and the remainder for fund raising, program evaluation, training of staff and volunteers, etc.
“I am praying this does not become a disaster,” one veteran ADRA worker told Adventist Today. He pointed out that ADRA affects the lives of more than 20 million of the poorest people on the globe living in the most desperate conditions. Its 6,500 employees in more than a thousand projects are the face of the Adventist Church to more people than all of the evangelism and media ministries combined. Its witness is one of the most important values of the denomination, a view widely held by the people in the pews.
The major issues that led to this internal conflict still face ADRA. Adventist Today will publish an in-depth analysis of the future of the organization in its print edition.
Adventist Today previously reported that Pastor Orville Parchment, assistant to the GC president, and Karnik Doukmetzian, head of the GC's in-house law firm, evidently had Maier escorted from the building on June 14 and took away his keys. Both Parchment and Maier have told Adventist Today that this did not happen on that date or at any other time. Clearly, the imaginations of some observers have been fueled by the events reported above.