by Alvin Masarira, PhD   |  24 Mar 2021  |

The previous organization I worked for was a global mining company operating both underground and surface mines, as well as ore-processing plants in various parts of Africa, South America and Australia. Mining operations are characterized by activities that pose high risks of injury and even fatality to workers. It involves the use of explosives to blast large rocks into sizeable pieces, then the transfer of ore to processing plants using abnormally huge trucks, conveyor belts or underground cages. The ore is crushed in very noisy and dangerous plants until the product is ready to be transported by trucks, trains or ships to the final destination, which could be local or overseas.

Safety is a big concern for the mining companies and is key to their operations. How can work be done safely? All over the mining operations are signs, posters and banners encouraging people to work responsibly and safely. Workers (including management) are instructed to obey procedures and rules, not to take short-cuts, and to take care of their own safety and that of others. Unsafe behaviors can result in disciplinary action and even dismissal. The governments of the countries where mines operate keep a close eye on the safety records of these organizations since it is a historical fact that many people have been harmed, injured and indeed killed in mining operations. Many countries even have legislation such as the “Mine Health and Safety Act” (or similar). These laws define the expectations and requirements in mining with respect to health and safety.

The leadership of many mining organizations ensure that the message of safety is communicated very clearly and regularly to everyone who works or even visits the operational sites. It is a message communicated by the most senior leadership, the Chief Executive Officer and his or her management team. There is an expectation that everyone in the organization views him or herself as a “safety champion”. Whenever an unsafe act or situation is observed by anyone, anywhere in the organization, it is mandatory that whoever observed it acts to rectify it or notify whoever is responsible. No one, no matter how senior or junior in the organization, is allowed to walk away from or ignore a situation that is considered unsafe.

Out of these safety concerns, a concept called Visible Felt Leadership (VFL) was developed and is now common in many industrial organizations. It is based on the expectation that when it comes to safety everyone is a leader and that leadership should be “visible and felt”.

VFL

Although VFL originated in industrial or mining organizations, the concept can be applied in all organizations with respect to their goals and objectives. What are those issues that are critical to the organization and what is expected of organizational leadership? Although organizational leadership (at all levels) should not be dictatorial, it should, however, be visible and felt. There must be clear direction, clear vision, clear guidance and clear interventions where necessary. Leadership should lead, even more so in times of crisis, just as unsafe working conditions are considered a “crisis” in industrial organizations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a crisis for all organizations, including religious organizations such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A crisis that threatens the “health and safety” of the Church. This crisis has presented unprecedented demands on organizational leadership, and since it is global, everyone is having to deal with it. The impact of COVID-19 was first felt by most in the early months of 2020, and after one year of this global pandemic we have the opportunity to look back at how we have all fared.

Looking at the Seventh-day Adventist Church as an organization, one year since the global lockdown, raises for me the following six questions.

  • What impact has this crisis had on our organization?
  • What lessons have been learnt?
  • Has the organization made the necessary adjustments as required by the global and local conditions?
  • What has been the response of organizational leadership to the pandemic?
  • Has leadership adopted and been practicing Visible Felt Leadership during the pandemic?
  • Where to from here?

I wish I could paint a good picture of the organizational response to the pandemic. Sadly, it is my view that the pandemic has exposed some serious weaknesses in how the organization and its leadership (at various levels) have reacted to the pandemic. A cursory inquiry at various levels of the church reveals no visible evidence of an intentional and radical “direction-giving” by church leadership. There is no sense that the church has fully grasped that the world has changed so dramatically and demands a radical mindset shift in organizational structures and their operation. The thinking patterns and modus operandi that permeate (quite deeply) Adventism were birthed in late 19th century northeastern United States. This was then nurtured and cultured for over 150 years. Besides some minor tweaking at the edges, there have never been any significant organizational reforms since 1901.

Regular Structural Renewal

Experts on how organizations operate know that organizations require regular structural renewal in order to face the challenges of an ever-changing world. The overall organizational focus might remain (a mining company will still be involved in mining even 150 years since its inception) but the strategic framework, organizational structure and systems need to be adapting to the new realities. The process of organizational renewal and adaptation ensures that the people working for or involved in the running also adapt to the new ways of organizational operation. Organizations that do not undergo regular renewal tend to fossilize and struggle to adapt when a sudden, unexpected and drastic global pandemic such as COVID-19 is imposed on it.

Although the mission of the church has never changed since Jesus established it in the Book of Acts, the world in which the church operates has been constantly changing. Contrary to popular belief, the Adventist Church has a centralized organizational structure, with the General Conference enforcing policy compliance. Because of the centralization of authority, the onus then rests on leadership to drive any directional changes that might be necessitated by a crisis such as COVID-19. There, however, has been serious reluctance on the part of Adventist Church leadership to implement (or even consider) any changes that are of such significance as to require major policy rethink or review. There are a number of issues that could be looked at, such as the approval to conduct online conference constituency business sessions (although some local churches are already conducting online local church business meetings).

Another issue needing review is the use of tithe in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Tithe and its use is a controversial topic, but given the devastation the pandemic has caused on livelihoods and the need for practical Christianity, the church might be well advised to look at its financial policies. Does tithe only have to be used for paying salaries to workers and funding conference departmental programs? Some local conferences and unions sit on massive tithe reserves, which, because of policy, can’t be used for anything else outside current policy.

Pastoral ministry

Linked to the issue of tithe is the role of pastors in the church. The pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in the “training and equipping” of Adventist pastors. As soon as physical (in-person) church and weekly services were taken away, many pastors struggled to adapt to the new reality. It would be time to consider whether we need the bulk of our front-line pastors to be full-time (100%) employed by the organization. It might be necessary to put as many pastors as possible on 50% employment by the conferences. That might require a transition period where pastors are equipped to move into roles where there are only 50% church employees. A lot of the work at local church level is already being executed by local elders and other lay leaders, and the 50%-Pastor would free up some of the Conference budget and still ensure the operations at local church. Pastors would need to be re-skilled in some areas and be assisted in even “re-inventing” themselves to indeed become “essential service providers” in the communities where they are located.

Another area of consideration would be the policy on who can conduct a baptism in the Adventist Church. At the moment only ordained pastors (and ordained elders with Conference permission on a case-by-case basis) are allowed to baptize. Given the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, there might be need to issue something like a two -year “License to Baptize” to a number of local elders in various parts of each conference. That would assist to ensure more baptisms are conducted in smaller groups and reduce the likelihood of disease spread.

Expediting change

Although it might make them feel uncomfortable, the pandemic is forcing leaders to make decisions faster than during pre-pandemic times. The challenges presented by the pandemic are demanding that many decisions be made even with limited or imperfect information. This is often a big challenge for church leaders who normally like the assurance that they are making the right decisions. One of the challenges of the Adventist Church is the time taken by the various structures to get decisions made. A simple example is the process of inviting a guest speaker from one local or union conference or even division to another. The approval process requires it to be considered and voted by at least six different committees for example, to get a speaker from the North American Division to come for an appointment in Africa. The church needs to review the speed at which decisions are made and increase organisational efficiency.

A significant move to improve organizational efficiency would require some form of decentralization. Even some form of congregationalism. That would take the church to the original idea and intention of our founders when they established union conferences in 1901/02. The idea was to ensure that decision making is decentralized. Over the decades the General Conference and its divisions have been usurping much of the authority and leaving the local and union conferences at the mercy of a top-down church administrative system.

And finally, we need to start (actually, we should have started in 2020) re-imagining the church of the future. It is very evident that we do not know how long this pandemic will last. We do not know how long we will have to deal with the restrictions it has imposed on the church. There is, however, one thing we know, and it is the fact that the pandemic has changed society, the world and the church going forward. The optimistic view says life might only return to the pre-COVID-19 “normal” sometime in 2022 or 2023, barring any unforeseen mutations of the coronavirus that would render any available vaccines or medicines ineffective. But whenever this pandemic is over, it will leave behind a world and a church membership that is vastly different from what it was pre-COVID-19.

People will have changed in the way they think, view life, engage with and function in the church. This requires that leadership start re-imagining what the church will be like in the future. The mission and mandate of the church, to go and preach the gospel and hasten the return of our Lord and Saviour, will not change. However, the methods of operation, the systems and structures might be modified to suit the new reality of a post-COVID-19 world and church. The Adventist Church has tended to be program-driven (creating lots of programs and content for the local church) but has been weak in community engagement and relevance to prevailing local and global circumstances, and has ignored some societal challenges around social justice and uplifting the needy. This has caused the church often to be viewed as non-essential. The pandemic, devastating as it is, should be seen as an opportunity for the church to re-organize itself.

There is need for bold and courageous leadership. A leadership that is prepared to go where no one has gone before. A leadership that is willing to ask itself serious questions about the direction the church should take for it to be more effective in reaching the world’s billions with the gospel. A visionary leadership that is able to see the vision God might be imparting on the church for such a time as this, so that they can say like Paul “….I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). May we not be disobedient to the vision God is giving us through this pandemic experience.


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.

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