Who Controls the Church?
by Lawrence Downing
In my previous blog, I addressed the subject of ecclesiology: Who controls the church? As a partial answer to this question, it is legitimate to examine three of the major players in the ecclesial debate: pastors, church administrators and the people in the pew.
The pastor’s influence, in most situations, is limited to the parish she/he serves. The pastor may express views to those in administrative positions, but it is a quiet voice that may or may not be heard. Within the parish, the pastor has considerable influence. To many of our parishioners, we are the face, the heart and the mind of the Adventist church! We represent the church in its proclamation of Gospel of Jesus Christ. The pastor’s real authority rests in her/his ability to persuade people to act. The adage, “You can’t fire volunteers” is the operative mode.
Once we leave the context of the parish, we enter the church administrator’s realm. In an ideal world, church administrators facilitate the mission of the church. They are in office to provide support to the people in the local parish, assure that the routine tasks, such as payroll, insurance and other business matters, are carried out, coordinate programs within a conference or regional area, and monitor the churches within their boundaries. In the real world the ideal is seldom realized.
In the Adventist church, with its four bureaucratic layers, the tasks associated with operating a multi-faceted organization with its numerous churches and institutions are complex and diverse. It is important to acknowledge that church administrators, likely a great majority, are well-meaning, pleasant, caring and responsible individuals. They are the kind of people we welcome round our table and enjoy the opportunity we have to know them. Men and women in administrative positions have a genuine concern for the church and its people. At all administrative levels there are people dedicated to the Christian faith and the ideals of the Adventist church. In private conversation many will acknowledge the problems that confront the Church. They recognize frailties and suggest viable solutions. At they same time they admit how difficult it is to modify the status quo.
By virtue of their office administrators have access to finances that are beyond the reach of the parish minister. They determine how funds are allocated and assign people to various tasks.They decide what ideas are promoted and which ones will be diminished or rejected. Their decisions, when positive and wise, often go unnoticed; when decisions have a negative outcome the internet hums.
Like the pastors, the administrator’s authority over the parish is limited to persuasion. There is more direct control over people within the organization they govern.
The person in the pew is often caught in the middle of the various forces within the church administrative levels. In past times, church members were usually so far out of the loop that what took place in the bureaucratic levels above the local parish had little or no impact. The World Wide Web has dramatically changed the communication process. Many church members keep up on church politics and share ideas and concerns via the Social Media. These communication systems have changed the world forever and nothing will ever be the same.
What influence does the person in the pew have? Much in every way! The person in the pew is the one essential to assure the Adventist church continues to fulfill its mission. The people in the pew are the only sure source of income. They provide the resources that keep the wheels turning and aligned. They volunteer their services and share their wealth. Should they choose to do otherwise the Adventist church will slip into oblivion.
With the above as context, I want to look again at church administrators. What authority do they have? They have the authority to lead! They can take action that will facilitate healing and unity within our church. The following suggestions, I believe, are worth a look:
- Become a facilitator, rather than a blocker.
- Acknowledge that God works through his church on all levels, especially the parish.
- Practice a Servant-Leadership model.
- Do not take the CUC and PUC vote as a personal attack.
- Express praise to God that the Spirit is active within the church.
- Implement justice.
- Place compassion and values above policy.
- Uphold a theology and practice that is consistent with Jesus’ love, mercy and grace.
Should church administrators decide to implement one or more of these options I believe the result would be a calming effect that will counter animosity or fear. Church administrators have opportunity to assure members that each individual, including the one who may take issue with certain church policies, is a child of God and a valued member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.