by Loren Seibold | 2 April 2023 |
This essay was first published on 9 June 2018. Nothing has changed.
In 2015 an independent study commissioned by the North American Division’s (NAD) Church Governance Committee reported a rather astonishing fact at the NAD’s annual Year-End Meeting. At that time the study found that if we eliminated all North American Division conference offices, and administered pastors, schools, and congregations from the union level, the savings would be $145,000,000.
Yes, that’s $145,000,000 every year. In 2015. The report offered other less radical options (though also saving less money) that could be achieved through strategic mergers of local conferences.
It may be that numbers like that don’t surprise church administrators anymore, that they hear them often enough that they’ve forgotten how many small, sacrificial gifts from ordinary people go into $145,000,000. But $145,000,000 sounded like an enormous amount of money to me, especially since in the past six years I’ve been pastoring four small churches in Appalachia, where folks faithfully remit tithes, but occasionally run short of money to pay the church utility bills.
That an administrative restructuring could save us $145,000,000 each year in just one division of the worldwide church is a reminder of what an extraordinary amount of operating machinery the Seventh-day Adventist Church has. For a group that started out as what our pioneers labeled a “movement,” with deep antipathy to the church hierarchies, titled clergy, and pastoral sinecures that other denominations had, we’ve more than made up for it: we’ve now four levels of officers and office buildings above the local church, hundreds of presidents and vice presidents, and nearly-permanent jobs for those who make it into church administration.
Conference or Union Conference?
For a long time it seemed obvious to many of us that the union conference level would be the most practical to eliminate. The union conferences have some important responsibilities, to be sure: education oversight, running constituency meetings, overseeing conference operations, oversight of colleges in the territory, passing tithes and offerings from the conferences to the division. But efficient communication and easy travel have made it possible for these things to be done in other ways.
Back in the ‘90s when I worked in the Pacific Union Conference, it commissioned a study that suggested we could do quite well without union conferences. Local conferences, it said, manage the important things we hold in common, such as camps and academies. They receive tithe, pay workers, oversee schools, fill pastorates, and resource congregations. What do we need unions for?
The Pacific Union Conference, you’ll notice, still exists.
In fact, we probably could do just fine without union conferences. But I suspect that the argument against union conferences could also apply to local conferences. Resourcing can be done from anywhere. (The best resources now come from independent sources, not from denominational judicatory offices.) Payroll can be outsourced. As for receiving tithes and offerings, it turns out that much of that is dictated by policy anyway, with lots of sending-up and sending-back-down; union conferences could do that, too.
You don’t really need an office building to oversee schools and churches, just an individual who doesn’t mind a bit of driving. (In a lot of denominations, overseeing pastorates is done by a senior regional pastor.) As for camps and boarding academies, where they haven’t already closed, some are financial millstones around the conference’s neck, and more than one conference president has floated the idea that the union should take over his boarding academy so he doesn’t have to be burdened by it anymore.
And then there’s this surprising turn: recently, unions resurged in popularity when it was realized that history and policy give them a significant amount of power. In studying the organizational development of the early 20th century, we discovered that Ellen White had advocated their creation as a firewall against excessively controlling and culturally tone-deaf General Conference (GC) leaders. At least a couple of NAD union conference presidents have exercised their authority, pushing back against this particular GC administration in the matter of ordaining women.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone talk about eliminating union conferences.
How Much Do We Need?
Since the aforementioned NAD Church Governance Committee report, we’ve heard little about streamlining the administrative sector. In fact, the North American Division itself has become stronger, even moving into its own building. As good as that might be for the separation of powers, it doesn’t appear to do anything to reduce the administrative overhead of the church.
Do we Adventists need this big bureaucracy to keep functioning? If you’d ask the people in conference, union conference, division, and General Conference offices, they’ll tell you that they’re all very, very busy—and I believe them. Good workers always manage to stay busy. Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Creative people create new projects. The church doesn’t do market-testing to see if what they’re doing actually makes a difference, so everyone assumes we need every busy person in every nice office building doing whatever it is they’re busy doing.
But I wonder. I think that easy travel and communication should reduce the number of people and buildings needed. Honest people in church administration have admitted to me that there’s a lot of redundancy: similar resources are often being invented by many people, and many new ministry tools created in offices get hardly any use in the field. Presidents have told me that they spend way too much time traveling about to meetings and committees, in many of which their voices aren’t essential.
As the NAD shrinks the number of its institutions and congregations, why isn’t church administration shrinking too?
Why We Can’t Slim Down
All of this leads me to what I think is an inescapable conclusion. As much as we talk about how we’d like to use our money wisely, as much as we voice the notion that we should be doing more front-line work with it, we Adventists love our big fat church administration. We haven’t consciously decided that our franchisees, the local congregations in places like Steubenville, Ohio, and Enid, Oklahoma, are dispensable; but we can imagine communities without Adventist congregations more easily than we can imagine a conference without its own conference office and officers.
My own Ohio Conference, where I worked for 20 years, has had many of the typical small-conference struggles. A few years ago it closed the denomination’s oldest surviving boarding school, Mount Vernon Academy. Though Ohio has some of the biggest metro areas in the United States, most of our congregations are small, their membership aging and declining. Ten churches out of 90 supply more than half the tithe for the conference, and sometimes we run short. As for ministry, it’s inevitable that many of our small churches will close, and districts will get larger and more spread out. (My last district covered 5,000 square miles, with congregations 100 miles apart.)
A few years ago the Ohio Conference moved into a new conference office in the Kettering area, a relocation facilitated by the Kettering Medical Center network. This change flew through the constituency meeting with nary an objection. I’d be surprised if the idea that we do away with our local conference in favor of the union conference, or even that we combine with a couple of other small nearby conferences for economies of scale, was a serious part of any discussion. Though the NAD Church Governance report is well-known, streamlining isn’t yet on our agendas.
After the report of the Church Governance Committee at the 2015 Year-End Meeting, several church leaders came to the microphone. “That’s an amazing idea,” they said. “Just think how much work we could do with $145,000,000! [Pause.] Just keep in mind, however, that my conference, because it is [small, large, ethnic, isolated] shouldn’t be one of those done away with.” In other words, I want that $145,000,000 liberated for gospel work; I just don’t want it to affect my job!
So, is this failure to economize the fault of a bunch of greedy, selfish church leaders? I think that would be a somewhat unfair conclusion.
It’s true that church leaders have little incentive to streamline the organization. They manage the money. They run constituency meetings. And leaders don’t get reelected if things change too much. Consequently there’s not much reward for taking radical action, even if it might eventually save the church.
We also have a church culture that says that the mark of success in ministry is to leave ministry: if a pastor is still pastoring a congregation after 20 years of ministry it’s because he wasn’t a very good pastor, or he’d have moved up into a conference or union conference office, or higher. And this door only swings one way: once you’re in an office, you’ve got job security in the administrative sector, and it’s hard to knock you back down to humble parish ministry.
Still, I’ve sat through too many constituency meetings to blame just the leaders. Lay people don’t like radical changes any more than leaders do. Over and over again I’ve seen Seventh-day Adventists lay people fail to use opportunities to push church leaders to take action that could actually improve ministry in their local communities.
That’s why the recommendations of the Church Governance Committee study didn’t come up when Ohio moved their office to Kettering; and I’d be surprised if they have come up for discussion at any constituency meeting in the NAD, though they are widely known.
How Organizations Work
It’s not just the leaders, but our Adventist lay people who can’t imagine a denomination without a big bureaucracy. Their hearts belong to the Seventh-day Adventist Church as much as to their local congregation, and they can’t picture us without those office buildings and charcoal-grey-suited administrators.
Why we value that so much, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s the belief that something big is happening elsewhere. “I know the limitations of my local congregation, but you ought to see the big buildings, the multiplicity of ministries, of those organizations farther up the ladder!” They give us the feeling that we’re part of something bigger than our little deteriorating church building, our mediocre pastor with his mediocre sermons that we get to hear only every three Sabbaths, our bickering church members, our emptying pews.
Please understand that this is not because either church leaders or church members are bad, or have bad intentions. This is about How Organizations Work. Organizations get the results they’re organized for, and we’ve organized for stability and reassurance—which is to say, for inertia and control. Our church administration is like a big flywheel that keeps us moving in the same direction. But, like a flywheel, it resists redirection, and that is its weakness. Some organizations can see the handwriting on the wall and reinvent themselves as the culture evolves. Religious organizations are very poor at doing that, because a church’s history is its identity. By definition, the product does not change: it’s what got us here, and it will take us through to the end.
Unless, of course, it doesn’t. History shows that religious organizations generally do what they’ve always done until they become stale, and new formulations of the faith capture people’s hearts and minds. The term “Protestant Reformation,” I would remind you, is a misnomer: it did not reform the existing church, but invented something new. Religion usually proceeds by revolution rather than reasoned, planned, and intentional change.
What We Need
I believe that reducing our bloated church hierarchy remains one of the needs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the NAD. Would it be easy? No, it would be painful and difficult. Some officers, clergy, and even many lay people would oppose it ferociously. But to say it can’t be done is a failure of imagination, and (if you accept my premise that it would be better to err on the side of more frontline gospel ministry than with too many offices) possibly even a failure of faith.
And I believe it would do us a lot of good. We could free up money for local work. People might invest their hearts again in their local congregations and communities. And it may again make parish ministry a prestige position, rather than a stop on the way to an office, because many people who were promoted into offices because they were good pastors would have to go back to being good pastors again.
However, the conversation seems to have stalled, as it has every other time it has been discussed, and who knows whether we can restart it?
Loren Seibold is a retired pastor, now the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.