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Church Accountability: Seven Cautionary Narratives

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Mid-June 2008, a newly published 379-page book arrived in my mailbox on the east coast of Australia. Who was willing, I wondered, to pay $15 to airmail this volume from the United States to the Antipodes? Immediately, the title arrested my attention: Who Watches? Who Cares? Misadventures in Stewardship. On the back cover, a three-part blurb summarized the contents: “Religion/Seventh-day Adventist/Finance.”

As an historian, my special interest is in the history-of-ideas as applied to religion in general and Adventism in particular. Having studied and worked in the North American and South Pacific divisions, I watch closely and care deeply about my world church. Instantly, I questioned the assertion on the back of the soft cover: “THE GREATEST NEED of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is for well-informed members to give liberally not only of their tithes and offerings but of their very best judgment—as church board members, as constituency meeting delegates, as local and union conference committee members and as institutional trustees.” Without question, that sentence articulates a great need. But the greatest need? A bold claim indeed! I was about to read a new, important, doctoral dissertation. Unwillingly, at first, I laid that task aside: to read Who Cares and assess its evidence.

The book is a very good read, mostly narrative history brightened by precise language and penetrating insights. In sharp focus are institutions and personalities from the remembered past: Fuller Memorial Hospital, Donald J. Davenport, M.D., Harris Pine Mills, Family Enrichment Resources, Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, Robert S. Folkenberg, Boston Regional Medical Center. At least some of the key names will evoke memories for most Adventists of long standing. Most of the major outcomes were known to me. But, as I read the scintillating text, I realized that I was unaware of rich details within each of the seven cautionary tales and, even more particularly, disclosed in the copious (1,184) endnotes.

Who Watches delivers a startling message: not nearly enough Adventists watch closely. Our church is big business, very big business. Excellent pastors may be disastrous executives. Wise spiritual leaders may fail to see bold indicators of looming financial disaster. Conflicts of interest may cloud the vision of decision-makers.

While the chapter themes derive from a bevy of related concerns, they center in the issue of accountability. After witnessing successfully for generations, why did a number of Adventist healthcare institutions die painfully or pass to other owners? How did the church for decades accrue rich benefits from the “gift” of Harris Pine Mills and then lose the facility entirely? What caused the literature ministry to suffer “immeasurable” losses in souls and dollars? Why did a projected “series of 15 videotapes with animated Bible stories ranging from creation to redemption” cost so much yet never materialize?

Donald Davenport told President Robert H. Pierson the truth in 1977: that he was “handling and investing millions of dollars for the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a corporate entity as well as for many officers and individuals” (page 56). But in the same letter, Davenport complained that for “several years a short statured Napoleonic complexed individual” in Pierson’s office had been opposing such investments. Why did the church fail to heed the voices that warned so urgently of inevitable disaster? Time revealed the “Napoleonic” treasury official was a faithful whistleblower whose advice might well have minimized an escalating disaster. But up to fifty percent interest on personal investments clouded the judgment of well-meaning leaders with sacred money in their trust.

Similarly unwise decisions destroyed Robert Folkenberg’s promising presidency of the General Conference. In hindsight, a deep flaw in the church’s method of electing leaders doomed it in 1990 to the tragedy that became public nine years later. Folkenberg’s track record in financial matters dogged his steps as a missionary and a local conference president for decades. Surely, had this reality been shared with the Nominating Committee in Indianapolis, no astute member would have voted him into the awesome role of world leader. The church and its mission—and the president and his career—were diminished by the debacle.

Who is equipped to tell such cautionary tales? The author, Douglas Hackleman, is probably remembered most colorfully as the investigative reporter whose writing spiced the magazine Adventist Currents early in the tumultuous 1980s. His mind is now more measured, his language gentler, but his passion for truth remains. Hackleman’s acknowledgements (vii-xii) begin with twelve participants in a Members for Church Accountability symposium that convened in Loma Linda during 2001. “Among them the dutiful dozen provided a moderator, an introduction, seven eight-minute digests of financial misadventure stories and three essays suggesting causes and cures.” The quality of this book has benefited from many other persons, as well, under the driving initiative of an author who over long years has invested evident skill and outstanding diligence in a task that merits the gratitude of the church at large.

Hackleman’s Epilogue illustrates the informed, probing nature yet constructive tone of the book. He issues a call for “POT—Policy, Oversight and Transparency.” He deals with the significance of mercy and forgiveness, as well as the biblical admonition not to judge. He notes, sadly, that no “person responsible for any part in these stories of administrative or fiduciary failure has come forward to publicly bewail his responsibility in the loss of money, institutions or reputation.” Hackleman would have liked to see such a man “crusade for the kind of changes that would help him and others like him to perform their work for the church in a way that the travelling Landlord required of his servants.” Since the church lacks such Chuck Colsons, his closing paragraph is solemn, confronting:


Nevertheless, because these disasters were not due to flood, fire or earthquake (acts of God), they were not beyond our collective control. We the church members, acting as enablers, are by no means blameless—giving and giving of our means without requiring accountability. The intention of MCA [Members for Church Accountability] with this publication is to motivate every Adventist not only to watch and to care, but to agitate for those adjustments to policy, oversight and transparency that will preclude the need for a sequel to this publication (374).

Bravo to the indefatigable writer, “the dutiful dozen” and the many who brought this disturbing book to birth. No local church delegate to a conference session, no union or general conference delegate should presume to cast a vote without internalizing its message. Has this cautionary tome exposed the church’s greatest need? My bias suggests that we need the same principles of transparency with reference to matters of biblical and historical interpretation. But I am fully persuaded that MCA has proved the accountability it enjoins is a towering need of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Now!

Arthur Patrick writes from Cooranbong, Australia where he is an honorary senior research fellow. His degrees include a BA in theology from Avondale, an MA/MDiv from Andrews University, a DMin from Christian Theological Seminary, and a PhD from the University of Newcastle. He has served in evangelism and parish ministry in New Zealand, the United States, and Australia and as a religion teacher at Andrews University, Avondale College and La Sierra University. He was also the director of the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Center in the South Pacific Division for eight years.
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Buy the book?

Visit www.advmca.org, (you can read sample chapters) or e-mail advmca@aol.com or just send a $25.00 check or money order (sales tax, shipping & postage included) per book payable to:

Members for Church Accountability, Inc.

9450 Jeffery Dr.

Redlands, CA 92373

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