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Sandra Roberts Talks about the Bigger Picture

Sandra Roberts is president of the Southeastern California Conference, with more than 70,000 members and 154 churches. She is the first woman to be elected to serve in the position of conference president in the Adventist Church. In December, Spectrum readers voted her the 2016 Adventist Person of the Year.

Question: You have served as president of the Southeastern California Conference since 2013 and worked in the conference since 1987. What major changes have you seen in the Southeastern California Conference during your time there so far?

Answer: We have grown numerically and in many other ways. The conference has grown in depth and breadth of ministry as we have become this incredible and beautifully diverse community of people. We are diverse not just in language and culture but also in areas such as worship styles, and our conference contains the entire spectrum of theologies and ideologies under the umbrella of Adventism. 

Yet, we all get along and respect each other. We have matured as a faith community of churches in our love, care, and collaboration with each other for the sake of mission.

We have grown in processes and procedures, and like a lot of conferences entities, we have had to grow up and professionalize how we do things. We have moved beyond a verbal culture to a documented culture. Because of external expectations from governmental regulations, auditors, and other agencies, we have had to move into a more careful and intentional way of processing things. Our church at large has had to do this.

What do you enjoy the most about your job as conference president?

The people. It is always about serving the people in this leadership role. I love spending time out and about in our churches, schools, and with people who work in our conference office building. The people I work with are a talented, God-led group who are serious about expanding the Kingdom of God. I love listening to their hopes and dreams and doing what I can to assist in the ministry they feel called to do.

Another of the best things about this job is the perspective this job gives you — it’s an incredible opportunity to see the bigger picture of what God is doing everywhere. In this position I get to see beyond the view I did as a local church pastor or school employee.  Not too many people have the privilege of this view every day. It is amazing how much God is working — I am in awe as I see evidence of the Spirit of God powerfully working in all the different contexts around the conference.

And what’s the most difficult thing about the job?

The rapidly growing diversity is challenging. As beautiful as it is, just trying to get ahead of the curve with all of the changes within our territory of five counties and trying to help churches with that rapidly changing ministry landscape, takes daily prayer and visioning together. 

And conflict. Churches are full of well-intentioned people trying to live together in their faith communities. In spite of their best efforts to do so, there is no end to the conflict that we have to work through. Here again, however, we see God working in powerful ways as we work to raise capacities for dealing with conflict in healthy ways.

So would you put your name in to serve again?

I’m not ready to talk about that yet. I was elected along with our team to serve for five years.  When that time is up, our job is finished. Meanwhile, our team is doing what it can to boldly lead our conference forward as we follow Jesus step by step together.

The diversity in southeastern California seems to be truly unique. What are the languages/ethnicities covered by churches in the conference? 

When I talk about diversity, I am talking beyond just language and culture. I am also talking about diversity theologically, politically, and every other way imaginable. In our conference, we have La Sierra University and Loma Linda University, and there is a culture that comes with those big Adventist communities. We also have churches and schools in very remote areas. Yes, our conference is very diverse. 

Our greatest diversity in language and culture is the Asia Pacific churches. There are about 15 different languages and even more sub groups based around dialect, tribes, and countries of origin around which churches tend to cluster and form. 

I have often said that I wish I had a full-time anthropologist and sociologist on staff here! It would help us better understand how to assist these culturally complex churches in the context of their cultural values and identity.

What can you do to make sure that every church member, no matter the language or culture or background, feels valued and taken care of?

We are called to always care for the “other,” no matter how different they are than us. We are called to be the body and called to serve each other on the journey. If we can really focus on that — even if we can’t fully understand the subtle currents of other languages and cultures — we can serve and love and try to listen carefully. Southeastern California Conference is committed to living out our values of loving each other, welcoming all to our communities of faith, and modeling an inclusiveness that represents a big God. 

Taking care of pastors is one of the things that Southeastern California Conference is known for. Do you make it a priority? What should a conference do for its pastors, do you believe?

I believe that a priority of leadership is taking care of all of our employees: teachers, pastors, camp employees, office employees, everyone. . . I want to make sure they have every opportunity to have healthy and whole lives as individuals. 

We do a lot to assist our employees toward that goal: wellness programs, sabbatical programs for pastors, free spiritual retreats, anonymous free counseling for all employees, and many other programs, events, and initiatives. We want employees to know they are valued and we are willing to invest in their well-being.

How many pastors do you employ currently? 

Our conference has right around 200 pastors. (Not all of those are full-time.)

How many of those are women? Is there anything specific you are doing to create space for more young women to enter ministry? 

Currently, we have 22 pastors who are female, which translates into just a little over 10%. And yes, as a conference, we are trying very intentionally to create space for more women in pastoral positions. Whenever we have openings, we make sure the search committees always have names of both women and men. I believe we have hired more young women right out of college and sponsored them to go to seminary than any other conference in North America. We are always looking for the very best pastors for our team, female or male.

Are pastors retiring faster than their positions can be filled?

We know that we have an aging pastoral team in North America as pastors are working longer than they used to. Many are doing well and contributing so much, long past the age of 66 when Social Security can kick in. In our conference, we are not seeing the massive retirements that have been predicted, but I think that bubble will come. We keep hiring, mentoring, and educating new young pastors so that we will be ready when that time does come.

In a conference of our size, there are always transitions and openings. We seem to be in a perpetual  hiring mode. In fact, tonight I am going to a search committee for a youth pastor. The current youth pastor is leaving because his wife, who is a physician, has been given a residency in another state.

And that’s another change in pastoral ministry. Years ago the pastors were men, and their spouses (who had mostly sacrificed their own careers) followed them wherever they were sent. Now pastoral teams are mostly dual-career couples. Filling vacancies can be much more complicated, even within the conference, as we try to honor the vocational calling of the entire pastoral family. We value spouses very deeply in the Southeastern California Conference. 

Are you involved in any way in the conversations between the General Conference and unions about women’s ordination?

No. I interact with the Pacific Union discussions and at times with the North American Division.  I have never discussed this with the General Conference or been asked to be at the table for any conversations with them.

What are your priorities for the conference for 2017, and what priorities do you expect your pastors to focus on? Is growth a priority? What fuels church growth in your conference? 

Our priorities have been identified through an organic process. [See the the next question.]

Growth is a priority, and our conference mission statement is clear that we are to be about the work of expanding the Kingdom of God.

We’ve had steady growth in the conference. Numerical growth happens in several ways: mainly baptism and membership transfers from other conferences and world divisions. We look at the numbers quarterly, and in some quarters more people have moved out of the conference than have moved in. Many of the transfers are related to economic factors. Retirees especially are leaving southern California due to the high cost of living. 

So while we’ve had steady growth, it has not been as rapid as it was a few years back. We are encouraging our churches to carry out the ministry and mission in their zip codes, but we also encourage them to focus on the members they have already, emphasizing discipleship and retention.

So is growth a priority? Yes, in every way — not just numerically but also in spiritual depth. There are so many elements to growth. It’s not just the numbers. We pray that we will grow in every way in our journey as faith communities.

What does the conference do to help churches grow?

We just finished a major process identifying our strategic priorities, which we are calling "A Compass for Our Future." We’ve held numerous meetings and focus groups, surveyed all of our employees several times, and listened to church members of all demographics and ages. Through that process, we have identified four areas to focus on: 

  1. Engage: We engage next-generation leaders and develop leadership opportunities for them to serve that help shape our shared future. We will have thriving youth and young adult ministries in SECC churches.
  2. Evangelize: We live out our calling to evangelize with new and creative ways as we proclaim the everlasting gospel. We reach out deeply into our communities in transformational ways.
  3. Educate: We educate for lifelong faithfulness and success, reaching for the highest academic standards.
  4. Equip: We equip members of every age to serve and to concentrate on discipleship.

This list is extremely organic. It came from our members and employees. We distilled what we heard from them to 16 single-spaced pages of action plans. Everyone contributed great ideas, and we gleaned from the collective wisdom in our conference. Some action steps are short term, and some are long term. We have everything all gridded out: who will do what, whether the project is ongoing, or when the completion time should be. It will be a dynamic process as we re-evaluate annually where we are headed.

We have also identified seven values that shape our mission and life together: Collaborative Relationships, Innovation and Creativity, A Culture of Learning and Discovery, Emphasis on the Local Church, Regarding our Role in the Worldwide Community of Churches as a Sacred Responsibility, Valuing all People as Daughters and Sons of God, Persistence in Prayer and Honest Seeking of God’s Presence.

In May, we are having a pastor’s meeting to talk about the first priority: ENGAGE. We have asked every pastor to read the book Growing Young, authored by professors at the Fuller Youth Institute. One of the authors is speaking that day to our pastors. The book talks about churches that are multigenerational but thriving with next generation leaders, and the research that identifies what these congregations have in common.

We will put our money where our mouths are. We have set aside half a million dollars for what some have dubbed the “Sanctified Shark Tank.” Churches will become learning labs, and we will give money to these congregations to fund their projects aimed at changing the culture of their churches and ensuring they integrate young adults in every aspect of church life and leadership.

We are aggressive in our efforts in each of the four areas of priorities. We are trying to implement best practices in every area and are continuing to develop a culture of learning and discovery. In education, we are trying something that is a best practice in some public and private school systems: the hiring of curriculum coaches. We hired one last year and are hiring more for this coming school year. We have great teachers, but the intentionality of curriculum development and having someone on campus whose full-time job is to help teachers with that development and delivery can make a significant difference.

We also have an enrollment incentive program. We are trying to grow enrollment by 10% for our K-12 schools. Increased numbers spreads the cost as economies of scale come into play. We want to increase the excellence of the product but also increase accessibility and affordability. We want more children to have access to the benefits of Adventist education.

We have set aside about $850,000 for these two education programs this year.

Are all churches in the Southeastern California Conference required to support a school?

Yes. The constituency voted several years ago that as a commitment to Adventist education every church would pay school subsidy as well as be encouraged to provide tuition assistance to children from their churches. 

We have an in-house committee that reviews what churches are contributing every quarter to make certain this is happening.  

Have you had to close any schools?

We have had to close a couple of smaller schools, mostly in small communities with extreme economic challenges where the churches have also struggled to be viable. 

Education is a huge priority in SECC.  We need to lay everything on the table and rethink delivery and structure as we go forward. We need to revise our current approach and not just take BandAid steps. We need to explore every model we can dream up. 

We must make sure we have the ability to serve communities with an Adventist education, but what that looks like precisely, I don’t know. We need to be open to thinking differently than we have if we want better results.

We know our colleagues in the Florida and Oregon conferences have also been working hard on education issues. The Florida Conference has been able to reverse the trend of declining enrollment. We are going to start videoconferencing so that our officers and their officers can learn from each other. We are always looking to learn and grow in SECC, and if we can learn from others, I am committed to that.

How important is it for churches to get involved in their communities, beyond the confines of Adventist members? How do you go about making that involvement happen?

We have been working hard on evangelism and community outreach. At the pastors’ meetings a few weeks ago, we gave them demographic tools to study the zip codes around their churches. The data outlines not just ethnic, language, and age demographics but also has curated information about what people in their zip codes are looking for in churches. We don’t want to just assume we know what the needs are — so now we have given our pastors the tools to understand better.

We also invited elected officials to come the pastors’ meetings: mayors and an assemblywoman. We asked them to talk to the pastors about what they wish churches in their areas would do in and for their communities.  We then broke into groups to discuss how we could collaborate to meet some of those needs. 

We are trying to move beyond event evangelism — which is still important, but there is so much more to increase the breadth and depth of our service to our communities.

We are also really pushing collaboration between our Adventist churches and getting pastors talking with each other. Pastors can easily work in isolation from each other, and often don’t know what their colleagues are doing. The Spanish and English-speaking churches, for example, could work more closely together to serve diverse communities. 

SECC is considered one of the wealthiest conferences. How much tithe did you take in last year?

Considering overall tithe numbers, the trajectory has been up. The economic downturn brought some tough years — we all suffered greatly and had to make really difficult financial decisions. Just this year, we are finally restoring all the cost-of-living increases for employees we were unable to implement years ago, as well as restoring a 5% pay cut employees opted to take instead of letting employees go.

We took in just under $50 million in tithe last year. But on top of that, people gave $52 million to local church budgets and mortgage payments, and we know members also give a tremendous amount of money to independent ministries as well as to ministry projects in their countries of origin. Our members live and give generously.

I would challenge the idea, however, that we are a wealthy conference.  We have a larger budget, yes, but remember we serve a proportionally large constituency. 

I believe that you are the first president to balance the conference's budget in many a year?

Economic factors outside of our control make balancing the budget hard. As we have monitored variations in tithe in SECC, they tend to be economically driven. So far, our members’ giving patterns have not been reactive to other issues. They are extremely faithful and supportive of their local churches and of the world church.

However, we still have areas of slow economic recovery in our territory, and I pray we have enough to get through every month.

We have balanced the budget with difficult choices and decisions toward efficiencies and sacrifices.  

I am grateful for a competent and capable treasurer and his team who oversee the complex finances of an organization of our size. 

It still always amazes me how generous people are, supporting missions, their local church, and of course tithe.

What is your dream for the Southeastern California Conference? What goals do you hope to reach during your tenure as president?

I long for our conference to continue to model what can happen when we minister together as an inclusive and united community of faith.  I long for our conference to continue to represent Jesus well.  I long for our conference to be an oasis of hope for the Adventist church as we move into God’s future for us all.

I dream of a conference that truly is growing young and growing deep in our commitment to following Jesus into our future.

I will continue to focus on the four priorities and the values we have outlined above in "A Compass for Our Future." It really is a massive undertaking and is energizing us in our mission. 

And you are working to rebuild Pine Springs Camp, right? Is the camp still closed?

Yes, we are trying to get Pine Springs Ranch rebuilt after the devastating fire four years ago this summer. We are waiting for final county approval to move into the next phase of building. 

While much of our infrastructure was destroyed, fortunately we have still been able to operate summer camp and host church groups at the retreat center. The lodging and cafeteria were not affected. However, many of our outbuildings need to be rebuilt.

You previously were the camp director, right?

Yes, and it really is and always will be dear to my heart. It is a ministry I am committed to.

You are the daughter of Adventist missionaries and have worked for the Adventist church your whole career. How do you feel working for the church is different now than it was for your parents? 

My parents worked here in North America as well as overseas. My father was a dean of men and hospital administrator. It was a privilege to grow up in a family that always worked for the church. I was inspired by what I saw my mother and father model for me: the love they had for their church and willingness to go wherever God called. My parents instilled in us as children that same dedication to service.

The church is obviously a lot more complex now than it was then. The way we do our mission has changed. 

I love our church. I am committed to serving it all the days of my life as God opens opportunities for me to do that. But I am very cognizent of the fact that we are really entering uncharted territory as we move forward in a more complicated world and the changing landscape we are called to live out our ministry in. 

It’s tough work for all of us. Pastors don’t automatically have the positional respect they used to have — now they have to earn that. We don’t carry out mission in a vacuum, so we must be responsive to what we have in front of us and around us in our culture and communities. There are no easy answers to some of the more complex things we have to work through as a church. Change happens slowly in a big organization, and we have to be skillful and prayerful as we move into this uncharted territory.

How do you see the church changing in the next 50 years? 

I have no idea. If I knew, I would not call it uncharted territory. We are people of the Advent with expectant hope of the return of Jesus.  I pray and hope we don’t have 50 years, but we are called to prayerfully carry on until Jesus does come. 

Like anyone charting the course and figuring out where to go next, I believe God does help us discern the next step but rarely the entire path.  We just have to take it a step at a time with our eyes fixed on the Holy One who will lead us as we step forward.  

That is why we call our plan in SECC a Compass — not a path. It does not outline every step of the future, just a step at a time.

What is your dream for the church?

That we stay focused on Jesus and that we portray, as a community of faith, what that looks like in the depth and breadth of our love, compassion, and action in the places where we live and dwell. May we be known for how we love, serve, and follow Jesus. May we bring a richness to our spheres of influence that comes from a deep abiding at the feet of Jesus as we vision together how to move forward.  God is on the move. May we follow faithfully and boldly. May we be strong and courageous and fearless.

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