After Thanksgiving dinner, I sat with a number of church friends discussing the state of our local churches and the state of the denomination. As is frequently the case, we easily drifted into a discussion of what is wrong with our church. After a short while one of the participants called a sudden halt to the discussion, asking what was wrong with us, and wondering why we sit around at gatherings like this and complain about the church we claim to love. In asking this question she was blaming herself as much as the rest of us.
This became the new topic until another participant offered the suggestion we complain because we have no recourse. He made the point that, because the church is so hierarchical, it is almost impossible for a single member or even a sizable group of members to effectively appeal for the church to address problems in its own structure.
The fact of the world is that generally those in power spend more time doing than complaining. And the Adventist Church, the laity have little power. That keeps things more controlled, but it also stifles commitment to church mission and real lay activities. Therefore, we have a mission statement without living in a state of mission.
If the church leadership wants to leave a legacy of revival, then we need reformation. And that includes reforming church structures.
What Makes Recourse So Difficult
1. Conference Leadership
Arguably the local conference administration and executive committee has the most impact on the day-to-day life of the church. The executive committee extends job offers to pastors and teachers, they vote on how tithe and other funds are spent. The problem, though, is twofold.
In most, if not all conferences, just under 50% of the the members of the executive committee are conference employees, meaning they automatically have a conflict of interest. In addition, it is not uncommon for one or two spouses of conference employees to serve on the executive committee, giving employees an effective majority.
Perhaps more difficult is that, with most conferences covering vast geographical areas, it is impossible for committee members to have a very clear picture of issues and concerns the conference faces. Because of this, transparency on the part of conference administration is vital if the executive committee is going to be truly representative of its constituency. The problem is that no one likes problems and, so, in most conferences, administration very carefully controls what information is actually provided to the committee. It becomes easy to decide that problems can be handled at the administrative level rather than the committee level. It is easier to present and talk about the victories and set aside the thorny problems than it is to wrestle with them in an even relatively limited public forum.
In my experience as a lay member of a conference executive committee there have been issues I heard about through casual channels that should have been brought to the attention of the executive committee but were instead handled administratively. In addition, perhaps on three occasions, I have been the recipient of an email that was broadcast to all committee members by someone with no easy access to leadership, expressing a specific grievance. To the best of my knowledge, none of those items were ever addressed at the committee level. Even if petty or wrong, they should still get a hearing and a response.
The question is really this: if a local church member sees a problem or an issue that goes beyond the local church, do they have any vehicle for addressing it in a meaningful way?
2. Pastoral Selection
Each conference determines how local church pastors are selected. Some conferences give a great deal of the responsibility for this process to the local church and others give very little. In those conferences where the local congregation has very little say, it is very dis-empowering to the local congregation, creating a feeling of helplessness and distrust that goes beyond the selection process. Even when the congregation is ultimately happy with the pastor, the sense about lack of control and distrust remains. While the executive committee is the final authority for extending a pastoral call, from a practical standpoint the decision is really made by a personnel committee that is made up entirely or primarily of conference employees. The executive committee merely ratifies the decision.
3. Allocation of Funds
In most Adventist churches the two biggest budget items are tithe and school subsidies. In most large and medium-sized churches, well over half of the total giving goes straight to the conference rather than staying in the local church. While the executive committee ultimately votes on the conference budget, it is generally a rubber stamp of a budget prepared by administration based on their priorities. Unfortunately, in many cases, this means that ineffective churches and schools take money from more effective and dynamic churches and schools.
4. The General Conference in Session
The General Conference in session is the highest authority in Adventism and is theoretically broadly representative. In practice neither is really true. First, most of the delegates at General Conference are employees of the church. The current requirement is that approximately half of the delegates be either lay people or front line employees which means teachers and pastors which in effect means that perhaps 20-30% are non-church employees. Secondly, the agenda of the General Conference in session is carefully controlled which means that not all delegates are equal. As a lay delegate I found that I have essentially no way to have my issues, questions or concerns heard.
How it All Plays Out
Because members are so stymied by the system the results are multifaceted:
1. Passion is lost. We no longer take seriously the idea that we are a remnant people called to tell the world about the soon coming of Jesus Christ. At best, for most of us, we find ourselves clinging to a religious system that seems to be dribbling away before our very eyes.
2. Even if we still have passion, we don’t know what to do. Any evangelism effort has to be conference driven or pastor driven. We may be asked to contribute money or man registration tables at a Revelation Seminar. We have no idea how to interact with our neighbors and our coworkers to spread the word of Jesus. If I wanted to start an outreach ministry I would have to convince the pastor and then the church board that it was something worthwhile, meaning that in some congregations this would be easy and others next to impossible.
If I prayed and felt God calling me to go out and plant a church, even if I required no funds, I would be considered to be in rebellion if I did not get conference permission. They would not likely grant permission to anyone bold enough to try such a thing for fear that they would not have enough control over the process. In effect, control becomes more important than the mission.
3. People stop donating money because they have no voice and no power over how it is being spent. It means that tithe is converted to offering and goes to the local church instead of the conference. Funds go to independent ministries or it simply does not go to God’s work at all because it does not seem to do any good. As one person participating in the Thanksgiving day discussion said, “what ultimately ends up happening is that members feel as if they are faced with only two choices: Pay their tithes and just accept what happens or to withhold tithe and become an active or passive dissident.”
George Knight has written about these problems and has suggested a number of solutions that would need to be implemented from either the General Conference or Division level. They are great solutions. I would like to offer some intermediate steps that could make an immediate difference without having to redo the structure of the church yet.
1. Provide the Local Church More Control.
Churches should have greater control over the selection of a pastor. The churches are supplying the funds to pay the pastor’s salary and should be empowered to make those choices based on the needs of the local faith community.
2. Annual Town Hall Meetings
Every year conference leadership should hold regional town hall meetings where constituent members can voice their thoughts on the church. Any member should be allowed a voice, to praise, complain or suggest. The conference leadership should take these comments seriously. They need to ask which of the items raised will better equip the members to make disciples. There should be follow-up report outlining the best suggestions and most significant complaints and what is being done to address them.
Transparency really means being willing to talk about problems and how they are being handled. This is God’s church, it is our church. The laity cares because we want things to be better. We might even have some good ideas as to how to resolve problems. Therefore, the filters need to dialed back. The Executive Committee members need more information. They, in turn, need to pass that information on to the the local church members and look for feedback.
4. Communication Channels
Members need to know how they can get ideas and concerns into play. They need to know how to communicate with their conference executive committee. The system needs to be open enough that these issues cannot be thwarted by a single individual, either a pastor or a conference official. Members need to know that they will get a considered response to their issues and concerns. Members of committees and constituencies must be provided a clear path to put ideas and concerns in play.
As a delegate to the General Conference, I was never told how I could request that something be considered for the agenda. I asked several General Conference vice presidents what the process was and they could not tell me. I was, in effect, a second class delegate.
The way that the denomination is run makes most laity in the Adventist second class members.
We have a great and mighty church which we used to call a movement. As one of the most hierarchical structures in the Christian world is in grave danger of alienating the very members that it relies on for life. I hope and pray that we can once again focus on the mission of the church, but for that to happen we have to reform our church leadership.
Steve Moran works in Silicon Valley. He is the head elder of his church and a member of the Central California Conference Executive Committee.