I wrote last month about some of the pressures on pastors, and how that’s affecting the profession. There is a bright spot for Seventh-day Adventist pastors, though: if you’re a good pastor, you can leave ministry and still be a minister. In fact, that’s where the best pastors end up: in conference, union conference, division and General Conference offices.
This autumn at the NAD year-end meetings the Church Governance Committee made an important report. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but the bottom line was this: we’re spending an enormous amount of money on church administration—money that could go to front-line work—while taking our best people from the parish and placing them into offices.
The report generated some enthusiasm about restructuring, especially when it was pointed out that we’d save $145,000,000 every year in the NAD by supervising churches from the union conference level and eliminating conference offices. But others yawned and said that this has been talked about for years, and while everyone wants to save money, we always find reasons to keep things as they are.
Why do we maintain such an outdated, top-heavy system, and why has it been so resistant to updating?
I have many pastor friends, far more talented than I am, and who have managed their careers better, so that they now work in church administration. Rarely does anyone turn down that opportunity. I suspect they’d deny it if you asked them, but at least one of the reasons is this: to pastor a church is not only difficult work, but it isn’t a position of honor. To work in an office is. Every pastor who hears his conference president get up at a pastor’s meeting and say, “There’s nothing more important than the work you pastors are doing,” knows he’s blowing smoke; if he really thought that, he’d want to do it.
It is an irony of our denomination that the only way you can be recognized as an excellent minister is to leave the ministry. These men still list “clergy” as their profession on their 1040s. But some have been away from the parish for 10 or 20 or 30 years. You may wonder, as I have, why the people who are supposed to know best how a local church should be led are so willing not to lead one. At a Columbia Union convention for ministers several years ago, of the approximately 40 seminars to instruct pastors, 4 of the instructors were parish pastors themselves. Read through Ministry magazine, and you may find one or two articles by parish pastors. You can’t be an expert in pastoral ministry, it seems, until you’ve outgrown it.
Count on this: when you hear your Seventh-day Adventist pastor lauded by people outside the congregation, there’s a good chance he is about to exit the profession. Because that is the way success is confirmed in our denomination. It may be the Lord’s leading, but the Lord, it seems, leads the best people away from daily contact with difficult and demanding church members, from visiting stinky nursing homes, from bad potlucks, amateur music, church board fights and writing new sermons every week, and into quiet offices, guest speaking gigs, and travel and equipment budgets—and you only need to fret over job security every 4 years or so when constituency meeting comes around rather than at every board meeting. It is (with a few exceptions—I admire Dan Serns, Ben Maxson, and a handful of others who moved against the traffic) a one-way door. I once overheard a conference president say of an underperforming officer, “But what can we do? We can’t send him back down to the ministry.” I specifically remember that word “down”.
We occasionally compare ours to other models of ecclesiastical structure, in which we say we are representative, which means neither hierarchical nor congregational. I don’t find this particularly helpful—or accurate. A more relevant model for us is a corporate structure. Like a corporation, it is our leadership that controls the money, and like a corporation, there are shareholder meetings that appear democratic but are relatively powerless. A corporation can spend its profits on dividends and CEO bonuses. Our leaders spend it on people in offices and astonishing amounts of travel. Groups of Seventh-day Adventists get together to vote on church decisions now and then, but that hasn’t changed this organizational style, or we wouldn’t be talking about it now.
With people in offices spending the money, there appears little incentive to question whether putting another person into an office is going to make congregations work better, even when there’s little evidence for it.
Our members believe that our flat compensation structure gives no financial incentive to exchange a parish for an office. That’s partially true: while there are small increases in base pay, no one is making multiples of what they’d make as a parish pastor. But there are perquisites: a higher mileage budget, all computer and office needs taken care of, automatic office jobs for spouses, and an enormous amount of free travel. And if you work in a union or above, you can count on getting every cost of living increase, which local conferences rarely keep up with for their workers.
Like our historical bête noire, the Roman Catholic church, we have come to feel that we must keep strong control over every aspect of mission, message and money. It is an irony of history that revolutionaries will sometimes adopt attitudes and methods similar to those they revolted against. H. Richard Niebuhr wrote of early Protestant church organizers, “They seemed to believe that since the exercise of absolute power by the papal church was wrong its exercise by the opponents of the papacy was right.”
Ellen White opposed “kingly power” in the 1901 restructuring, but over and over again, top-down control reasserts itself, usually in the name of unity. That’s not working especially well in the NAD: conferences and congregations and schools want more say-so, while independent ministries do what they want to with impunity. But the idea that every pastor wouldn’t have someone looking directly over his shoulder is still a bit alarming. And not without reason: it is in our nature that we tend to fly wildly out of control from time to time, to wander into extremism.
• Overestimating effectiveness
Back before I started ministry, a conference president was an autarch. Pastors were treated like serfs, their families’ needs counting for nothing. I knew pastors who were punished for not getting their ingathering or Signs of the Times subscription goals by having their Christmas vacations cancelled. Your ordination could be delayed indefinitely for any reason, or no reason. Pastors’ families could be moved on a whim, with less thought than you’d give to moving a chess piece on a board. When leaders had military-style authority, conference “leadership” worked pretty well.
Eventually that became intolerable, and thank God we’ve left those days behind. But there are still administrative desks waiting for talented pastors to sit behind them—only now you have to lead by inspiring and begging and cajoling.
Some years ago, a pastor of my acquaintance was noticed for being an amazing congregation builder. He’d devised a system of evangelism and follow-up that worked so well that his church doubled, then tripled, in attendance and giving. And, most important, the congregation seemed happy. He did so well that his conference leaders asked him to move in with them and become their expert on church growth. Since then, his original congregation has languished, and I’ve heard almost nothing about him or from him.
I think it’s been a mistake to bleed the talent out of the front line and promote people to where they have little influence. Yet we continue to think that putting a man in, say, a division ministerial department office, three storeys above where ministry is done, is miraculously going to transform the life and work of a pastor in Platte, Nebraska or Tupelo, Mississippi.
Every time I’m at a meeting in Silver Spring, officeholders get up and tell us about the fantastic new resources they’ve developed. And I remember that I’ve not heard anything about last year’s fantastic new resources, and I doubt I’ll hear anything more about this year’s. Departments create non-field-tested resources because… well, because they can. Generally what they create isn’t exciting: they’re made in offices by people who aren’t serving congregations, and who are dreadfully afraid of criticism.
Let me make it clear that I think most of the people in denominational offices are capable and well-intentioned, and a few even extraordinarily bright and talented. That’s why they’ve been promoted. And yes, we do need leadership. But to say that leadership must look exactly as it does now shows a lack of imagination. Whatever you think about what we’re doing, it isn’t especially effective in the western church anymore, especially for the growth of congregations. Some think we need to move forward into a more modern paradigm, and others think we should go back to the kind of top-down power leaders had in the last half of the 20th century. From a practical point of view, I can see both arguments.
In the end, though, I’m inclined to agree with Elder Dave Weigley who said in a recent interview that we probably won’t change unless circumstances force us to. So God bless the NAD Church Governance Committee, but don’t hold your breath.
 The Kingdom of God in America, p.29.
 A conference president in my home conference of North Dakota told his pastors that if they needed a car they must buy it through him, with him making a cut on each one! At the time, this went largely without question.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and the recently-appointed Executive Editor of Adventist Today.
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