In this exclusive interview, Lowell Cooper, long-time General Conference vice president, shares insights about governance, leadership and our changing church from his years of accrued wisdom.
Question: You retired as general vice president for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but later it was announced that you had been appointed as one of the special assistants to the president of the General Conference, Ted Wilson. Has this new role meant a significant change in your responsibilities and focus?
Answer: I “retired” in the sense that I chose not to be available for election at the General Conference Session in San Antonio. I was subsequently asked to serve on a part-time basis as a Special Assistant to the General Conference President with specific attention to continued service as chair of the boards at Loma Linda University Health. This assignment will end in December 2016.
You have held the position as chair of the Loma Linda University Health and affiliated institutions since 2001, I believe. The position holds significant responsibility and influence. What has been your primary goal as Loma Linda board chair?
I had the privilege of serving for over 16 years as a General Conference vice president. I deliberately chose not to be available to continue in that office. I have advised others that one can be too long in one position and merely hold office rather than lead. I thought it best to listen to my own advice.
It has been a highlight of my career to serve as chair of the boards at Loma Linda University Health for 15 years. I would happily continue. But this position is normally held by a General Conference vice president and I realized that my “retirement” from my General Conference post would mean a change in the chair role at LLUH. This was discussed openly with the LLUH Board of Trustees and with the General Conference President well in advance of the 2015 General Conference Session. The Board, University leadership and General Conference leadership wished for me to remain as chair until after the bond financing for the new hospital at Loma Linda was completed. This was accomplished in April 2016. I will resign as LLUH Board Chair in December 2016. A very capable individual is already identified to become the next Board Chair.
My primary goal as Loma Linda University Health board chair? Accountability, transparency and competence in institutional governance. If that is done with care and due diligence LLUH would be faithful to its mission, to its identity as a Seventh-day Adventist institution and to its impact in the local and global community.
What has been your biggest challenge as Loma Linda board chair?
Embracing an understanding of healthcare in the United States. This is an incredibly complex, changing and highly regulated industry.
On top of that is the challenge to maintain dynamic alignment and synergy of an academic institution (Loma Linda University) and the several hospitals usually spoken of collectively as Loma Linda University Medical Center. The cultures of academia and business, in this case healthcare, have considerable difference. It is a testament to the marvelous and self-sacrificing leadership at Loma Linda University Health that over the years the corporate structures and leadership thinking has drawn closer together instead of diverging into competitive pathways.
My training and career experience has been in ecclesiastical leadership. Being asked to serve as LLUH board chair was something for which I had very little training. I had to immerse myself in reading, studying and attending conferences on higher education and healthcare. After 15 years I still feel I am in the novice ranks.
You mentioned the complexity of healthcare in the US. How would you say American healthcare has changed in the last 10 years, and what have you done as board chair to ensure that Loma Linda stays current and relevant?
There is a much greater focus on population health as compared with an earlier emphasis on treatment of disease. Along with this, and perhaps as a direct result of the change in emphasis, has been a change in hospital reimbursements. Instead of payment for procedure (the number of X-rays, consults, lab tests, etc.) the movement is towards payment for value-based service (How well has the patient recovered from disease? Is the patient staying in good health?).
Over the years we have intentionally added more healthcare professionals to the LLUH board. We want the deliberations of the boardroom to be informed and influenced by the practitioners in this rapidly changing environment. Board members are provided access to top industry publications in education and healthcare. In addition to continuing education events during board meetings every LLUH trustee is expected to attend at least one professional conference on education or healthcare per quinquennium. Attendance at such events is a factor in whether or not a trustee is elected to serve a subsequent term on the board.
You have also served as board chair of a number of other major Adventist institutions, including Adventist Health International, Pacific Press Publishing, ADRA and more. Governance has been a particular focus for you and you have spoken extensively about it in seminars and presentations globally. What are some of the key lessons you have learned about governance during your work? Why is it so important for the church and its institutions specifically?
One of the great features of Seventh-day Adventist structure is that authority resides in groups rather than in individuals. Our most important decisions are made by groups. But groups do not automatically make good decisions. Effective group decisions are the result of careful attention to group competence, group dynamics and meeting room culture.
As a church we have unfinished work in this area. Most everyone in a leadership role these days has some specific training for the role (treasurers have training in finance and accounting, secretaries have training in policy and record-keeping, presidents have training or at least some exposure to administration). However, few if any of us have had or will have specific training in working with groups. I wish that this were the only challenge. It could be remedied readily. But the lack of group-process training also extends beyond leaders to those who are elected/appointed as members of decision-making bodies, from local church boards to executive committees and boards at the highest levels of organization.
Best practices for good governance deserve more attention in church and leadership life. From a human standpoint organizational or institutional success is ultimately the responsibility of the board.
What strengths do you feel the Adventist church has when it comes to governance? What areas of weakness?
Seventh-day Adventists have developed a participatory and representative form of governance. We are neither hierarchical nor congregational in polity. Perhaps the best word for now is that we are “interdependent.” At no point in denominational structure do we see the center of final authority for everything. I see this as a very positive feature of organization.
Our pattern of governance comes not from government, business corporations or military models. Authority is distributed. Connectivity is reciprocal. Representation is valued.
That is the good news. I think we can do much better in actual practice of these ideals. The point at which I sense the most need is in creating strong boards and executive committees.
What counsel do you find yourself giving most often to board members and church leaders?
For a number of years I worked on a plan of developing “ten commandments” for board leaders. I went through several versions and ended up discarding all of them. Now I stress four ideas:
- Intentionality in the composition of boards and executive committees. The group must have the right combination of competencies and expertise to deal with the business of the entity. Further, bigger boards don’t automatically make better decisions. In the interest of broad representation our denominational boards tend to be rather large but this can be a deterrent to good decision-making.
- Cultivating the right culture in the boardroom. The most important matter here is to make the boardroom a safe place to talk. This is not as simple as it sounds. Members of a group can easily become ensnared in “groupthink.” Assumptions go unchallenged, there is fear that disagreement will ruin the meeting, and expressing a differing opinion is often interpreted as a sign of disloyalty to leadership. We need to learn that the best decisions require rigorous and respectful debate.
- Compliance with fiduciary obligations — the duty of care in decision-making, the duty of loyalty to the organization’s purpose (including attention to conflicts of interest), and the duty of obedience to corporate documents, relevant policies and law.
- Deliberate attention to the essential tasks of governance. A board needs to understand the range of its responsibilities — and attend to all of them. Unless consciously resisted, the law of gravity in boards will drift from governance to management, from proactivity to reactivity, from long-range to short-term thinking.
You also asked about counsel to church leaders. I see that as very different from counsel to boards and executive committees. Here the message point is very brief: build trust! Trust is the most important human resource for the Church. Where trust in leaders is strong all other resources become available. Where trust is weakened all other resources begin to dwindle.
There are two kinds of trust that leaders need to be aware of. The first is personal trust. Am I a trustworthy individual? Do I fulfill my commitment? Can I maintain confidentiality of sensitive information about another?
The second kind of trust is organization trust. Can the organization I represent be trusted? Is its communication timely and truthful? Does it have systems, policies and practices that ensure fairness, equality and accountability? Does the organization demonstrate its values rather than merely define them?
In my opinion, the first task of every leader, regardless of the post in which he/she serves, is to build trust in leadership and in church organization. Here actions speak louder than words.
What changes have you seen in church governance practices over the last 20 years?
It seems to me that we have made some progress in expanding the presence of laity on denominational boards and committees. Though I believe there is much more we can do in these areas, I see a greater presence of women and young people in our decision-making forums.
In spite of our policy claims to the contrary, I sense that we exhibit more of a presidential system than we are willing to admit. Our denominational institutions have traditionally operated with a presidential system and I believe there are reasons why that is so. We espouse the committee system and three-officer leadership team in our ecclesiastical structure, but my sense is that we have failed to maximize the merits of such a system.
A good deal of my career has involved working with institutions of various kinds. My perception (as opposed to a formal evidence-based conclusion) is that institutional governance does a more thorough job of holding leadership accountable than does the ecclesiastical system. The challenge as I see it is that though we have a good governance system we lag in good governance practice — especially in the training of boards and executive committees.
In San Antonio last summer, you made a speech from the floor supporting a Yes vote on the women’s ordination issue. How did you react when the vote went the other way?
I was disappointed but not surprised at the decision. In my opinion the question of division permission to decide matters of ministerial ordination became encumbered by several other political and tangential concerns and the mood of the body shifted more towards conflict than consensus.
What did surprise you about San Antonio? What most disappointed you? What encouraged you?
The number of votes in favor of the proposal surprised me. I expected that the proposal would be defeated by a larger majority than actually occurred.
I was disappointed by the tension that seemed to pervade the room — as evidenced in part by the many points of order that were raised. Parliamentary procedure is meant to assist a body in an orderly process of making a decision. But in a tense environment parliamentary procedure can become a master rather than a servant. Chairing a General Conference Session can be very challenging.
The multi-year study about ordination produced a good statement on the theology of ordination. I wish that the Theology of Ordination Study Commission had given more reflection on the practice of ordination in our Church in the light of spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit. Some may choose to differ but it seems to me that the New Testament teaching about spiritual gifts has extremely important implications for the practice of ordination.
What encouraged me was the movement in voting (toward recognition that in some areas of the world Church women may receive ministerial credentialing) when compared with earlier General Conference Session decisions. I was also pleased to see that around the world members are interested in their church. I have had the opportunity of extensive travel around the world and found that this question of ministerial ordination was “top of the list” everywhere. I don’t feel we have arrived at the best resolution on the matter but I am glad that out church membership is not complacent in matters relating to leadership.
What trends or issues do you see dominating the conversation among Adventists for the next 10 years? How do you see the church changing during that time? What topics are we not talking about, that we should be discussing?
Seventh-day Adventists tend toward a minority mentality where differences (from others) and distinctives are stressed. As a result, the Church’s relation to or interface with other faith communities and with society in general will continue to generate a lot of discussion and disagreement among Adventists.
One cannot presume prophetic insights. But the probable trajectory of current events in several parts of the world will bring certain issues to the fore for church leaders and members. Among these I expect we will encounter:
- Issues impacting freedom of religion — from matters affecting worship, evangelism, speech, employment policies and the operation of institutions.
- Social issues such as marriage, abortion, assisted suicide, justice and equality.
- Sexual identity issues. It will be a huge challenge for SDA churches, and the Church as a whole, to engage in a discussion of how to relate to persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex and allies (LGTBQIA). Official Church statements such as the one on homosexuality that was released some years ago are helpful but not sufficient. Ultimately local churches, families and individuals must wrestle with how we relate to persons who see these matters differently from us. Silence, avoidance and a spirit of condemnation will only fuel further misunderstanding.
- Global issues such as the environment.
Some of these will be very difficult topics for church consideration. But the church cannot remain silent and uninvolved while expecting that the world will listen with rapt attention to an evangelistic proclamation.
Do you believe the church is becoming less tolerant and open overall, as some have commented?
I think it would be unfair to generalize because a perception of more tolerance/less tolerance is often subjective and issue specific. The Church is a marvelous and mysterious assembly of Spirit-led people from all directions of the compass, from all pathways of human experience, and from a wide spectrum of cultural and political environments. The danger for me is to think that the Church, in order to be true to God, should reflect my way of thinking and do things according to the way “we” have always done them.
There is room for all of us to grow and the Church itself is on a growth curve where changes take place, some changes to be adopted and others to be handled with great care.
What is the biggest challenge for Ted Wilson, and the next General Conference president?
The General Conference president has an almost superhuman task: to be the president for the whole Church. Though the Church is a spiritual community it also participates in Church “business.” The role of the president can have a long-lasting impact in many ways. All the GC presidents I have known and/or worked with (six of them) have looked upon their role as being more of a pastor than a CEO.
The challenge is how to be a servant leader for a worldwide Church with such diversity of culture, context and convictions. The president needs to be able to “hear” the whole Church, even those voices that seem unpleasant and unreasonable. The president has a huge influence in facilitating the internal conversations of the Church on the tough questions of being a family.
But the president must also demonstrate leadership in a way that helps the Church engage with its community and the world. An isolationist mentality is not fitting for a Church that believes the gospel is good news for the whole world.
In today’s world of secularism, radical ideologies and suspicion about religion the Church needs to earn a hearing. It has to become known more for what it affirms than for what it denies. It needs to demonstrate the values of what it proclaims.
Leadership, not by the General Conference president alone, must help the Church to engage in community life, in dialogue about difficult social issues, in sorting through questions of liberty, freedom, justice and equality. There is an enormous opportunity for the Church to be seen as the most healthy, most helpful, most thoughtful, most peace-promoting institution in the community — simply because God intends for His people to be a light in the world.
Can our current church structure embrace the increasingly global reach of Adventism? What changes need to be made to make the church more effective in fulfilling its mission?
The larger an organization grows the more likely it is to experience the forces of fragmentation. So it is not surprising that church growth is accompanied by the need to embrace more and more diversity and dissimilarity. Seventh-day Adventists need to consider carefully what holds the Church together — and indeed even to understand what togetherness means in a global organization.
The temptation will always be there to address growth and diversification through centralizing authority. That is not the ethos of Seventh-day Adventism. Kent Hansen, General Counsel for Loma Linda University Health drew my attention to a statement of Eugene Petersen: “Because leadership is necessarily an exercise of authority, it easily shifts into an exercise of power. But the minute it does that, it begins to inflict damage on both the leader and the led.”
As the Church grows there is need to strengthen pathways of communication, vertically, horizontally and inter-organizationally. Consensus must be more prominent than control.
In this growing phenomenon it seems to me that the role of the local church pastor becomes increasingly significant. He/she serves as a primary connection agent between the local congregation and regional/global church structure. So in my opinion, local church pastors need to be given a more prominent place in the deliberative forums of the global church.
If you were to change one area of church policy (an area you are extremely knowledgeable about), what would you change?
More work needs to be done in enunciating the theology and philosophy that undergirds church organization and the operating procedures that reflect our values and mutual commitments to each other. We could benefit from fewer policies if we had better consensus on the purpose of structure and the operating principles that need to inform or practices.
Policy is not some magic medicine that corrects or repairs our deficiencies. Rather, it is an attempt to codify our agreements. Policy does not create unity. It can, and should, be an expression of unity provided there has been wide consultation in its development. In organizations where participation is voluntary, such as the Church, policy needs to be seen as constructive rather than a means of regulation and control.
What do you plan to do when you actually do retire?
Retirement seems rather elusive — if by that one means an open calendar and unstructured days. I have been much busier than I ever imagined. It is because I have accepted invitations for unremunerated service from several divisions and church entities. It is a privilege to be of service in this way but I expect the frequency and duration of these occasions to decrease in the next 6-12 months. My wife and I have become more heavily engaged in a local church and commit 10-12 hours per week to the community food bank operated by the church.
What books are you reading right now? Any good recommendations?
Take your pick. They are all worthwhile. In recent weeks I have finished:
• Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015.
• Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Schoken Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015.
• Sigve K Tonstad, God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, Wipf & Stock, 2016
• Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally –Linz, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote With Integrity, Brazos Press a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.
Next up: Reinder Bruinsma, Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘On the Margins’, Flanko Press, 2016
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