The Church is a Big Fat Business

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Published:
May 16, 2013

When I was just a child

My life was, oh, so simple

And the ways of the great world

Seemed strange and funny.

Then when I was a young man

I learned of that machine

That turns out all those bales of precious money.

—James Taylor, “Money Machine”

Years ago Carmen and I discovered Antiques Roadshow, a PBS program where people bring old, precious, and collectible items to be looked at by professional evaluators. We enjoyed seeing the items, hearing the stories and history. But we hardly watch it at all anymore, mostly because we began to tire of the jarring last phase of the interview: “Now, do you know how much this is worth?” “Uh, no. I got it from my great grandma.” “At auction, I’d expect this to bring $20,000 to $30,000.” “Oh my goodness, really? That’s fantastic! I had no idea. That changes my whole view of it.” Capping off the interview as it always does, it seemed as though the item’s monetary value eclipsed everything else about it, that that’s now the reason it has value. Yet if something is rare, interesting and precious to you, why must the denouement be what it would be worth if you sold it?

That’s how a lot of us have regarded our church, I think. We weren’t in it to make a profit. It’s precious in and of itself, and we don’t like to attend too closely to the matter of money. Yet money keeps intruding. For the Seventh-day Adventist church, its Christian idealism notwithstanding, is a big fat business. The latest revelation, two pieces in the 2013 spring issue of Adventist Today by T. Joe Willey and Jim Walters, is that those exercising the right arm of the message are making themselves millionaires under its banner.

For years we said with some pride that our system was thoroughly communist: workers were all paid the same scale. Then back in the 70’s we learned that wasn’t quite true: women were paid less than men doing the same job. (It took a lawsuit for us to admit that was wrong, which involved some embarrassing testimony by church leaders implying the GC president was our pope and had the authority to turn back the tide of “activism” if he wanted to.) Later, teachers were brought up to scale. But a few years after that it took a turn in the capitalist direction: Adventist higher education and healthcare argued that they couldn’t operate unless they paid bigger salaries to their top people.

No one who has been paying even a little attention could be unaware that Adventist Healthcare is Big Money. We may not have known how big, but a few accidental glimpses showed that the leaders of that branch of ministry had figured out how to profit from it. It seems to me the most significant revelation in the two Adventist Today articles is that the compensation was designed to be not especially transparent, to hide behind bonuses and retirement plans that that they were paying themselves far above the range considered acceptable in non-profits.

I was having tea a few weeks ago with a building contractor in my church. He complained that one of his workers had done a side roofing job on a weekend. “Can’t your workers do jobs on their own time?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “I couldn’t stop them. What upset me is that he used my name and my tools.”

What may cause some anger in the pews, should members read the Adventist Today articles, is a sense that Adventist healthcare has dressed itself in the church’s name and the church’s reputation for disinterested benevolence, to conceal that its leaders are anything but disinterested. Lots of Adventists make lots of money, and we love them for it, especially if they’re faithful givers. But the conventional wisdom was that the church’s businesses were of a different type. Healthcare was “medical evangelism,” “health ministry,” the “right arm of the message,” the “entering wedge,” all of which sound sacrificial.

Let’s not for a moment suppose that these healthcare administrators cynically set out to fleece the church. On the contrary, they are major benefactors, and may even be our financial salvation. In my conference, just three of the congregations that are in the orbit of Kettering Medical Center[1] (out of about 90 in the conference) supply about 1/3 of the tithe for the entire conference. T. Joe Willey wonders why the ordained church workers vote these high salaries, leaving hanging a question of whether there’s some kind of payoff[2]. Of course there is, but not necessarily the personal kind that a suspicious reader might infer. What church administrator could vote against financing God’s work across his territory?

Adventist healthcare is one of the healthy segments of the NAD Seventh-day Adventist church, and like it or not, it’s defining us. They regularly rescue people from life crises, and their PR message of apple-cheeked wellness (in contrast to the message you’ll hear at some of our evangelistic meetings) is friendly, inclusive, contemporary and hopeful. Adventist healthcare representatives sit on the denominational boards within their territories. They’ve helped to finance events for the church, such as Ohio’s Innovation Conference. When an “independent” film maker makes films about us, what are they about? The message to anyone watching “The Adventists” is that the real Seventh-day Adventist is either a doctor or other healthcare worker, or a vegetarian octogenarian who used to be a healthcare worker but who now regularly hikes up Mt. Whitney. Nothing about the 90% of our congregations that are small and working class, or about the 19th century doctrines we teach at our evangelistic meetings. These films are about Adventist medicine. And that may be just fine. For at this point, we need for it to thrive.[3]

So don’t suppose anyone in that ministry would be sanguine about returning to the days of sacrificial pay. They’ll say that given the returns they produce, they earn every cent.[4] That no one in their industry could work for anything close to denominational salaries. That big salaries mean big tithes and offerings. They might point out that ADRA’s failure to pay community standard wages meant it was a training ground for people who moved on to better pay with World Vision. So the last place that the communistic vision of equal pay for everyone trying to finish the work still holds is among those employed in congregations and church schools[5].

As never before in the history of American business, ethicists are questioning the morality of corporate boards voting their CEOs outsize compensation packages. But as the Pacific Press case showed, Adventists don’t like being called to account about their ethics. One church leader back then argued, “…as Adventists we are disturbed and ashamed to see employed the kinds of approaches of activism seen in the world outside the Church, approaches that would seek to force or coerce those with whom women mutually serve in God's work to achieve such ends.… This, we believe, negates the very spirit and goals of Christian ethics.” Christian ethics, by this definition, is what we decide to do, not what we should do, and never what ethicists or lawmakers tell us to do. Perhaps that’s why this particular ethical question, such a hot topic in the business world, seems not to have been raised by Adventist healthcare’s own ethicists, who’ve diplomatically stayed on more familiar ground like abortion and euthanasia.

Please understand, these healthcare leaders are not evil. They are good and dedicated Seventh-day Adventists. They just inhabit a cozy subculture in the church in which all this seems right, even inevitable. They’ve tried not to upset people by calling attention to their enrichment. If any of those ordained denominational leaders on the boards noticed, they too kept the secret. For it’s just business, and darn good business at that, business we can’t do without, business that gives us money and self-esteem at the very time our church is weakening across much of the NAD territory. Plus, jealousy is an ugly thing, and none of us want to be accused of it.

So if the Adventist constituency wants a different scheme of money management in church institutions, they’ll need to make that known (though they’ve not been especially good at holding leaders accountable in the past). But if someone pulls the plug on the Adventist money machine, the outcome might not be what we’d like. The horse has left the barn, and things may not turn out well for the church if we try to put it back in again. Meaning it’s not impossible that one day we’ll wake up to realize our name is more valuable as a business than as a church.




[1] Kettering, Centerville, and Miamisburg

[2] I am not aware that my conference, union, or division president gets compensation or anything else under another name—perqs, bonuses, or gifts, above the table or under it—from the massive healthcare systems in our territory, although it’s a question someone probably should ask.

[3] There’s a worrying side to this, though: what happens to church finances if healthcare ceases to be so profitable?

[4] Are these leaders as concerned about excellent pay for the rank and file as they are for their own? I know of at least one institution where, not that many years ago, the non-management workers were paid below-scale wages with the excuse that they were doing the Lord’s work and should sacrifice. Is that argument still being used in Adventist healthcare institutions?

[5] Though I’m told by reliable sources that the senior pastors of some hospital churches get substantial perqs from Adventist healthcare. How can the pastor provide pastoral care to the hospital CFO over golf if he’s not a member of the same country club? Doesn’t he have to wear suits and drive a car that won’t embarrass the CEO? It only makes sense.