From the Spectrum Archives: Status, Trends, and Analysis of Seventh-day Adventist Regional Conferences, 1950-2009

From the Spectrum Archives: Status, Trends, and Analysis of Seventh-day Adventist Regional Conferences, 1950-2009

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Published:
June 19, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Spectrum, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Fall 2010). It was written by Henry E. Felder, an economist who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Research for the Reagan administration, Dean of the School of Business and Management at La Sierra University, and Assistant Department Director for Los Angeles County.


Overview

This study assesses the development and effectiveness of Regional Conferences as administrative units from the period of 1950, shortly after Regional Conferences came into existence, until 2008, the last year for which there are published data. The study examines trends in membership growth, fund receipt, development of worker resources, concentration of the Regional Conference in the Unions in which they reside, and alternative models of local conference administration. The study finds that the Regional Conferences have grown from 8.9 percent of the membership and 5.7 percent of the tithe of the North American Division (NAD) in 1950, to 24.9 percent of the membership and 17.7 percent of the tithe of the NAD by 2008. Regional Conferences in 2008 had the third and fifth largest membership among the 58 local conferences in the NAD, and the fourth and eighth largest tithe. In two of the six NAD Unions in which they operate, Regional Conference membership is more than 45 percent of the total Union membership. In addition, Regional Conferences have experienced sweeping increases in the number of schools operated, teachers employed, and the number of ministers preaching the gospel. This study shows that Regional Conferences have moved from humble beginnings in the 1950s to its current stature and importance in the work of the gospel in the NAD. In every regard, the existence of Regional Conferences has resulted in unvarnished blessings to the members they serve and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in which they are essential administrative units.

The plan of the paper is: 1) to develop the baseline economic and social structures that existed when Regional Conferences were established, 2) to review the critical membership, baptism, tithe and offering trends that indicate how well missiology emphasis has been accomplished, 3) assess the contemporary status of Regional Conferences relative to the North American Division and the Unions in which they function, and 4) present an analysis of the implications of alternative conference structures.

Background

Local Conferences in the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are associations of churches for the administration of the work in specified areas. Local churches are the primary focal point for proclaiming the gospel, outreaching to the community, providing comfort to their constituent members, and managing the funds received. The primary administrative functions of local conferences are: 1) to form a legal association to carry on financial transactions and to hold title to properties, including churches, schools, and other properties, 2) to issue credentials, licenses and certificates to the various types of conference employees, 3) to pay the salaries of evangelists, local pastors, Bible workers, school teachers and other employees of the conference, 4) to operate conference institutions, including central headquarters, campgrounds, and housing facilities, and 5) to facilitate denominational work among the churches through departments.1 Local conferences are also the primary recipient of church funds, in the form of tithe that it collects from the local church and distributes for its own and for higher administrative units, such as the Unions, Divisions, and the General Conference. Conferences also have a missional purpose in advancing the work of the gospel in their regions. This missional purpose includes encouraging pastors, financing evangelism, fostering church schools, and maintaining a focus on the greater purpose. One writer calls this missional objective biblical, historical, and occurring in a cultural context.2

Regional Conferences are recognized organizational entities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the North American Division. The structure was formally adopted in 1944 at the Spring Meeting of the General Conference Committee to provide for the organization of Black-administered conferences where membership, finances, and territory warranted. They are called Regional Conferences and bear the same organizational relationship to their respective unions as other conferences. Regional Conferences follow the practice of open membership without regard to race, color, or national origin.3

In 1944, the General Conference Committee in its Spring Meeting voted to recommend the development of Regional Conferences of African American members in selected unions across the North American Division.4 The recommendation included an expectation that an organization designed around the needs of the African American5 members of the Church would bring "great advance in soul winning endeavors."6 By 1946, five Conferences and two missions were organized. By 1951, seven Regional Conferences were operational: 1) Lake Region in the Lake Union Conference, 2) Allegheny in the Columbia Union Conference, 3) South Atlantic in the Southern Union Conference, 4) South Central in the Southern Union Conference, 5) Northeastern in the Atlantic Union Conference, 6) Central States in the Central Union Conference, and 7) Southwest in the Southwest Union Conference.

In 1966, Allegheny split into the two conferences of Allegheny East and Allegheny West Regional Conferences. In 1981, South Atlantic was divided into South Atlantic and Southeastern Regional Conferences. The Central Union Conference and the Northern Union conference were consolidated into the Mid-America Union. These nine Regional Conferences are located in six of the nine Union conferences that make up the North American Division (NAD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.7 The Pacific Union Conference, Northern Pacific Union, and the SDA Church in Canada do not have Regional Conferences.

Scope and Organization

This is an analysis of the Regional Conferences and how well they perform the administrative and missional functions to which they have been entrusted. As such, this is not an analysis of Black Adventists and their trends, nor an analysis of whether Regional Conferences have resulted in more members, or tithe and offerings than would be the case in the absence of Regional Conferences. It is also not an analysis of Black Adventists and their trends in those NAD Unions where there are no Regional Conferences.

Success in administrative and missional efforts by Regional Conferences is not easily discerned, except through comparative reference points for such success, and the trends that show continuation of such success. These comparative reference points are proxies for subjectively observed success. For example, a proxy for administrative effectiveness could be reflected in the amounts of tithe and offerings received by Regional Conferences. But, how much is enough and how do we know if what we observe are indeed indicators of success? For this we use reference points — i.e., how other Conference administrative units are performing. The proxy for missional effectiveness could be reflected in membership increases as the gospel is advanced, nurturing, as few members choose to leave the church, and outreach into the communities served. However observed, it should be recognized that many of these proxies are subjective, and not all reviewers will agree on the appropriateness of the measures.

In order to assess status and trends, data are used from the years 1950 to 2008, when data were last available. The trend analysis will be in five-year intervals under the assumption that this is sufficient to determine trends. The principle analysis will be changes and rates of growth in membership, tithe and offerings. In addition, there will be summary assessments of data from 1950, to establish a baseline, and from 2008, to assess current status. The reference points come from what the data show regarding non-Regional Conferences and summary information on the NAD. This is justified as these become the quasi-standard for effectiveness, or lack thereof. To place these trends in context, we examine data regarding the contextual environment of African Americans in the baseline and current years. The trends are measured against similar trends in the NAD and trends in the general populations in the United States. The purpose is to assess how well the Regional Conferences have fulfilled the intent in their organization to advance the work in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The data used in the analysis come primarily from the Annual Statistical Reports of Seventh-day Adventists8 and U.S. Department of Commerce Current Population Reports9 for the years covered in the analysis. All data are as reported in these series. The paper is in three parts: 1) A baseline analysis from 1950, 2) An examination of trends and ratios for the period 1950 to 2005, and 3) A summary of the status of Regional Conferences in 2008. While this is an analysis of the Regional Conferences, there is an examination of the trends affecting Blacks and Whites in income and population. These are used to provide points of reference for the analysis.

Two types of ratio analysis are used. In one, there is the ratio of the numbers from the aggregate Regional Conferences divided by the same numbers for the North American Division as a whole. This type of ratio shows what percent of the NAD is represented by the Regional Conferences. Membership ratios are used this way (e.g., What percent of the NAD members are in the Regional Conferences?). The other type of ratio is one in which the numbers for the Regional Conferences are divided by the same number for the NAD minus the values for the Regional Conference. This type of ratio shows the relative value of the Regional Conference when compared to the value for the NAD minus the Regional Conference. Income ratios are used this way (e.g., What is the ratio of tithe paid in the Regional Conferences when compared to the tithe paid in the rest of the NAD?). All local conferences except Regional Conferences are called State Conferences. There were 57 local conferences in the NAD in 2008, of which nine were Regional Conferences and 49 were State Conferences. There were nine Union Conferences, including the SDA Church of Canada.

Baseline Status in 1950

Table 1 shows the memberships, tithes, and other indicators for the newly formed Regional Conferences at the end of 1950. There were 23,264 members in 298 churches, who paid $1,195,633 in tithe and another $682,473 in offerings. When these numbers are adjusted for inflation to 2008 amounts, they are the equivalent of $9,328,329, and $5,324,656, respectively. There were 82 ordained ministers and 100 elementary school teachers. Tithe per capita was $51.39 on average, but it ranged from a low of $26.15 in South Atlantic to a high of $67.84 in Allegheny East.10 At the end of 1950, the Regional Conferences represented 10.3 percent of the churches, 8.9 percent of the members, and 5.7 percent of the tithe in NAD. On average, tithe per capita was 61.0 percent of the tithe per capita of the rest of the NAD (shown as Regional / NAD-Regional). There was one Black SDA for every 647 Black Americans, and one White SDA for every 570 White Americans.11

Table 1. Memberships, Tithe and Offerings of Regional Conferences and the NAD, 1950

Source: Eighty-eighth Annual Statistical Report of Seventh-day Adventists: 1950. http://www.adventistarchives.org/


Across the NAD as a whole (including the Regional Conferences), there were 2,887 churches with 259,939 members. These members gave $21,137,472 ($164,914,556 in 2008 dollars) in tithe and a total of $35,898,649 ($280,081,258 in 2008 dollars) in combined tithe and offerings. The tithe per capita of the newly formed Regional Conferences was 58 percent of similar amounts for the NAD as a whole. Thus, the Regional conferences represented but a small percent of the overall membership, tithe or offerings in the NAD. The creation of Regional Conferences did not result in major declines in the operation of the NAD.

We can place these numbers in perspective by examining some aspects of the economic and social context into which Regional Conferences were organized. The Supreme Court ruling of 1896 in Plessey v. Ferguson12 made "separate but equal" the law of the land and was rigidly enforced in the South and in some parts of the North. In many Seventh-day Adventist Churches, there was rigid racial separation in churches, schools and institutions, following in the putative advice found in Volume 9 of the Testimonies that advocated separation of the races.13 The lot of African Americans14 was one of poverty, suppression, rabid discrimination in housing, wages, employment and health. On the verge of the Civil Rights movement, and before Brown v. Board of Education,15 the lot of African Americans was characterized by rural poverty, low wages and high unemployment. The median income for Blacks in 1950 was $1,569, or 50 percent of the median income of $3,135 for Whites; more than 55 percent of African Americans were poor in 1959, compared to 22 percent for Whites, and all measures of schooling, health, housing and measures of well-being were depressed for American Blacks.16 Regional Conferences operated under dire fiscal conditions in just becoming established and ministering to a group largely neglected on the public scene.

Measuring Trends Since 1950

Membership Growth Trends

There were major changes in the economic, social, political, and religious landscape that had a profound impact on the lot of African Americans as a whole and Black Adventists in particular, between 1950 and the time of our latest data, 2008. The missiology thrust of the Regional Conferences over this time can be seen in its membership growth. Table 2 shows how the Regional Conferences and the NAD have grown in five-year intervals from 1950 to 2005, and identifies separately the membership growth of the Regional Conferences and the rest of the NAD. Across all the Regional Conferences (with the addition of Southeastern and Allegheny West) membership grew from 23,624 in 1950 to 269,700 members by 2008. The rest of the NAD grew from 236,675 to 815,138. The ratio of Black Adventists to Blacks in the general population rose from 1:647 in 1950 to 1:144 by 2008. Comparable figures for Whites are problematic, as the membership totals for the NAD after the membership totals for the Regional Conferences are taken out (NAD-Regional) includes a significant, but unspecified number of non-Whites. However, as an approximation and proxy, the ratio of White Adventists to the White American population rose from 1:570 in 1950 to 1:298 in 2008.17 Regional Conferences were reaching more of their constituents, on average, than was true for the rest of the NAD. This can also be shown by looking at the rate of growth in membership within Regional Conferences, when compared with the rate of growth across the rest of the NAD.

Table 2 shows the rate of membership growth, and 5-year growth rates for the Regional Conferences, and the State Conferences in the NAD, over the period 1950 to 2005.18 Over this period, Regional Conferences grew from 23,264 members in 1950 to 248,689 in 2005. Over the period 1950 to 1980, Regional Conferences grew at 5-year rates that were always more than 25 percent. After 1980, membership growth rates declined, so that during the last 5-year period, growth was 10.5 percent. Among the State Conferences, the 5-year growth rate never exceeded 15 percent. However, by the end of this period, the growth rates of the Regional and the State Conferences were very close to 10 percent. The converging of growth rates is consistent with explanations such as the maturing of the Regional Conferences, as well as the opening up of the non-Regional Conferences to membership among African Americans. The data show clearly that Regional Conference growth has splendidly achieved the original intent in the creation of Regional Conferences to achieve a "great advance in soulwinning endeavors."19

Table 2. Membership and 5-Year Rates of Growth of Regional and State Conferences, 1950–2005

Source: Statistical Reports of Seventh-day Adventists for years cited. Growth rates are calculated by author.


Baptism and Profession of Faith Trends

Net growth in membership generally begins with baptisms and profession of faith (POF) into the Church. On Table 3 we see the overall number of baptisms and POF in the NAD and in the Regional Conferences in those years we have been tracking.20 In 1950, among all Regional Conferences, membership increases through baptism and profession of faith were 2,228. For the years considered, membership increases reached their highest level in 1980, when 8,913 persons were baptized or joined the church by profession of faith. Meanwhile, total NAD increases rose from 16,504 in 1950 to 39,709 in the year 2008. Table 3 also shows that starting in 1975, baptisms among the churches in the Regional Conferences generally accounted for between 20–25 percent of all baptisms in the NAD. While there have been some shifts up and down, this pattern appears to have been stable over the 33 years in this series. These data are consistent with a vibrant Regional Conference administrative structure that consistently contributes more than 20 percent of all baptisms in the NAD.

By all reasonable measures, the Regional Conferences have advanced the gospel at numbers and rates that likely exceeded expectations when the conferences were introduced. The Regional Conferences have increased their presence in the African American community at rates that have been greater for this community than the State Conferences have for the majority community. This increase in presence has come about even though many Black Adventists have memberships in churches outside the Regional Conferences (in those areas where Regional Conferences exist). This increase has also come about even as some State Conferences have become largely African American in actual membership. In addition, the membership increase has moved beyond just the African American community as all Whites, Asians, and persons of Hispanic ethnicity have become members of churches in Regional Conferences. These increases have not come about randomly or by chance, but with the Spirit of God moving amongst the administrative structures of Regional Conferences to achieve the gospel commission.

Table 3. Baptisms in the NAD and the Regional Conferences, Selected Years, 1950–2008

Source: Statistical Reports of Seventh-day Adventists for the years shown.


Trends in Tithe and Offerings

Total tithe and offerings for Regional Conferences have grown as church memberships have grown. From humble amounts in 1950, gifts have increased dramatically from $1.88 million to over $200 million in 2008. Tithe and offerings received by the NAD went from a modest $37.8 million (including the Regional Conferences) in 1950 to $1.3 billion by 2008. Even when adjusted for inflation, tithe and offering growth have been dramatic and at rates far greater than those for State Conferences. Table 4 provides a summary of the trends in the NAD receipt of tithe, while also adjusting for the impact of membership growth.21

Table 4 offers critical insight into the gifting patterns of members of Regional Conferences when compared to the information for State Conferences. Tithe gifts offer a window into member well-being and are a better barometer of giving patterns than the combined tithe and offerings. The tithe per capita, when adjusted for inflation, provides an example of consistency in giving to the church that adjust for membership growth and the changing value of money. This indicator combines critical information about membership growth and how well giving has kept up with that growth in real dollars.

Table 4. Total Tithe and Inflation-Adjusted Tithe Per Capita for Regional and State Conferences, 1950–2008

Source: Author calculations from data on per capita giving found in the Statistical Reports of Seventh-day Adventists and calculations using the U.S. Census Bureau Annual Average Consumer Price Index Series, 1947 to 2008.


Figure 6 shows the per member tithe, adjusted for the effects of inflation, for the Regional Conferences and the rest of the NAD for the period 1950 to 2008. In 1950, members of Regional Conferences returned $401 per capita in inflation adjusted dollars. The rest of the NAD returned $658 per capita. Real tithe and offerings for the Regional conference reached about $600 per capita and has remained around that amount until the latest year for data. Over this period, Regional Conference members returned tithe ranging from $401.22 in 1950 to $585.78 in 2008. In the rest of the NAD, real tithe per member varied from $658 in 1950 to $902 in 2008. For Regional conference members, the time of the greatest per member giving was the period 2000 to 2008. By contrast, the time of greatest per member giving for the rest of NAD was the period from 1965 to 1980.

For all of North America, per member giving declined after 2005, probably reflecting the severe recession that started in that year. The data suggest that from about 1980 to the present, the amount of tithe per member for the Regional Conferences and the rest of the NAD are in a fairly narrow range, following increased tithe giving in earlier years. The data are consistent with members adjusting their tithe for inflation, but there is no real increase in giving. This pattern is true for the Regional Conferences as well as the rest of the NAD. The important lesson is in the consistency with which Regional conference members have provided tithe offerings to the Church over the life of the Regional Conferences.

Non-tithe offerings reflect giving for local church needs and support functions for the world church. We noted in Table 1 that in 1950 members in Regional Conferences gave $57.10 for every $100 given in tithe. For the rest of the NAD, the ratio in 1950 was $70.60 in offerings for every $100 in tithe. Over the period 1950 to 2008, this ratio varied widely due, in part, to reporting difficulties with offerings and the allocations made by individuals and churches.22 Figure 1 provides a graphic illustration of how the ratio of offerings to tithe has varied over this time. Regional Conference members, on average, provide less funding for local needs for every $100 provided for tithe than does the rest of the NAD. This rate has been declining over time, although there has been a lot of variation in the rates. By 2008, members in Regional Conference, on average, have contributed $27 dollars in local offerings for every $100 in tithe offerings. In the State Conferences, members contribute $50 in local offerings for every $100 in tithe. Thus, Regional Conference members do not support local needs to the same extent as do State Conference members.

Figure 1. Ratio of Offerings to Tithe in Current Dollars for Regional and State Conferences, 1950–2008

Source: Author calculations.


The tithe and offerings trends shown here are specific to the Adventist community in North America. To put these trends into perspective, we need to know how well the tithe of members of the Regional Conferences relates to the larger community of African Americans in the nation as a whole. Are members of Regional Conferences relatively better or worse off when compared to the predominantly White members in the State conferences?

To assess how income trends in the Regional Conferences relative to the income trends in the African American community as a whole, two ratios were constructed. One ratio was the per member tithe of Regional Conference members to the per member tithe of the rest of the NAD. The rest of the NAD is taken as a proxy for Whites, even as more African Americans have become members of the churches outside the Regional Conference. The other ratio was the median income of Black families to the median incomes of White families. To the extent that these ratios trend in a similar fashion, the Regional Conferences can be said to proxy the Black community and the NAD outside the Regional Conferences can be said to proxy White Americans.23 The resulting ratios over time are shown on Figure 2.

Figure 2 shows that in 1950, Regional Conference per member tithe was 61 percent of the per member tithe of the State Conferences. In the same year, the median income of Black families was 49.7 percent of the median income of White families. By 1985, the tithe ratio and the income ratio converged and has remained close ever since. By 2008, the ratios were 65.0 and 61.6, for tithe and income, respectively. These ratios are supportive of the notion that the tithe acts as a proxy for the income of members of Regional Conferences and that the giving pattern is essentially the same as the Black-White median income ratio of the larger American community. On average, then, the tithe-giving patterns of members of the Regional Conferences are reflective of the economic status of Blacks in this country.

Figure 2. Ratio over Time of Regional Conference to State Conference Tithe and Black-to-White Income, 1950–2008

Source: Author calculations from Statistical Reports of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports, for the years included.


Summary of Membership and Income Trends

The trends in membership and tithe for Regional Conferences can easily be summarized as shown in Figure 3. This chart shows that in 1950, 8.9 percent of all Adventists in the NAD were members of the Regional Conferences. These members contributed 5.7 percent of the tithe. Over time, Regional Conference membership grew to nearly 25 percent of all members in the NAD, while tithe grew to 17.7 percent of all tithes. Historically, African Americans have had less income than White Americans, so it is not surprising that in the Regional Conferences the tithe percent has not caught up with the membership percentage, although the gap is narrowing. The overall findings are that Regional Conferences are a growing presence in the NAD in both membership and tithe, and have all the attributes of successful ecclesiastical administrative units.

Other findings are:

• Regional Conferences have consistently increased their memberships at rates that exceed the rest of the NAD.

• Regional conference members have consistently provided baptisms in proportion to their membership that is now consistently between 20 and 25 percent of all baptisms in the NAD.

• Regional Conferences have consistently increased their presence in the African American community with member-to-community ratios consistently higher than that of the rest of the NAD. They have also extended their presence into other racial and ethnic communities.

• Members of Regional Conference churches have consistently returned an inflation-adjusted tithe per capita that has continued through varied economic conditions.

Figure 3. Growth in Percent Membership and Tithe for Regional Conferences in the NAD, 1950–2008

Source: Annual Statistical Reports of Seventh-day Adventists.


Current Status of Regional Conferences

By 2009,24 significant changes had occurred in the key variables that showed Regional Conference effectiveness. Membership growth, tithe and offerings, and indicators of effectiveness are clearly demonstrated. Membership had increased to 269,700 (25 percent of the NAD); tithe had grown to $157,984,796 (18 percent of the NAD); and offerings were $43,031,429 (12 percent of the NAD). There were 586 credentialed ministers, representing 27 percent of the ministers in the Unions where Regional Conferences occurred. There are 994 churches in the Regional Conferences and they have, on average, 271.3 memberships per church. More than 70 of these churches have memberships that are largely Hispanic, Asian, or even Caucasian. There are 4,230 churches in the rest of the NAD, and they have, on average, 192.3 members per church. Thus, by 2008, churches in Regional Conferences were larger, had a higher rate of baptisms, had a higher rate of growth, and had indicators of administrative effectiveness that were greater, on average, than the rest of the NAD.

Key Indicators of Membership, Tithe, Ministry and Education in Specific Unions

Table 5 emphasizes that in the 60 years since the inception of Regional Conferences, there are differences in member size, tithe, tithe per capita, and the amount of relative (to tithe) offerings varies considerably. Each conference has its own set of characteristics, and Table 2 reinforces the idea that Regional Conferences are not homogeneous.

As administrative units, the Regional Conferences operate within six of the nine Unions of the NAD, and their impacts are more concentrated relative to those Unions than to the NAD as a whole. Allegheny East and Allegheny West are part of Columbia Union Conference (CUC); Central States is part Mid-America Union Conference (MAUC); Lake Region is part of Lake Union Conference (LUC); Northeastern is part of Atlantic Union Conference (AUC); South Atlantic, South Central and Southeastern are part of the Southern Union Conference (SUC); and Southwest Region is part of Southwest Union Conference (SWUC). Differences across the country in such areas as incomes and attitudes towards religion make intra-Union comparisons meaningful.

Table 5. Memberships, Tithe and Offerings of Regional Conferences and the NAD, 2009

Source: Unpublished statistical data for 2009 from the General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics.


Table 6 shows the impact of Regional Conferences in 2008 in the six Unions in which they occur, in areas of 1) church membership, 2) tithe, 3) number of ministers, and 4) number of teachers. These four measures provide comparative indicators of mission focus, administrative effectiveness, operational effectiveness, and scope of mission into critical areas such as education.

In AUC and SUC, Regional Conference membership exceeds 45 percent of the total membership of the Unions. In CUC and LUC, Regional Conference membership is more than 35 percent. In AUC and CUC, Northeastern and Allegheny are not only the largest conferences, but also produced the largest amount of tithe.23 Tithe receipts from Regional Conference members are more than 30 percent of the total tithe in AUC, CUC, and SUC. Table 6 also shows that the percent of credentialed teachers closely matches the percent of ministers per Union. This is another indicator of the investment in education that Regional Conferences make. In each of the Unions, the number of credentialed ministers in the Regional Conferences closely matches the percent of the tithe from the Regional Conferences in that Union. This is to be expected, as tithe offerings are the main source of funding for ministers.

Figure 4 shows comparative tithe per capita in the Union as a whole and the specific tithe per capita of the Regional Conferences in their structures. The relative amounts vary considerably across Unions. For example, in the Columbia Union, Allegheny East has a higher tithe per capita ($949) than that of the Union as a whole ($920). The largest difference appears in the Lake Union, with an overall tithe per capita of $850 compared to the tithe per capita of $412 in the Lake Region Conference.

The results of Table 6 and Figure 4 show differences in the relative strengths of Regional Conferences in the Unions in which they are located. The overall data, however, provide strong indicators of the strength of Regional Conferences in the critical areas that support the gospel mission and show administrative success. These data also highlight how intertwined the presence of Regional Conferences is to the Unions in which they reside.

Table 6. Regional Conference Representation in the Unions Where They Function, 2008

Source: Author's calculations from 146th Annual Statistical Report–2008. Office of Archives and Statistics.


Figure 4. Regional Conferences and the Tithe Per Capita for 2008

Source: Author calculations based on data from Statistical Reports.


Where Do We Go from Here?

Recent voices have called into question the efficacy of Regional Conferences, and some have equated the continued existence of Regional Conferences with tribalism, ethnic cleansing, neo-Nazism, and Black and White racism.26 Other criticisms are raised suggesting that it is time to disband Regional Conferences on the grounds 1) that they represent division in the church, 2) we are in a post-racial world where past discriminations are no longer a valid reason to continue Regional Conferences, and 3) the continued presence of Regional Conferences goes against biblical admonitions that the Church of Christ should be one.27

The papers reviewed have not examined carefully administrative structure in the Adventist Church, nor have they analyzed just what it would mean to dismantle Regional Conferences. In addition, most such criticisms co-mingle attributes of the local churches and attributes of Regional Conferences and incorporate labels of "discrimination," "segregation," and "race-based division" to justify the ultimate objective to disband Regional Conferences.

2 Samuel 11:27 tells us that what David "had done [with Bathsheba] displeased the Lord." However, 2 Samuel 12:25 says of Solomon [the product of the illicit relationship with Bathsheba], "and he called his name Solomon: and the Lord loved him." Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3) after arguing passionately against it (1 Cor. 7:18, 19). God does not rewind the clock to what should have been, but deals with us where we are. In the same way, the calls for the disbanding of Regional Conferences do not spend much effort to tell us just how these Conferences are to be disbanded and what the resulting restructuring arrangements will look like. Nor is much effort expended in showing that the results will improve administrative functioning or reduce perceived divisiveness in the Church. It is useful to consider present administrative structures and implications for restructuring.

Models of Conference Administration

The West Coast Model. The West Coast Model of administration of the work amongst Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians consists of overwhelmingly Caucasian administrators with African American, Hispanic, and Asian ministries.28 The Ministry or Department director has specific coordination responsibility for the racial or ethnic group he is identified with, but with a largely advisory role. This structure exists at both the Union and local conference levels.

The West Coast Model explicitly recognizes that there is a need for directed ministries for African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. The administrators within this Model, with rare exception, have been White, with minority Department directors. All Seventh-day Adventist members are free to attend any church he or she wants. However, if that church is predominantly Black, Hispanic, or Asian, then in the Pacific Union or the North Pacific Union the church falls under one of the specific ministries. There is a minority coordinator at the Union Conference level, but local conferences may elect to have minority coordinators for whichever minority community it serves.29 These administrators are largely advisory to the Conference Committee and do now exercise the roles and functions of whole conferences. At the local church level, racial and ethnic diversity is dependent on church options, location, and choice. However, diversity generally occurs when Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians attend predominantly White churches. Diversity in the other direction — Whites attending predominately Black, Hispanic, or Asian churches or schools is rare.

The East Coast Model. The East Coast Model of administration of the work amongst Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians consists of Regional Conferences with overwhelmingly Black administrators and other Conferences with overwhelmingly White administrators. Both types of administrative structures have ethnic and racially diverse congregations. Black, Hispanic, and Asian members are free to attend any church he or she wants. There are predominantly Black churches that are not in the Regional Conference structure, and predominantly Hispanic or White churches that are in the Regional Conferences. However, most diversity occurs when Blacks, Hispanic, and Asians attend predominantly Caucasian churches. Diversity in the other direction — Caucasians attending predominantly Black churches or schools is rare.

The East Coast Model also explicitly recognizes that there is a need for directed ministries for African Americans. Because of the history and racial make-up of the East and Midwest, no explicit need for Hispanic or Asian ministries has been identified. Black, Hispanic, and Asian is free to choose any church he or she wants, and importantly, to have membership under the type of administrative structure he or she wants. There is no discrimination, no segregation under the East Coast Model. Because of choices by White Adventists, Black churches are less likely to have the full range of racial diversity that is exhibited in predominantly White churches. Where Regional Conferences exist, there is the full application of the roles and responsibilities of conferences. In 2008, this included commitments to the more than 1,300 workers employed by Regional Conferences.30

Unity (Consolidation) Model. Implicit in the call for the disbanding of Regional Conferences is a move towards the West Coast Model of church administrative structure. The call for unity likely means that Regional Conferences would see their legal status ended, their assets distributed across existing conferences, and an ad hoc administrative arrangement (inherently unstable) cobbled together.

Alternative Unity Model. One alternative model could result in the consolidation of two or more conferences with parameters established regarding administrators, locale, legal status, and authority for the consolidated conferences. There are no known reports on this as a possible model, nor is it clear that those who call for the disbanding of Regional Conferences are considering this alternative. This model is not being discussed, and since several Regional Conferences are dominant in their Unions, this model has not been part of the discussion.

Possible Implications of Disbanding Regional Conferences

In light of the information presented here, the wholesale disbanding of Regional Conferences has several potential implications:

• Conference structures in the NAD would resemble the West Coast Model as it relates to Black American administrators. In some instances, African American administrators would preside over what would be State Conferences, but the depth of African American administrative interaction would be limited to a few positions within the administration.

• The administration of the Regional Conferences would transfer from successful models of administration shown in the data above and transfer those functions to a largely White set of administrators. No mention is made of disbanding State Conferences with a merger of conferences, so the clear implication is that the existing State conference administration would remain largely intact.

• Changing the legal and contractual structures that undergird the African American Adventist communities in which these structures operate would also affect the communities in which these structures operate.

So, what will come of this conversation? The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 52 percent of Blacks in America live in metropolitan areas, inside central cities, compared with 21 percent of non-Hispanic Whites.31 It doesn't seem likely that the church, in pursuit of an elusive concept of unity, would disband demonstrably effective, Black-administered structures that are responsible for 25 percent of the membership and 15 percent of the cash flow of the NAD, in favor of turning that responsibility over to overwhelmingly White-administered structures that are largely headquartered in suburbs.

After a ten-year study of the Black Church, scholars Lincoln and Mamiya had this to say regarding the merger of three Black Methodist denominations:

However, church mergers are among the most complicated of human endeavors, and the restructuring of ecclesiastical entities seem to founder more often than they succeed. Human interests vested in positions of power and leadership must be resolved once the doctrinal and ritual preferences have been resolved. Traditions are not readily relinquished, even in the face of the obvious, and emotions sometimes speak with more authority than either reason or practicality.32

The problems identified by Lincoln and Mamiya seem to capture the difficulties of the church moving towards any model that includes disbanding or merging Regional Conferences. While no doctrinal issues are involved for an Adventist unity consolidation, the Methodists did not face the also explosive issue of racial politics in a twenty-first century world. The movement from the East Coast Model to the West Coast Model or a similar construct through disbanding Regional Conferences means to move from more effective means of performing the mission of the church to less effective. With God all things are possible, but it is possible that we have already seen and are implementing "a better way."

Conclusions

The analysis presented here has shown that Regional Conferences have moved from humble beginnings of the 1940s to the current stature and importance in the work of the gospel in the North American Division. In every regard, the existence of Regional Conferences has brought unvarnished blessings to the many members they serve and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in which they are essential administrative units. Membership in the churches of the Regional Conferences is open to all without regard to race or ethnicity. As administrative structures, however, Regional Conferences have overwhelmingly Black administrators, and Conferences in the rest of the NAD have overwhelmingly White administrators.

Given existing structures, the call to disband Regional Conferences is ill-conceived on efficiency, effectiveness, and missiology grounds. Reasonable alternatives to the present administrative have not been proposed, nor the path to such alternatives with its potential for disruption of the mission of the Church, carefully laid out.

 

Notes & References:

1. See section on "Conferences, Local." Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Revised Edition. Washington, DC: Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1976. 346-347.

2. Gruder, Darrell L., ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998. 11.

3. Working Policy, North American Division of the General Conference: 2009–2010 Edition. Section B 45 21.

4. "Office of Regional Affairs and Regional Conferences." Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Revised Edition. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1976. 1190-1196.

5. The terms "African American" or "Black" will be used throughout this document, although the source documents used the terms “Negro” or “colored” in reference to Americans of African descent.

6. "Regional Conference Origins-Part 1," SDA Archives, http://www.adventistarchives.org 2010.

7. "North American Division," Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Revised Edition. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1976. 981, 982. This Section describes the ten Unions and the territories they covered in the NAD until 1980. In 1980, the Northern Union and the Central Union combined to form Mid-American Union, thus reducing the number of Unions to nine. For information about Mid-America Union, see their website: http://www.midamericaadventist.org

8. Annual Statistical Report: General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics. Archived data cover the years 1899 to 2008. Located at http://www.adventistarchives.org/documents.asp?CatlD=11&SortBv=2&ShowDateOrder=True

9. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports: Consumer Income Reports (P60). Annual reports date from 1946 to 2008. Located at: http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p60.html

10. All numbers are as reported in the annual Statistical Reports of the United States. Washington, DC. The membership totals are the totals at the end of the year, while the per capita amounts are reported based on the average membership over the year.

11. Throughout this study, the Regional Conferences are proxies for all Black Adventists, while the NAD-Regional numbers are proxy for White Adventists. Over time, this becomes less tenable, but makes the comparisons consistent.

12. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), is a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation even in public accommodations (particularly railroads), under the doctrine of "separate but equal." From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

13. Graybill, Ronald D. E. G. White and Church Race Relations. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1970, provides a perspective on the intent of E. G. White. He suggests that separation was a strategic move to advance the work in the South. However interpreted, Adventist churches were fairly rigidly segregated.

14. in the 1950s, persons of African descent were called Negro and sometimes Colored. Publications used those terms interchangeably. However, more contemporary usage uses African American or Black to refer generally to persons of African descent.

15. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and White students and denying Black children equal educational opportunities unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which permitted segregation. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court's unanimous (9-0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This victory paved the way for integration and the Civil Rights Movement. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

16. Social/Economic Indicators: Comparing Brown Era Racial Disparities to Today. Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity. Ohio State University, April 2004. One of many sources available.

17. These figures are the author's calculations.

18. Five-year intervals are used as a convenient means of showing growth rates over a period of time. For this reason, the series stops in the year 2005.

19. Conditions for the growth in membership among Regional Conferences are unique and cannot reasonably infer what growth rates would have been in other parts of the country, such as the West Coast, where there are no Regional Conferences. Nor can one infer that an earlier development of Regional Conferences would have resulted in comparable growth rates. Membership growth rates are a function of income, circumstances, and other factors which cannot be duplicated for a different time or place. For example, the growth rate over this period for Northeastern and Lake Region — conferences that never split and were in existence over the entire observation period — were 1,226 percent and 807 percent, respectively.

20. The statistical reports vary in how this number is reported. In some years, baptisms and profession of faith were reported separately, while in other years the number was combined. However, the trends are consistent in their direction.

21. Tithe per capita is reported with greater consistency in the Annual Statistical Reports. In many years, local offerings are not recorded for some conferences.

22. In the archived data, some conferences had zero or very minimal dollars reported for offerings in the observation years. In other years, some conferences reported offerings that exceeded the tithe submitted. Reporting on offerings appears more reasonable in later years than in the periods before 1975 for both the Regional Conferences and the rest of the NAD.

23. Of necessity, these are greatly simplifying assumptions. The rest of the NAD includes Black families on the West Coast who are not part of the Regional Conference structure. Non-Regional Conferences include many Black families who are members of those congregations.

24. Unpublished data on memberships and tithe for 2009 were made available by the General Conference Archives office.

25. 146th Annual Statistical Report—2008, Office of Archives and Statistics, pp. 18-21.

26. Koranteng-Pipim, Samuel. Separate Black and White Conferences—Part 1: "The Sin We Don't Want to Overcome." http://www.drpipim.org/church-racism-contemporarv issues-51/97

27. Other papers in this series provide detailed responses to these issues and catalogue the specifics of the criticisms.

28. See the websites for Pacific Union Conference and North Pacific Conference at http://pauc.adventistfaith.org/ and http://www.npuc.org, respectively. Race or ethnic ministries are listed under Ministries or Departments.

29. See the Pacific Union website for a description of the various minority ministries and their responsibilities. http://paucregional.adventistfaith.org/. For the North Pacific Union see their website at http://www.npuc.org/.

30. Number of employed workers in the Regional Conferences in 2008, according to the published data in the Statistical Reports of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

31. The Black Population in the United States: March 2002. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P20 http://paucregional.adventistfaith.org/541 April 2003. p. 2.

32. Lincoln, C. Eric and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990. 393.

 

A Stanford University graduate, Henry E. Felder was an economist who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Research for the Reagan administration, Dean of the School of Business and Management at La Sierra University, and Assistant Department Director for Los Angeles County.

Photo by JD Mason on Unsplash

 

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