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Fixing the Finances of the Adventist Church: Appointing Leaders

Members of the General Conference Executive Committee gather as the seventh day of their Annual Council begins on Wednesday, Oct

It’s time for change. We all know it, whether we pay attention to Annual Council meetings or just the sermon at our local church. Leadership matters. In 2010, a man I deeply respect, Charles Sandefur, recruited me to join the Adventist Development and Relief Agency's internal audit team. It had been a dream of mine to work for ADRA. About six months after being hired, however, I received a phone call summoning me from Haiti back to ADRA’s offices in the denomination’s headquarters. There was no real explanation, but rumors were flying. Upon my arrival, I learned that newly elected General Conference President Ted Wilson had personally fired Charles Sandefur. Inside the GC building, a group of my colleagues and I were ushered into a conference room where we met ADRA’s new president, Rudi Meier. He sat at the right hand of Ted Wilson. 

For the next hour, the two of them explained the change with a litany of vague concerns about overhead and alleged massive revenue declines in the preceding years. Finally, a few of us attempted to speak up. I remember stating, “What you are saying is factually not true.” What happened next changed my entire outlook on leadership in the Adventist Church. Rudi Meier turned to Ted Wilson and said, “I bet he’s one of those people who think women should be running this place.” Ted Wilson laughed.

At that moment, I realized that the entire anti-women’s ordination movement had nothing to do with biblical verses or who was giving the sermon from the rostrum. Instead, it had everything to do with the individuals running the power structure of the church. After this incident, I started doing some research in the “black book”—the Working Policy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists—and I found that the only requirement to be a conference president is that the candidate must be an ordained minister. Period. Nothing more. In other words, if they control who is ordained, they control who is president.

It’s time for change. If my involvement with the issue had stopped there, I would have remained a regular women’s ordination supporter. I was a delegate at the Pacific Union Special Session in 2012, where I voted with the majority (79% to 21%) to approve ordinations to the gospel ministry without regard to gender. However, my continued policy research prompted me to utilize the Adventist Yearbook, which lists the leaders of the institutional units and organizations in the denomination. As I researched the educational backgrounds of conference presidents, my findings brought me to a realization: Adventist leadership is one of the most homogeneous groupthink-led entities that exists. 

At that time, I couldn’t find a single conference president who had any educational background in a leadership or business-related field. All of them were former seminarians. I found only one executive secretary with an advanced degree outside of a seminary. Most people don’t realize this, but the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary doesn’t have a single required church leadership course in its Master of Divinity program, let alone one on how to manage the finances of a local church. Why should it? Its outcomes focus on training church leaders to use the Bible for pastoral care, doctrinal maintenance, and public worship, not how to run a billion-dollar global enterprise. 

Why should we limit ourselves to a single source of leadership? Look no further than the Adventist hospital systems. How many doctors or nurses are CEOs? Very few. It’s not because they aren’t good at healthcare. It’s because their education and specialization does not equate to strategic executive management and decision-making skills. I would argue that the same thing can be said about pastors. 

It's time for change. We need to stop qualifying conference presidents simply because they make us feel good when they come to our church on Sabbath and preach a moving sermon. They do that because that is what they know how to do. In contrast, a good president should analyze the situation identified in my last article and start building consensus around the changes that need to happen. The difficult reality is that most of our church leaders look at 59 regional administrative structures in North America and don’t see a problem. It’s not that they refuse to acknowledge any problems, but rather that they don’t have the training to understand how to use power in a constructive way. Pastors who become administrators share the same educational and work experience with those that do not. The church’s priority is to maintain the status quo. 

It's time for change. The argument over women’s ordination is the wrong argument. Instead, the argument should be about who is qualified to lead a church structure. Online employment marketplace job postings for CEOs of nonprofit organizations list qualification requirements such as:

– The ability to establish and maintain an organizational culture
– Experience crafting a strategic plan and reporting to a board of directors regularly
– Financial acumen in crafting a budget and leading annual operations to conform to said budget
– The capacity to identify key needs and develop a fundraising plan to cover those needs
– Degrees or advanced education certificates in business administration, finance, law, or related fields

It’s time for change. I once interviewed for a vice president of finance role at an Adventist entity. I asked the organization three questions, one of which had to do with the number of committees I would be expected to serve on. The answer was 36. I responded by saying, “How can I be a successful leader if I am spending that much time in committee meetings?” The answer was that it was simply how the church operates. The church has some very strong administrators, but it is challenged by a lack of depth in the business executive acumen side of running the organization.  

The characteristics of Adventist leadership must change. Quality leaders actively address the challenges in front of them. I would be willing to guarantee that if the educational and leadership qualifications to become a conference president changed, the entire women’s ordination debate would become a moot point.

It’s time for change. Church members need to demand that their conference search committees be more open about the qualifications required for the role. Church members need to add diversity in educational and leadership experience to their wish lists for pastors and presidents. Sometimes policy defines practice—but these days, it's clearly time for practical change to lead the way, if we truly want a better Adventism.  


Roger Keaton is chief financial officer of the Child Saving Institute, which has a 131-year legacy in Omaha, Nebraska. He spent about eight years as a staff auditor for GCAS and ADRA and then as associate treasurer for the Northern California Conference before taking a job as CFO for Yellowstone Forever in Montana, where he led the successful merger of the Yellowstone Association and Yellowstone Park Foundation. He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance and international business from Union College (now Union Adventist University). He earned his master’s degree in financial services from Southern Adventist University. Keaton is a certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner.

Title image from Annual Council livestream. 

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