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On the La Sierra Resignations: Church Policies and Practices (iii)


Pastors are among the most vulnerable and least protected of any employees in the United States. Teachers in religious schools come not far behind. In fact, any employee of a religious entity may encounter difficulty when turning to the legal system for redress concerning employment issues. This is because of the “wall of separation between church and state” that exists in the U.S. It’s a concept on which we Americans pride ourselves and for which Seventh-day Adventists have advocated strongly since our denomination’s inception.

However, many fail to realize–until too late, at least–that the same principles of jurisprudence that keep government out of our theological decisions very often also keep government from protecting the basic employee rights of those who work for religious organizations. The wall of separation isn’t  “differentially permeable,” to borrow an expression I learned in high-school biology class. It shuts out both the good and the bad–at least what most employees would consider good.

Too often all a religious entity has to do to make the court system turn pale, tremble and bolt for the nearest exit is to declare an employment matter to be “theological” or “ecclesiastical.” And religious entities haven’t been shy about making such claims, if they think such a claim will work to their advantage, whether it's justified or not.

The case of Merikay Silver is a prime example in not-too-distant Seventh-day Adventist Church history. As a denomination, we didn’t want to be told how much we had to pay women in relation to how much we paid men. So we said the government had no business dictating such details. To prove our point, we established an on-the-spot “theology” embracing lower pay for women. We declared it to be an inviolable part of our package of religious belief. To say the least, it wasn’t our most shining moment as a denomination.

Merikay, and her colleague, Lorna Tobler, eventually won. The result was a changed pay scale for Adventist women in the United States. And it was a landmark case for more than just Adventists. But, typically, employees don't do well in their pursuit of justice when the employer is a religious organization. And nothing is likely to change soon.

Granted the conservative majority in the current U.S. Supreme Court, the justices aren't likely to decide Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al in a manner that further safeguards the rights of those employed by religious organizations. At least, not if the Rutherford Institute and others with considerable influence have their way.

Now don't get me wrong. I’d be the last to say that church employment issues don't pose a conundrum. To weaken the wall of separation potentially opens the door to a flood of evils. And to keep the wall strong and high potentially perpetuates evils of a different nature. Especially when religious entities are so willing to use any and every argument to escape having to give their employees what in nearly any other context would be considered employee "rights."

The matter is both complicated and crucial. In varying degrees, not only do Adventist employees, by the very nature of who they work for, forgo certain potential for legal redress, they also have no labor unions or other collective-bargaining entities to fight on their behalf. Adventists have long opposed such organizations and activities even in the rough and tumble of the real world. And church leaders would especially anathematize any such organization that might be formed to pressure the church itself for fair employment practices. Add to this the fact that Adventist employees are often forced to make decisions without the benefit of legal counsel–or are treated as second-class Adventists if they demand such assistance.

Actually, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination so strongly eschews the use of lawyers and recourse to the secular courts–especially against the church itself–that at one point it was voted that suing the church was grounds for church discipline. While such strident wording in the Church Manual has been somewhat toned down, the hesitance of members–and even more so employees–to seek legal redress against the church remains strong. And for obvious reasons.

In an officially voted guideline, our church declares: “The workplace should not dehumanize people. Employees should have access to a process of consultation and genuine discussion in matters affecting their labor and the conduct of the business or industry that employs their talents and skills [emphasis mine]. (1 Kings 12:6,7; Mark 10:42-45; Phil 2:3-8.)”

Granted all the foregoing, the church's promise to engage in meaningful dialogue is absolutely crucial. In effect, the nearest thing to a safeguard for fairness that an Adventist employee has is this paper promise and others like it from the church. But when administrators choose to ignore such promises, where do employees turn for justice? And the tragic fact is, the paper promises are often ignored. 

How do I know this? For all but two of my more than thirty-five years of ministry I’ve been stationed in major Adventist centers where there are a plethora of Adventist employees. I’ve served on boards and committees at every level of the denomination–local church, institution, conference, union, division and General Conference. In some of those assignments, we were dealing directly with employment issues. But my real immersion into the plight of far too many Seventh-day Adventist employees has come from simply serving as a pastor who has the reputation of being willing to listen to and to speak up on behalf of those who are getting short shrift. Not to mention that I'm a church employee myself.

What is greatly lacking is due process. I’m talking about acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. I’m talking about the Golden Rule. I'm talking about a comprehensive philosophy that always begins with the goal of redeeming both the situation and the employee. Rehabilitating. Restoring. I'm talking about an approach that ensures fairness and a Christian spirit even in dealing with the guilty. "Access to a process of consultation and genuine discussion," as promised, would be a great start. The sad fact is: The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not have a well-entrenched corporate culture of caring for its employees–or its members. That needs to change.

Not only are the church's paper promises routinely ignored, they're also written with an unmistakable organizational bias. Of course, one could argue that such a bias is to be expected. Where wouldn't one find such a bias in employer policy? Such a question overlooks two things: First, the Golden Rule–which should make a major difference in how "overlings" treat "underlings." Second, in the real world, an employee has more ready access to some "court of appeal." Not so in the Adventist Church's employment environment.

Allow me to share just one policy that impacts ministers: "L 60 10 Integrity of the Ministry—If the standing of any holder of credentials is brought into uncertainty, it is the duty of the union conference to join the local conference in conferring, with a purpose to clear away any uncertainty, in order that no reproach or shadow may be left to rest upon all the credentials held by the ministry. Where the matters involved are of such a character that the union and local conference committees are unable to resolve the difficulty and announce to all a clear record for the ministry, the matter must of necessity be appealed to the Division, by action of both local and union committees together, or by action of one body separately, inasmuch as any uncertainty in the matter of what ministerial credentials stand for in one field casts a shadow upon all credentials and is a matter of general denominational concern."

Note that the stated rationale for clearing the name of an accused minister isn't that he or she deserves not to have to live and labor under a cloud. The rationale  isn't that a minister deserves redress when lied about. Rather, it's "in order that no reproach or shadow may be left to rest upon all the credentials held by the ministry"–which, understandably, would be bad for the organization's image and credibility. 

Certainly, the stated rationale is a legitimate concern. But so is concern for the injustice being suffered by the minister who's been falsely accused. When one considers the high expectations of and control by the church over not only a minister but also his or her spouse and children, it seems that a little Christian concern for the entire ministerial family shouldn't be too much to expect. The need to clear the name is personal, not just organizational.

Yet such concerns for employee feelings and fairness rarely are the focus of church policy. The organization reigns supreme. And here's the real sticking point: If a minister's integrity is called into question, and for some reason the administrators to whose attention the issue is brought don't really want to address the matter, they can simply do nothing. In fact, they can refuse to acknowledge that the matter has even been raised. And ministers are by no means the only church employees who face such stonewalling. Teachers may be even more marginalized.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from both church employees and church members centers on the refusal of church administrators even to answer letters or return phone calls when otherwise-voiceless people raise a point that those in power would rather not address. It happened even to a loyal nonagenarian member who merely sought an honest and open accounting of how the millions of dollars he and his family had donated to the church had been appropriated.

Adventist dentist Albert Koppel eventually became so frustrated by the refusal of church leaders to answer the most basic questions concerning the money he and his family had given to the church–the church he greatly loves–that he wrote a book: Truth Decay. It's a sad though enlightening story. But instead of grasping how bad such actions and inactions make church leaders look, instead of profuse apologies, instead of in-house seminars to ensure that such actions and inactions are never repeated, the General Conference issued an edict that distribution or even advertising for Dr. Koppel's book–and a couple of others–was forbidden at the Adventist Today booth at last year's General Conference Session in Atlanta. And the edict was no mere recommendation or gentle request. Had the Adventist Today staff not complied, they would have been denied a booth in the display hall. So what should they have done?

If as a church we're going to base our management on such spiritual directives as Micah 6:8, Matthew 7:12, Matthew 18 and a host of other scriptures that certainly read as if they're meant to be taken literally, then we need a major adjustment to our corporate modus operandi. And it's especially crucial because our church blocks off so many alternative avenues to fairness, justice and redress.

General Conference president Ted N.C. Wilson has called for administrator accountability when it comes to certain theological understandings. The call for administrator accountability needs to include accountability in actual administering, as well. In fact, such a call was voted into policy long ago. And the penalties for failure to comply have been spelled out. The North American Division Working Policy states: "B 15 15—Officers/Administrators to Work in Harmony with Policy—Officers and administrators are expected to work in harmony with the North American Division Working Policy. Those who show inability or unwillingness to administer their work in harmony with policy should not be continued in executive leadership by their respective constituencies or governing boards/committees."

Likewise, the Statement of Ethical Foundations for the General Conference and Its Employees states: "We are responsible to our fellow church members. We accept accountability for sound leadership decisions and appropriate stewardship." But just how are ordinary members and ordinary employees supposed to hold their leaders accountable? Where is the mechanism for doing so?

Until an effective accountability mechanism is set in place, until the corporate culture of the church takes far more seriously its responsibility to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, until the Golden Rule truly begins to rule, pastors, teachers and other church employees (to varying degrees) will continue to be among the most vulnerable and least protected employees in the United States.

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