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Is ADRA Changing Itself More Than the World?

After the surprise change of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency’s leadership in 2010 and the shocking twenty percent reduction of employees in early 2011, many Adventists have questions about the emerging direction in one of the church’s most successful enterprises.

Additionally, this confusion about the future of ADRA, now led by former seminary professor Rudi Maier, is echoed within ADRA itself. With many positions remaining vacant and a lack of communication, there has been a slow down in projects and funding. Many ADRA employees remain in the dark about just where the agency is headed.

Requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal, one senior ADRA employee confessed:

I decided to work for ADRA because the mission of the organization resonated. Now I, and many people here, feel like ADRA’s mission has been taken away by the administration.

That sentiment is reflected in informal comments by other employees. There is a question of administrative competence, since everyone has yet to see management basics like an organizational chart or a clearly articulated vision. Phrases like “a sense of resignation” and “loss of pride” come out in conversations. Staff suggest that administration has not thought beyond firing 17 employees—for instance, how these changes would affect funding, the loss of technical expertise, or how to fill vacancies with competent Adventist workers.

Employees note, and John Torres, assistant director of public awareness for ADRA, confirmed that the following positions remain unfilled:

  • women’s issues specialist
  • HIV/AIDS specialist
  • senior technical advisor
  • director of technical excellence
  • graphic artist
  • nutrition specialist

This reduces the capacity for ADRA to pursue funding as granting organizations and NGOs pick partners based on institutional expertise.

In addition, the liaison to the United Nations was reduced to half time and a prominent expert in public health, with connections to Loma Linda University recently left. Replacement of those who were fired has become an issue for ADRA’s viability. And many of ADRA’s former employees landed much better paid positions in the development services milieu, including the government, the United Nations, and other non-governmental organizations.

Predictably this loss of expertise has resulted in a loss of funding. In June, the director of the Food for Peace (FFP) program within USAID wrote to Ken Flemmer, ADRA’s vice president for programs, informing him that ADRA’s grant was to be cut short and reduced significantly. “Given the slow progress of (ADRA) SSHiNE program implementation and considering the various management issues discussed over numerous email exchanges and meetings between FFP and ADRA, as well as the myriad external factors that hinder program implementation in southern Sudan, FFP feels that the best option is to modify the agreement to change the scope, funding amount and termination date of the SSHiNE program.” This represents a loss of millions of dollars in funding.

This bad news came on the heels of good news from the Audit Committee which found 2010—under Charles Sandefur’s leadership—to be ADRA’s best year ever in terms of funding. ADRA’s assets grew from $33 million in 2009 to $42 million in 2010. Strangely, finances were a reason given by Ted Wilson for the leadership change.

While some debate whether the reduction in force means a greater focus on disaster relief or community development, it appears that the biggest change lies in ADRA’s relationship to the church.

Speaking for the organization, John Torres emphasizes that ADRA does not proselytize. He explained this emerging change as “a rekindling of the focus of who we are as an organization and our ties to the church.” He added that this is to promote “better understanding of ADRA’s role in the Adventist community.”

What this means in practice is difficult to discern outside the General Conference building that serves as headquarters for both ADRA and the church. Informally, it seems to have something to do with a faction of church leaders who feel that ADRA has drifted outside denominational harmony.

ADRA’s longtime global focus on providing disaster relief and community development around the world has put it in tension with some denominational administrators who express confusion and sometimes jealousy about difference in mission, resource scale, and structural control. To oversimplify: one focuses in, while the other focuses out. Now the sense among close observers of the new administration is that the change in leadership and the reduction in force fits with a shrinking of ADRA’s mission—it will do less in the world and more for the church.

An example of this new direction emerged last weekend at the Adventist-laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI) convention. There, ADRA signed a memorandum of understanding with Maranatha Volunteers International to provide $1 million for the construction of 100 one-room Seventh-day Adventist schools in Haiti. These “One-Day Schools” are galvanized steel buildings, designed and manufactured by Garwin McNeilus, a multi-millionaire donor for church evangelism projects.

Of course, Maranatha is not an official denominational institution, although it works to forward the church growth mission of the General Conference. In light of this relationship, ADRA notes that it has worked closely with the church in the past, for instance coordinating the very popular End It Now campaign with the General Conference Women’s Ministries department. Originally conceived to spread a message of zero Adventist tolerance for violence against women this campaign has also been changed, and now focuses on all forms of abuse, whether of males or females.

Given these many changes in direction, employees report a sense of resignation at the office. In the GC building ADRA workers were known for staying late to work on projects when the rest of the building had emptied out. But now the bureaus are quiet in the evening. An employee states that the sense that personal effort makes a difference is gone from the organization. Dozens of current employees are estimated to be looking for work outside ADRA, noting that some of those who were fired landed a much better job elsewhere in development. Paraphrasing words of one former employee: they trained us, then kicked us out, but we are appreciated elsewhere.

Another example of this frustration with an out of touch administration was recently forwarded to Spectrum. This email invites employs to “the 1st ADRA International Staff Retreat” at the “Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort.” It goes on to mention a time for spiritual renewal and a special Sabbath speaker, but focuses on ADRA providing about 40 employees “a relaxing weekend at this top-rated resort. Nestled in the foothills of Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland. You’ll be able to enjoy hiking, canoeing, biking, and if you wish, challenge your ADRA colleagues to a round of golf on Maryland’s only Jack Nicklaus signature golf course. Or why not spend a relaxing afternoon at the onsite Garden Spa.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a little golf, spa time or family relaxation. But this does represent another change. As another senior ADRA employee stated:

I guess for many staff members there is a disconnect between finances cited as reason for the reduction in force and going on such a retreat.

While employees, church members, and other NGOs await answers from ADRA president Rudi Meier and his administration, there are also questions for the ADRA board.

How responsible is the board for the changes in leadership, workforce expertise and mission focus?
During its meetings in Silver Spring over the past year, the board has allowed General Conference President Ted N.C. Wilson to single-handedly reshape the agency. First, Wilson removed Lowell Cooper as the chairman of the Board when he handed out assignments to the General Conference vice presidents. Next he led the board in removing the president. Furthermore, no search committee was formed to find a replacement. Rudi Meier, then a professor at Andrews University, was nominated by Wilson, contacted by phone during the meeting about the position, to which he agreed and was voted in as president.

In April, six weeks after the firing of the 17 employees, the ADRA board studied the agency’s reorganization—for eight hours. The meeting was only supposed to last until noon, but did not even break for lunch. Finally, at about 3 pm, Wilson went to the cafeteria and requested that food be brought in. According to one board member, there was motivation at that meeting to remove Meier from his position as president, but Wilson pled for forgiveness to be extended to Meier for the mistakes that he had made and for him to keep his position. The Board finally agreed.

What the Board did do is create two committees: a working committee to consider the defining elements of ADRA and a standing committee to oversee the group’s bylaws.
The next meeting of the ADRA board is in October just before Annual Council when the division presidents who hold 12 of the seats on the 37-member Board are in Silver Spring. (A quorum for the Board is one-third of the members.) One lay member on the board doubts that any changes will be made. “If the board could not bring itself to make changes in April after the disastrous firings, what would motivate the board to make changes now?”

Except for the $1 million dollar grant to Maranatha, no new projects have been announced this year—but one is coming.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, ADRA is about to begin its largest project to date. And while it has yet to be officially announced, the employees who worked on the $55 million award are emphatic to point out that the process started 13 months ago—before things changed. In fact, according to reports, the current ADRA president was so clueless about the work of ADRA that during the mass termination turmoil he told the remaining employees to take the next day off. Someone then pointed out that that was the day that this grant was supposed to be submitted, and that ADRA had just fired four of the people working on it.

However, the remaining employees carried on, as do hundreds around the globe.

Increasingly, the question comes up—how will these changes at church headquarters affect ADRA’s mission around the world?

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