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A Lesson in Stewardship From the General Conference

If the pundits are correct, the number of Adventists in the city of Atlanta will swell to over 70,000 this weekend. Walk through the hallways of the massive convention center, and by the time you arrive at your allotted place in the grand dome, you would have eavesdropped on conversations in at least ten different languages. If you have time to pause for impromptu chats, it won’t take you long to find a faithful visitor who has saved for years to make the holy Hajj to Seventh-day Adventism’s moving Mecca. So thrilled are they to be a part of this spectacular gathering, that few dare voice their amazement that the money spent to buy a meal for a single delegate could feed a family in some parts of the globe for an entire week!

Guesstimating conservatively, the economic footprint these pilgrims will leave on the bustling capital of the New South could easily exceed $25 million. Not only are the hotels thrilled by the ecclesiastical stimulus package in these economically challenging times, but local attractions are also enjoying the abnormal boost in business. In addition to the funds expended by delegates and other guests, the various institutions in the exhibit hall have also contributed to the cost of the expensive band aid that will temporarily cover Atlanta’s fiscal woes. Judging by the quality of many of the exhibits, it’s not hard to see at least another $2 million that Adventist entities have bestowed on this impressive fete.

Money Well Spent?

Although the church has reported a troubling decline in overall giving during this recession, I’m sure that the majority in attendance will reason that this is money well spent. After all, General Conference only happens once in a quinquennium, and this is a rare opportunity to interact with siblings from the global Adventist community. Additionally, members can vicariously experience the church at work as they observe the privileged delegates deliberating pertinent issues and casting binding votes that affect all in the far flung geographical regions of our growing denomination.

On a personal note, I understand the rationale behind a global convocation, and have been personally thrilled to connect with old acquaintances, while at the same time increasing the number of entries in the contact list on my PDA. However, even as I get temporarily caught up in the dissipating euphoria, I can’t help but wonder if the more than $27 million being channeled to multi billion dollar corporations could have been leveraged more effectively and efficiently to benefit and empower individual members of the church. While the Omni and the Marriott reap their bumper harvests over the next few days, I wonder how many Atlanta area Adventists have been deprived of an opportunity to glean from the fringes of our combined wealth.

Practical Stewardship

With this in mind, I applaud the proactive stance taken by Breath of Life Associate Speaker, Pastor Carlton Byrd and the Atlanta Berean Church. For them, it was not good Christian stewardship to idly sit in spectator booths as non-Adventist entities happily siphoned our earnings. Why shouldn’t they operate a large scale cafeteria with tasty options at a reasonable price? Why shouldn’t they offer parking services in their spacious church lot accompanied with scheduled shuttle services? Why shouldn’t they provide booths for those who missed a chance to secure a patch of carpeted turf in the big hall? Why shouldn’t they create opportunities for church members and local churches to receive a portion of the millions going to secular organizations?

I am hoping that this courageous move of faith will stimulate others into proactivity and agitate the organized church to action. As the church prepares for the next General Conference, there are scores of ways in which we can impact the economy of our collective constituency. When I walk around the exhibit hall, I see many vendors offering tee-shirts, hats, bags and other cotton based goods. Imaging how many of our siblings would be helped if the factory that produced these goods was owned and operated by fellow believers in developing nations? For a convention of this size, I’m sure that the organizers have to temporarily hire a number of workers to meet the obvious demands. Why can’t we wield our economic clout and demand that local church members be given hiring preference? Many conference attendees don’t have the means to stay at the expensive hotels close to the conference site and choose to stay in hostels or other budget accommodations. Why can’t we have a register of members in the area who have the facilities to rent a room at a reasonable cost?

Conclusion: Lesson Learned?

The leaders of the church have already decided that the next General Conference will remain on United States soil and convene in San Antonio, Texas. Although the economic benefit to church members would have been greater had the selection been Johannesburg, Nairobi or Moscow, I pray that individuals will seek the Spirit’s guidance for ways in which they can channel some of the millions that will be spent into their own sphere of influence. After all, the more that remains in the community, the more available to do the practical work of the gospel–clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, counseling the confused, and empowering the masses. We must occupy until He comes. Maranatha!

Keith Augustus Burton, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Life emPowerment Ministries, a non profit organization that promotes community cooperation and individual responsibility. He also assists Dr. Harold Lee at the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center.

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