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Overseeing the Servants? Or Servant-Leadership?: A Pastor Speaks From His Heart

Rant Alert. What I say in this article will definitely not be considered by some to be positive, supportive and uplifting. But I contend that, truly taken to heart, it could make a great contribution to the effectiveness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America. And I believe a lot of pastors would agree with many of my observations, though they may not feel free to speak up as I have.

I’ve read with interest and concern the strategic plan for the next five years for the North American Division, a segment of the world where the Adventist Church is barely growing. In fact, as a percentage of the NAD territory’s population, our denominational presence is actually shrinking. Clearly, a carefully considered approach is greatly needed. But before I make further comment, let me share a story.

Story. Back in 1970 I attended a literature-evangelism training rally in northern Arkansas, at a camp on the banks of the Buffalo River. I’d just graduated from high school and was going to sell books that summer in northern Missouri. The gathering was the pep rally to inspire and instruct those of us new to Adventist book selling.

On Sabbath afternoon, a couple of other students and I decided to take a cross-country hike. As we walked over the hills and through the valleys of northern Arkansas’ rugged terrain, I commented about how fun it would be to discover a cave that no one had ever been in. My comment proved prophetic.

Not more than ten minutes later, I fell waist-deep into a hole I hadn’t seen because it was filled with leaves that had covered it like a snow drift. As I sought to crawl out, I felt cold air coming up through the leaves. Hurriedly brushing them aside, I discovered the entrance to–you guessed it–a cave.

Because we’d been building campfires, we had matches with us. Scouting around for a pine knot, we lit it. With considerable trepidation, we slipped into the cave to explore it. We hoped it wasn’t the home of a bear or some other animal that might not like being disturbed. Our exploring revealed four quite large, dry-limestone rooms connected by tunnels that required crawling. Throughout our exploration, we never knew what kind of creature we might encounter. It was a goose-bump-raising experience.

I’ve taken quite a few guided tours through some rather remarkable caves in my time. I’ve looked at stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, soda straws and a lot of other beautiful formations. But no professionally guided cave tour has ever come even close to being as exciting and as memorable as our self-guided tour through the cave that we ourselves discovered–even though it was illuminated only by a dim, smoky pine knot, and even though it didn’t have a single rock formation of interest. (We later went back and explored it more thoroughly with flashlights and lanterns.)

But why am I telling this story? Because in creating a strategic plan of the type it has, the North American Division has, figuratively, offered our region of the world the equivalent of a professionally guided tour of a rather ordinary cave instead of turning congregations loose in an area where undiscovered caves exist in abundance and where real excitement is all but assured whenever a cave is found. Which leads me to the most crucial single point I’ll make in this article.

1. Top-down management. Our denomination has a decidedly top-down management structure, and we pay dearly for it. That needs to change. Immediately. Divesting the church’s various upper administrative levels of the control of the goals that congregations are expected to fulfill should be one of the top priorities of NAD strategic planning. A major component of the role of every layer of bureaucracy above the local church–and the number of those layers should definitely be reduced–should be to inspire, encourage and provide expertise to help each local church create and follow through on its own strategic plan. Even well-considered, well-crafted strategic plans handed down from the upper echelons of church management will have little local-church buy-in. Top-down initiatives all but guarantee mediocrity and a lack of enthusiasm, especially in an organization where the bulk of the work is done by volunteers.

2. Volunteer organization. Too often we forget that the church is not a corporation. It’s first and foremost a volunteer organization. In the corporate world, bosses have the power of the paycheck. They can follow whatever management style they like. If employees are non-compliant or non-productive, they can be fired. I’m not saying all corporate management styles are equally effective. I’m just saying that top-down management is more survivable in some contexts than in others. In the church, however, the bulk of the work is done by volunteers–volunteers who are actually expected to contribute more than 10 percent of their income in addition to doing the work! That calls for some high-powered motivation! The-way-we’ve-always-done-it, guilt-tripping and a sense of obligation don’t carry the weight they once did.

The moment the volunteers cease to believe that the church controls the gate to heaven, the moment they cease to believe that the word of the clergy automatically equates with the will of God, there’s only one way to ensure their ongoing support: by inspiring them and earning their respect. As paid clergy, we’ve been far too slow to grasp this simple concept. People give their time, talent and money to what inspires them. And people are dramatically more inspired by what they’ve helped to create–by a vision and goals they “own”–than by something created by others and imposed on them. It’s time to stop creating the sense that they’re second-rate members if they don’t provide yeoman service in executing fifth-hand goals–in the case of General Conference initiatives, at least, which go to the division, to the union, to the conference and then to the local church.

3. Where’s the inspiration? Maybe I’m just jaded by too many goals and too many slogans over too many years. But I fail to see a grand vision in the NAD’s strategic plan. I sense a degree of panic and urgency, certainly. But I see almost nothing to warm the heart and make a member who’s not already fully on board want to invest time, talent and financial resource. There’s nothing about the joy of service and spiritual community. It’s all about production quotas. It’s about the bottom line. It’s about results. Which is tragic–because vision and process are more important than result. When the vision and the process are right, results almost always follow.

At a spiritual level, the Pharisees of old were concerned about personal behavior. They wanted tangible results. Their bottom line was conformity and uniformity. They’d lost sight of the need to promote eternal, underlying principles from which the people could make decisions for themselves. Something similar has happened in the church today. Where in the strategic plan is the emphasis on grace-oriented, Christ-filled, hope-centered, joyful, upbeat, loving, caring, biblically based preaching and spiritual instruction? Where is the emphasis on the sheer joy of service, irrespective of outcomes. Where is the emphasis on a harmonious spiritual community that causes onlookers who see the love demonstrated to recognize that it’s because we’ve “been with Jesus.” Where is the emphasis on those undergirding essentials from which enthusiastic involvement should naturally spring? Rather, we jump straight to the bottom line of productivity.

4. Pastoral dilemma. Pastors are the meat in the strategic-plan sandwich–the buffer between paid administrative plan makers and volunteer plan executers. In our top-down administrative model, pastors are the lowest paid-employees in the denomination’s professional-employee food chain–except for teachers, that is. Pastors know they have to satisfy their superiors or they could find themselves without a paycheck. Their task is to motivate people–the bulk of whom aren’t naturally motivated by “administrator speak”–to carry out plans that overwhelm more than inspire.

Keep in mind, pastors deal with people who not only don’t receive a paycheck from the church but who provide the money from which all church-worker paychecks are written! Overall, the laity are becoming less and less enchanted by what they see and more and more vocal about their qualms. They feel more and more taken for granted. Tens of thousands of the most faithful may have dipped into their life savings for the privilege of being present to applaud instead of say “Amen” at the GC Session. But the picture isn’t quite that enthusiastic for most members in most congregations in the NAD. Pastors have a difficult task. They must inspire their congregations concerning plans that aren’t intrinsically inspiring and into which few if any from the local-church level have had any real input–plans made by people who are often (if not usually) many, many years removed from the ever-shifting realities of congregational leadership.

5. Quantifiable results? When I started out as a pastor years and years ago, I had to fill in a fairly detailed monthly report about how many Bible studies I’d conducted, how many pastoral visits, how many hospital visits and a long list of other very concrete activities. Even as a church member, I used to be asked if I had studied my Sabbath School lesson every day, donated money or given volunteer hours to health and welfare service, distributed literature, given away articles of clothing and the list goes on. Fortunately, we don’t get bogged down in such paperwork to the degree we once did. But at least all the questions asked could be answered definitively.

Unfortunately, the NAD goals aren’t so easily reported on. How do we determine if 15 percent more of a congregation are engaged in “meaningful Sabbath-keeping”? And many of the other goals aren’t readily or precisely quantifiable. Several of them aren’t in any way under anyone’s control. At best, all we can do is seek to create an environment conducive to making them happen. Expecting to be able to measure that 15 percent more members are experiencing “meaningful Sabbath-keeping” is a little like setting a goal that 10 percent more of the anointings in which I engage will produce a cure. It’s simply not within human control.

6. Clarity, Please. One of the grave dangers for any group or sub-group is failure to communicate to the broader audience. We have that problem as Christians. We use an array of terms that are foreign to the average non-Christian. We have a similar problem as a denomination. We have an in-house jargon that means little or nothing to the average non-Adventist. Academics and administrators have the same problem. And the NAD’s strategic goals are either “administrator speak,” really bad writing or both. Not only are they not inspiring, they don’t communicate well, which reduces their inspirational potential even more.

For example, what does this “target” mean? “Each congregation with a spiritual mentor ministry increased to 20%.” I’m guessing that it means the ideal would be for every congregation to have a “spiritual mentor ministry” but that the goal for the five years is to get the number up to at least 20 percent of congregations. If indeed that’s what was meant, it would have been nice if it had been stated clearly. But the wording gets even more challenging. An accompanying “target” calls for “every new member assigned to a spiritual mentor increased to 50%.” What does that mean? And how does it work? If the goal is for 20 percent of congregations to have a “spiritual mentor ministry,” how are we going to ensure that 50 percent of all new members get mentoring? What am I missing here? And I could go on and on. And on.

I recognize that my complaints will seem nit-picky to some. But were I to present this document to the lay ministry leaders in my congregation, I would hear the very kind of complaints I’ve just raised. In abundance. Many of my ministry leaders assess such proposals on a regular basis in their employment. They want clarity. They want documents that have been thought through meticulously and polished before they’re presented for general consumption. In fact, some organizations actually employ professional “contrarians” who go through such materials to search out the ambiguities, contradictions and oversights. Just at the level of “packaging,” this document–while containing many admirable goals that we would all hope will be far surpassed–should never have seen the light of day in its current form. It’s appallingly constructed. Even now, I would urge that it be placed in the hands of competent wordsmiths–and there are several around the church-headquarters complex–and turned into a document that ideally would inspire but at the very least would be readily understood.

Personal Testimony. I recognize that it’s not politically expedient to write so frankly. It could even be professionally fatal. But somewhere, somehow, something must change. Quickly. So far, few true changes are being suggested. We’re simply trying to refurbish the old methods that got us where we are in the first place.

I became senior pastor of my congregation more than 16 years ago. Since that time, both our book membership and our tithe has nearly doubled–from 625 to 1,100; from $600,000 to $1.1+ million. That also means that the number of people who seek a pastor for baby dedications, weddings, funerals, counseling, crisis intervention and much more have also increased dramatically. With the economic downturn, more and more members are seeking appointments to talk about assistance with school bills or trying to avoid eviction or foreclosure or trying to keep their electricity or water from being turned off. They come in tears. And they want to talk to the pastor because I’m the one with whom they’ve built the long-term trust relationship. They’re frightened and embarrassed to talk to someone they scarcely know. The workload has increased dramatically. But the staffing provided by the conference has remained static: 2.5 salaries for the entire 16+ years. Eleven hundred members and $1.1+ million in tithe merits only 2.5 salaries at the local-church level! But it helps to buy four–I repeat, FOUR!–layers of bureaucracy over our congregation: conference, union, division and General Conference. And each layer prepares strategic plans, the bulk of which, in the final analysis, are expected to be carried out by the local congregation.

I have no problem with a couple of bureaucratic levels making plans about how to liaise with government, how to improve our organization’s public image, how to run the institutions for which they’re responsible, how to provide insurance, how to deal with employee retirement and a long list of other legitimate activities. And I have no problem with the higher levels casting a broad vision of what the church should be and look like overall, while recognizing and honoring the uniqueness of each congregation and institution. And I’m all for their providing expertise and encouragement to ensure that every congregation and institution has a clear sense of what their unique mission within Adventism can be, granted their specific location and their unique resources. Goal setting is good when the goals are set by the ones who plan to execute them.

But–and I recognize I’m treading on very dangerous ground here–as a pastor who works night and day to do the very best I can for my congregation, trying to juggle the plethora of demands on my time, I don’t take it well when the upper echelons of management sit around and create documents (very poorly constructed ones, at that), which seek to hold pastors and congregations accountable for productivity goals–while they themselves have gone to a four-day work week because, among other things (so the reports say), there was “low staff morale.”

Oh, I understand that I’ll be considered way out of line for speaking so honestly. Certainly, there were other considerations in the shortened-work-week decision. The GC/NAD will save a few dollars in lighting and heating/cooling. And it will save commute time and commute fuel costs. So what if it inconveniences those around the world (who are allegedly served by the GC/NAD) who now have three full days out of seven when they can’t get the information they need from the church headquarters. It’s certainly not my concept of a “service” organization and servant leadership. (Even back in the days before the four-day-week morale boost, the GC/NAD employees worked only half a day on Friday–as do most other administrative-office personnel.)

But I understand. It’s terribly stressful to work at the church’s headquarters (or an administrative office at any other level), meaning that it’s really hard to get people to accept those positions. The administrator turnover rates are unbelievably high. Because so many people who get called to an administrative job just can’t wait to get back to teaching or pastoring, they return at the first opportunity. It’s like a huge revolving door. So we have to pay them at least nominally higher wages and try to enhance morale by limiting the number of days they’re expected to work. Why can’t people see this and show a little sympathy? Come on, folks! Have a heart! (For those not used to what we call “sarcasm,” the foregoing was an example. How many pastors or teachers who’ve once moved into administrative or departmental work have you ever seen return to the pastorate or the classroom? I’m sure you can count them on one hand. Have you noticed how many people feel that God has called them “up” but how few seem to feel that God ever calls them “back down”?)

For nine years I worked in the “ivory tower” as an editor. It was a privilege. I enjoyed it. I think I made an important contribution. And I was active in my local church(es) during that time, occupying positions that ranged from head elder to youth leader to Cradle Roll leader. But I reached the point where I felt I needed a reality check. I needed to test the ideas I’d dreamed up while sitting in the pew, and I needed to be seen to be in touch–even though I was certain I already was in touch! But I wasn’t in touch like I thought. I was absolutely staggered at how much things had changed in just nine years. Pastoral leadership was an altogether different phenomenon than I remembered it to be. It was “culture” shock for me, making me all the more glad I’d decided to recycle myself as a pastor. That’s where I’ve chosen to stay because that’s where the most satisfying ministry takes place, from my perspective–though I’ve certainly had ample opportunity to do other things.

But pastoring is getting progressively harder because of the conditions of the world in which we live. That, I understand and can live with. But it’s also getting harder because of what’s expected of us as pastors by those who’ve escaped pastoring (or teaching) and are now trying to live out their ideas vicariously. Even that, I can handle to some degree. But I find it frustrating that the four-day work week at the office doesn’t seem to have allowed enough time even to polish the NAD strategic-plan document, which, like many that have gone before it, comes across as telling pastors and the congregations we serve that we’re not only expected to make more bricks, we may even have to gather our own straw.


James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida.

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