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Why Efficiency Eludes Us


You have heard by now that the committee set up to merge Pacific Press and Review & Herald has decided not to. In the short term this is good news for employees of both organizations. Undoubtedly such a combination would have meant lost jobs, moves, and (the committee must have thought) difficulties that outweighed efficiencies.

I hope it is also good news for the work of God, although I’m unqualified to evaluate that. I know as little as the rest of you about the economics of publishing, although I can make some observations.

I know that physical books aren’t what they used to be. I get many of mine on my tablet computer when possible, because I’m tired of keeping shelves of heavy compressed paper. I now read my Sabbath School quarterly, Ellen White books, and even the Bible (in any of a score of English versions, thanks to on my tablet—for free—and apparently so do others. Intuition tells me (I don’t have the figures, but there’s a reason this merger discussion came up) that we’re not taking home as many Adventist books as we did in my childhood. The Adventist audience is limited, and since the decline of the colporteur ministry we’ve not not sold as many of our books outside the church. Periodicals aren’t what they once were, either: the venerable Signs of the Times is steadily losing subscribers, and no one seems able to figure out how to swing its audience from a conservative but dying demographic to a younger one. And the wisdom of owning our own big printing factories for producing a narrow range of products has been questioned by more knowledgeable people than me. (Denominational rules prohibit our presses from printing anything that clashes with Adventist teachings, and even commercial printing that doesn’t violate that guideline may be limited by our non-profit status.)

But I’m neither an expert nor an insider, so for all I know the committee made the right choice. What I know a little more about is congregations and denominational institutions, for we face questions of efficiency there, too.

•   Some years ago an Adventist church building near where I was a pastor burned down. They were insured, but it was an obvious turning point for the small congregation. About ten miles away (but in an adjacent suburb) was another declining congregation in need of a building. It seemed obvious that the two ought to get together and rebuild somewhere around the five mile mark. No force on earth, however, could get them to see that. Both said, “Sure, if they want to come join us….”

•   Around the time I began ministry, the thinly spread church of the American Midwest was urged by leaders to reduce the number of conferences and combine its two unions—a perfectly practical suggestion. Although the mergers were accomplished, the friction generated surprised me. I remember one layman in my congregation saying, “We bought that truck for the South Dakota conference, and I’ll be damned if I stand by and let them take it up to North Dakota.” I still can’t figure out why this mattered to them so much. Isn’t the local church the front line for God’s work, not the conference office? Yet the tensions in the combined fields have never completely gone away. North Dakota’s ill-conceived Dakota Adventist Academy is still an irritant to South Dakota Adventists, and some still blame the closing of both of Kansas-Nebraska’s academies on the conference merger. Membership has declined across the area, though it’s hard to say if the mergers contributed.

•   A few years ago a conference president in the Columbia Union made a bold proposal to the Union committee. Even though it would mean doing away with his job, he suggested eliminating the conferences entirely and running the territory from the office of the Columbia Union, something that technology makes feasible. He’d figured out that with combined staffs, a centralized treasury, and the closing of underused office buildings, the combination would save (at that time) about $7 million annually, which he thought should be returned to the congregations. The idea died like a shot goose. Other conferences weren’t willing to consider the idea, even with the possibility of an additional million or two for front-line work in their territories.

•   A city where I used to pastor had two struggling church schools when I came there. The two large churches made an effort to combine their schools into one, and urged a third large church from the regional conference to join them (which they didn’t, though their students attended). The teachers and students (from all area churches and both conferences) loved the combination: as a school, it was a big success. It died not because it was badly serving the goal of Adventist education, but because strong personalities on the board couldn’t work together. Now the metro area has not two, but three separate Adventist church schools, each with a new but underutilized building, each bleeding their congregations’ budgets.

As you can see, denominational institutions aren’t the only ones who resist change. While an enormous amount of money is still wasted on redundant denominational services, we’ve in fact fewer people manning those offices than we did 30 years ago. I’ve heard the accusation that the people in denominational leadership protect their own jobs, and that’s likely true. Yet I’ve seen some of our progressive leaders suggest changes that would create financial efficiencies and work better to boot, only to be shot down by lay members. We’re all complicit in maintaining the status quo.

It is commonly conceded by the more thoughtful of our church leaders that the current organizational scheme isn’t sustainable. The church in North America is graying, the supportive generation dying off. The one way we know to do evangelism isn’t working like it used to. The membership is increasingly concentrated around a few institutions, while congregations away from them are fading. (I wrote here recently that in my conference, out of 90 congregations, one third of the tithe comes from just three near Kettering Medical Center). An increasing proportion of the NAD church is now immigrant, largely Latin American, who have much success in soul winning but little money, and they often aren’t strong supporters of Adventist schools.

I titled this, “Why Efficiency Eludes Us,” though I admit I have no startling new theories on why, even when unavoidable, organizational change is so excruciatingly difficult for us. Here, for what they’re worth, my guesses:

•   Religion is, by its very nature, inertial. If truth is unchanging, perhaps we feel that the structures that hold it shouldn’t change, either.

•   Seventh-day Adventists find identity in our bureaucracy(something we share with our arch-nemesis, Roman Catholicism.) We place much importance on convocations like General Conference, and we mostly know who the people at the top are. A pastor’s transfer to another church isn’t the promotion that a move to an administrative office is. We take pride in our big institutions, even if the local ones are frail.

•   We don’t define our goals well.The Biblical mission is to save the world for Christ. We translate that into saving our institutions and buildings, perhaps believing the world can’t be saved for Christ without them. The largest part of local church budgets go toward erecting and maintaining bricks and mortar, structures used only a couple of hours a week. Atlantic Union College is a case study of how reluctant we are to let go of an institution even when there’s no necessity for its survival.

•   People don’t like losing their sphere of influence or position of leadership, even if institutions would work better if they did. The local school merger I mentioned above failed mostly because laypeople in each congregation wanted to have control, and the only way they could do that was each to have their own school.

•   Many Seventh-day Adventists are employed by the church and its institutions,so any changes immediately affect friends and fellow church members. It’s hard for a compassionate leader to look several hundred brothers and sisters in Christ in the eyes and say, “You’ve worked here for decades, and you’re about to lose your livelihood because of a decision I’m making.” It’s easier to wait for for the institution to use up all its options and assets.

•   Traditions and old “truths” interfere.In an era of opportunities, technologies, and business practices that Ellen White never foresaw, we’re making decisions about multi-million-dollar church businesses on the basis of comments she made before telephones existed. When she wrote about the publishing ministry, or the levels of denominational administration, was it her intention to lock us in to a Victorian-era organizational chart? (As for the theory that we need multiple publishing houses so that there’s diversity in what we print: since when have denominational leaders craved diversity of opinion? There’s hardly a ha’penny’s worth of editorial difference between our major publishers anymore because they’re watched over by the same set of people.)

So that’s where we are, and we don’t seem to know how to overcome it. We not only have difficulty making changes for increased efficiency, but when we manage to push them through, two and two rarely make four.

I’m don’t think there are any bad guys here. No one is intentionally doing the wrong thing. We are doing what people have always done in organizations like ours: trying to keep everything as it has always been, even while the world changes around us.

I understand. I don’t like like change, either. Still, changes of this kind will be necessary, and the only question is whether we’re going to make them with an intentional bang, or an extended series of unplanned whimpers.

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