A recent article by Bonne Dwyer, “Money Matters 2019,” highlighted the decision by the North America Division to lower its percentage of tithe sent to the General Conference (GC) and the financial implications to the GC of that decision. In response to that article, some comments were made to eliminate the GC altogether. That is probably a solution too radical to ever get any traction, as appealing as it may sound.
My concerns are primarily three-fold, although others may add to this list. First, the overhead of running all the levels of administration, including the GC, Divisions, Unions, and local Conferences seems excessive when this money could be better spent at the local level for ministry and evangelism. Second, the Adventist church leadership seems on a trajectory to accumulate more and more popish-like powers. Third, the church seems more and more governed by professional administrators and the laity is left more and more out of the decision process. Others might have additional concerns, but those are my top three concerns.
While eliminating the GC, or the Divisions, or the Unions has been bantered about for some time, just eliminating one or more of these organizations, with no alternative model, probably will never get anywhere. My goal in this paper is to propose an actual working model that would address the concerns listed above.
The model I propose is the organization structure of the Church of the Nazarene. The Church of the Nazarene, like the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA), is a fairly recent denomination. The SDA Church was officially organized in 1863; the Nazarene Church was organized in 1908. The highest level of the SDA Church is the GC, which meets every five years. The highest level of the Nazarene Church is the General Assembly (GA), which meets every four years. The official membership of the SDA Church is listed at a little less than 21 million. The official membership of the Nazarene Church is listed at about 2.5 million as of 2016. However, the membership statistics of the SDA Church are suspect, and it is questionable how accurate or meaningful SDA membership statistics are. Also, I see nothing in the structure of the Nazarene Church that is not scalable and would not work for 25 million members as well as 2.5 million members.
The SDA Church is structured into five levels: General Conference, Division, Union Conference, local Conference, and local church. The Nazarene Church is structured into three levels: General Government, District Government, and Local Government. A District in the Nazarene Church is roughly the equivalent of a local Conference in the SDA Church. Not only are there fewer levels, but the staffing levels at the General and District level are far less than the typical GC, Division, Union, or local Conference. Below is a diagram depicting the levels of government and a high level summary of respective responsibilities:
So the simplified structure of the Nazarene Church is far, far less costly to the Nazarene Church than the much larger administrative overhead of the SDA Church.
Now this is where it gets interesting. The Nazarene Church does not have a “president.” The Nazarene Church has six General Superintendents that are elected every four years at the General Assembly. Each superintendent is one among equals — there is no “president,” “king,” or “pope.” I have not researched it more, but I suspect that the General Superintendents delegate responsibilities amongst themselves. The Nazarene Church has never limited women in the ministry like the SDA Church has, so a woman can serve as a General Superintendent. In fact, of the current six General Superintendents, one is a woman. Such an organizational structure would severely limit the tendency of any one person to exercise “kingly power.” If you look at the current General Superintendents, they include a former seminary president, a regional president from Africa, a person who is Guatemalan by birth, a person who was born in Mozambique, and a woman who served as a missionary to Russia. Most were former pastors or missionaries. This sort of organization would eliminate the hierarchical power grab tendency of the current SDA Church structure.
If you look at the General Board, it is comprised of 48 members representing the Districts, and four additional members, two representing education, one representing Nazarene Youth International, and one representing Nazarene Missions International, for a total of 52 General Board Members. The general Board serves the same function as the GC Executive Committee. The General Board meets annually. Further, a member of the General Board cannot be an employee of the Nazarene Church. In the Nazarene Church, ordained pastors are employees of the local church, so are not considered employees of the Nazarene Church. Each District nominates two laypersons and two pastors as candidates to be considered for the General Board, which is elected at the General Assembly.
So in contrast to the SDA Church, the General Board is comprised of almost entirely (except for the four designated positions) of lay people and local pastors. The SDA Church, at the General Conference level, is comprised almost exclusively of administrative employees of the denomination. The current structure seems to leave the Executive Committee too beholden to the GC President and contributes to the authoritarian trajectory of the denomination. The Nazarene Church with its General Board with almost exclusive local pastors and lay members would put the decision making back in the hands of the people instead of a professional administrative team far removed from the issues and challenges faced by local churches.
If one is interested in more details on their form of government, you could consult the Church Manual for the Nazarene Church. I have only highlighted a few major points that address the issues I noted.
Rather than just tossing out the GC, or the Division, or the Unions and seeing where the pieces fall, I suggest we consider a more streamlined model that is currently working successfully and that has far less administrative control, far less administrative overhead and returns control to the local level. We have an example in the Church of the Nazarene that is working, and has been working for decades.
I recommend for the upcoming General Conference Session in 2020 that:
1. We eliminate the current GC President and Vice Presidents in favor of six Vice Presidents who are one among equals. These Vice Presidents should be selected from people no higher than the Union level. There should be no gender limitation. Lay people should be eligible, not just professional administrators. Efforts should be made to select people who represent education, healthcare, and missions, for example. It would allow representation from different world areas.
2. We elect an Executive Committee with membership drawn from no higher than the local Conference, preferably local pastors and lay people. I would suggest a more manageable size, like that of the Nazarene Church. It could have additional members drawn from healthcare, education, Sabbath School, and missions. Like the Vice Presidents, Executive Committee membership should have no gender limitation.
3) We task the new Vice Presidents and Executive Committee to present a plan to the following GC meeting in 2025 to eliminate the Divisions and Unions and migrate to a more nimble, accountable, efficient organizational structure. There should be annual updates to the membership at each Fall Council on progress towards this goal.
I believe this would address my primary concerns listed above. Would such a transition be without bumps? Certainly not. It would be a learning experience. Fortunately, we have a working model (the Nazarene Church) to look at and people we can consult (leaders in the Nazarene Church denomination). The alternative is the status quo, which will probably eventually result in more division and potentially in a split of the Adventist Church as we know it, with far more traumatic consequences.
Dennis Stevens is a retired electrical engineer living with his wife Eira in the Portland, Oregon area.
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