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Fixing the Finances of the Adventist Church: Infrastructure

World map with money scattered around edges

It’s time for a change in Adventism. We all know it. We see the need for it every day. Yet, the problems seem so big that it’s difficult to know where to start. During the time that I worked in finance for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, including seven years as senior staff auditor at the General Conference Auditing Service (GCAS) and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, I reviewed financial statements from almost every conference and union in the North American Division. I found no shortage of good people who are strongly focused on the mission of the church. I also found one truth that was impossible to ignore: the Adventist love for infrastructure is greater than almost any other love that exists. 

The lines that divide Adventism have become so strong that we have an inherent need to create physical separation. We want to try to build and staff our own church, even if there is an existing one a short drive away. We want our own school, even if there are barely any kids attending. We want our own conference, even if that comes with a redundant bureaucracy. All of this promises control and purity. 

It’s time for change. All of the aforementioned “wants” made more sense in the context of the early 1900s. Back then, repeatable church structure—like a franchise—spread geographically in sustainable ways. Members could legally work for the church for very small salaries due to a sense of mission and a lack of regulations. Increasing pressure to raise wages to livable levels created tension within this infrastructure. Over time, the weight of the bureaucracy that our founding leaders created—and which we have maintained—has become unsustainable. Moving from the horizontal to the vertical—59 conferences/missions up to the NAD—there are more administrators and administrative support staff than pastors or educators in North America. 

It’s time for change. We have created internal departments to “keep the money in-house,” when those functions often cost multiples of their potential outsourcing expenses. We have blurred the lines between spiritual authority and good church governance. Adventist Risk Management insurance premiums for property often outpace the rates that would be charged on the private market. GCAS auditing rates are sometimes 2–3 times what private audit firms charge. We have spent millions on internal accounting software products that are now functionally behind the affordable Office 365 software packages. Not everything has to be internal and proprietary for the church. 

It’s time for change. Give or take, the Adventist Church in North America is a $1.6 billion dollar nonprofit corporation. This number, which includes tithe and estimated offerings, would be much larger if we factored in fee-for-service functions such as tuition at educational institutions. If the Adventist church of North America were a run-of-the-mill IRS 501(c)(3) entity, it would be one of the 20 largest nonprofits in America in terms of revenue. Yet, if you look at those high-performing organizations, none operate with 59 regional administrative entities. The costs of operating conferences and unions are staggering. From buildings to summer camps, academies, vehicles, insurance, and salaries, the expenses are a heavy weight to bear. When viewed through this framework, the church is a $1.6 billion entity that is simultaneously broke. It is broke due to the weight of its own infrastructure. 

It's time for change. To make that change happen, we must first start by addressing the current bureaucracy. Many entities in North America can no longer overcome the strategic challenges facing the church. For example, we have countless annual meetings in which we identify youth leaving the church as the organization's biggest strategic challenge. But we do not talk about the fact that most conferences in the NAD do not have a full-time youth ministries director or a significant conference-led financial assistance program for youth to attend Adventist schools. If we are going to face the strategic challenge of youth leaving, shouldn’t we at least be able to financially afford remedies to that problem? The fact is, if a conference doesn’t have a tithe base of around $60 million per year, it can’t afford these remedies. And if it can’t afford these things, the conference is too small. Most lay members don’t know this, but small conferences face these challenges even after receiving a subsidy every year from larger conferences. In fact, we have Adventist Book Centers in North America with budgets larger than some conferences. We have conferences that, on paper, only exist to financially support their academies. We have conferences that are larger than some unions. How are these things fiscally responsible? 

It's time for change. It’s time for members to demand honest conversations with their church administrators and conference executive committees. It’s time that lay members call for constituency sessions that cross union boundaries and discuss the realignment and merging of administrative centers across the NAD. It’s time for the state and regional conference divide to turn into a union that repairs the inequality of the past and generates new forms of church power and resources.

It's time for change. Members of the Adventist church in North America should no longer accept a bloated infrastructure that costs millions more than it should. Just think of all the things that could happen if the church’s budgetary priorities focused on the unreached, the young people, and the marginalized instead of maintaining its own infrastructure.

 


Roger Keaton is chief financial officer of the Child Saving Institute which has a 131-year legacy in Omaha, Nebraska. He spent about eight years as a staff auditor for GCAS and ADRA and then as associate treasurer for the Northern California Conference before taking a job as CFO for Yellowstone Forever in Montana, where he led the successful merger of the Yellowstone Association and Yellowstone Park Foundation. He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance and international business from Union College (now Union Adventist University). He earned his master’s degree in financial services from Southern Adventist University. Keaton is a certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner.

Title Image by Christine Roy on Unsplash.

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