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Leaders and Bureaucrats


As the 2020 General Conference Session draws near, the most consequential item on the agenda will be selecting a GC president. One of the most important questions that needs to be asked is, “Will the nominating committee select a genuine leader or a bureaucrat?”

There is a huge difference. One of the main ways that organizations get into trouble is when they put a bureaucrat in a position that should be occupied by a skilled leader. The Seventh-day Adventist denomination is not immune from the severe consequences of such a serious mistake. Just because we deal with spiritual things does not protect us from making bad leadership choices or from suffering the harm that such decisions cause.

The term “Bureaucrat” can be defined as:

Reliance on Rules: “Relies heavily on consistency and adherence to rules and regulations to get whatever results they seek.”1

Rigid Governance: “The emphasis is on compliance and it is ensured that their people follow procedures precisely.”2 For them, success comes from control.

New is Bad: “This type of leadership has no space to explore new ways to solve problems.”3

Stay the Course: “[Bureaucratic] leaders…believe in the status quo. In other words, what worked yesterday will also work today. Great opportunities can be lost during the process.”4 Their motto is: Forward to the Past!

Just like spiders create cobwebs, bureaucrats create bureaucracies, which are antithetical to God’s dynamic purposes.

Steven Denning equates bureaucracy to a disease and writes in Forbes magazine, “The disease renders our organizations ‘insipid, inertial, incremental and uninspiring… It discourages dissent and breeds sycophants…Bureaucracy is gripped by ‘the ideology of controlism’ and ‘worships at the altar of conformance.’”

Denning’s article concludes, “There’s no other way to put it…bureaucracy must die. We must find a way to reap the blessings of bureaucracy — precision, consistency, and predictability — while at the same time killing it.”5

Instead of a bureaucrat at the head, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination needs and deserves a capable leader who is well trained in leadership concepts, reads widely about leadership issues, and has a proven track record of excellence and effectiveness in captaining large, complex organizations. The difference between a true leader and a bureaucrat is like the difference between an artist and someone who paints by numbers.

The following are some of the most frequently sited characteristics of excellent leaders.

Captivating Vision: Brian Tracy writes, “Great leaders have a vision… They can see into the future. They have a clear, exciting idea of where they are going and what they are trying to accomplish and are excellent at strategic planning. This quality separates them from managers.6

A true leader’s vision is positive, expansive, and energizing. Such a vision challenges the organization to be more open, flexible, and engaged with society.

Ability to Influence Others: Lauren Landry observes, “[Leadership] is all about influencing people…Influencing others requires building trust with your colleagues.”7 Such trust seeks to create an atmosphere of comradery where it is safe to be honest and transparent. It focuses on understanding other people’s perspectives and encourages them to share opinions without fear of reprisal. It is a trust that says, “I value you and have confidence in you. I am committed to your success and will do whatever it takes to make that a reality.”

Team Building: Brian Tracy again writes, “Your ability to get everyone working and pulling together is essential to your success.”8 Leaders are great listeners and communicators, making everyone feel equally valued and respected. They seek more to understand than to be understood. They are healers, not detectives or dividers. Fairness and equity are paramount.

Encourages Risk-Taking and Innovation: Leaders create a culture that makes it OK to experiment and fail. They value creativity and new ideas. They think outside the box, stretching for new solutions and approaches. For example, “Google’s innovation lab, X, offers bonuses to each team member who worked on a project the company ultimately decided to kill as soon as evidence suggested it wouldn’t scale, in an effort to ‘make it safe to fail.’”9

Models Humility: “While confidence is a very attractive trait in leaders, there's nothing like a humble character for creating a lovable persona. Great leaders admit when they are wrong and take criticism as an opportunity for growth.”10

When a bureaucrat is put in charge, all of these vital leadership characteristics are replaced with a sad list of alternatives that are debilitating to organizational life and health. It is as if the organization suddenly contracted a serious case of arthritis. To use a different analogy, installing a bureaucrat as the GC president would be like taking someone who has a deep fear of flying and putting them in charge of the space program.

In order to choose a real leader, the General Conference nominating committee will have to run counter to the prevailing culture within Seventh-day Adventism.

Culture is a powerful, unseen force that pushes and pulls in a variety of ways, both subtle and overt, to accomplish its will. It is often defined as, “What we feel is important and how we do things around here.” The culture will make sure it has the kind of leadership that makes it feel comfortable. Because of that reality, the Adventist culture will strive mightily to put a bureaucrat at the head.

Adventist culture prefers a bureaucrat because we are what I call an “Information denomination.” Preserving and disseminating correct biblical information is our denominational DNA. It is our core identity. Everything is shaped and measured in those terms.

Because of our self-identification as conservators and disseminators of unchanging truth, significant change becomes anathema. Creative change and flexibility threaten the Adventist psyche more than anything else. Even when that change has nothing to do with truth, who knows where the infection of change might spread? The old adage about the camel’s nose under the tent comes into play.

From that vantage point, placing a bureaucrat at the top becomes crucial. The greatest quality such a culture desires in its president is not effective leadership but continuity and full-throated promotion of doctrine and policy. Is it any wonder that current GC leadership defines unity as the degree of uniformity throughout the denomination?

Personally, I highly value truth. I joined the SDA church because I believe strongly in biblical truth.

The problem comes when we think that believing truth is the end of the story. Trouble comes when we mistakenly think that biblical information is an end in itself. That’s like a contractor who is satisfied with simply accumulating piles of great lumber, not realizing that all of those boards are actually intended to build a home.

The fact is that Bible teachings are intended to build loving people. The apostle Paul clearly stated, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2 NIV).

Because Adventists understand so much truth, we should be the lovingest people on the planet, known for our extraordinary kindness and deep involvement in society’s needs. That is the acid test of whether what we believe matters.

The apostle Paul lifts our understanding of God’s grand vision for the church when he writes, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20-21 NKJV, emphasis supplied).

God’s glory is His character of love. Ellen White picks up Paul’s expansive theme when she declares, “Through the church will eventually be made manifest…the final and full display of the love of God.”11 We are not simply information spreaders, we are called to use that information to become Christlike lovers of humanity.

This same theme is at the heart of the Three Angels’ Messages:

“Fear God and give glory to Him” (Revelation 14:7 NKJV).

“After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory” (Revelation 18:1 NKJV).

Understanding this larger purpose for Adventism creates an entirely different denominational culture. We become more large-hearted, more understanding and inclusive, more humble and empathetic. We shed the museum model and adopt a far more generous hospital model.

Such a culture would then demand a very different type of leadership at the GC by electing people who value truth, but who also understand the purpose of truth.

The times we live in cry out for skilled leadership at church headquarters, not just in the office of president but throughout the entire top tier including the thirteen world divisions. We need people to serve in those positions who speak truth to power, refuse to play political games, and turn the traditional authority pyramid upside down. We need leaders who honor the past but are not bound by it. We need people who can lift us higher and bring us together.

I expect that the Adventist culture will do everything possible leading up to and at GC Session 2020 to insist on the selection of bureaucrats. The only hope I see for a much better result is if many thousands of members lobby Session delegates around the world to speak up noisily, urgently, and persistently in favor of a God-honoring tomorrow.

“The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.”12


Notes & References:

1. Sonia Kukreja, “Bureaucratic Leadership Guide: Definition, Pros & Cons, Examples,” Management Study HQ,

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Steve Denning, “Why Bureaucracy Must Die,” Forbes, November 7, 2014,

6. “7 Leadership Qualities, Attributes & Characteristics of Good Leaders, Brian Tracy International,

7. Lauren Landry, “6 Characteristics of An Effective Leader,” Harvard Business School Online, October 4, 2018,

8. Ibid, Brian Tracy International

9. Ibid, Lauren Landry

10. “The 5 Essential Qualities of a Great Leader,” Peter Economy, Inc., March 25, 2016,

11. Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911) 9

12. Dave Kerpen, “11 Powerful Quotes to Inspire Your Team to Embrace Change,” Quote from Bill Clinton,


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

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