Friday, August 3, 2007

Toward a More Effective System of Church Governance

By Larry Downing

"I'll tell you what I think. I think the Adventist Church in the United States is dying, and I can't see much evidence that anybody much cares." This statement from a pastor friend of mine who has ministered in some of America's largest Adventist churches did not surprise me. I have heard other colleagues say the same thing.

I visited his church one Sabbath while on a brief vacation, and we spent the afternoon together doing what pastors do, talking shop. As our conversation developed, we both observed that we were hard put to find evidence that church leaders and others were attempting to address this crisis in meaningful and responsible ways. We remarked that on Sabbath mornings churches across our country are half-full or less and are in financial difficulty. There are, however, viable options that might help turn around this unfortunate situation and insure the viability of local Adventist churches if we have the fortitude and courage to act.

Numerous business professionals have been asked to evaluate and make suggestions as to how to make the church administrative structure more efficient. Their suggestions have largely been ignored or brushed aside with the comment, "Brother, you are talking about business. You do not understand the church." We in the local church are left to suffer while our organization languishes within an antiquated and ineffective system of governance. We have the ability to change this aspect of the Adventist church, and it will not threaten any doctrinal, moral or biblical principle. Indeed, the opposite will occur. We will demonstrate good stewardship.

An examination of the finances of the typical local church shows that fifty percent or more of its income is sent outside. In return, the local church receives a pastor, or, in many cases, shares a pastor. This represents a return to the local parish of approximately $55,000 to $75,000 per pastoral position. (The difference between the two figures depends on several factors: educational travel and housing allowances, medical costs and other factors that affect a pastor's remuneration.) Amounts received above the pastor's salary are returned to the local conference to support the church structure.

The most effective and efficient way to make more dollars available to the local church is to cut administrative positions and structures. Establish one operative criterion: does this function/office enhance the local church? Unless the answer, from the perspective of pastors and members of the local parish is an unequivocal yes, cut it out!

An interview with pastors and members of local churches will demonstrate that significant services, offices and functions that currently make up union and local conferences provide little or no assistance to us in the local church. Too many offices exist to provide slots for people from a particular ethnic background or to meet the expectations of someone at a higher organizational level.

The Seventh-day Adventist church lacks a viable system of pastoral accountability and acknowledgment of excellence. Our present system rewards mediocrity. It may be time to consider rewarding in tangible ways those who demonstrate superior performance in ministry. In our present structure the pastor, in reality, is accountable to no one. In theory and on the organizational charts the pastor is accountable to the conference president or another designated person. In reality, the president has little knowledge of what the local pastor does, except when a pastor is in trouble. The president spends a majority of his time on institutional matters that are far removed from the local parish. Some have suggested this practice change, and the presidents once again turn their attention to the needs of the local church, its pastors and the parishioners.

The accountability that exists between a pastor and the local board is by mutual consent rather than design, since the local church can neither hire nor fire a pastor. Local conferences have attempted to initiate an accountability system with less than positive results. One reason for the lack of success, I believe, lies in the fact that there is no system wide reward and punishment. Unless such a system is established, we are not serious about accountability.

The Adventist educational system has been an integral part of the church since its beginnings. There is need, however, to recognize that significant numbers of our youth attend public and other private schools. We have largely ignored this segment of our church population. We channel massive amounts of money into our school system, and many are not certain we receive back a commensurate return when compared with those who attend other schools. It might be well to inaugurate a Christian Education program within the local church. Others have proposed that the Adventist Church direct more of its educational funds to establish Christian Education Centers within the local church. These centers would be designed to provide Bible and doctrinal education on Sabbath morning and once or twice during the week. To this point our attention has been directed to the structural and financial components of the Adventist church. We would not do justice to our purpose if we did not turn attention the doctrines, beliefs and polity of the Adventist church.

When I listen to and join in conversation with other pastors, I find that it is our shared opinion that we have a wide diversity of opinion among us as to how we receive and practice our belief system. We find that a significant number of our members denies our traditional and officially defended understanding of cosmology and creation. Our members today attend movies, dance, drink coffee and wear jewelry. Many of our members do not believe that these behaviors violate scripture and, if challenged, will point out that the texts we have used to defend our prohibitions do not speak to the subject or have been taken out of context. This suggests that we take seriously the need to examine some of our traditional beliefs and practices and frame our conclusions in a biblically defensible framework. The call to tradition or the statement, "This is what we believe,” no longer carries the day.

None of the above suggestions alone can turn around the decline in church attendance. It is essential that our pastors preach sound biblical sermons that affirm Jesus Christ and the gospel. It is important that we have the conviction that God speaks to us today, that people are dedicated to the Lord and to the church, and that the Spirit of God is active within the church and among its members. On the other hand, we can preach with conviction, perform our rituals and still lack the resources to meet the competition. The local church is part of a competitive environment like any other organization. Brand loyalty is fast becoming irrelevant. We may do all the right things and yet fail. What is more certain is that if we continue to do the wrong things, our downward spiral will persist.

Larry Downing is the retired senior pastor of the White Memorial Church in Los Angeles, Calif. and is adjunct professor in the School of Business and Management at La Sierra University where he teaches business ethics to Master of Business Administration students. He has also taught in the Schools of Religion at Loma Linda University and La Sierra University. He has been a pastor since 1967.

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