When it's time to move on

Most parish ministers in our church move frequently. Should administrative personnel follow their example?

Freddie Russell pastors the Cleveland Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Richard Dobbins, a family therapist, said, "People do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change." Change is never an easy thing to accept. Yet every organization eventually needs to make changes. Hopefully, whatever changes occur are in response to needs.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has experienced many changes in the past few years, some positive and others less so. It has become evident to many that the church has reached the point where change in one particular area is much needed. I speak of the present practice of not limiting the number of terms that an elected church official can serve in a position. Because the number of terms is not limited, problems have arisen that might have been avoided if this practice had been discarded. I have noted three key problems.

1. Stagnation. When one brand of thinking predominates over a prolonged period of time, the development of new ideas and fresh approaches to meeting the challenges of the work is stifled. In such cases, statistics (e.g., baptisms, tithe gains) that suggest that a conference is moving forward may be misleading. (In our more reflective moments, most of us would agree that statistics do not always accurately reveal the overall health of a field.)

2. Misuse of power. When one person remains in power for a prolonged period, an environment for misuses and abuses of power is more likely to be created.

Deposed presidents Duvalier of Haiti and Marcos of the Philippines are classic examples of this problem. They came to believe that they owned their positions, and all too often punished those who aspired or were perceived as aspiring to their offices.

Their cases are, I hope, more extreme than what the church experiences, but the principles are the same. The old adage "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is still true.

3. Deterioration of respect. A deterioration of respect for leadership can develop when a leader stays past a reason able time. Unfortunately, when this happens an environment of hostility can develop that can lead to forced changes in leadership, a process that is sometimes chaotic. Regrettably, some conferences have experienced these painful situations.

Ellen White received direct counsel from the Lord regarding the need to make periodic changes in leadership. She wrote: "The question is asked me if it is not a mistake to remove the president of a state conference to a new field when many of the people under his present charge are unwilling to give him up.

"The Lord has been pleased to give me light on this question. I have been shown that ministers should not be retained in the same district year after year, nor should the same man long preside over a conference. A change of gifts is for the good of our conferences and churches" (Gospel Workers, pp. 419, 420).

This counsel regarding periodic changes is often followed in the case of the parish ministers, while it is frequently ignored when it comes to administrators. But Ellen White made no distinction between the two.

The messenger pinpointed the dangers of retaining leaders in a position "year after year": "The churches become accustomed to the management of that one man, and think they must look to him instead of to God. His ideas and plans have a controlling power in the conference. . . .

"Many are strong in some points of character, while they are weak and deficient in others. As the result, a want of efficiency is manifest in some parts of the work. Should the same man continue as president of a conference year after year, his defects would be reproduced in the churches under his labors. But one la borer may be strong where his brother is weak, and so by exchanging fields of labor, one may, to some extent, supply the deficiencies of another" (ibid., pp. 420, 421).

An issue in Black conferences

At this time the problem of men staying too long in a single position, at least on the local conference level, seems not to be as great an issue in the White conferences as it is in Black conferences. The reasons behind this are worth our consideration.

Of the 59 conferences in the North American Division, only 9 are predominantly Black. Because of the limited number of positions in Black conferences, Black ministers with administrative or other specialized ministry gifts have very few conference-level slots in which to exercise their abilities, while their White counterparts with the same gifts have almost unlimited (comparatively speaking) opportunities for ministry. This bottleneck gives Black leader ship nowhere to go. Those in leadership positions stay as long as they can, realizing that the church offers Blacks few such positions. (Of course, this highlights another problem that needs to be ad dressed.) Their staying overlong produces the problems we have mentioned.

For Whites the problem of retaining people too long in positions is more apt to occur on the levels of the church above the local conference. The higher a per son goes in the organization, the easier it is to "hide out" for years where there is little accountability, because, like doctors, we ministers don't expose each other.

How can we begin to limit the amount of time that an individual stays in office? The easiest way would be to stipulate in the constitutions of our organizations a limit to the number of terms a person may serve. But that would be only a superficial solution. We need to adjust our thinking on the whole subject of leader ship. The time has come when we must seriously consider placing more emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, especially as they relate to the selection process in filling positions in denominational leadership.

Each of us brings gifts/abilities to each job that we take within ministry, whether it be in the parish ministry or denominational leadership. Before an individual is placed in a position, his or her gifts/abilities should be considered as they relate to that position. The church must ask What are the challenges of the position? Does this individual have the gifts/abilities necessary to meet these challenges?

These considerations are even more important regarding heads of organizations such as local conferences, unions, divisions, and the General Conference. Since organizational needs change every few years, the church must continually have new leadership, with new skills.

When challenges arise that are outside the realm of an individual's particular abilities, this view that leadership is based on gifts makes it easier for that individual to move on to another area where his or her talents fit the needs. Then moves from administrative positions within the church back to parish ministry could be made without the individual's feeling like a failure or being perceived as one.

In addition, we would begin to recognize the benefits to the organization of using the full spectrum of gifts that are available in different individuals. And last but not least, the aforementioned problems engendered by a leader's occupying a position too long would be greatly, if not completely, diminished.

I fully realize that this approach to leadership is visionary; however, it is biblical. Through careful and prayerful consideration, we must develop a spiritual process to make this a reality. What I am suggesting is simply that we make practical application of the priesthood of all believers, which, in short, means that every member of the body has something to offer for the body's upbuilding.

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Freddie Russell pastors the Cleveland Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

December 1987

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