Church structure-servant or master?

Has the structure of our church overwhelmed its mission? Why and how could this happen, and what can we do about it?

Robert S. Folkenberg is president of the Carolina Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Rising early, Jesus and His disciples left Bethany and made their way toward Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus intended to etch a point so deeply in the minds of the disciples that they would never forget it—a point regarding the consequences of God's people neglecting the mission given them.

Matthew tells the story this way: "Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, 'May you never bear fruit again!' Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed" (Matt. 21:18-20, NIV).

Christ's entire life had been characterized by loving care toward others. Only in this one instance did Jesus use His heavenly power in a destructive manner. What faults could have been so serious as to impel Him to such a serious and seemingly uncharacteristic action?

A fig tree with fully developed leaves should have had edible fruit. Yet that tree, flaunting its abundant foliage in the very face of Christ, was fruitless! Jesus had directed the awesome power of heaven's displeasure against outward show and misdirected productivity.

"That barren tree . . . was a symbol of the Jewish nation." 1 Many of its spiritual leaders had lapsed into substituting impressive temple ritual and complex religious structure for compassion and personal godliness. "They brought ruin upon themselves by refusing to minister to others." 2

God had designed the institutions of religion to function as means of introducing the world to its Creator. But these leaders came to regard them as an end in themselves, and so they took as their primary objective the maintenance of the church structure.

The Lord did not condemn the tree's foliage, but rather its fruitlessness—its lack of mission. Should we not evaluate the foliage-to-fruit (structure-to-mission) ratio in our own lives and in the church?

The "iron law of oligarchy"

While we have an outstanding system of church government, even the best of organizations deserve periodic self-evaluation. Robert Michels, a German sociologist, found that over time an organization tends to be motivated less and less by its original sense of mission, and that it becomes increasingly bureaucratic. The preservation of the structure gradually overtakes mission as its predominant concern. He called this phenomenon the "iron law of oligarchy."

An organization operating under this law tends to resist change. And when it does change, too often it is in reaction to a crisis rather than from a desire to accomplish its mission more effectively.

I understand the mission of our church as being (1) to lead others to an acquaintance with and surrender to Christ (soul winning), and (2) to guide our members in an ever-growing, Spirit-filled relationship with Christ (soul retaining). Could it be that as a church we are gradually obeying the same "iron law"—that we are becoming more concerned with preserving the structure than with accomplishing this mission?

What is the foliage-to-fruit ratio in the local church? How does the proportion of the human and financial resources that we invest in the mission of the church compare to what we spend on the maintenance of the structure? Are the services we provide mission- or tradition-driven? Would reducing or discontinuing these services hinder or help in the fulfilling of our mission?

We certainly do not lack "foliage." Multiplied departments promote activities, governing boards control and manage, councils meet, committees discuss and debate, and policies provide guidance to hundreds of division, union, and conference offices around the world to say nothing of our 431 hospitals and clinics, 4,583 primary and 655 secondary schools, 84 colleges, and 56 publishing houses. Much of this enormous system has, in fact, contributed to our growth around the world.

However, the church at the time of Christ also had a fully developed, extremely well-organized system of church governance. But unfortunately, its leaders had long since lost sight of its heaven-appointed raison d'etre. Because of their concern for preserving the structure, they rejected the Messiah for which that structure existed.

Tragically, we face a similar threat. We must never come to the point where we redefine the mission of the church as the preservation of the structure.

We are told that the church will go through to the end. Could it be that the fulfillment of this prophecy is conditional on our maintaining the primacy of mission over structure?

Hints of a bureaucratic trend

Many "Anglo" churches, whether in North America, Europe, or Australia, show little or no "kingdom growth" (i. e., growth other than that which occurs by transfer); and some, an actual decrease in membership. But the greatest indictment we face is the dropping percentage of members who attend Sabbath school and church.

As a child I remember hearing our organization called a movement rather than a church. Somehow the term movement doesn't seem to fit with the lack of growth in certain sectors. Could it be that over the years some programs or institutions that were established to meet very real needs have developed special interest groups that are more concerned with self-preservation than mission? If so, do these groups now have an influence on the church decision-making and resource-allocation processes that is dis proportionate to their contribution to its mission? These fundamental questions deserve immediate attention.

Each level of the church organization and each of the church's institutions naturally heeds some simple rules of economics and human nature. They each (1) spend the money they have available, (2) search for ways to secure more money, and (3) increase their bureaucracies, frequently at the expense of their spiritual objectives. And, at least in the North American Division, there seems to be another major rule at work a rule that involves accountability. The closer each organization operates to its lay constituency, the more effectively it holds the "foliage" in check. Our members insist on efficient, purposeful management. At conference sessions they do not hesitate to deal with matters about which they feel keenly, matters such as conference office overstaffing, diminished emphasis on mission, and inadequate attention to our youth and educational services.

The levels of church organization above the local conference exist primarily to help member organizations and institutions achieve common objectives. Here the church faces two dangers: (1) that our members may misunderstand the role of these higher organizations and therefore misjudge their success, and (2) that leadership may conduct business without realizing that they are losing the confidence of the membership regarding those decisions.

While leaders at the higher levels have less direct contact with the membership of the church, the members' trust in their leadership is an indispensable commodity for the successful operation of the church—a voluntary organization. There is evidence that this trust is in decreasing supply. We must take aggressive steps to counteract this trend. Some options here include increasing to more than token levels lay membership on governing boards and key committees, and creating an atmosphere in these bodies that encourages free discussion of difficult issues.

In what areas does the pressure to maintain structure and policies take precedence over the mission of the church? I will describe three of the many that could be mentioned.

Our literature distribution system

Many Seventh-day Adventists assume that the books our literature evangelists sell cost as much as they do because of high publishing costs. But production costs in our publishing houses are reason able and do not explain the high price of subscription books. The Home Health Education Service (HHES) centers purchase the books from the publishers and provide them to the literature evangelists, who then sell them to the public. A 500 percent markup from the publisher's selling price is not unusual; in fact, in some areas of the United States the markup is substantially higher.

Now here's the kicker. Even the return that high-markup provides does not cover the cost of this sales system. To make up the difference, each conference must allocate a set percentage of its total tithe, and in some cases they must throw in an additional amount of tithe based on the value of the books sold.

In several unions, conference subsidies to the sales system are so large that the conferences involved could actually afford to distribute more books if, instead of using the present sales system, they used their appropriations to purchase the books directly from the publishers and gave them away! In fact, this program has become so expensive that one conference executive committee had to limit the number of books sold. Because each sale increased the appropriation of tithe dollars to the HHES, the conference simply could not afford to give its literature evangelists free rein to sell books.

Something is dreadfully wrong when we have to limit sales because of the policies governing distribution.

Please note, I am not advocating the dismantling of the HHES distribution system. I believe that it still has an important role to play. However, we must have individuals who are not bound to the current tradition-driven system review HHES's financial and distribution policies. We need a refocusing on the objective of distributing truth-filled literature as widely as possible and at the lowest prices possible. The effectiveness of the printed page in fulfilling the gospel commission mandates our search for a more cost-effective method.

Cost of an Adventist college education

The total loss of enrollment in North American Division Seventh-day Adventist colleges during the past 10 years has equaled the closing of one college. Demographic studies show that even more difficult years lie ahead. Among the factors behind this decline are the dwindling pool of college-age young people and an apparent lack of commitment on the part of church members to provide their children with an Adventist education.

College leaders tend to view these two factors as the ones primarily responsible for the declining enrollment. But there is another factor we must not ignore: the dramatic increase in the cost of obtaining an Adventist college education. Parents consider this the primary factor.

Are we providing college education as cost-effectively as possible?

A study comparing the annual inflation rate to the tuition increases of Adventist colleges since 1970 reveals that in most years tuition increased at almost twice the rate of inflation. During this same period church subsidies remained proportionate to the tithe, which increased at a rate close to that of inflation.

As enrollment decreased, reductions in operating expenses did not keep pace. College boards, forced to choose between additional staff reductions or significant increases in tuition, chose the latter. Over the years, this trend has placed an Adventist college education out of the reach of many members, further reducing enrollment—and adding momentum to the vicious spiral.

As part of their evaluation process, college accrediting associations compare what a college spends on teaching to what it spends on structure and administration. Using their results, they then compare the college with others across the United States. Recently, such a study revealed that in funds expended for non-teaching expenses, one of our large educational institutions fell into the top 2 percentile of United States colleges.

How tragic that an educational institution whose primary duty is to provide an Adventist education for as many young people as possible has demonstrated a greater commitment to maintaining the structure than to its educational mission. Since this same institution currently has less than 50 cents in hand for every dollar that it owes, it is technically bankrupt. It must borrow regularly just to make payroll. The banks continue to lend money because they know the church will keep the dollars flowing—any other institution would have had to close its doors.

Something must be done. We know the most difficult years are yet ahead. Forecasts predict that the pool of college-age students will decrease before it begins to increase again. While we can do nothing to increase the size of this pool, we are not helpless. The General Conference-sponsored "Project Affirmation" may increase the commitment of church members to Adventist education. And our colleges should continue to aggressively communicate to our members the values of an Adventist college education. But these steps alone will not suffice.

Each of our college boards should commission independent efficiency studies of their institutions—and apply the recommendations. Also, we could learn much from a careful study of those other church-related colleges that operate efficiently.

At this time appropriations to our colleges are granted without condition. Perhaps we should amend our appropriations policies to include incentives for efficient operations. We need to establish clear target ratios relating, for example, infrastructure to revenue and faculty to students. Then we should condition the granting of operational appropriations on the colleges' attaining these target ratios. Church and college administrators need to be able to assure church members that they are doing everything they can to provide Adventist education for their youth at the lowest possible cost.

Other related questions also deserve attention. For example, what role does a college play in achieving the mission of the church? How does a college's raising or lowering of standards affect enrollment? What importance does the college give to the church's mission?

The funding policies of the church, whether they involve the education, HHES, retirement, or any other program, determine not only how much money flows to an entity but also which entities take priority. Because the funds are allocated by policy, the needs of the recipient entities take priority over all other operations the conference carries on.

This system, then, requires that the conference first pay out to these entities what the policy stipulates as theirs, and that it conduct the rest of its operations as best it can with what is left over. So when there is a financial crunch these appropriations—protected by policy—remain unassailable even though it means that the conference must reduce office and pastoral staff or limit, for instance, educational and youth programs.

We need a process that will balance our financial policies. This process, of course, must include an evaluation of how the agencies and programs these funds support relate to the primary mission of the church.

Our hospital system

In the United States, the entire health-delivery system has been undergoing an upheaval of mammoth proportions. According to the American Hospital Association 96 hospitals closed in 1987, 102 closed in 1988, and another 100 are expected to close in 1989. The economic pressures that forced these closures are having their impact on Seventh-day Adventist hospitals as well.

When an institution files for bankruptcy, its creditors will try to recover their losses from any potential source of revenue. Hospitals that file for bankruptcy are no exception. While it has not been tested in court, some legal experts believe that if a substantial part of the Adventist hospital system should col lapse, creditors would attempt to recover lost assets riot only from the medical and other assets of sister Adventist Health Systems divisions (lateral liability), but also from non-medical church assets in other words, from the church itself (ascending liability). It is imperative that we take steps to increase the protection from such potential loss.

But we cannot address the issue of ascending liability until we address the matter of governance. Logic dictates that liability should rest with the same group that exercises control. When the same group does not carry both risk and control, responsibility declines and frequently disaster follows.

The fact that in our present health system control and risk are not firmly linked poses great dangers to us. The current confusing system urgently needs re view. To achieve the health mission of the church, to maintain successful financial operations, and to limit liability and so protect denominational assets, we must have effective governance.

Currently, the union conferences own and operate Adventist Health Systems (AHS). We have a national organization—Adventist Health Systems/US—but its role is largely advisory. Meanwhile, the fear of ascending liability has led the General Conference to take a significant role in the governance of the health system.

The size and composition of the various AHS division boards makes this extremely complex situation even more difficult. With few exceptions, these boards have 35-50 members. The dynamics of a group this size more closely parallel those of a congregation than those of a board! Growth beyond optimum size reduces the members' participation, and more important, their sense of individual responsibility.

Further complicating this situation is the fact that many of the directors have not been placed on these governing boards because of their knowledge or because they have medical or financial skills. Rather, they have been placed there to represent various church constituencies. Such directors may face conflicts of interest that require them to choose between protecting the interests of their constituencies and those of the corporation. (These problems of size and conflict of interest are not unique to AHS governing boards. Many of the governing boards of the church's other organizations and institutions give evidence of the same problems.)

AHS hospitals vary widely in their commitment to the distinctive mission of the church. I am aware of, and deal with, several that proudly identify themselves with our church and add significantly to the Adventist influence in the community. But the mission statements of some of our hospitals commit them only to the fulfillment of traditional Christian values and not to the promotion of either the distinctive identity or health message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The contribution of a hospital toward the fulfillment of the church's mission directly corresponds to the spiritual vision and commitment of its president. No system-wide supervisory process can supersede his influence. Some hospital CEOs who are less mission-sensitive successfully substitute platitudes and promises for decisive action. And often hospital boards are so deeply involved in the struggle for financial survival in a chaotic marketplace that little attention is given to the fundamental reasons for which these institutions exist.

On the positive side, one way in which some hospitals have been witnessing to the church's teachings is through the change from the routine with which they mark the beginning of the Sabbath hours. Guests and patients hear chimes, an announcement, or a change in the background music. Indications such as these make the public aware that they are in an. Adventist institution and that the Sabbath has begun. Couldn't all of our hospitals appropriately bear this kind of witness?

Not long ago a leader of one of our larger medical institutions anxiously searched for the name of even one person who had been won for Christ through the influence of that hospital. This same administrator had prohibited the local pas tor from visiting interests generated by hospital services! Tokenism is no substitute for a commitment to mission! It is time for the leaders of our hospitals to demonstrate as much interest in specific, mission-related activities and objectives as in the myriad of ratios and other indicators of fiscal health. The mission-related objectives of hospitals should be just as measurable and quantifiable as a cash-flow analysis. We should remember that it is medical missionary work, not necessarily acute care, that is the right arm of the church.

These three examples show clearly how structure tends to take primacy over mission. We could add many more to them. If we are truly mission-driven rather than tradition-driven, we will resist the pressures of the special-interest groups and make the structural and pol icy changes necessary to rectify these situations.

General Conference to be evaluated

Recently, by approving Elder Neal Wilson's proposal for an evaluation of all the services the church headquarters offers, the General Conference officers took a significant step in this very direction. Wilson's proposal called for a contract with an individual not employed at the General Conference to evaluate all these services through surveying those receiving them. This study is now under way, and the administration plans to submit the findings—and recommendations regarding which services should be continued and which should not—to the 1989 Annual Council. The savings realized from the resulting adjustments will be used for Global Strategy—the penetration of unentered areas of the world with the gospel.

All institutions and levels of the church should undertake similar procedures. The Lord established the church to achieve a specific mission. Let's be sure not only that we provide all the services that are needed, but also that all those we provide actually contribute toward the achieving of our mission. Reasserting the primacy of mission over structure will lead to both evangelistic progress and an increase in constituent confidence.

Be assured, dear reader, that I love and am proud of our church, and that I am completely committed to its worldwide mission. Furthermore, I believe that to facilitate the fulfilling of that mission, God led in the development of our system of church government.

Before writing this article, I spent hours in prayer and meditation. I am aware that there are those who could misapply what I have written and so could undermine the confidence of some of those who have trusted the church and its leadership. I pray that such misuse will not occur and that in the search for solutions we will be sensitive to God's leading. In fact, I believe that instead of promoting disunity and undermining confidence, the net effect of discussions such as this is just the opposite. I believe that we build credibility when we are candid about problems the church faces.

No one should necessarily equate questioning the status quo with rebel ling against the church, its institutions, or its leadership. Such questioning may merely be one step—an essential step at that—in the process of identifying what continues to contribute to the completion of the mission the Lord assigned His church. At a time when disunity among the believers and lack of confidence in the church pose major obstacles to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, no leader wants to appear to be causing further disunity. Yet we ought to encourage church leaders to place themselves on the side of efficient and effective leadership.

It is time for every church member, whether church employee or laity, to accept accountability before God for progress toward our divinely appointed task. We must all remember that structure is only a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit to accomplish His work on earth—it is not an end in itself! Though we can no more legislate the return of the Lord than can an earthly government legislate total justice and prosperity, we can pray for eyes that see and for hearts that are courageous enough to make the changes needed.

Remember the fig tree. Any healthy tree has a balance between foliage and fruit. Jesus did not condemn the tree because it had leaves—but because it did not produce fruit. We must each evaluate the "leaf/fruit" ratio in our own lives and in the church we serve. We must each strive to be like the tree the psalmist described "planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper" (Ps. 1:3).

1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940.),
p. 582.

2 Ibid., p. 583.


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Robert S. Folkenberg is president of the Carolina Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Charlotte, North Carolina.

June 1989

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