J. Robert Spangler is the editor of Ministry.
J. David Newman is executive editor of Ministry.

Community wage scales and Adventist philosophy dominated the debate that consumed some nine hours of presentation and discussion concerning the pay of Adventist Health System (AHS) administrators in the United States.

Elder Neal C. Wilson, president of the General Conference, opened the discussion by outlining at length the problem with salaries in the health system. He mentioned such factors as the great differential between community wages and denominational wages, and the problems encountered in running Adventist institutions with primarily non-Seventh-day Adventist employees.

He contrasted the ideal with the pragmatic. Hospitals began with sacrifice but have now become big business, he said. He read several sections from the booklet describing the Adventist philosophy of wages, one of the most pertinent being: "The philosophy of this remuneration scale is predicated upon the fact that a spirit of sacrifice and dedication should mark God's workers irrespective of the position they hold or the department they represent."

Wilson went on to describe the pressures that are making it increasingly difficult to fulfill this philosophy. He said that in some respects business has become more important than mission. Until 1968 the Adventist Church had paid every employee a living wage without consideration of local wages. Then in 1968, to avert a nursing shortage crisis in Adventist hospitals, leadership agreed that nurses should be paid at community rates. By 1978 most hospital employees other than the top administrators received community rates.

As a result, some employees were making more money than their supervisors. The 1978 Annual Council devised a new plan whereby the salaries of administrative personnel would be based on a formula tied to nurses' salaries. So as nurses' wages increased, administrators would always be a step ahead but still not on a full community rate. But hospital administrators felt that it was unfair that they should be singled out as the only group not being paid community rates.

Market-sensitive wage

After Wilson's introduction of the problem, Charles Bradford, chairman of AHS/U.S., gave a short speech and then introduced Donald Welch, president of AHS/U.S. Welch proposed a shift from the present wage philosophy to a "market-sensitive wage scale." Noting that 99 percent of hospital employees are paid at community rates, he asked why we should exclude the 1 percent who make up the leadership of these institutions.

Welch introduced three members of his staff, who developed further the rationale for this change:

1. The salary scale is discriminatory--all should be paid under the same philosophy (community rates).

2. It is difficult to attract top management because they can receive so much more outside the system. More money would bring more qualified, professional individuals.

3. Morale is suffering. People do not want to accept top positions with much heavier responsibilities for little increase in pay and minimal job security.

Welch's staff presented figures for salaries of like positions outside the church: some corporate presidents are making $352,000 annually and hospital presidents $180,000. AHS had employed an outside consulting firm that recommended the following: hospital division presidents--$225,000; senior management--$160,000; and a minimum salary of $116,400 for presidents of hospitals with more than $ 100 million in gross revenue. Currently Welch's salary, as president of the system, is based on a mini mum rate of $81,700. Some hospital presidents' salaries are based on a mini mum of $72,000. Welch was quick to point out that his group would recommend lower rates than the consultants' study.

At the end of the morning Wilson and Welch clarified more of the details. The present system allows for an additional 10 percent for administrators in high cost-of-living areas and another 10 percent for those administering our three largest hospitals. All of these administrators also receive retirement benefits, educational subsidies, and medical insurance, plus an additional sum of up to $20,000 that is supposed to be donated to charity. Welch said that this last item is difficult to track and audit.

Finally, Welch proposed that we adopt the lowest level of the consultants' study and make the salary cap $116,400 for hospital and corporate leadership. Actually this would not be a salary cap, but a figure from which to work in setting salaries. Some salaries could exceed $140,000, with a possible 10 percent additional incentive.

Vigorous discussion

Discussion began in the afternoon. Most of the early respondents, including several General Conference officers, spoke strongly against the motion. In particular, Robert Osborn, an associate treasurer of the General Conference, quoted many statements from the Spirit of Prophecy concerning the principles of worker remuneration.

Wilson had said that anyone who objected should present viable alternatives. Some suggested that if we continued this path, the only responsible solution was to divorce the hospital system from the official church organization. Wilson rejected this as untenable. Others suggested that a greater effort be made in recruiting leaders on the basis of commitment and dedication, rather than high salaries.

During this debate, 32 persons spoke. Twenty-eight were members of the General Conference Committee. Of those speaking, 13 were against, 14 for (including 4 from the hospital system), and 5 appeared neutral (mainly asking questions).

Some speakers alluded to greed and avarice as possible motivating factors, along with a spirit of compromise with the world. At the end of the day several hospital presidents spoke of their shock and surprise at the way they had been treated. One president said that he had finally found something worse than going to the dentist and that was attending Spring Meeting.

When he summed up the day's discussion, Wilson said that emotions were too high to vote, and so he moved to table the motion. This was voted.

Motion reintroduced

By midafternoon of the next day (the last day of the Spring Meeting), it was voted to take this motion off the table. Wilson explained that the tabling of the motion had left the AHS/U.S. leader ship in an uncertain situation. Direction must be given; leaving the matter undecided was unsatisfactory and did not demonstrate responsible leader ship. Unresolved situations do sometimes settle themselves, but such would not be the case in this particular matter, he said.

Wilson added that he had counseled with various individuals and would like to suggest seven safeguards that, if added to the motion, might make it more acceptable (see preamble in box).

Two persons offered prayer for divine guidance, and then a secret ballot was taken. Fifty-two favored the motion, and 42 voted against it. Robert Osborn then requested, as a point of privilege, that his negative vote be recorded on the basis that the action was out of harmony with counsel from the Spirit of Prophecy relative to the remuneration of leaders in denominational institutions.

There are still basic inequities in the system. One of the main arguments in favor of the change was that since some were on a community rate system, all should be on that system. But the AHS/U.S. division presidents and corporate president are still not on the community rate system. In fact, because of the 10 percent incentive program, a president of one of the hospitals could make a larger salary than his division chief or the president of the whole AHS/U.S; system.

What is the ideal?

Why were so many people passionately opposed to this pay raise? To answer that question, we need to take a look at the origins of our medical work.

Our system of health institutions was, for various reasons, transformed from small Adventist-staffed sanitarium-type institutions emphasizing preventive medicine into open-staffed community hospitals that compete with similar non-Adventist establishments. So it was only natural that the denominational wage scale would be transformed as well. It would be naive to expect our hospitals to operate now on a sacrificial wage scale unless major revisions are made in other areas of operation. Humanly speaking, it is impossible to turn the clock back on wages unless we turn the clock back on all other facets of operation. It would appear that the only way for our medical work to return to the church's wage scale would be to start new institutions operated on the original medical missionary philosophy that led to the founding of Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Perhaps it is too late in the stream of prophetic time to do this. We have had our opportunity. Perhaps now, rather than attempting to witness indirectly through medical institutions, we must simply let the church use its resources to communicate directly to the world God's final call of salvation. Certainly, we should still encourage our present health system to do its very best to share the three angels' messages, both with its large non-Adventist employee force and with patrons. All is not lost. Instead of condemning, we need to join in prayer for the system's success in fulfilling the church's God-given mission.


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J. Robert Spangler is the editor of Ministry.
J. David Newman is executive editor of Ministry.

August 1989

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