Interview

The gap: perceptions on Seventh-day Adventist leadership by those who lead

The interview and meeting described in the opening paragraph of this article are fictional in and of themselves. However, the facts, figures, and the interview questions presented in the article are based on actual study growing out of a questionnaire sent out by the author to nearly a thousand Seventh-day Adventist denominational leaders throughout the world

Branimir Schubert, DMin, is vicechancellor, Pacific Adventist University, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Editorial note: The interview and meeting described in the opening paragraph of this article are fictional in and of themselves. However, the facts, figures, and the interview questions presented in the article are based on actual study growing out of a questionnaire sent out by the author to nearly a thousand Seventh-day Adventist denominational leaders throughout the world. Six hundred and fourteen of these leaders, including pastors, institutional administrators, and depart mental directors at all levels of the church organization (conferences, unions, divisions, and the General Conference) returned their replies for analysis. The data thus collected has been processed by Dr. Glen Research Services, Oregon, U.S.A., and forms the factual base for this article. Further details are available from the author at the following email address: bschubert@pau.ac.pg.

I met with a cross-section of Adventist leaders (AL) to hear how they view leadership practices within their churches and organizations (see the editorial note above). The group consisted of 614 leaders from various levels of leadership and ministry in a variety of countries worldwide.

They addressed specific questions regarding their own leadership abilities and experiences, as well as their perceptions of the leadership abilities of their superiors and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in general. Some interesting and challenging trends emerged. Following is an adapted summary of our discussions:

Branimir Schubert: Please introduce yourselves.

Adventist leaders: Thirty-eight percent of us are from underdeveloped or developing countries; the rest (62 percent) work in developed parts of the world. Some of us work in local churches (pastors, representing 38 per cent of the group), while others are administrators at various levels of the church organization (62 percent).

About 20 percent could be classified as young (ages 18-40), and 36 percent, "middle=aged" (41-50 years old). Others are nearing retirement—34 percent are between 51-60 years old. Ten percent are over age 61. The age difference indicates a variation in the numbers of years served: 25 percent of us have served the Adventist Church between 1-15 years; 32 percent between 16-24; 22 percent between 25-30 years. The "veterans" who have served this church for more than 31 years represent 21 percent among us.

BS: OK, now that we know what kind of group you are, let's address some specific leadership issues. How qualified are you for leadership? How much formal leadership training did you receive to serve in your positions?

AL: The basic trends represented in our overall training show gaps in formal leadership training. Those of us serving in the developed part of the world have received more formal training as compared to those serving elsewhere. Administrators are generally more formally trained as compared to local church pastors. The average pastor in our group feels quite strongly that he lacks leadership preparation. 1

Older individuals with more years of service reveal that they have had the opportunity to receive more formal training when com pared to those who are younger. Overall, a significant number feel inadequately trained for the leadership role we perform.

BS: Does this lack of formal training have consequences? If so what are they?

AL: Of course. For example, those with higher levels of formal training knew more clearly where they were leading their followers and what they wanted to achieve. Their vision was clearer and better articulated.

BS: As I listen to you, it seems that there is a consistent gap between pas tors and administrators, as well as between those working in the developed parts of the world and those working in the underdeveloped parts.

AL: Indeed. Another disparity seems to be in the feelings of the pas tors, who indicate that they are less aware where their superiors are leading them, as compared to the administrators who are more certain of where their superiors are going. It appears that administrators have not been able to communicate the vision to the pastors, while there is a high level of "vision understanding" among the administrators themselves.

BS: What occurs among you as a result of this lack of communication?

AL: It seems to engender a lack of trust. While administrators have a high degree of trust in their leaders, pastors have less. The younger generation of leaders also has a lower degree of trust than those who are older. Without a focused and deliberate attempt to listen and honestly evaluate and address those trends, the gaps could continue to widen.

For example, those of us working in the developing parts of the world perceive our superiors as less democratic compared to our colleagues in the developed countries. This does not present itself as a crisis, but it is a concern. It seems like more needs to be done to train leaders in the developing countries, especially in the light of the fact that the church is growing much faster in those areas and thus more leaders will be needed.

BS: I have noticed differences in how various groups perceive the church's emphasis on leadership development. Is this correct?

AL: All we can say is that this gap is consistent. Administrators perceive the church leadership principles much more positively than do pastors.

BS: Share with me your thoughts and perceptions when it comes to vision, goals, and objectives.

AL: Administrators seem to believe that their objectives and goals for the future are clear. Pastors are not so sure. Another interesting detail worth mentioning is that those among us between the ages of 51-60 are more likely to say their future vision is God-given as compared with the youngest segment of the group.

Communication issues

BS: A major leadership skill is the ability to communicate. It appears that the communication between administrators and pastors is not at the level it might be.

AL: Administrators are more likely to perceive themselves as good communicators. They tend to believe that people understand them and follow their instructions. This includes oral and nonverbal communication skills.

BS: How does this pattern affect the ability of pastors to communicate with their superiors? AL: First, let us emphasize that leaders working in the developed parts of the world feel quite comfort able communicating with their superiors. Then there seems to be a correlation between a more open and democratic atmosphere, and the ability or willingness of pastors to approach their superiors.

Meanwhile, once again, administrators feel that they can more comfortably communicate with their superiors as compared to the pastors.

This shows that pastors are more reluctant approaching their leaders, and that should cause us to examine the dynamics of this relationship.

The good news is that the longer people work within the church sys tem, the more comfortable they seem to become in addressing their superiors. Our administrators see fewer problems caused in their areas of responsibility due to communication problems as compared to the pastors.

BS: How are communication abilities affecting the church's mission?

AL: Again, there is a difference in perceptions. Generally, administrators believe that church leadership communicates the main mission and message of the church and the reasontively. But once again, pastors seem to have a more pessimistic view. The same is true for the younger leaders.

More issues

BS: Tell me about another leadership skill, the ability of leaders to effectively manage time.

AL: Church leaders in underdeveloped and developing countries consult with their superiors much more on how to allocate their time and formulate their priorities than do the leaders in the developed countries.

BS: What about the ability to make decisions?

AL: Leaders in underdeveloped and developing countries tend to make decisions based on what is best for the organization, while the leaders in the developed world tend to focus more on the needs of the individuals within their purview. Also, pastors seem to be more emotionally influenced by circumstances than do the administrators. Staying true to the firmly established "gaps" we've already established, administrators and leaders in the developed world felt more supported by their superiors for the decisions they make com pared to the rest of our colleagues.

Also, following another thread in our discussion, the leaders in the developing and underdeveloped countries would prefer the decisions to be more group- or committee-generated as opposed to a more self-generated style of decision making in the other parts of the world.

BS: Of course, decisions can only be made within the context of the organizational structure and in the light of the policies that exist and govern the church. How do leaders perceive realities such as this one in the current structure?

AL: It is obvious that pastors perceive the current organizational structure as lending itself to more complicated decision-making process es than do the administrators. The same is true for the younger leaders who appear to wish for simpler, more effective processes of decision making.

Administrators are comfortable with the current organizational structure, while pastors and younger leaders perceive the structure in a more negative light. Pastors wish for more responsibility for the decisions they make, as do the younger leaders among us.

BS: Any other areas of interest you would like to mention?

AL: When it comes to managing conflict, those in the underdeveloped countries perceived conflict more in terms of a threat while their colleagues elsewhere see conflict as an opportunity. Pastors seem to feel more threatened by conflict more than do administrators. Perhaps it would be expected that those who have been in church leadership for long do not seem to be worrying so much about conflict. In general, conflict is an exciting challenge for the administrators, but not so for the pastors.

Finally, pastors perceive doctrinal issues as major causes of conflicts while administrators worry more about those who do not practice Christian principles in everyday life. Interestingly, gender differences do not seem to be causing significant conflict in the church as a whole.

BS: Following up on the issue of conflict management, do you as leaders feel supported by others when you are facing conflict?

AL: That depends on who you are talking to. Again a gap appears at this point. Pastors do not feel as much supported as do administrators. It is no surprise to observe that administrators are less likely to consider quitting the organization due to conflict compared to pastors. Of course, leaders serving long-term are very unlikely to contemplate radical changes, their loyalty to the church is seemingly unshaken.

BS: Any last observations you would like to make?

AL: Yes, we have to be honest. On the one side are the administrators and on the other are the pastors.

There are significant differences in how they perceive the leadership environment within the church.

The other two groups with diverging views are, as we've implied all along, the leaders working in the developing and underdeveloped countries as compared to those working in the developed countries. Finally, there is a consistent difference of opinions between the younger generation of leaders and the older generation. To neglect these differences is to allow the gaps we've identified to grow wider and to potentially lead the organization into possible crisis.

BS: Do you see a "looming crisis"?

AL: Yes, but it can be avoided.

When pastors are asked about the leadership quality in the church, they are less likely to say that the Adventist Church is well led. On the other hand, those in older age categories think the opposite. The administrators are somewhere in the middle! Actually, administrators together with the older leaders are more likely to say that the Adventist Church is experiencing leadership renewal.

BS: Who is correct?

AL: Both sides are. Pastors seem to have a more negative perspective and their perspectives are valid; administrators would do well to listen to the pastors' concerns and suggestions.

BS: To summarize then: There is a perceived leadership gap in the Adventist Church. Open dialogue and constructive, honest global assessment are needed to ascertain the various aspects that need the further attention of leaders.

A comprehensive strategy should be formulated to emphasize and pro mote the strengths of Adventist leadership while at the same time addressing the deficiencies. Allowing for different cultural dynamics, leadership principles and models should be examined that will further the aims of Adventist influence and strengthen the church's mission.

More formal, in-service leadership training is needed, as well as the development of a unique philosophy of Adventist leadership. In other words, the matter of effective leadership must become a priority. Pastors should be trained to be leaders. They should be equipped with skills that provide them with continuous and consistent leadership training.

Administrators should see their role more as mentors, training the leaders under their care. Their role in bridging the identified gaps cannot be overestimated! We need leaders who understand God's purposes for this church in this generation.2 We need leaders who are courageous enough to assume the responsibility of developing structures and strategies that will most effectively lead God's people. To paraphrase a quote from an anonymous source,3 it is time for our leaders to be big enough to admit to our leadership shortcomings. It is also time to be smart enough to profit from them, while being strong and determined enough to correct them.

 

1 On the scale of 1-7, the pastors have averaged 2.85.

2 See Acts 13:36.

3 Based on a quote found in C. John Maxwell, The Paver of Leadership (Rivet Oak Publishing, 2001), 18.

 

 

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Branimir Schubert, DMin, is vicechancellor, Pacific Adventist University, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

July/August 2005

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