Saturday, August 28, 2004

Structural Issues, Part 1

Mission Catalyst claims that it is the "same cart" with "new wheels." It asks participating churches to affirm, yearly, their commitment to the 27 fundamental beliefs of the Adventist church.* The primary difference between Mission Catalyst churches and Seventh-day Adventist churches, then, will be the use of money within the organization.

See also Structural Issues, Part 2 - What Mission Catalyst Plans to Do

What the Church Does
The Seventh-day Adventist church asks its members to return 10% of their income as tithe. This tithe, while physically handed to the local church, is automatically sent away to the conference. The conference keeps about 62% of it and sends the remainder on to the union, division, and general conference levels, where it is used to support regional, national, and world-wide projects. The money from the local church is used to pay pastors in that area, support evangelism, help (a little) with building projects, and fund conference entities such as schools and summer camps. Tithe also pays the salaries of conference officials (usually ordained ministers and/or commissioned teachers) and their secretaries -- in short, all the personnel at the conference office. Here are the official guidelines for how tithe may be used.

Some advantages:

  • Because the local church does not pay the pastor, this system often enables small churches to exist that could not afford to pay a pastor on their own.
  • Pastoral salaries are all based on the same scale and are very fair. Pastors in large churches do not make more money than pastors in small churches; this theoretically eliminates monetary motivations for serving in a larger church.
  • Worldwide work is supported. This has enabled the Adventist church to become a global movement relatively quickly.

Some disadvantages:

  • The local church, though it does not have to pay a pastor's salary & benefits, still has to raise additional money to support local needs, such as maintenance of the physical plant, secretarial and janitorial staff, advertising, etc. This requires the church to solicit donations from members above and beyond the 10%. In addition, the world church regularly solicits offerings for worldwide projects above and beyond the tithe funds.
  • In principle, the current system of tithe distribution is designed to enable the founding of new churches. Tithe monies should support small churches as they are forming, before they bring in enough tithe to support a pastor on their own. However, in practice, the current tithing system is most often used to support small, dying churches in small, dying communities rather than reaching out to new areas of need.
  • Growing churches must compete with other commitments of conference money in order to add new staff. As a result, it is nearly impossible to staff for growth, and many churches stagnate at 75-150 members. Most large churches in the Adventist system become large because of their proximity to Adventist institutions, not because of outreach.

Some questions:

  • Why can tithe not be used for secretarial salaries at the local church level (where secretarial support would often enable the pastor to focus more on mission and ministry), yet it can be used for secretarial salaries at the conference level and above (where administrators are freed up only for internal ministry and not outreach)?
  • This system is often presented as a biblical mandate. Is it, in fact? Does a study of Ellen White's writings bear out that this method is, unequivocally, the correct way to use tithe? In other words, is the church's position on tithe based on evidence from the Bible and prophetic guidance, or is it based on convenience?

* Isn't it a little funny that the Adventist denomination doesn't even ask churches (or members, for that matter) to do this? I know a number of "Adventist" churches that probably could be or should be disbanded if we followed this practice -- both on the conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum.