Thursday, September 02, 2004

I'm Not Feeling so Well

I just got off the phone with a pastor friend of mine, who said he had just come across research showing that churches are virtually guaranteed to plateau or decline when they send more than 11% of their total receipts out of the local church. I assumed he was talking about protestant churches in the North American context. Immediately I felt sick. My church sends over 50% of its total receipts out (including the amount we get back for staffing).

I was looking for more information on church giving, and I found this website, which claims that when your fixed expenses "begin to exceed 75 percent [of total receipts], you begin to choke off the money that supports the reason for your church's existence, your ministry." By fixed expenses, the article meant overhead, salary, building and maintenance, etc.

When I did a quick analysis of last year's expenses in my local church, I found that we sent off a full 78% of all receipts to the conference. That left us with 22%, out of which, we still had to pay for many fixed expenses, including building, maintenance, utilities, office supplies, etc. The total left us with only 12% for actually doing ministry through the local church (including the church school subsidy!!).

"Virtually guaranteed to plateau or decline..." The words are still ringing around in my head. And they make me sick. For years, we have either bought the line that the Adventist church in North America won't grow A) because our message is unpopular and the remnant is supposed to be small (you can find that kind of reasoning here) or B) because we are not trying hard enough.

I have never bought the first line - that the Adventist message is supposed to be unpopular. I believe the Adventist message is the only set of doctrines that make any sense biblically. Adventist doctrines also present a very compelling view of the character of Christ. The Adventist message shows what Christ is doing right now, so we're not left to wonder about an absentee God. It is the only set of beliefs that shows a merciful (yet righteous) God, in relation to death and hell. The Adventist message shows that God has not left us out here to wander, but that He has provided contemporary guidance through the Spirit of Prophecy. I have always seen this as an infinitely compelling message.

But, as a church employee, I have bought into the line that we're not trying hard enough. But maybe it's not that after all. Maybe it's just that our system is broken, designed over 100 years ago to facilitate a movement with no settled pastors and only church planters (and administration) being paid. Maybe that's why Adventist churches are "virtually guaranteed to plateau or decline" in our current structure.

It makes me feel sick because I want more than anything for the Adventist message to be heard. I want our churches to have an impact in their local communities. I want to see people coming to Christ and making discipleship decisions for Him. I want Jesus to come back soon.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Conference President Weighs In

Yesterday, the president of one of the conferences in the Mid-America Union e-mailed Blog the Future. This is the first official communication I have seen with a prayerful and Spirit-filled tone.

In his e-mail, he said that the officers of the conferences in the Mid-America Union are meeting in Lincoln, NE today and tomorrow (September 1 and 2). He also said that the agenda for these meetings includes "many if not all of the issues" that we are raising and talking about on Blog the Future.

Please be sure to pray for these godly men and women as they discuss the future of Adventism. I am personally praying that they are willing to do some serious fasting, prayer, and careful study of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy in context concerning these issues. I am also praying that God's presence will lead them to a spirit of mission, faith, hope, and love instead of fear and territorialism.

In his e-mail, this president also asked for what we think "ought" to happen, instead of just reporting on what is happening. This is your chance to weigh in on these issues. What do you think should happen? What should the future of Adventism look like with regards to tithe and structure?

Your comments are welcome below.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Conference Congregationalism

I've noticed a disturbing trend over recent years. I'm not certain how widespread it is, but I do know that it is in at least four conferences. It is a form of conference-sponsored congregationalism.

An Adventist church grows beyond what one normal pastor can handle. The conference is secretly pleased with the success, but claims they have no money to add staff. After much begging and negotiation, the conference decides to hire half a pastor (we're never sure which half), with the local church paying for the other half. You can find an example of this here.

Another thing I have seen is a conference offering to pay some of a Bible-worker's salary, while the local church pays for the rest.

How is this a form of conference-sponsored congregationalism? When half of a pastor's salary comes out of the local church budget, it is not long before the smart people of the local church start to realize that tithe is intended to pay for the work of the ministry. And so people quietly start putting some of their tithe into the church budget. Because, after all, tithe is supposed to pay for the work of the ministry. Since the work of the ministry is being paid partially out of the local church budget, it just makes sense to start paying some of tithe into the local church budget.

Now I realize that this is not what the conference intends. In fact, I think the conference believes it is being helpful. But the question is, Is ministry being done? And if we determine that it is, then the question should be, Shouldn't tithe pay for it?

When the conference decides it doesn't have enough tithe to pay the full salary of a full-time pastor, I wonder how the conference decides it has enough tithe to continue paying a secretary in the conference office. Or to continue buying janitorial supplies for the conference office.

If the tithe is really supposed to be used for the work of the ministry, why is it allowed to be used for other things? Or is the work of the ministry more inclusive than just paying the pastor? If it is, why can't local churches use tithe for secretaries or janitorial supplies?

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Open Dialogue

When Adventism started in the 1800's, it was based on a system of open dialogue. Anathemas, name calling, and power struggles were the coercive powers of the established denominations who were kicking out (and even persecuting) the Millerites. But the Adventist movement had, as the core of its doctrinal and organizational development process, open fora consisting of Sabbath conferences and barn gatherings. The Adventist pioneers shied away from a formalized structure and a formalized creed, because they knew that over time the two would fossilize. And then anathemas, name-calling, and power struggles would be standard operating procedure for OUR denomination, as well.

After the Mission Catalyst news broke, I heard no careful dialogue or reason about what was going on. All I heard were anathemas, name calling, and invectives, all from church leaders careful to distance themselves from Mission Catalyst. Unfortunately, in my Conference, there is a sense that we are not even to engage the subject, lest we be considered traitors to the Adventist Movement. One cannot engage in questioning the use of tithe or the actual representative structure of the church without being marked as a trouble-maker or insubordinate. It saddens me that I have to be anonymous in this blog.

I believe the Adventist pioneers would have chafed at the notion of the church becoming so inflexible that it would no longer engage in open dialogue. Open dialogue should be a natural part of the Adventist Movement as it remains faithful to and effective in its mission. Maybe we should have bureaucracized and fossilized the Sabbath conferences, making someone's paycheck dependent on them. Perhaps then they would still be part of our system. They would be defended rigorously from any change or tampering. And then there might be an open forum.

Structural Issues, Part 2

See also Structural Issues, Part 1 - What the Church Does

What Mission Catalyst Plans to Do
Mission Catalyst plans to place the focus more on the local church than on the overall organizational structure. Local churches will accept all funds for themselves. They will then return a tithe (10%) of these total donations to the administrative center (called a "network support office"). The local church will pay pastors; the network will not. The local church will raise money for buildings; the network will not. The network will provide initial funding of $15,000 for new churches started by leaders with network approval. The 10% of donations remitted to the network office will be used for administrative support. World missions will be funded by the local congregation -- each church in the network is required to sponsor a mission project over 100 miles away from their community. Information about this plan can be found here and here. Incidentally, this type of structure is already used by many Protestant denominations.

Some advantages:

  • Local churches will have flexibility to use their money however they see fit. This could include staffing for growth, purchasing property, advertising, and various forms of outreach -- whatever best suits the needs of the local community.
  • Emphasis will be placed on the local church and enabling it to reach out. Ideally, a lean, mean central office can still provide support and vision, while not sucking the life out of local ministry.

Some disadvantages:

  • Worldwide outreach will unquestionably be limited. Coordination of mission efforts will be difficult, though not impossible.
  • Pastoral salaries, since they are set by the local church, will likely provide monetary incentive for pastoring at larger churches with more income.

Some questions:

  • One thing that creates connections between Adventist churches currently is the use of church materials over a wide territory. The most notable example is Sabbath School, and it is indisputable that we have some of the finest children's programming available. Will Mission Catalyst continue to use these materials (thus drawing on a ministry funded by means they have chosen to reject)? Do they plan to create their own at the network level, or will each church be responsible for creating materials locally? This may place a large burden on local churches.
  • Is this use of donations biblical and supported by prophetic guidance?
  • What forms of accountability will be put in place for local churches in their use of money?

There is little doubt in my mind that the Adventist church currently over-emphasizes denominational structure. In many ways, this has stunted the growth of local congregations. However, is Mission Catalyst's approach the correct solution, or has it swung too far toward the local church at the expense of denominational unity?