Adventist History

Final Post-Elephants in the Room: The Regional Conference Debate, pt. 4

March 11, 2014

Let’s start out with some good news.  I recently found out that at the NAD Pastoral Advisory in January 2014, the committee voted the following: “To recommend that the North American Division administrative team seriously study our current structure and distribution model of ministry and support, to see if it is maximizing or using the best approach organizationally in fulfilling the mission in our division.”  Granted, while this is just a “study,” it hopefully will be a step in the right direction instead of dying in the purgatory of Adventist bureaucracy.  Join me in praying that the Lord’s will (not mine, yours, or anyone else’s) be done.

ElephantInTheRoom1

I’m tired of seeing this elephant every week!

So I’m glad that this series is at least on the heels of changes that are hopefully being implemented.  After three weeks of elephants, here is where the rubber meets the road.  To finalize my last three posts, here is why I believe our church should take steps to end the historic divide between “Black” and “White” conferences.

Our current administrative structure, on the outside, has all the markings of the “separate but equal” segregationalist era that birthed it; ending our divide would be a good witness to the world about God’s desire for His people to unite based on the biblical definition of unity (rather than the ecumenical push that traditional Christianity attaches to that term).

Especially in the Hispanic work, there is duplicity in the day-to-day operation of our church that cannot go unaddressed. “Working together” between conferences is not a very effective, long-term solution. To allow, for example, Hispanics to form their own conferences would not mitigate the problem; it would just tell the world that within Adventism, races cannot coexist outside of “separate but equal” administrative umbrellas.  This would make our current problem even worse.

It would be an external sign of healing taking place among God’s people, and would allow our church to experience a real taste of what Heaven will be like instead of believing that God will allow us to believe the lie that worship up there will be as segregated as our worship down here.

Now, this solution post starts with this premise: any change to our structure will meet with resistance.  I see management from a systems theory approach.  That is to say that a change done in one area of an organization will affect another area positively or negatively in an indirect way.

Let me also say that unity is NOT uniformity.  Do not assume that by suggesting a different or new way to structure our church, I am suggesting that all churches be English-speaking or all potlucks be catered by Hispanics (although… well, let me not go there).  Unity does not mean dumping your individual culture identity at the door; it means submitting it to the greater cause of Christ’s command to His church.

Unity is also NOT forgetting the past. Only God can truly forgive and forget. It is acknowledging the good and bad from our combined past and being willing to step out and face the future together. If we are stuck living in the past, soon we will become as dusty and as forgotten as the past. Be willing to become partners with God and create something NEW!

True unity is blending our individuality in corporate expression.

So, any solution can not be superficial.  One popular expression that I’ve heard is, “Let’s just do away with regional conferences.”  The problem with saying, “Let’s end regional conferences” is that, because of their history, it sounds synonymous with, “Let’s end the Black work and sweep everything under the rug within the White conferences.”  Also, the problem is not our currently separate, race-based dual conference system, either the Regional or State conferences themselves; the root problem is a human problem that is found on all sides of the divide.

Even though the suggestions I will present are external suggestions, they hope to address a real internal problem that lies within each of us.  We tend to isolate ourselves and view the world through the scope of our own “narrative.”  When we come into contact with an “other” (someone outside of what we are used to or comfortable with), there is a natural tendency to want to play it safe and stick with what we know.  For too long, we have simply given lip service to Jesus’ call to unity.  It is time to provide a case study for the text in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Because our current situation began with an individual problem of prejudice and spread to be a systemic, institutionalized divide we have today, a holistic solution must likewise address individual as well as corporate aspects.  Here are some suggested solutions to address the internal and external aspects of the color-coded condition of our church structure.

Individually:

I like the three steps that Dwight Nelson gave in a sermon on this topic.

1. Make sure that your own heart is not color-coded or prejudiced.
We need to check our own hearts to see if we harbor any resentment toward others and give those things to the Lord.  How are we supposed to move forward in the vehicle of progress if we are constantly looking through our rearview mirror?  Despite what may have gone on in the past, make a commitment to be an agent of change in this world.

As an interesting side note, Pastor Nelson, quoting an author by the name of James Ditte, noted that those who hold conservative social values (as many Adventists tend to) are more at risk to holding racial prejudice.  The quote says:

“Those who are conservative in their social values (most evangelicals) are more likely to be racially prejudiced… more conservative attitudes on these issues [war, divorce, capital punishment, abortion, socialized medicine, rehabilitation of prisoners, and welfare] are correlated with more restricted and prejudice-like attitudes on racial issues.  To be sure, the correlation is not perfect.  There are many non-prejudiced individuals with conservative social views, and vice versa.  But the correlation is more likely than not.”[1]

A caveat to this previous point, however, was the attention to one’s personal life.  “Most notable was concern for the devotional life.  Persons who thought that prayer and devotional life were important were more likely to hold favorable and tolerant attitudes towards [minorities].” [2]

So, if we want to ask the Lord to help us to see others through His eyes, some suggestions can be as simple as reading though the Gospel story daily and meditating on the life of Christ and Calvary.

2. Cross the line!  Choose a church with a racial mix.  Don’t only congregate with people of your own ethnicity.
It isn’t enough to talk about integration; we have to step out and meet people from the other aisle.  If you have a State/Regional conference church mix in your area, visit a few that you may not have visited before.  I know that I always benefit from doing this. You could even consider joining a church where you are not the ethnic majority!
3. Talk to your leaders.  Ask them why we have to be “separate but equal” administrative structures.
I’m not saying revolt, but it is important that your leaders know what is on your heart. Sometimes what leaders need is a bit of encouragement from someone to get them to believe that this kind of change is possible!

Local Church:

Now, I am going to talk to pastors (forgive me if I am a little more direct here).  Dear colleagues, I am acutely aware of my age and know that any of you reading this may wonder what, if any, right I have to say anything.  You’re right; life experience has not given me the right to be so bold.  However, if on the one hand you say that I’m too “inexperienced” to offer real solutions, and then wonder why 60% of our young people leave the church, I’ve got news for you… you’re part of the problem.

Statistically, around half of the pastors around the NAD will be retiring within the next ten years anyway.  So like it or not, there will be a wave of young leaders flooding the church soon…and change with it. Before I come across too headstrong, consider this Biblical appeal: Paul counseled a young pastor like myself and told him the following words, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12.  Sure, unbridled youthful optimism by itself is a problem, but it’s oftentimes young people who are the craziest ones to think that problems as complex and daunting as this can be fixed.

  1. ENCOURAGE YOUR MEMBERS TO GO VISIT OTHER CHURCHES.
    Do not think of other churches and other conferences as competition.  Organizations only go as far as their leader does.  So if you are serious about being a change agent, you’re going to have to model it first.  Don’t hoard your sheep.
  2. VISIT OTHER CHURCHES YOURSELVES.
    It is somewhat hypocritical to encourage your members to visit other churches when you yourselves are unwilling or “don’t have the time.”  Jesus is our example.  Good leaders lead by example and good shepherds don’t always need to be in the pulpit to minister to the flock.
  3. If you have a Regional/State conference mix in your area, consider doing a pulpit swap once or twice a year.
    That way, your churches can get to know other pastors in the area and build rapport with them
  4. Have a joint service, program, or outreach event once or twice a year.
    The Southern Union has been doing some very great work in this area.  Last year, the Union hosted their first tri-conference camp meeting involving the Carolina, Georgia-Cumberland and South Atlantic Conferences.  I hope to see more of that in the future.

Conference and/or Union:

I once heard that the movement to bring change to our church would have to be a “grassroots movement” that would work its way through the system.  That is a half-truth.  While a grassroots emphasis is important, any lasting change will also necessarily have to involve a top-down process for follow through.  Besides, churches and pastors may drag their feet, so it is up to Conference and Union leaders to build in areas where they too can bring change. Conference and Union administrators must see this issue as their issue also. Here are some ideas:

  1. Consider a pilot city initiative, whereby each Union would chose a major metropolitan area with a high concentration of both Regional and State conference churches could be merged to form an independent entity.
    What if each union were to choose a major metropolitan area (e.g. New York, Washington D.C., Miami) where there are many Regional and State conference churches and have those cities be pilot cities to build a microcosm of what can be done as a whole?  For a set time (2-4 years?), the churches in that area could be administered by the Union or a joint coalition between the comprising conferences.  Afterward, all cities can talk about what worked and how a broader expanse to this idea could work.  I have more technical details on how this could work, but I’ll just throw this out for now.
  2. Consider funding a joint incentive whereby local churches could qualify more evangelism funds if their evangelism plan is done jointly with a Regional/State conference mix.
  3. Consider planning a joint minister’s retreat at least once every few years with the conference across the aisle.
  4. Consider having regular joint evangelistic events between conferences.

Here I am offering baby steps toward change.  Of course, the drastic approach would be to establish a joint integration committee comprising various delegates from Regional/State conferences, Unions and division officials to brainstorm how an entirely new administrative organizational structure could look like and how it could feasibly operate.  This isn’t too farfetched because it’s been done before (although, to be fair, our church did not completely split; we simply formed separate administrative units within the same organization).

There are also anecdotal stories about how the North American branch of the church basically got called out by the South African branch after officials here urged integration after apartheid (by basically saying, “Go and handle your own business before trying to come over here and fix us).  This has been an interesting series to write with a lot of feedback.  Hopefully, someone reading this post may be inspired or may someday be in the position to make change happen.

If we work together, maybe in this generation we can all address this elephant and help push him out once and for all!


[1] James Ditte, Bias and the Pious, pg 25

[2] ibid, pg 75

  • Denny

    I look forward to the elephant leaving the room but I suspect it will have to take a lot of bodies that the Lord puts to rest to get them out of the way first. We have had this issue in the NAD longer than the Children of Israel wondered in the wilderness and we believe they were stubborn!

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