Too much of a good thing


We all like bureaucracy. Don’t believe me? Well then why have we set up a bureaucracy in virtually every entity of any substance? Google? Got a bureaucracy. Government—almost nothing but a bureaucracy. Church? Well, we all know about church bureaucracy, don’t we?

It’s fair to say that the 1922 structure has served our Church extraordinarily well . . . But just because the Adventist Church has progressed under the current system, doesn’t mean it’s the best system for the future.

Bureaucracy in itself isn’t a bad thing. After all, how do you do big things over a large stretch of time without having teams of people and processes in place to do them? The problem comes, however, when a bureaucracy becomes inefficient, ineffective or simply too expensive.

An example of this last phenomenon was the literature evangelism (LE) work. LE sales in Australia and New Zealand dropped substantially each year between 2006 and 2011. In total over that six-year period, the dollar sales halved. By 2011, the administrative costs of running the program in Australia and New Zealand almost equalled the total annual gross sales.

So the Publishing Department reduced the number of administrative positions, and used the savings to transition managers to sales, cut the book prices and raise the commission for the independent LEs. The result? Sales rebounded in 2012. Put another way: more books, in more homes, for a better price and a fairer deal for the LEs. That’s the magic of aligning resource allocation with goals. 

Which raises the question: Is our allocation of resources too administration heavy in our Church generally?

The Adventist Church first adopted the local church > conference > union > general conference structure in 1894. Australia had the distinction of being the first union in the world. Departments were formed in 1901. Divisions were added in 1913, only to be abolished in 1918, and then reinstated in 1922. That’s still where we are today. 

Put another way: in 2013, we’re working with a structure developed for a 1922 world. It’s fair to say that the 1922 structure has served our Church extraordinarily well. It has seen our church morph from a small American community, to a truly global, multifaceted community. But just because the Adventist Church has progressed under the current system, doesn’t mean it’s the best system for the future. In an age where entities are flattening their organisations and capitalising on the enormous productivity gains from new technologies, we have an opportunity.

It’s not only that our structure is yet to respond to the modern world, it’s that our region is particularly administration heavy.

  • The Texas Conference in the US, for example, administers more than 50,000 members and a territory covering roughly 464,000 square kilometres (two-thirds of Texas).
  • New South Wales, in contrast, has three separate conferences and a division headquarters. Granted NSW is a larger area, but the NSW population is far more geographically concentrated than in Texas. And the number of Adventists in all three NSW conferences combined is actually less than half the membership of the one Texas conference.
  • Similarly, New Zealand is about half the geographic size of the Texas Conference and has roughly a quarter of the membership, but has two conferences and a union.
  • In Fiji you’ll find the Fiji Mission Office in one part of Suva and a few kilometres away the Union Office, with many facets replicated.

We also replicate functions at each level. We have education departments at the conference, union and the division level, for example.

All this administration: costs a lot of money; can make coordinated action difficult as each entity within each level has its own decision-making process; absorbs talent in administration that might better be employed in frontline positions; and prevents economies of scale.

Streamlining is possible. In 2000, the two Australian Unions were consolidated. In 2007, for example, the three separate Solomons missions were consolidated into one. And today the Australian Union is studying ways to make the organisation more efficient. So who is stopping the Adventist Church from streamlining across our territory? You and I are. How? Whenever a tangible idea to streamline administration is brought to a constituency meeting, it faces tremendous resistance. Why? Because we equate administrative bodies with influence, and therefore we hold tightly onto them. As long as we do, we will lug ourselves through the 21st century proudly dragging with us a structure that worked brilliantly—in 1922. 

James Standish is editor of RECORD.