This year I will become a grandfather for the first time and it has caused me to reflect on many things, in particular how different the world will be for my grandchild compared to the one I grew up in. For example, she or he will be working with technology not yet invented and in careers not yet thought up. My grandchild will face a world we have not yet imagined and will need to deal with change at a faster rate than we have ever experienced. And our Church will need to plan for a future that includes globalisation, secularism, diversity and technology, the likes of which no other generation has ever seen.
The Australian Union Conference (AUC) is being proactive about this and has commissioned a review of the way the Church in Australia is structured. The review is to “give study to the effective and efficient structures for achieving the missional objectives of the Church in Australia while remaining true to the Church’s global governance structure”. In short, is our current structure still the most appropriate way of achieving our mission in Australia?
. . . many leaders said there's a need to see a 'bigger picture approach' and that the Church risks 'becoming irrelevant without change'.
On one hand the current structure has survived and serviced the Church in Australia since its origins at the beginning of the 1900s and is familiar to many people. On the other hand those same structures were designed for an institutionalised society that couldn’t imagine a world that includes the information superhighway, fly-in fly-out workers and multimedia ministries using satellites in space. The structures of our beginnings served the Church well for a long time but does a new context call for a new structure to ensure mission remains foremost?
In any discussion about structure it’s important to remember that structure is not an end in itself; instead it’s only a tool to achieving a goal of being mission-focused. The structure is not sacred, the message is. So the challenge is to find the best tool to ensure the message is most effectively communicated.
As a beginning step all Australian conference and AUC administrators and executive committee members were surveyed towards the end of 2014 through to early 2015 to gain an understanding and awareness of how these leaders of the Church in Australia felt about the possibility of review. The idea was strongly endorsed and many leaders said there’s a need to see a “bigger picture approach” and that the Church risks “becoming irrelevant without change”.
The survey respondents identified four main advantages of the current structure: that it’s established (“comfortable and familiar”); has identity (local regions well represented); is grassroots based (small distance between the local constituency and administration); and has accountability (greater access to conference leadership and personnel).
The four main challenges of the current structure were diagnosed as: duplication of services and functions; financial sustainability of smaller entities; top-heavy decision-making (“slow and cumbersome”); and the struggle to find enough suitably qualified people to fill the numerous leadership and specialist roles throughout the structure.
The purpose and process of the review and the possibility of change were considered by the respondents, and consistent throughout the responses was an emphasis on ensuring mission is and remains prominent and that change is not undertaken just for the sake of change. Respondents also cautioned that any restructuring needs to contribute to Church growth and that the local church must not be disadvantaged. An overwhelming theme expressed by many respondents was the need to consult and communicate frequently throughout the review process, enabling as many people as would like to have a voice.
And so as part of this consultation process the AUC Church Structure Review Project would like to hear from you about the idea of reviewing the Church structures in Australia. The web address at the end of this article connects to an online survey that seeks input about a range of issues associated with Church structure. This is your opportunity to connect and have your say. Feel free to share this link with other church members in the AUC who may also be interested. The link will remain open until the end of July.
In brief, the survey seeks your thoughts on the current structure (advantages and challenges), issues associated when discussing restructuring, lessons from previous restructuring experiences and an opportunity for general comments. The more people who respond the more informed the process will be. At this point there is no proposed replacement for the current structure. This review is to see if an alternative may be appropriate and if so what it might be.
Interestingly, other entities within the Adventist Church worldwide are also talking about structure, including the North American Division (NAD). In a special edition of the Adventist Review, former Columbia Union Conference president Harold Lee makes the point that, “to be more faithful to its calling, the Church must be representative, responsible, mission-driven, grace-oriented and as participatory as possible”.
The challenge for you and I as the Church in Australia is to determine the best structure to do just that.
For more information or to take part in the survey go to: <https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/AUCReviewProject>.
Warrick Long is head of Avondale Business School at Avondale College of Higher Education. Prior to his current role, he spent more than 20 years as a senior church administrator in conferences and unions across Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Avondale Business School has been commissioned by the AUC to conduct exploratory work for the AUC Church Structure Review Project.