If you’ll allow me, I’d like to do a little wrap-up of five big ideas I’ve tried to share through Adventist Record over the past five years.1 That is, one big idea for every year I’ve edited this fine publication. This is, I suppose, my valediction. Not a parting shot of vindictiveness, but a shot of unabashed love—a summary of things I’ve already said, in the hope it wasn’t all in vain. Lot’s of v’s. So let’s venture forth . . .
Oh dear, things are good2
For our Church to reach its potential, we need an administrative revolution.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but our Church in the South Pacific is astonishingly healthy. Surprised? Not as surprised as I am. I suppose my view of our Church was largely formed when I was a kid back in the ’70s—when everyone seemed to be at each other’s throats fighting about whether we should be gracious or whether we should be good. I’ve now had a chance to travel the length and breadth of the South Pacific Division (SPD), and I think we can say with some confidence that the theological wars ended with a truce in which the consensus is that being good and being gracious are both unmerited gifts from God, and we all need a lot more of both.
A healthy theological equilibrium is one thing but what about life in the real world? It turns out there might be a connection between good theology and good results. Christ taught that where our treasure is, there is our heart. And on that note, it’s hard to ignore the incredible growth in tithe across the SPD. Yes, our economies are growing. But tithe is growing faster than economic growth.
For example, last year the average Adventist in Australia gave 23 per cent more in tithe and offerings than the average North American Adventist. Friends, that’s a big deal—particularly when you consider that America’s GDP per capita is roughly 18 per cent higher than Australia’s. Put another way, average Adventist giving as a percentage of average GDP per capita is almost 50 per cent higher in Australia than it is in the US, and that’s before you take into account the relative weakness of the Australian dollar against the American dollar (all the figures used in these calculations were stated in American dollars). Something profoundly good is at work in the hearts of our community and we see it every week in the most tangible way possible.
And it’s not just giving money, it’s giving of ourselves. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” said Jesus. If ever there was a community those beautiful words apply to, it is the SPD church family. Every Adventist I meet is doing something astonishing. There’s StormCo, Volunteers in Action, ADRA volunteers, Adventist Yacht Ministries, Adopt A Clinic, fly’n’builds, Asian Aid, Food for Life, Medisonship, International Children’s Care, South Pacific Allied Health—thousands of people helping the vulnerable everywhere from Cambodia to Kenya, and in projects around the Pacific. This Church is on fire with good works!
Consider how the people I’m proud to call my colleagues at Record spend their spare time: running a church plant (Vania), spreading the gospel to prisoners (Jarrod), volunteering as church clerk (Tracey), helping the kindies at church (Dora), volunteering to teach migrants English (Kent), and leading teen Sabbath school (Linden). And each of them does much more than that. One of the most touching examples of giving I’ve come across were students in Vanuatu raising money to help those struggling after Cyclone Winston hit Fiji. Everywhere I look I see a church alive with good works. And I praise my Father in heaven for it.
And our community is growing. Yes, the Church is growing around the world. But remember next time you hear of a mass baptism here, or a great story there: the SPD has the highest ratio of Adventists to the general population of any division, anywhere on earth. Period. End of story. Kaboom. And that’s after rigorous membership audits. We are likely the only division where national censuses routinely report we have substantially more members than we claim. God is doing something very powerful right here among us. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold!
Focus on the kids3
It was one of those rather cold days and everyone—I mean everyone—was absent from church. My family was at a church where I was preaching. Another family was on holidays. Yet another slept in. Another had to go to a different church that Sabbath, and so it went on. When Jarrod and Lyna Stackelroth arrived at our little church plant, there was only one family in attendance. Just one.
Imagine preparing a sermon and getting all ready for the big moment. And finding out no-one was there. Well, except that one solitary family. But Jarrod went ahead and gave it all he had.
I know this, not because he told me, but because my wife told me. How did she know? Because two of the children in the church that Sabbath attend her school. And when chapel time came, these little missionaries got up and performed Jarrod’s sermon illustration down to the last iota. In front of more than 100 children, about 80 per cent of whom are not Adventists, and many of whom never go to church.
The point? If you reach a child with the gospel, you reach the future. And, as Jesus observed, we are most open to God when we are young. Yet our church services, our evangelism and our media are generally aimed at people in their middle to later years.4 We need to change this. Research indicates that children make decisions that impact the spiritual trajectory of their lives very early.5 And turning those decisions around later in life is extremely unlikely. So we need to focus our resources on reaching children when they’re open to it.
I wish for the day when every school is thoroughly integrated with our Church (see: “Something quite unusual”). I wish for the day when every church service is as child-friendly as our church plant. I wish for the day when our limited media and evangelism resources are focused on children and their parents. Why? Because there is nowhere we are likely to make a bigger impact—in quantity, quality and longevity—than if we focus on children.
Jarrod spoke to one family. And reached 100 families. I dream for the day when we are reaching hundreds of thousands of families across our Division every day. All by focusing on children.
One morning recently, I woke to the question: “Did you watch Q&A last night?” No, as a matter of fact, I didn’t. Instead I sat like an extraordinarily obedient husband and watched the Jane Austen-ish Doctor Thorne on ABC iview while researching absurdly impractical cars I want to buy within 5 minutes of arriving back in the US. “You should have watched Q&A,” my friend said, “because you were mentioned to the Prime Minister on national television.”
Naturally enough I scrambled to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out I wasn’t mentioned at all. No “James”. No “Standish”. No “balding, slightly scruffy looking 50-something male with an indefinable accent”. But Adventist Record was mentioned. And when I heard that, I felt a very warm feeling indeed.
You see, not all that long ago we added the word “Adventist” to the title of Record. We did it for two reasons. It turns out there’s another Record—put out by the Catholic Church. And second, we decided it was time to stop hiding our identity. We’re Seventh-day Adventist Christians. And we’re proud of it. And we aren’t going to hide any more. People can accept us. Reject us. Or ignore us. But it won’t be for not knowing about us. And there was the nation’s Prime Minister on national TV hearing not about the generic Record, but the Adventist Record. That’s right, Adventist and proud of it!
It’s painful to see so many Adventist entities hiding who we are: schools that have discarded the Adventist name, media created under every name except ours, even local churches who are obscuring who we are. We’re at a tipping point. Either we rebuild the Adventist brand in a way that we can all be proud of, or there won’t be much left to rebuild.
The irony is that there has never been a better time to be an Adventist. Schools with Adventist in the name are bursting at the seams all around our Division. The prejudice against Adventists from other Christians is declining as people of faith increasingly huddle together in the face of the secularist onslaught. And the Seventh-day Adventist Church is growing relatively rapidly across the SPD. It’s time to lose our insecurities and be proud of who we are. It’s time to shine like a light on a hill, not cower under a bushel. God gave us our name; let’s use it with strength, dignity and consistency. Divided we’re weak but together under the grace of God, using the name He gave us, we’re strong.
Too much is too much7
We’re moving to Maryland, on the edge of Washington, DC. It is a very Adventist sort of place. How Adventist? Consider this: it’s where my former employer, the General Conference, is located. If you drive 16 minutes north, you’ll see a local conference building on your left. Another 10 minutes or so north on the same road and you come to the turn-off to the Union office. If you do a U-turn, head south, and then a little east, you come to an entirely separate building that is the new Division headquarters. That’s four Adventist administrative offices within a 20-minute radius. If that strikes you as a little bit of administrative overkill, don’t forget there are three more conferences located in nearby states that also administer parts of Maryland.
So, let’s review: one GC, one division, one union, four conferences—that’s seven different buildings, filled with seven different teams, all with a president, a secretary, a treasurer, and heads of this, that and the other departments; all providing administration in one way or another to our church in Maryland.
You might be tempted to imagine Maryland being an immense place. But it is less than one-third the size of the North Island of New Zealand. And its total population is just a little more than greater Sydney.
With all this administration, our work in Maryland must be shooting ahead in leaps and bounds, right? I decided to find out for myself. So I researched church growth in Maryland. But I couldn’t find any numbers on our total membership there, let alone our growth. Assuming I was a bit dim, I contacted the General Conference. They responded that they couldn’t find any numbers either. Or, more to the point, they were awash in numbers from the various entities but none of them actually totalled the membership in Maryland. They contacted the Union, but the Union, too, lacked information on the total membership in Maryland.
So in a state covered by seven different Adventist headquarters, all with their own teams and office buildings, no-one knows how many members we actually have. I suppose it must be a few just to cover the cost of all this church admin! Is our church shooting ahead in Maryland? Falling behind? If we are growing, is it because of immigration or because of evangelism? If it’s evangelism, what kind of evangelism is working best? Are there some ethnic groups we’re managing to reach, while others we are missing entirely? If so, why?
And this shouldn’t surprise us. The multiplication and balkanisation of our church administration substantially decreases our effectiveness. Each separate entity has a mind of its own; people have philosophies, priorities and egos. And these differences often turn into barriers to coordinated action and intelligent administration. The simple question of membership illustrates what is multiplied a thousand times in every conceivable area of church administration. Rather than adding capacity and effectiveness, our excess of administration is drowning us in a sea of our own unnecessarily Byzantine complexity.
And, ironically, by replicating administrations, we’ve built a Church where most administrative levels are inadequately staffed. How could we both have too much, and too little, administration? Let’s examine education administration as an illustration.
Running a modern education system is a complex business. You have to comply with every evolving state and federal regulation and meet church and secular accreditation reviews. There are policies on everything from sexual abuse to salary structures and retirement. And that’s before you even start with curriculum requirements and professional teaching standards. All the regulations and corporate compliance is only getting more complicated. But our little school systems can only absorb so many overheads. And so each conference has its own inadequately staffed team, where the director has to try to be adequately competent in everything. If we consolidated our teams, we could have a national team of professionals with the depth of specific expertise necessary to excel.
And what about the cost? Every dollar spent on administration is a dollar not spent on frontline missionary work. Imagine little Maryland with seven administrative headquarters to support. It’s amazing there’s any money left for anything else!
Of course, it’s easy to see the problem in Maryland. But what about closer to home? Do we really need a union in Ringwood (Victoria) and, 10 minutes up the road, a whole conference team? In New South Wales, do we really need three conferences and a division—all with their own teams with overlapping titles? And how about in Fiji, where we have a union in one part of Suva and a mission in the other? Can that level of administrative duplication really be justified?
It isn’t an academic question—Christ made it clear that we’re held to account for our stewardship. Is this the way to be the best stewards? A rough estimate of the cost of administrative offices in Australia is that we are spending in the range of $A20-25 million a year on administration. That’s roughly 25 per cent of our total tithes and offerings! And it’s not just the cost. Administration is absorbing much of our best talent who could be making massive contributions at the coalface. Some of the most impressive people I’ve had the privilege of meeting, work in church administration; we need to deploy their exceptional talents in a more productive way.
Of course, we need some administration, but compare the multiplicity of church administration with Sanitarium’s approach. Sanitarium has just one administrative headquarters for the whole of Australia. I’ve visited Sanitarium’s Australian headquarters and it is modest and located in a relatively low cost of living area. If Sanitarium can run an amazingly successful and complex business that manufactures, markets and delivers a wide range of diverse products to virtually every supermarket, petrol station and convenience store in Australia, why can’t we administer our rather small Church out of one national office? Not only would we reduce barriers to coordination, we would consolidate our teams to ensure we have the depth of professionalism necessary to excel, and we would achieve massive efficiencies in the process—savings that can be ploughed back into frontline evangelism and service.
So what is stopping us from doing this? You and I. Because whenever the idea of consolidating services or conferences is breathed, we become a little paranoid and a little intransigent.
Our paranoia is that it will somehow result in us losing influence. But it doesn’t have to. What if the national headquarters has representatives from around the country who come together quarterly to pass budgets and make plans? If we want to keep nine representatives from the various regions in Australia, for example, that is no problem. The cost of getting nine representatives together quarterly would be a small fraction of the cost of employing just one conference official.
Friends, for our Church to reach its potential, we need an administrative revolution. But only you can lead it at the local level. Our bloated administrative structure harms, not helps, our mission. We can do better. Sanitarium has already proved it. If it were our personal funds being spent on admin, we would have made efficiencies long ago. Why are we less diligent with God’s funds?
I was recently asked what I think is the most important piece I’ve written over the past five years. The most important piece actually isn’t one I wrote. Rather, it’s a piece I commissioned that Linden Chuang diligently and capably brought to reality. The piece is the “In Memoriam” page on the SPD website where we commemorate all those who died while actively serving the Seventh-day Adventist mission in the South Pacific.
There are, for example, seven missionaries either to or from the tiny island of Mussau in far north Papua New Guinea remembered. One of them, Kuka, was the first Adventist missionary murdered in PNG.
The list also includes Dr Arthur Ferch. I recall when Dr Ferch was tragically killed in an accident in Samoa. What I didn’t realise was that he was only 51 years of age at the time. I’m 51 myself now. What an enormous sacrifice he and his family made!
For me, the most heartbreaking stories of all are those of the many children of missionaries who died from diseases and accidents while their parents laboured to spread the gospel. In Mark 10:29,30, Jesus talks about the reward those who give up home, family, everything for Him, will receive. I can’t wait to see those missionary parents receiving their precious little children returned to them by Jesus, and seeing them honoured gloriously for their immense, heart-rending sacrifice that those who haven’t suffered can only just begin to imagine.
The Bible records the trials and triumphs of our spiritual ancestors from long ago. Ellen White’s most famous volume recalls the sacrifices of the Reformers. Our “In Memoriam” page reminds us that men, women and children of immense faith exist today among us, and of the price our community has paid to make the SPD what it is today. “We have nothing to fear for the future,” wrote Ellen White, “unless we forget how God led us in the past . . .” A vital part of our past is found here. I invite you to visit and reflect: <http://www.spd.adventist.org/in-memoriam>.
One final thought on missionaries: as a community we need to do a far better job ensuring their sacrifice is adequately honoured when they return home from service. I recently met an old friend—a highly skilled, humble and gracious Christian—who had returned from mission service. It has been a very tough experience for her and her family. And not just her. I have a friend whose father had a nervous breakdown when he returned from mission service. Another highly qualified friend struggles to find a job, so is working at a supermarket stocking shelves.
Missionaries inspire us. They motivate us. They challenge us. We need to remember and honour the immense sacrifice of our missionary families. And care for them when they return. This Division is what it is because of what God has accomplished through them.
A friend asked if I ever ran out of ideas for Record editorials. The truth is that I have more ideas now than when I began. I love our Church. I love what I see God doing among us. I love the vitality and the vigour. The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific has lots of problems, challenges and difficulties. But friends, it’s a pretty amazing community. And we are all very fortunate to be a little part of it. I have treasured my time here. And thank you for it.
1. In this piece, I’m focusing on the themes impacting our Church, not the themes focused on society in general or on critics of Christianity; either of which could easily fill another essay or two.
4. I appreciate Jared Madden first pointing this out to me.
5. I appreciate Julie Weslake and Darren Pratt helping me understand this.
7. See in the Record online archives: “Too much of a good thing”.
James Standish will be on the frontlines of law, faith and tempestuous US politics. To receive his candid and insightful updates from Washington, send an email to: <email@example.com> or friend him on Facebook.