November 18, 2009

Is There a Better Way?

2009 1532 page17 cap FEW SUNDAYS AGO I WAS ASKED TO SPEAK FOR BOTH MORNING WORSHIP services for a Baptist megachurch outside Cleveland. Every so often these kinds of requests come. I view these sporadic speaking engagements as opportunities to share the word, but also to give exposure to our Adventist Church in the wider Christian community.
As I stood in the greeting line after both services shaking hands with worshippers, they were extraordinarily affirming of the word they had just heard and the blessing it was to their lives. But a question several of the people asked me left me, frankly, struggling for an answer: “Where is your church?”
I had to explain that I didn’t exactly pastor a church, but was president of a conference. “I’m something like a bishop, but not quite,” I said. “I have oversight responsibilities for a number of our churches in a geographical area.”
They nodded their heads but persisted: “Yes, but where is the church you pastor?”
They couldn’t conceive of a pastor not having a church. There was a disconnect in their minds, for even the bishops they were aware of in the wider Christian community still led local congregations.
That got me thinking (as I’ve done over the years) about our system of placing pastors ?in denominational executive positions, effectively separating them from frontline churches where the “heartbeat” of our denomination exists.
2009 1532 page17I don’t have many answers here, but as I sit now as a denominational executive I’m even more convinced that we might need to rethink this system we have of having large numbers of pastors removed from frontline churches and placed into executive positions, many never having the privilege of pastoring again as their careers take them further and further from the frontlines.

While many leaders honestly feel conflicted over this, there aren’t any quick fixes, especially with the gigantic organization we have worldwide that encompasses very complex entities.
Notwithstanding, we might at some point, given the massive mission before us and the brief time to do it, have to take a new top-to-bottom look at how we’re organized for ministry—not just a reduction in force at executive levels, but a healthy, comprehensive look at our entire structure. Is having a permanent executive class of leaders the most effective structure for ministry? Is there a better way to use our people resources, or as the corporate world puts it, our human capital?
A complicating factor is in the realm of the intangible: the fact that inherent in our organization is a dynamic that seems to affirm pastors as being more successful when they leave the frontline church. That is problematic in and of itself. Yet some leaders possess skill-sets and ministry gifts that equip them to have broader oversight responsibilities.
As I said, there are no easy answers. But if the New Testament church offers any advice, it is that even as some apostles (James, Peter, etc.) took on oversight responsibilities, they stayed fully engaged with frontline ministry. They kept it simple; their organization was simple. And no, I’m not naive to the complexities of running a worldwide organization. But I am convinced that we might have to make it simpler than it is now.
The fact is, as our work moves into its most intense phase yet, we’re going to need “all hands on deck.” We might not be able to sustain a massive executive class, given the times just before us. We will require a fleet-footed organization, certainly flatter, more decentralized, where what binds us will be our mission.
God said to Jeremiah: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3). While we may not have the answers now, our God will show us in the seasons ahead exactly what we need to do in order to be positioned for the last, final push. But the key is “Call to Me.” 
Fredrick A. Russell is president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.