September 21, 2016

General Conference to Review Operations Amid Economic Uncertainty

The General Conference, the administrative body of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, announced to its employees that it was facing budgetary constraints amid global economic uncertainty and would review its operations in an effort to reduce costs.

General Conference treasurer Juan R. Prestol-Puesán, speaking at a special meeting in the auditorium of the Adventist Church’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, emphasized the importance of prudence and said the church’s mission to share the gospel would go forward.

“We are not doing business as usual anymore,” Prestol-Puesán said Tuesday. “When we leave this place, I don’t want you to feel scared. I want you to think, ‘What can I do to help?’”

He was echoed by General Conference president Ted N.C. Wilson, who made some opening remarks before Prestol-Puesán took the stage and closed the meeting with prayer.

“Will mission stop? Absolutely not,” Wilson said. “In fact, it will excel under God’s guidance.”

Prestol-Puesán, who most recently voiced caution about church finances in an Adventist Review interview in early August, spoke in a 30-minute speech filled with sobering data but also punctuated with humor. Listeners laughed appreciatively as he used a wedding and other illustrations to amplify his thinking.

Prestol-Puesán said that the General Conference was actually under budget as of August and that the church’s 19.5 million members worldwide were faithfully giving tithe and offerings.

The challenge, he said, is the U.S. dollar has been strengthening against other currencies used by church members in giving. The General Conference operates on a dollar-based budget, and the conversion of weaker currencies such as the Brazilian real and Mexican peso into dollars has resulted in the church losing millions of dollars since a global downturn began in August 2015, he said.

Prestol-Puesán likened the situation to being grabbed by the neck and squeezed.

“It simply chokes you,” he said.

An Internal Review

In response, the General Conference treasury department will start a review of the operations of the General Conference’s various departments to seek ways to reduce costs. In addition to examining expenses, the treasury is asking General Conference employees to speak up if they see any money-saving measures.

“When you go out the door, you are not going to receive a pink slip that says you’re fired,” Prestol-Puesán said, prompting laughter. “But we would like to ask you to cooperate with us. … We will be looking at every aspect of the operation, and when we come to you, please do not attribute to us any ill will.”

Prestol-Puesán said the General Conference was honoring an earlier agreement with the North American Division to gradually reduce the percentage of tithe that it receives from the division over the next few years. He also reminded listeners that the North American Division and the division’s retirement office, key tenants, would move out of the General Conference building’s south wing to a new headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, next year. The relocation will reduce the General Conference’s income by $1 million a year.

Prestol-Puesán stressed that the move has been in the works for some time and urged General Conference employees to give their blessing to departing North American Division employees.

“We should not have a long face and say, ‘What are we going to do when these people leave?’” he said. “No, no. When your child takes a husband or a wife, your attitude is positive and you say, ‘I’m going to miss you in this house, but I’m glad for you.’”

At that point, Prestol-Puesán whipped out a handkerchief and dabbed his eyes.

“I’m not crying for them,” he said as the audience roared.

He explained that he has especially active tear ducts that often require him to explain to people during conversations that he is not reacting to their stories.

Repurposing Space

Prestol-Puesán said some space vacated by the North American Division would go to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, whose world headquarters is currently located on the building’s ground floor. Talks are under way to allot space to Adventist World Radio, presently located on the building’s cramped second floor, and to Adventist Risk Management, which has offices in the basement and on the ground floor.

The costs of repurposing the building will come from General Conference savings set aside over the past 15 years, not from its operating budget, Prestol-Puesán said.

“I want you to remember that,” he said. “If people say, ‘I heard that the General Conference is not doing well so why are you doing this?’ do you know what the answer is? ‘We saved the money to be able to do this.’”

The General Conference has also taken steps to nurture Christian stewardship over the past year. Each of the 13 divisions of the world church have been encouraged to appoint dedicated stewardship directors, with the General Conference providing additional funding for the position.

It is unclear how long global economic uncertainty will last, and it could continue until Jesus’ Second Coming, Prestol-Puesán and Wilson said. They called on church members to pray and to be faithful stewards.

“Please pray for us,” Prestol-Puesán said. “Cooperate with us. And let people know that the money that is being used for the remodeling will not be money from the budget but from savings.”

Wilson added: “We simply need to recognize the times in which we are living and realize that we are nearing the Lord’s return.”