Church Leadership and Lay Member Involvement (Part 2)

This is a four-part series on Church leadership and the importance of laymen for a healthy church organization. In Part 1 we looked at the importance of lay members for a flourishing church organization. In this part we will consider the local church and Conference.


Part Two: Local Church and Conference Governance

 I am a layman and have had the privilege of serving on constituencies, executive committees and nominating committees at the local church, Conference, Union, Division and General Conference levels. While growing up, both of my parents worked in the administration of the Church. Consequently I’ve had decades of exposure to how the Church governs itself.  I’ve also taken management classes that included governance principles.

 Much of the governance framework of our Church was set up by our pioneers, and I believe was divinely guided. This framework is spelled out in the Church Constitution and Bylaws, and Church Manual. These governing policies and procedures thankfully can only be changed at a General Conference Session, thus reflecting their importance. Through the years, however, as the Church has grown and become more complex, its’ governance process has gradually evolved with some “traditional” ways of doing things, with occasional additions and deletions that are not always clearly stated in the policies. This can be problematic.

 When you study governance in general, you see that most non privately owned organizations have a governance process that includes some form of constituency. In the corporate world, the constituency would be the stock holders. They elect the board of directors and its’ corporate officers.  The officers that the constituents elect however, aren’t usually members of their governing board/committee, because of a potential conflict of interest.  An officer, who is an employee of the corporation, could potentially influence decisions by the board that might be in his best interest, but not necessarily in the best interest of the company at large, and its stockholders. This separation of the governing committee from the employed administration is a “checks and balances” safety net.  

In a church setting, the constituents are the members, who although do not literally or legally own all the Church’s buildings etc., they—practically speaking—own the Church, because they elect its local boards and officers. Remember, the Church organizations’ ministers/officers are employees of the Church, not owners. I think Church employees sometimes feel that they own the “Church” because the legal Church organization they work for legally owns the buildings.

In the Adventist Church, governance above the local church level, our constituencies/boards/committees, in most instances, are not the ideal because the governing committee is made up of a mix of mostly church employees and a few lay members, rather than lay members alone. The percentage of the mix of lay members/Church employees varies at the different levels of church organization. This balance or in-balance is very significant. We will look at this in more detail later.

Some might think that having many employees on Church committees would make sense since employees should seemingly know the most about an organization and how to run it. Unfortunately, employees have the greatest potential for a conflict of interest. By contrast, non employee members of boards/committees are more likely to make unbiased, unemotional decisions that are in the best interest of an organization. There is no benefit to themselves personally for the decisions they make. Consequently, many major corporate boards only have one employee that is a member of their governing board. That individual is usually the CEO of the organization who likely serves as the secretary of the board. In consultation with the non-employee chairman, they would set the agenda for decisions to be made by the board.

How are these principles applied to Adventist Church governance?

It varies at the different levels of the Church.  At the local church level, the principle of having few employees on the Church board is ideal. The local church constituency is made up of all the lay members of the local church. The members choose a small group to decide who will nominate the church officers, called the nominating committee. The nominating committee recommends the church officers to the membership, to be voted. The board is made up of representative lay members from the church officer group. The only employee of the Church organization on the board, in most instances, would be the pastor, with all the others being lay members. Sometimes the pastor is the chairman, but in larger churches the chairman may be a lay member, which is even better.  

The conference level, in general, is also quite good in its governing boards/committees.  It’s constituency is made up of primarily of lay member representatives, that are chosen by each local church in the conference. The constituency meeting is chaired by their Union President, who is supposed to be neutral in the election process. In my opinion a better chair person would be a president from a different union, or better yet, a lay member from a different union, that has no vested interest in who is being elected. The Conference constituency chooses the Conference officers and its’ governing executive committee by voting on names brought to them by a nominating committee. The constituency does not suggest names for each office from the floor of the constituency meeting as you might expect, but rather uses a nominating committee. This is not uncommon in not-for-profit organizations. The Adventist Church uses the nominating committee model at each level of church organization. The nominating committee membership make up, lay member vs. church employee, varies at the different levels of the Church. The nominating committee process is a little confusing for many members to understand, and it is not perfect.

Some think it would be better to nominate officers directly from the floor, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but floor nominations are not without their own set of problems, especially with a large group of individuals like constituency meetings. In general, the concept of a nominating committee made up of representatives from the general constituency, that suggests the names of the Conference officers and executive committee members to the total constituent group, to be voted for or against, is acceptable in theory. Unfortunately the current Church nominating/election process, leaves room for politicking and influencing of votes. The devil’s in the details, as they say, no pun intended. I will explain. 

 To start with, who decides the membership of the nominating committee that has the very important task of recommending the names of the future officers etc., to the constituency? Don't forget that electing the officers is the main work of the constituency meeting. As mentioned before, the officers are not chosen from the floor of the constituency meeting, but are chosen by a nominating committee. Well the nominating committee is not chosen on the floor of the constituency meeting, as one might think.  You can see why it’s confusing to some.

The nominating committee members are often appointed by the Conference executive committee, and starts its’ work several days before the general constituency even meets. The idea being that choosing the nominating committee and letting it start its work ahead of time will make the election process quicker and more efficient. The saving-time aspect may be true, but the Conference officers playing any role in choosing the members of the nominating committee that will be potentially nominating themselves as officers, is a definite and direct conflict of interest! Some might argue that the constituents might not know the best people to be on the nominating committee, so its better for the Conference to decide. I don’t believe that. I think we need to give our constituent laymen more credit than that. 

The nominating committee ideally should have a layperson as the chairman that is chosen from amongst the nominating committee members. Even if that is the case, the Union President who leads out in the the constituency meeting, is heavily involved with the nominating committee as well. This has a significant potential for conflict of interest, if the Union President wants “his man” to be elected.

To illustrate, I was once on a Union constituency nominating committee, where we were discussing the name of an officer being considered for re-election. I was strongly reprimanded by the Union President, that had just been re-elected and was meeting with the nominating committee.  The division president was the chairman. They were trying to get another officer that was being discussed, re-elected, and I was raising some legitimate questions about this individual. They didn't want my comments or discussion, so cut me off. They wanted us to follow their recommendation. That was a direct conflict of interest. They shouldn’t have even been in the room, in my opinion. The reason being, that at the Union level, many of the Union nominating committee members are Church employee officers from the local Conferences, in contrast to a local conference level nominating committee, where all members would be lay members.

A Good ol’ Boy’s Club?

The Union President, who is technically the boss of the Church employees on the nominating committee, was telling them who to vote for.  How many of the Conference officers on the committee do you think are going to speak against their boss, if he is in the room?  The Union president is not even a member of the committee, but out of respect, he is allowed to meet with the committee, once elected.  He is only supposed to share his thoughts with the nominating committee, but that doesn’t always happen. It didn't help that the Division President was the chairman of the Union nominating committee, and was agreeing with the Union President.  They often want to get the same officers re elected without looking at other viable candidates, who might potentially do a better job. The Church officers group, has at times, become a “good old boys club” that rigorously protect themselves at election time.

When the nominating committee meets at the beginning of the constituency meeting, the first order of business is the development of a list of names for a potential president. The nominating committee narrows down the list to one name, which is presented to the constituency to vote up or down. Once a president is elected, as mentioned above, he will meet with the nominating committee, voicing his opinions about the remaining names for offices to be filled that day.  

I was a member of a Conference constituency meeting years ago when an individual responsible for projecting the audio-visual aids for the meeting, accidentally, and very prematurely, projected a list of executive committee members and Conference officers on the screen. The list was suppose to have been projected at the end of the day after the elections were completed, but ironically, voting hadn’t even begun. In other words, the nominating committee/officers were so used to the constituency rubber stamping who they were obviously quite sure would be elected, that they had made this list before voting had even begun.  I’m not sure I see how the Holy Spirit is suppose to have an opportunity to work on the hearts of the constituents in this scenario.  Its interesting to note that later that same day, the Union President, who leads out at conference constituency meetings, strong-armed the constituent group into re-electing an officer, that the group had earlier in the day voted not to re-elect.  The president convinced them to re-vote and reverse their earlier decision. Interestingly, at the end of the day the final list of officers and executive committee members ended up being exactly as the audio visual person had accidentally projected at the beginning of the meeting, before voting had started. A sad commentary on the days work. The Union President got what he wanted, not what the constituency wanted. There are times when lay members need to respectfully stand up and object, not being intimidated by Church administrators.  

The Executive Committee

Next in the governance process is the governing committee, the Conference executive committee, which makes the important decisions for the Conference in between constituency meetings. Church bylaws state that the officers of the Conference will serve on their own Conference executive committee, by virtue of their position, ex-officio as they call it, and with the president being the chairman and the executive secretary of the Conference, being the secretary of the committee. Between the chairman and secretary, they have almost complete control of what is on the agenda to be presented to the Conference executive committee for vote. Control of any agenda, in any organization, is one of the most powerful uses of authority. If you doubt this, just look at the US Congress and the abuse of power by the various committee chairmen controlling what will be voted on by the members of congress. Our lay members have almost no way of influencing what goes on the agenda of the executive committees at any level of the Church.  In my opinion, there would be much less conflict of interest in Church governance, if a neutral individual from outside of the church organization, a non-church employee, a lay person, was the chairman of the executive committee, and the president was the secretary of the committee.  There would then be some form of checks and balances. 

The bylaws state that in addition to the officers being the chair and secretary of the committee, the remainder of the Conference executive committee membership is suppose to have one Conference departmental director and a Conference institution representative, with the rest being other church employees and lay members. The Conference committees that I have been on have had several local church pastors, which is even more Church employees. The bylaws state that when possible there should be a balance between church employees and lay members on the executive committee. I think they try to do this, but it would be far better if a large majority of the entire committee, by policy, were lay members.

In Part 3 we will imagine how it might be with stronger lay member involvement in the decision-making process of the Church.

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Harold Butler has worn many hats over the years. Some of those hats include:

U.S. Army 1969-71
Missionary former Far Eastern Division 1975-88. Hong Kong and Singapore.
Johns Hopkins University/Hospital full time 1988-91, part time 1991-2008.
General Conference Global Mission 1991-96
Private practice 1996-2017.

Harold retired in 2017 and lives with his wife in Maryland and spends the winters in Florida.