Church Leadership and Lay Member Involvement (Part 3)

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.
In
Part 2 we looked at the over-representation of Church employees on church governing committees/boards, and the conflicts of interest which that creates.


Part Three: What if our Church Governance had More Lay Representation?

 Imagine with me for a moment—if our church governing committees/boards were chaired by a lay member and a clear majority of the members were lay representatives, with very few Church employee members. How differently would things be done with no conflict of interest?

Church leaders would argue that lay members don’t know the Conference’s problems and how the church operates, so they would not be able to understand some of the reasons they have for wanting to vote some agenda items, and that lay members don’t know what is best for the Conference, etc.

Church leaders would argue that they would be constantly stopping meetings and explaining things to lay members if employees didn’t control the committees.  I think that is a significant insult to the many very capable lay members in the Adventist Church. If members don’t understand the Church, its’ structure and problems, whose fault is that? Not the lay members. If the Church better communicated what its problems were, asked for member input, involved lay members more, and told them what it was thinking of doing, members would be better informed and vested in the decisions of the Church. If Church leaders’ arguments are true, then how can many huge companies like General Motors successfully operate their governing boards with only one employee on their board, and the other board members being non employees outside of the auto industry, with little or no knowledge of car manufacturing? Our Church governing boards should have one Church officer who is able to present the issues that the Church is facing, appointed to the committee.

The Post Apostolic Church

 In the early Christian Church, lay members were chosen by the Apostles to help with the activities of the Church. This was to release the Apostles from the routine work of the Church, allowing them to take care of the more important evangelistic mission of the Church.

Mrs. White has similar thoughts in her writings about having non-ministers take care of the “business” of the Church, so the pastors could spend their time in evangelistic activities. I think the Church today would do well to follow a practice of giving our lay members more responsibilities, so the minister could concentrate on the theological/religious/shepherding issues in the Church. Pastors don’t automatically make good Church administrators.

I’ve seen several very successful Church pastors that went on to become poor Church administrators. I do not agree with the Church mentality that you have to be an ordained minister to be a Church administrator.  There are many dedicated Church laymen who are very gifted administrators that could be a huge benefit to the church in leadership roles.  

I’d like to continue this line of thought for the sake of making us “think outside the box”, as they say.

What would it be like if not only our boards and committees were controlled by the lay members, but the administration of the Church was not solely dominated by the ordained minister.

Church Treasurers

One good example in our current Church administration, is that finally our treasury officers in the Church fill these positions because they are well-trained and educated in the field of accounting and finance, not because they are ordained ministers first and foremost, as has been the case in the past.

Is Ordination Necessary For Competent Leadership?

So why does the executive secretary and even the president need to be an ordained minister? The church has gotten so large and complicated, that it takes exceptional skills to do these jobs well. When I look at the wealth of expertise and experience in our lay membership, I often wonder what it would be like if one of these very successful lay members became an officer in the Church. Now it’s true they would technically cease to be a lay person if they filled one of these positions and were paid for it, because they would become Church employees, but they would not be from the typical ministerial stream, background, process and thinking that we have now.  

Mrs. White talks about there being safety in our Church governance by having many, rather than a few, make decisions, and, also by having a diversity of background in those making the decisions.

Our Church governance is dominated both in numbers and types of positions by ministers.  We not only need more lay members on our committees but why not have more diversity of background in our Church administrative positions also? Ministers are obviously essential to a church, particularly the religious/theological aspects, but minister don’t necessarily hold a corner on the market for being dedicated, talented, religious, Church loving individuals, any more than a lay member.

I would suggest that some lay members are more religious, talented and dedicated to the Adventist Church than some of our ordained ministers. I’m not saying that ministers are inherently poor administrators, because some are excellent administrators. However, I do not think an individual should be eliminated from consideration for a Church administrative position, just because they aren’t a minister. We should be finding the best people in our Church, lay or minister, to lead the Church in these critical times.  

From my experience, I would have to say that most, not all, church administrators wish lay members would go along with whatever they recommend, without question. We are sometimes viewed as a nuisance. I’m sure some would rather not have any lay members at all on their committees, making it easier to move forward “their”agenda. Naturally church administrators are going to want their agenda voted, but sometimes because they are employees and too close to some of these issues, they can’t be truly unbiased. Their agenda may seem rational to them, but may not be in the best interest of the Church at large, and its members. As you might have guessed by now, I was not a lay member that just voted for whatever agenda item came along. I often questioned why, what if, etc., in order to be sure we were doing the best for the Church. 

One rather unusual Conference President I worked with on a Conference executive committee truly appreciated my questions.  He knew I was genuinely looking out for the best interest of the Church and that I looked at things from a different perspective than the officers. Well guess what.

Lessons to Learn

When he moved on to a position at the Union and a new president was elected to replace him, the new president didn’t appreciate my questioning things on the Conference committee. I remember one agenda item, that I—for good reasons—strongly opposed. The agenda item was ultimately approved by the committee, because the officers were in favor of it. Within a few months of that decision, it became apparent that that particular decision was a bad one. That decision ended up costing the Conference a considerable amount of money and bringing embarrassment to the Conference.  It was later pointed out on the committee, by a lay member, that what I had questioned turned out to be right.

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The president was not happy with that observation. It’s interesting that at the next session I was not put back on the executive committee.  I was told by the new president, that it was because I had been on the committee for several years, and they wanted to give someone else a chance to serve on the committee.

In reality, he wanted a yes man to replace me, because there were other lay members of the committee that were serving before me and remained on the committee long after me. So much for his excuse.

Those that stayed on the committee were largely, you guessed it, rubber stampers.  The point is, a process that allows an administration to get their way when it might not be in the best interest of the Church, without having checks and balances, is opening itself up for problems.

In part four we will look at the Union, Division, and General Conference governance, and its lay representation.

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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.