A Looming Financial Crisis in Adventism

Most eyes at present are on the medical reality of the Coronavirus pandemic — quarantine, rising numbers of sick and dead, how to cope and minimize risk. Understandable and appropriate. But the economic impacts will be severe. And this reality recently triggered some ill-considered comments by public figures that we should open the economy even if it would mean more deaths in the short run. Trained economists have generally pushed back on that, making the case that premature relaxation of social distancing would worsen, not improve, the economic outlook. Still, any way you forecast, there is a near-inevitable world-wide recession coming, perhaps to the level of depression. Plausible estimates suggest unemployment in the United States could exceed 30%. As of April 2, U.S. unemployment claims skyrocketed to 6.6 million. Already many small businesses have passed the tipping point where they will not recover even if the virus magically disappeared immediately. And many, many people live paycheck-to-paycheck, as well as often earning from the gig economy, rather than a job with decent benefits.

I’m no prophet, nor am I attempting to be alarmist, when I note these things and look forward to seeing very rough times ahead for the world’s interconnected economies. But what about the Adventist church? Individuals and business are getting some government relief — albeit presently too meager to prevent widespread hardship. But religious denominations and institutions, of course, will in general receive no governmental assistance. Their only line of support is what it has always been: the members. And those members are, or very soon will be, facing unprecedented financial pressures just to keep themselves afloat. Obviously then, revenue to the church will decrease. It seems evident that this decrease will be precipitous — at every level of institutional Adventism.

Many members, I’ve discovered over the years, have little idea what happens to the money they donate. So let me, before continuing, try to clarify that a bit. First and foremost, members give tithe. Within Adventism, this is characterized as mandated by God, thus not actually a gift to the church. So called “free-will offerings” would be donations in excess of tithe. That’s why the little envelopes in the backs of the church pews use the verbiage “tithes and offerings.” Tithe is not retained by the local church. It is sent — 100% — to the local conference. At this point there is a complicated formula whereby a percentage is then sent to the Union Conference, which sends a percentage to the General Conference. Money, in turn, then flows back through the various entities, with percentages frequently varying by how needy the recipient organization is understood to be. In this way more affluent locations assist those less able to stand alone. In general, there is much about this that is commendable.

But the majority of tithe is retained by the local conference and most of that money goes to pay salaries of people in “the field” — pastors and teachers. So there are several important consequences here:

1. All local church expenses, except the pastor’s salary, must be funded by giving not designated as tithe: utilities, mortgage or rent, supplies, subsidies for the local church school, etc.

2. Without adequate tithe flow, salaries of pastors and teachers are at risk of layoffs.

3. Paying tithe automatically supports the entire denominational infrastructure, notably the General Conference. You cannot designate your money, for example, to just help cover your local pastor’s salary.

Now, consider how the Adventist population breaks down (and my comments are U.S.-centric, and lack statistical validity, so consider them cautiously). The average Adventist, in general, is not wealthy. This is increasingly true as the demographic shape of the church changes, with growth largely coming from people outside what might be called the “economic first world,” and those inside tending to be more economically disadvantaged. Many people have no financial reserves. Layoffs, or even lessened demand for their services, will immediately push such people and their families into crisis. What happens to their giving when this occurs? A much smaller proportion of Adventists do have adequate reserves to ride out a recession/depression. This group tends to be whiter and older. And, I speculate, more theologically liberal, on average. Another phenomenon has been occurring within the church for years: tithe diversion. This is when a person still believes in the biblicality of tithing, but doesn’t want to send it through the denominationally-approved channel. Typically it’s because of dissatisfaction with the church — at some level above the local congregation. What I’ve perceived is that such dissatisfaction can be from intensely conservative members, who see the organization is somewhat apostate, and prefer to send their tithe to places like 3ABN. But more frequently, I think, it is the liberals who express their dissatisfaction via tithe diversion, and are quite likely to send their money to non-Adventist charities like The Red Cross or a local non-profit.

So where might this disparate group of Adventists direct their giving, when the world economy falls off a cliff? I can see several plausible scenarios. For those who might be considered SDA “loyalists,” it is likely that tithe would come first, as it is understood to be a God-given mandate. And that would put pressure on the local church. People whose finances are tipping into crisis might stop giving altogether, but if they do give it would be for a perceived obligation, rather than something understood to be optional and thus secondary. I think such people, these so-called traditionalists, are the most numerous Adventists but also the most economically vulnerable. And they make up the majority in most churches, as the typical Adventist church is quite small.

Those who attend larger and more eclectic churches would be, on average, both wealthier and more likely to put local giving ahead of designated tithe, if push comes to shove. And some in this category have been diverting their tithe for years. What is interesting to me here, is that the recent increased member dissatisfaction with the General Conference, over women’s ordination, can have the side-effect of decreased giving at the denomination level. Ironically, President Wilson’s heavy-handed campaign of compliance can hurt GC finances, especially as financial hard-times might otherwise motivate wealthy Adventists to dig deeper to help the church.

Distressingly for the institutional church, many conferences are already having cash-flow difficulties before Coronavirus hit. See, for example, this communication from the Oregon Conference. Or this from the Kansas-Nebraska Conference, as reported by Adventist Today. Typically, conferences budget for the upcoming year based on some percentage of the previous year’s revenue. This works okay in a steady-state world. But obviously that approach would never anticipate what we are now facing. And conferences, being distanced from front-line ministry, are less visible to members — notably those members who will still have some giving capacity. So, while a local church could, and likely will, make direct appeals to their members about their cash-flow crisis, the conference is in a much poorer position to successfully do this. Yet, they are the ones who pay personnel. So, when you make financial commitments based on expected revenues, and that expectation turns out to be dramatically wrong, there is little choice for conferences (if the shortfall is severe), except to lay off people. And that impacts the local churches, obviously.

As I said at the top, I’m not trying to be alarmist in writing this piece. In the midst of our health-centric focus, I think the economic crisis will be less recognized, until it hits with full-force. So, for Adventists — even somewhat disaffected ones — who care about the stability of their church, I hope you can take a few moments to think about what the coming recession/depression could do to Adventism. It’s tempting to just try and look out for ourselves, and then our extended family. But that extended family, for many, includes the local church. What I hope to convey, beyond the reality that difficult financial times are on the horizon, is that we cannot limit our concerns and support just to those we know and interact with. Within Adventism, that means our support has to extend throughout the organization.

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org. He has served as a member of both his local conference committee as well as his regional union committee.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10324
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it’s a short step from no church services, which is widespread now, to no pastors…and it’s an even shorter step from no pastors to no conferences, or any church governing structure, when members cannot be expected to return any kind of tithe or offerings on no income…

of course the church does have assests that could be sold, assuming there are buyers, and it may be the case that are medical system, no doubt now in over-drive, can step up contributions to essentially fund our church…these measures may be enough to keep things reasonably afloat until a vaccine for covid-19 is developed, which i think is a plausible reality within the next few months, assuming normal protocols are obviated, as seems likely (live human trials are already underway in washington state, and elsewhere)…

of course if the rate of the development of a vaccine doesn’t match current expectations, and we see wave after wave of coronavirus afflict a population that is primed to avoid it, and thus develop no herd immunity, i think it’s inevitable that we’ll be reduced to apostolic church conditions, where small, disparate groups are all there is, which is of course just what some believe prophecy calls for…

my own feeling is that we may see some conferences lay off some pastors, but that our basic substructure will remain intact…one possibility that crosses my mind is that this pandemic has the potential to cause many to look much more seriously at their religion - at their real time relationship with god - and perhaps prepare the way for the latter rain when it’s all over…i’m thinking that some may very well throw in the towel, but that enough members will strengthen their faith to the point where god can entrust us with the latter rain…if that happens, the end of the world will probably occur in a few short yrs anyway…

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There will be hard decisions to make. In one business I had to lay off some of my staff. In my other business I had to lay off everyone. I hope to rehire most of them when things begin to return, but I don’t know. Maybe we’ll hire back but at reduced levels of compensation. The church may have to do the same.

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I agree with this analysis. Yes, thee are those are the margins, for example the educated wealthy liberals who are already diverting their tithe to the local church or what they consider to be other worthy causes and at the other end of the spectrum, there are the disaffected conservatives who will continue to divert their tithe to the likes of 3ABN or ASI. However from my experience, I have observed the vast majority have subscribed unquestioningly to the view that the “storehouse” is the local conference and see compliance with that view as a supreme test of faith. Consequently the vast majority, without a second thought, will continue to shore up the conference to the detriment of their personal financial situation and that of the local church.

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Rich Hannon,
You have given a most astute analysis of the impending economic collapse of Adventism’s structures and institutions.

As some have pointed out SMOKING causes approximately 500,000 deaths a year in the US ( and millions more in countries where anti smoking warnings are not as forceful as here ) The same can be said for huge deaths annually from opioid overdose, traffic accidents etc.
Yet, never an alarmist response to these ongoing alarming mortalities!

Has our extreme lockdown response to this pandemic been overly aggressive ?? Sometimes, as the old saying goes, “the cure is worse than the disease “.

Up until February, the NAD should have been experiencing an exemplary economic era, due to Trump’s roaring economic boom with the lowest unemployment numbers IN HISTORY for blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

NAD demographics are heavily weighted with blacks, Hispanics, Asians
—- more so than most mainstream Protestant North American denominations.
So until recently, tithe and offerings should have been on a upward trajectory, the more so, since the lowest wage earners were seeing upward growth of salaries, in addition to maximum employment.

Of course these gains by the minority groups were offset in Adventism by affluent whites, like myself, appalled by our entrenched misogyny and homophobia, diminishing our giving to Adventism and redirecting our donations elsewhere.

My main worry is that our burgeoning retired Adventist church workers
( in the “ blue zones “ like Loma Linda, becoming centenarians, due to healthy SDA life styles ) will be lacking the funding for their already meager “ sustentations “.

Our pension plan administrators are actuarially impacted by the lengthy longevity which requires decades
of support after the retirement of most church workers.
And has the stock market collapse impacted pension plan investments as it has done for most IRAs and 401ks ??

And yes huge predicable layoffs for our pastoral staffs —- and pastors are ill equipped with their limited, mainly theological training, to find jobs in the wider economy. I know, because of many friends who lost pastoral employment when they came out as gay, who had monstrous difficulty surviving in the broader economy!

And finally, when families are in failing financial hardship, they will not spring for pricey Adventist schooling.

I see huge closures of our elementary schools, academies and yes, even our colleges . Many will never re open —- Atlantic Union College a horrible harbinger of hard times to come !

Maybe this dearth of donations will be the required impetus to finally reduce our bloated bureaucracy,

We do not need BOTH union conferences and also conferences —— one or other administrative excess has to go !

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Churches will need to provide information to the members as to
how they can give money to their church congregation through
the use of the postal service.
There will be minimal utility services only during this time of
year. Those expenses will drop sharply.
Outdoor services might be nice to use as long as attendees
stay 6 feet apart. Drive-in might be useful.
On-line services have already begun.
The Conferences need to look into the Government Funds that
were just voted as released to inquire if employees can be covered.
With the need for TRAVEL being almost none, that would be a lot
of money not having to be expended.
Use Telephone conferencing when needed for contacts.
Other ways are available to cut down expenses during this time.

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The Georgia governor came out with its rules and regulations.
The “Stay at Home” regulations DO include how businesses
can keep open for business.
Retail, Food services. Persons who are working on the roads,
painters, electricians, cable, carpenters, cement workers, auto
repair, office workers and lots of others can STILL work, make
money. Just have to use safe practices for the employees and
for the customers. So it is NOT a total collapse of society at this
time.
Hunting, Fishing, Walking in parks and other places. Just stay
6 feet apart.

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“But more frequently, I think, it is the liberals…” I’m saddened by the use of labeling in this article. It seems divisive in a time when we need more harmony (I use that word because “unity” has too frequently been incorrectly equated with “uniformity”.)

I am progressive (call it liberal if you must). Twenty ++ years ago I was driven out of a small church because I did not totally agree with all the fundamental beliefs, and I asked to have my membership dropped. It was at that point that I ceased to give “tithe”, although I’ve since found membership again and regularly attend church. Since then I’ve given significantly to church expense, Spectrum, Adventist Today, etc. That’s also because I no longer believer in the Adventist invention of the conference being the “storehouse”.

Some of the loss of income may be a type of vote regarding how the church uses our offerings. Repeated calls to downsize the levels of administration / administrators and the large, expensive buildings where they reside have largely been ignored.

I pray that the church will survive and recover from these mostly unexpected, tragic times. I grieve the potential loss of churches, schools, colleges/universities, etc. But I hope and pray we will find better ways to do God’s work more efficiently as a result.

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“THE CHURCH HAS ASSETS THAT COULD BE SOLD”. Yes. Your local church, your local school. It is the “policy” that all churches deed their property over to the conference, and the conference can do with it as they see fit. I know. I was there. The conference sold our boarding academy that the members built and paid for, and they allowed our church to be sold to satisfy a pastors desire for a “big” church.
The tithe is a “God given mandate”? That is what the Church has promoted all along. Better look again at Deut. 14:22-26.

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i sense that those in adventist bureaucracy forgot that very wise edict, written in an several millenia old book, that the model of the early church was “tentmakers”.

Perhaps those bureaucratic career underachievers in national politics should likewise not pin their wealth only on the dole.

It is unsustainable both ways.

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Our medical institutions are in no position to step up to the plate and assist church entities with funding - hospital revenues are off 30-50% right now, as elective surgeries (the ‘bread and butter’ of hospital income) have essentially come to a screeching halt. Besides the Adventist Health Systems, what about the colleges who rely so much on students, domestic and foreign, who must have parents with jobs or federal student loans in order to enroll? I’m not saying THE END is near, but I think we will see that the end (little ‘e’) is here for comfortable business as usual with all denominational branches.

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Life on Earth will never be the same after this pandemic. There will be significant changes in all aspects and we better be prepared for them.

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I remember how the 2008/09 recession affected some conferences in North America. Staffing across the board was rationalized and caution for several years thereafter was prevelant. What is different now is the combination of fears about worldwide health emergencies plus economic chaos. Citizenry expects government intervention to quell their fears. This only will seem to work but have limited effect. There are signs of economic depression on our doorsteps and there will be little anyone can do otherwise except have faith that God will get us through the storm. A creative church leadership will seek ways to have less bureaucracy and be less institution dependent. Increased lay member involvement could be the answer to giving the gospel message.

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but all hospitals seem to have become covid centres overnite…and by all reports, they’re bursting at the seams…even stadiums, and at least two ships, are being converted into make-shift hospitals…are they not being compensated for this type of care…who’s paying all the medical workers who are constantly putting their lives on the line…

but i do agree with your point about our colleges…i’m thinking that only andrews and loma linda, which are being supported directly from the tithe, or at least the offerings, can survive this…

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I agree Peter, I find the use of the term “liberal/conservative” in terms of faith appalling. It is used to simply denigrate and belittle others which is selfish and unChrist like. Due to how these terms are often bantered back and forth they are completely unsuitable and inappropriate to described our fellow brethren. Those who persist in such mean spirited language give ample and public evidence as to where there spiritual loyalties lie.

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consider this. MI conference told all churches to ‘batten down the hatches’ (alliteration is mine). Next thing you know, they want churches to jump on board with internet based evangelism provided by It is Written! they were given less than 24 hours to secure a church board decision to do this at a cost of 2K!(or 1K each for a 2 church pastorate)…even in a crisis the church does stupid things in my opinion.

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In my experience Adventists and Christians in general take a very dim view of people who have financial difficulties. They are lazy, free spenders who never had a thought that for tomorrow and deserve contempt and scorn. I have seen this happen to others on many occasions.

Now these same people are experiencing need and want and in their view it is ok to be in this situation. They have an entirely different view and feeling about people in need now.

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The awful truth is that the membership of the Adventist Church is going to decline…there is no way getting around this. In the US, much of the “giving” is done by those who are in the “older” category and if this population is adversely affected (death/illness) tithes and offerings will go down. It will also affect the “working” age group with disastrous results to their families and their churches.

If a good portion of “funding/giving” comes from the Developed Worlds there will be a monetary down-hill spiral that Adventism will not be able to pull itself out of very easily. There WILL be school closures in NAD because so many of them were already on Life Support before this and the monies will be used in other places. As of now, it is anyone’s guess when schools in general will be able to open back up. When they do- will there be parent/guardians with jobs/savings to fund them?

It is a horrible situation (understatement) that we are in. However, a plus is that so much SDA conference/union “bloating” will have to change and they will have to reassess what has been traditionally been done and what is actually needed. For example…do we REALLY need both Unions and Conferences other than to provide jobs?? Perhaps all the money that is being directed at “evangelism” will have to be diverted and invested into keeping members in their own homes and fed. A thought.

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This “category” is also usually less versed in the use of the Internet. Giving online may be such a challenge to them that they just quit giving.

For example, my skills on the use of the Internet are extremely poor, therefore… :innocent: :rofl:

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Yes…VERY poor! :wink::rofl:

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