Thoughts on Our Church Governance and Leaders

Recently, I read George Knight’s article, “Adventism’s Shocking Fulfillment of Prophecy,” on Spectrum’s website. I wasn’t surprised by anything I read. As a layman who has watched and asked questions about our church governance for years, I found this latest move to centralize power, with the methods to do so, almost commonplace. And I was concerned that other “lay people” wouldn’t care, or even know, how church governance works. I have been shocked at the number of times where members of the congregations I’ve attended don’t even know there are local conferences, then unions, then divisions, and finally the General Conference. I believe this lack of knowledge allows the following to occur.

Over the years, I have attended conference Constituency meetings as a voting member and, at times, simply to observe. I’ve been to multiple General Conference Sessions, with 1995 and 2015 being the most memorable. I realized that much of what we’re seeing today should have been predictable decades ago. I say this because the tactics used, though more blatant, are a natural outgrowth from the “democratic” governance methods that have been used by many of our church leaders down through the years. And this, combined with the timidity of our leadership, brings us to the situation we find ourselves in today.

I speak of the tactics used in the governance of our church. Let me give two simple examples. First, the control of the makeup of church committees, at all levels. Over the years the number of laypersons, who have positions on committees has decreased. Not only has the actual number gone down, but in some cases, the terms the laypersons serve are shortened while those of church employees remain as before. And, for as long as I can remember, individuals who depend on the church for their livelihood, for instance teachers, have been counted as laypeople. Really? When their paycheck ultimately comes from the church? This is simple manipulation. What makes it worse is our church leaders tell us these things with a straight face.

Second, the agendas for many committees, especially those that involve delegates or constituents who are not employed by the church organization, are controlled to such a degree that often the topics that need to be discussed and voted on never make it on the agenda. Why? Is it a lack of trust in the people who comprise the church?

It really shouldn’t be any surprise we find ourselves where we are today, with individuals in leadership positions, throughout the church structure, who are more concerned with their position and the privileges that come with them, than with actual leadership. And those positions are addictive, in their own way. It creates feelings of success/pride and accomplishment/recognition, and the fear of public failure if the person were to move “backwards” in the church structure.

Can we remedy the situation? Here are a few suggestions to get us started:

1. Term limits on all leadership positions, at all levels of the church. These would include Presidents, Vice-presidents, Secretaries, Treasurers, etc.

2. Laypeople would be defined as those who do not receive a paycheck from any church entity such as a church, school, etc. This would also include independent ministries that receive any kind of financial support as well.

3. All church committees will be comprised of 51% laypeople, at all times with equal terms of service to those committee members employed by the church.

4. All pastors in leadership roles would rotate back to lead a church (or more than one depending on the district) at the local level after completing their term as a leader. This would have the dual effect of keeping them in touch with the needs of the church members and of helping with our ongoing shortage of pastors.

5. Educate church members as to the structure and governance of the church. And be transparent in the politics involved.

One last point I think needs to be made. We find ourselves in this situation not only because of our leaders but also because of our members. If our membership cared more about the governance of the church, would we find ourselves in the same place? If more of us stood up and were active in making positive changes so the church structure equipped us to actually accomplish more for the Lord, imagine what it would be like. Instead, we built a church structure that believes it can do what it likes regardless of policy to accomplish its own goals. Thank goodness my salvation isn’t dependent on the church.

Mike Smith is a graduate of the Adventist school systems. He is an author and musician, currently employed in an independent ministry to the Adventist Church.

Image courtesy of ANN / Flickr.

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I think these are rather rational, sensible suggestions. That may doom them at the outset. I have a couple of comments.
On committee makeup, not less than 51% laypeople.
As to administrators moving back to churches, not a bad idea, but for a while, it will disadvantage churches until all the incompetent pastors who have been booted upstairs have passed out of the system. There are also some administrators (our current conference treasurer, for example) whose expertise is in business and finance, not pastoral work. Frankly, I like him where he is. So this may need to be a two-tier system, and it may need to rely more on technician/specialists, with pastors moving into certain roles only.
Still, a refreshing idea!


The ratio must be higher, maybe 75 percentage plus member, and 20 percentage church employees. But of that 20 percent, 70 percent must be of non pastoral area, administration personal and teachers. The system needs to be proportional to membership, because who is giving the finances, also maybe radical, no church ministers, rather out reach ministers.
Time is short, this is a distraction which will cost so much lives


I like your ideas and the spirit in which they are written. This kind of system has a lot of merits. Here’s the thing, though, in my opinion. Because of the firmly entrenched notion that “we are the remnant church and the only one with the whole truth,” member education seems unlikely to matter much to the traditional, conservative member. For many (most?) people, having full knowledge of church structure and governance and administrative politics ultimately will not sway their perceptions. If a person has bought into the idea of the SDA church being the only valid theological safe haven, they tend to find a way to justify the actions of “the church.”

I was taught explicitly as a child that doubts about the SDA Church, and even serious questions about its doctrines, came directly from the devil. Your salvation was in the balance. The ordained ministers were called of God and could be relied on for true teachings and upright behavior. Something out of the ordinary would happen and people would say, “Well, he is an ordained minister, so it must be all right.” These are not my ideas or beliefs, but very much what I was taught.

And I fully agree with you, no one’s salvation is dependent on the church, and that’s a very good thing.


I heartily agree with Mike. Having served on numerous Conference and Union committees I have seen enough manipulation and abuse of power to lead me to conclude that it is endemic to our system. It is also a massive hindrance to the progress of the true mission of the church because it seriously misrepresents the truth about the God we serve and the way He works. Biblical unity is impossible without changes in this area such as those that Mike suggests.


God’s people are not the ones that quote a few verses - write a few books - call themselves “remnant”. It’s a heart thing.

I am not shocked.

Who determines what education the laity receive?
Pastors & SS teachers.

Who at any church advertise reading Adventist periodicals or Spectrum?

I think you are correct. This un-biblical “Remnant church” teaching has taken root and for some reason the enemy has convinced us that we are safe because we have the name SDA. The bible is clear that there is a remnant people, it did not provide any basis for a remnant denomination. We are truly living in the last days and the devil is using even the “very elect” to fulfill his mission of leading so many away from the true gospel which is John 17:3 “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the ONLY true God AND Jesus Christ”. Eternal life is not in a denomination, its in having a relationship with God the Father and his only begotten son Jesus Christ. There is no other way! Lets wake up and not be deceived. We must serve God than man!


Love the idea. I would not just apply it to pastors and conference administrators - but to all church employees in all our institutions. Think how enriching it would be to have principals and education directors returning to the classroom, presidents to churches and the resultant larger leadership pool as others move into those areas of responsibilities.

Having served on four Union Committees and at all levels of our church system from Conference, Union and Division level - I would like to suggest we could go one step further in our discussion.

The current GC structure was instituted in 1901. Since then we have grown as an organization, but technology and communication have enabled us to do things so much smarter. Reduce the GC from its current $45 million USD plus annual operational costs, to just a small steering committee with 1 - 2 representatives per Division. Shift the decision making back to our 13 Divisions. Empower them to operate at regional level. Imagine the renewed focus on mission, the extra resources to mission and a renewed focus on real revival and reformation.


Keep the Conferences and Unions as. Reconstitute the Divisions so the President and officers are elected by the Unions and Conferences. The President’s of the Divisions form a G14 and have a summit each year. The Chairperson of the summit is one of the President’s. The chairpersonship rotates through the Divisions in a predetermined, fixed order (determined by lots, once determined doesn’t change). The position of chairperson belongs to the Division, not an individual.

The purpose of the summit is to plan a 4 to 5 year strategic horizon, arrived at by concensus. This ensures that no one individual or Division can change the focus when they chair the summit. Each President is responsible to regionalise the strategic plan in a culturally appropriate way. The Division President can have members of his elected “cabinet” at the summit as advisors, if he wishes.

The GC as it exists now ceases. The office of President is extinguished. The departments go from overseeing to facilitating. They exist as a service to the Divisions, to provide support to execute the plan.

All Conference, Union and Division boards are to have at least 50% non-employee membership, whose only connection to the church is membership. No fiscal or other beneficial relationship.

In matters “conscience”, the Division votes, determines by concensus how they will proceed. The President should inform the other Divisions how they will proceed to avoid conflict of purpose.

In matters “theological” the G14 can convene a study group of prominent theologians to study the issue, determining beforehand if it will be an advisory response or a mandated response.
Under this proposal the power is vested in the members who choose their representitives. However, as with all systems like this money is an issue. Where you have imbalances of finance, there will always be tension. The risk that funding will be used as an enforcement tool. There are various rationales that could be used to “equitably” divide the church income between the various Conferences, Unions and Divisions. I don’t have the magic algorithm to do this. Whatever formula is used the primary focus has to be on funding mission, not infrastructure, not overheads. Therefore I suggest funding be targeted at local churches.

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It is amazing that the LDS church has been so successful with unpaid church leaders. How amazing is the example of Paul, who refused church funds, was successful.


I agree… The only problem I can see on the local level is that of finances. To be honest not all cultures are careful with finances and some individuals enrich themselves. I see this spreading as people become less Spirit-driven. How do we make the locals more trustworthy?

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This would likely have to be based on applicable local law, anti-fraud (SOX principles), corporate rules and financial auditing. A significant number of non/for profit organizations have models for dealing with this that are effective. I have had experience with a number of these and have seen first hand the transformative nature of these in highly challenged environments that bring about compliance.

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I think we need, not internal audits from the GC or Division, but public accounting made available on their website. Not just a summery, but a complete list of all expenses and incomes. For example list total expenses of Ministers meetings and retreats, travel budgets and salaries etc. What is there to be ashamed of, charity dollars should be fully accountable. Baptist members know what the pastors salary is, they vote the amount. What is the Division or GC leaders salaries and expenses?


My problem is with returning leaders to pastoral positions: it could take years to undo the harm they most likely would do.

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I agree, Joyce. Some employers have been known to offer early retirement packages for a number of reasons, including roadblocks to firing the less-than-competent. It can be more expedient and less messy to send a person out to pasture, than it would be to keep them around and have a lot of messes to clean up. Sorry if that’s too blunt for some, but it is what it is.

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Dear Mike,
I share your frustration! In my opinion the church governance structure needs an overhaul. I believe it is designed to maintain the status quo and it is less interested in the original mission set by the founders of the church. As a pastor, I see the local church mirroring the conference, union, division, and GC in terms of preserving leadership for its own interest. The 5 steps you lay out, however, does not address the real problem. By shifting the power to the laity you will have the same effect. Those who have the power will become more interested in preserving themselves and their interests. I have not discovered the answers but there must be another way.

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