By Andre Wang — I have been an Adventist my entire life. I’m a product of Adventist education. My church membership has been at the same church since I was fourteen years old. I’ve served on church committees and boards too numerous to mention.
Then in 2014, I was invited to apply for the position of general counsel for the North Pacific Union Conference. I really wasn’t interested. I was in a comfortable law practice and I was already serving on the union’s executive committee, participating in the governance and oversight of the six conferences in our territory. I didn’t consider myself a “church guy” but the involved layperson that sat on church boards and committees to be the voice of reason and hold my church accountable.
But instead of dismissing the invitation outright, I agreed to the greatest non-committal answer in all of Christendom: “I’ll pray about it.” And I did—earnestly. After a few days, I revealed to my wife that my ambivalence was turning into intrigue. Upon more reflection and prayer, I submitted my resume to the union personnel committee. I didn’t bother polishing it or even checking it for typos. I just went to my computer, found a file labeled “Andre Resume,” attached it to an email to the union president, and clicked “send.” I was looking for a Gideon-like signal and sending the unproofed resume was my fleece.
I met with the personnel committee twice (ironically, a committee I was a member of) and answered questions about my upbringing, my spiritual journey and my familiarity with denominational operation and policy. After a day of deliberation, they voted to offer me the position.
After another two days of further prayer and reflection, I accepted the invitation with convincing clarity. I now know what pastors mean when they talk about being called to ministry: I was called. I felt it. It was real, tangible, and unmistakable. This was what I was supposed to do.
I didn’t seek or choose this job; it sought and chose me.
Every day, I am blessed to work with people that keep the mission of the church moving forward–from pastors and teachers to treasurers and administrators. Even though we are a religious organization, the church is still a business with issues and matters that impact us legally and corporately. If you told me eight years ago that I’d be working for the church, I would have hysterically laughed at you until you sulked out of my presence. But for the last seven years, I have used my professional skills in areas that have been interesting, challenging, and rewarding—and having fun doing it.
From the perspective of a denominational employee, even though only for a brief time, I have observations—and suggestions—about the future of the church in the following areas:
According to Pew Research, 10,000 baby boomers enter retirement each day. Today, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is facing an unprecedented number of retirements from its workforce. It is estimated that 60% of the personnel in the North American Division will reach retirement age by 2023, including pastors, educators, administrators, and employees in higher ed. Today, conferences are already scrambling to fill pastoral, teaching and administrative positions.
But consider the ripple effect these mass retirements are causing throughout the denomination. When a pastor or teacher retires, that position is filled by another pastor or teacher. However, when a principal or church administrator at the conference, union or division level retires, those positions must be filled by an experienced educator or church leader. The nominating committees of these various levels of church governance must search for new leaders from people holding other leadership positions or look for emerging leaders from the field of pastors or teachers. This scenario is going to play out many times over for the next decade and beyond.
If the church is not proactive in building its “farm team” of pastors, teachers, principals, accountants, and human resource professionals, who will fill the executive leadership, treasury and education superintendent positions at the conference, union, and division levels?
At the 2019 NAD Human Resources Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, Randy Robinson, the treasurer of the North American Division, said, “We need to reform our system of remuneration to attract millennials to work for the church because someday I’ll be dead.”
Simply put, the church must pay more. While the notion of “service” to the church is noble, pastors and teachers notwithstanding, Gen X-ers, Millennials and younger generations don’t have denominational employment on their radar. In embarking on a career path, denominational work in professional areas such as finance, communication, IT, etc., are never the first option. In order to make church work attractive, wages should be commensurate with the private sector.
According to Adam Fenner, director of the Adventist Learning Community at the North American Division, the church as an employer must educate itself on the culture of character of different generations to accomplish our missional objectives and, most importantly, have operational longevity. From my observation, there is very little intergenerational interaction within the denominational workforce. Baby boomers–the ones reaching retirement age–are not generously passing down crucial institutional knowledge and skillsets to younger generations to carry the Adventist banner into the future.
Within the next decade, Gen Xer-s and Millennials will be occupying conference and union presidencies and other administrative positions. If the church is going into the future with resolve, the transfer of information must happen now. A common refrain I hear from younger generations is, “If I were in charge, I would do this . . .” Buckle up, everyone. Your conference or union may be one or two constituency sessions away from electing a millennial executive team.
There is a lot of diversity in the church today—and not just ethnic diversity, but everything from culture and worship-style preferences to political opinions and lifestyle choices. Adam Fenner again counsels that we should embrace our differences rather than resent them. We must also understand the cardinal rule of politics: one must give a little to get a little. While we are sentient, thinking human beings that hold strong viewpoints and positions and vigorously defend them, we are above all, children of God. With the diversity of all our “diversities,” that is the bond we all have in common.
I am fortunate to use my professional abilities every day to help advance the ministry of a church that is part of my DNA. Everything I do in my work is first viewed through the prism of, “How does this reveal Jesus to others and further His kingdom on earth?” In many ways, I am still the outsider I was before I entered denominational employment.
Upon reflection, I guess I still don’t consider myself a “church guy.”
–Andre M. Wang serves as general counsel and PARL director for the North Pacific Union Conference. Email him at [email protected]