While I was in college, I learned a hard lesson about church politics. During my sophomore year, I decided to run for student government. Since my time overseas, I had not been especially involved in campus life, but I saw an opportunity to contribute to my community before graduating. Originally I had thought to run for president, but I realized my particular skills would probably be better used in Communications. Thus, I submitted my name for candidacy. What followed was a hard lesson in Adventist realpolitik.
Admittedly, student government at my college was rather farcical–all names submitted had to be approved by a committee made up of a number of administrators and other representatives. This effectively cut off true student representation at the knees. However, I was eager to contribute what I could, even within such a limited system.
As far as I knew, I had had a rather unremarkable academic career. I was stunned to learn that my application had been rejected. Somehow I had offended someone in power enough that I was deemed unsuitable as a student political leader. Unfortunately, I will never know exactly what I did or who I offended.
Some years have passed, but as I recall, I first learned of my rejection in a meeting with the VP of Student Affairs. She informed me that my application had been rejected due to my recent behaviour. When I asked what she was referring to, I was told two things: first, that the meeting was confidential, so she could not tell me what was said, and second, that I should think about what I had done. That was all the explanation I ever received regarding the experience. Needless to say, I was devastated. I was denied the details of my rejection and thus any opportunity to defend myself, or even to simply understand and reconcile the experience. The decision was made behind closed doors, by undisclosed parties, without accountability or any opportunity for representation. (While I am sure there was a list of committee members somewhere, I was unaware of it.)
From a political perspective, this is nonsensical–at least in an ostensibly democratic election. Not only are the student representatives vetted by an administrative body, but that body is unaccountable for its decision-making. On a personal level, I found the experience deeply demoralizing and dehumanizing, especially when after delivering the news and denying any opportunity for understanding, let alone response, the VP decided she needed to pray “with” me–while well-meaning, this is tantamount to being offered prayer by someone who has just mugged or assaulted you.
However, it is most incomprehensible in relation to Adventist theology. For a church which preaches as its most fundamental theological understanding that God opens himself and his decisions to full cross-examination (for millenia, no less), it is stupefying that church decision making should be so opaque and resistant to accountability. Rather than protecting those who are supposedly being served by church administrators, this policy only serves to protect those who already hold power. Unfortunately, this experience was by no means an isolated incident. It is merely one of a number of experiences I have had with various church leaders and administrators in which power has been wielded unilaterally, and conformity was an expected (even demanded) response. Accountability is frowned upon and the suggestion that anyone not in leadership might productively contribute to decision-making has generally been seen as bothersome or even threatening. Individual leaders will often simply refuse to explain themselves and demand acquiescence. When more leaders are involved in decision-making, processes are more commonly obscured and information is carefully controlled in order to avoid any disagreement.
While I can appreciate the concern that individuals might launch personal attacks upon leaders they felt were threatening them, I remain deeply concerned at a system which is more concerned with protecting its leadership than the larger community. Not only does this make us vulnerable to abuse and predatory behaviour, it also weakens community by denying understanding and/or meaningful involvement to the vast majority of its members. Limiting members’ influence on decision-making in this way limits engagement and commitment. I have no doubt this is a significant contributor to our current declining membership, especially among young adults who are eager to contribute to their communities, but often denied opportunities for leadership. (I won’t talk here about the irony of a church started by passionate young adults refusing to extend leadership opportunities to most young adults).
This also not to say that all leaders work this way. I have had the privilege of knowing a handful of individuals who have invited and supported my contribution and even my questions. There are leaders who are working to change this system as best they can. Yet, they struggle against a corporate culture in which conformity and control is most often valued over diversity and transparency.
According to Adventists, the Bible reveals a God who not only opens himself to examination, but deliberately puts himself into situations which demand this–even at the risk of his own life–yet, our organization and leadership often avoids and actively obstructs this kind of examination, precisely for fear of personal harm. Reconciling this contradiction at the core of our community will require significant and even painful changes, but it is absolutely necessary if our church organization is to continue through the coming decades. Not only does this obfuscation and refusal of accountability undermine healthy community-building, it also undermines the very message upon which that community is based. It is long past time we live up to the image of God we preach.