Have you ever wondered how the Seventh-day Adventist Church is organized? Why do we have the corporate structure and governance model we do? It is essential to understand how we conduct ourselves as a worldwide corporate entity and our role as individuals as we manage risk and advance the Adventist Church’s mission.
Why and HowI hope you are familiar with our church’s history because it is fundamental to understanding why we are here and how we are organized today. Our church’s story goes back to the early 1800s as a movement when a group of mostly young leaders discovered and shared new beliefs from scripture.
For many years this movement only consisted of small groups scattered across the northern United States. Eventually, however, inspired by Christ’s great commission to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19, 20), these groups recognized the need to organize. This organization strategy would enable them to share these enlightening biblical truths more effectively, showing more people how to find freedom, healing, and hope in Jesus Christ.
Pressures for some type of formal organization grew in response to several needs: authorizing and remunerating ministers, a legal entity to hold title to property, and a name to identify and unite scattered groups of believers. One of the first steps towards formal organization was the establishment of a publishing house in 1855.
At a meeting in late 1860, delegates representing groups of believers across the northern United States met and agreed upon the name “Seventh-day Adventists.” The Michigan Conference was formed that same month, with another seven local conferences established in 1862.
In 1863 representatives of all the local conferences met in Battle Creek and organized the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. By 1900 the church had outgrown its original organizational structure. A change was urgently needed. By 1903 a new intermediate structure, union conferences, was inserted between the General Conference and the local conferences. A fourth administrative level, divisions, was added from 1913-1918. This sequence of increasingly larger organizations is still part of the denominational structure today–local church; local conference; union conference; and General Conference with its divisions.
“This newly organized denomination united under the purpose to share how a deeper understanding of Scripture not only prepares us for eternity with Christ, but for living more abundant lives in the here and now.”
“As the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued to spread across the United States, the early church leaders knew this Advent Messages of the Three Angels should be shared around the world as well. They would not let themselves become complacent in their “comfort zones,” and they began serious talks about mission work. The first Adventist missionary was J.N. Andrews. He was selected to go to England and Switzerland in 1874 to assist Adventist church leaders there. He eventually established the Adventist printing press in Basel, Switzerland.”
“Ellen White also traveled to Switzerland, as well as South Africa, South America, the South Pacific, and Australia. The Advent Message spread rapidly as missionaries worked closely with publishing houses and gathered teams to canvas different areas and distribute literature. Several of these areas began writing to the General Conference to request more missionaries!”
Thus, the establishment of the structure was in response to the needs of a growing and expanding mission.
How Does It WorkA representative form of government is how our church was started and continues today. The model is constituency driven, meaning that each organization’s members have a role in that organization’s decision-making.
The most local form of governance, a local church business meeting, occurs as leaders, such as elders, deaconesses, Pathfinder leaders, children ministries, or safety officers are selected to serve in specific roles of the local church congregation.
The local churches form the conference’s constituency, and delegates from these local churches are selected to elect leadership for their conference at a business meeting or constituency meeting. Delegates from a group of conferences elect their union leadership. Unions are the membership units of the General Conference.
To facilitate more efficient coordination and oversight, the General Conference has established thirteen regional offices known as Divisions. General Conference and Division leaders are elected every five years at a General Conference Session. During this time, the General Conference Session delegates also amend the church’s governing documents. They also consider amendments, if any, to the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists and the content of the Church Manual.
The church has been blessed in no small part because of how it is organized, and in that structure, it both takes direction from and maintains coordination across its constituencies.
What is My Role?The answer to this question may vary depending on how you are currently called to serve in our church. Still, ultimately each of us is a member of a local church, and that comes with the responsibility of participating in our representative form of governance. This is our voice in how our church will continue to spread God’s word.
Each of us should also commit to conducting our areas of responsibility within our church’s organizational structure, governance, and policies. Our church structure and governance create commonality in how we operate. “My” role is understanding our church, its governance, policies, codes of conduct, and to uphold them while conducting our collective church’s mission.
Understanding and participating in our church should come with an appreciation for the size and nature of the organization I serve. It is often sobering to realize that even by filling a role at the local church, we are participating in a conference with considerable assets and held to high expectations in our society.
Why is This Important Today for Managing Risk?Our church has never faced more challenges than it does today around liability and lawsuits arising from our mission. This means each of us must familiarize ourselves with and do our part within our church’s established governance.
Together we are greater than the sum of our parts. From our humble beginnings in the 1860s to, “By the end of the 1870s, Adventist membership had tripled, passing 16,000 members. By 1901 there were 75,000 members worldwide, and the Church had also established two colleges, a medical school, 12 secondary schools, 27 hospitals and 13 publishing houses.”
Today our church has 86,000 churches, 8,515 schools, 527 hospitals and clinics, and 59 publishing houses, and most importantly, more than 21 million members. This growth is a direct result of God blessing our church.
When our early church leaders formalized our church denomination, they did so with the intention to spread the gospel. They implemented church structure and governance to guide this work. This structure and governance should not be viewed as a hindrance to ministry. Instead, it a resource that allows our church to be greater than the sum of our parts while acting responsibly and safely in our respective territories. Today our personal commitment to our church beliefs, structure, and governance builds on those early pioneers’ vision.
I believe our corporate structure, governance, and policies outline how we should conduct ourselves in support of our mission. “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19, 20); "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:14); “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
As the risk manager for our church, I like to remember Christ’s command of being good stewards and citizens on earth. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). If we “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we will naturally make sound decisions on conducting ministry safely.
Adventist Risk Management, Inc. (ARM) is proud to partner with church leaders and lay members to promote safety and minimize risk at every level of our church organization. Through ARM’s online library of resources, ministry leaders can learn best practices in many areas that impact the Adventist Church's mission.
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