Is It Time to Talk, Part 4: What Adventists Really Think About Segregated Conferences

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Is It Time to Talk, Part 4: What Adventists Really Think About Segregated Conferences

In the previous articles of this series, we have reviewed the theological debate, the psychological/sociological dynamics, and the history of the Adventist Church in North America that relate to organizational segregation. In this final article, I will present my research findings that relate to this discussion and offer some possible first steps to move us toward a serious dialogue in the church.[1]

A Survey of Adventist Attitudes Toward Segregated Conferences

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States maintains a racially segregated organization in a society that has intentionally dismantled segregation in most of its organizations. In 2008 I collected data to ascertain the perceptions of Seventh-day Adventist clergy and members in two conferences in the Southern Union concerning this segregation in the church.

First, I conducted four focus groups to explore the dimensions of the research problem. Then I developed a quantitative survey, which I administered to a sample of clergy and members of the two conferences: one regional and one state conference.

The survey was conducted at the respective 2008 camp meetings. All the clergy in each conference were given an opportunity to complete the survey during a scheduled ministers’ meeting. Members were randomly selected at the camp meeting Sabbath morning services. A total of 740 completed surveys were turned in.

The approximate breakdown of participants by ethnicity and role within the church was as follows:

ethnicity_breakdown

role_breakdown

The Survey Results: Adventists Are Open to Change

My research revealed that church members of various ethnic backgrounds and ages are open to the idea of changing the race-based organizational structure in the Adventist Church. They strongly saw God calling the church to integration, and they believed that the success of the church’s outreach to the culture demands such a change.

Respondents perceived a real economic benefit in merging state and regional conferences, though they were uncertain about the impact a merger of conferences would have on job opportunities for clergy. There was no indication that respondents felt a need to hold strongly to the current system.

Demographics had less of an impact on responses than I expected. In particular, I expected age to have far more influence than it did. I expected that the responses of younger members would vary significantly from those of older members, but generally this was not the case. On the other hand, people who were not conference employees consistently responded more favorably toward integration than did conference employees.

Ethnic groups, particularly African-Americans and Caucasians, were much more in harmony than I expected. Though there were small degrees of difference, there was no sharp disagreement as might be expected for such a sensitive subject.

Three Key Findings

In this article we will explore three findings from the large quantity of data from this study. We will examine the following areas:

  1. openness to exploring organizational integration,
  2. the need to change to fulfill our mission, and
  3. the significant degree of agreement across ethnic and age groups.

First, a note on the data. The survey contained 36 content statements, and participants were asked to respond using a 5-point Likert scale from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (5). By finding the mean (average) of all participants’ responses to a particular statement, we can get a sense of how the respondents felt about that statement overall.

  • A mean of 3.00 (right in the middle) indicates uncertainty about whether participants agreed or disagreed with the statement.
  • Means less than 3.00 are interpreted as increasing levels of disagreement as they move toward 1.00.
  • Means above 3.00 indicate increasing levels of agreement as they move toward 5.00.

Keep in mind that slight variations between the various demographic groups may not be meaningful from a statistical perspective. In presenting the data here, I will give tables for some selected statements where there was statistical significance (at the 0.05 level) in the difference of means between the different groups.[2] The statistically significant differences are also noted in the text.

Now, on to the results.

Openness to Explore Organizational Integration

An openness to look at organizational integration was expressed by the research participants in several ways:

  • their willingness to see regional and state conferences merge youth programs, schools, and even church districts;
  • their view that divine counsel would lead the church in this direction; and
  • their uncertainty that the social dynamics that led to segregation still are extant today.

Program and Institutional Mergers Across Conference Lines

The following scenario was presented to respondents. “In a small rural town there are two small, struggling churches, one from each conference [regional and state]. The pastors of both churches each serve two other churches and only come to this town one Sabbath a month. It would be best if these churches were combined into one district with one pastor.” There was agreement with this statement (mean 3.90). Caribbean-Americans were significantly higher than Caucasians, and laypeople were higher than conference employees. (See tables 1 and 2.) There was no difference between age groups.

Table_1_and_2

A similar question was: “If your local church’s building was destroyed by a tornado and there was no insurance money to rebuild, would you support the idea that your congregation should merge with a nearby congregation from the ‘other’ conference to save money and build a stronger program?” (mean 3.87).

There were similar results in response to the following: “Merging Adventist schools in a geographic region would create larger schools that could offer more programs and options for students from both conferences” (mean 4.03).

Respondents were asked about joint youth programs—“Joint youth programs and events would be a great blessing to Adventist youth in both the regional and state conferences” (mean 4.28)—and sending their children to schools in the sister conference—“If the only Adventist school in my area was operated by the ‘other’ conference, I would send my child there rather than to public school” (mean 4.11).

Thus, it seems that members are open to joint ministry efforts by both conferences.

Divine Counsel

The following questions were asked to ascertain how members interpreted how divine counsel would address the organizational segregation in the church today.

“I believe the New Testament demands that the church be multi-cultural at all levels of operation” (mean 4.09). African-Americans were statistically significantly higher than Caucasians, while conference employees were lower than non-employees. (See tables 3 and 4.) There was no difference between age groups.

Table_3_and_4

“If Ellen White were alive today, given the current trends toward integration in our culture at large, she would move the Adventist Church toward integration in all our organizations” (mean 4.03). African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans were significantly higher in agreement than Caucasians. Laypeople were higher than conference employees. (See tables 5 and 6.) Again, there was no difference between age groups.

Table_5_and_6

“There are biblical principles that demand that the Adventist Church should not have conferences based on race.” (mean 3.61)

“Ellen White’s counsel that African-Americans and Caucasians should worship separately is still applicable to the Adventist Church today.” (mean 2.31)

The participants in the study indicated that the Bible and the writings of Ellen White would lead the church to address the issue of organizational segregation and seek to integrate the church to some degree. It would be improper to say that the data indicate a desire to dismantle the current conference system, but they do indicate a desire for the church to look at the whole issue of integration.

Social Dynamics

Two questions dealt with the original social dynamics that led to separate conferences in the early part of the twentieth century.

“The cultural dynamics of the early 20th century that prompted the creation of regional conferences are still in force today” (mean 3.12). African-Americans were higher than both Caucasians and Caribbean-Americans. (See Table 7.) Age group and conference employment status did not indicate significant difference.

Table_7

“The reasons for starting regional conferences that emerged in the 1940s still apply to the Adventist church today” (mean 2.81).

On these two questions there was less certainty on the part of the participants. It may be that the questions could have been more precise, and thus created some ambiguity in the minds of participants. Or, it may be that members are not completely certain that prejudice does not remain in the church at some level. I believe that this is another reason for the church in North America to engage in a dialogue about organizational segregation; we need to process the whole issue of ethnic prejudice and confront it in a biblical and Christlike way.

Need to Change to Fulfill our Mission

Questions were also designed to identify how participants related separate conferences to the completion of the mission of the Adventist Church.

They clearly disagreed that baptisms would decrease if state and regional conferences merged (mean 2.26), though there was uncertainty as to whether separate conferences are needed for effective evangelism (3.19). Other questions addressing this issue were:

“The Adventist Church’s witness to the general public would be strengthened if the regional and state conferences were merged” (3.91). African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans were significantly higher in agreement than Caucasians, and laypeople were higher than the non-pastoral conference employees. (See tables 8 and 9.)

Table_8_and_9

“The public image of the Adventist church is damaged by the current conference system.” (mean 3.43)

“When non-Adventists see our conference system, it raises questions in their minds about the truth of our message.” (mean 3.60)

Thus, there was little positive indication that separate conferences were seen as necessary for the effective prosecution of the church’s mission. Again, this is not a mandate for abolishing the system, but it indicates an openness to explore new possibilities in the way we do ministry.

More: See the results of The Compass Magazine’s recent survey that included some of these questions.

Agreement Across Ethnic and Age Groups

There was significant variation in the responses of ethnic groups on slightly more than half of the 36 survey questions. Age was a factor in only six questions, while one’s role in the church was significant less than a third of the time. Very rarely did one demographic group agree while another disagreed on the same question. (See Table 7 for an example in which African-Americans and those in the “other” ethnic category agreed while Caucasians and Caribbean-Americans disagreed.) Variations were mostly about the degree of agreement or disagreement.

One of the striking features of the data is that the ethnic groups varied only slightly from each other in their answers to some of the content questions. In almost half of the questions there was no variation at all. The statistical variations that did occur were usually only small. This is perhaps surprising. In my experience, many Caucasians have thought that African-Americans are strongly wedded to the current system. The data indicate otherwise.

Another surprise from the data was how little age groups varied in answering the content questions. My expectation was that the younger age groups would be much more strongly inclined toward unity, while the older groups would tend toward the status quo. But the data indicate very little statistical variation by age. Like the ethnic groups, the age groups, when they did vary, usually significantly differed from each other only slightly.

Those employed by the church (both clergy and non-clergy) and members not employed by the church followed a similar pattern. They also varied from each other only slightly. However, laypeople consistently favored unity more strongly than did either group of church employees. This might be expected, as some have postulated that employees might fear job losses if conferences were merged. But again, the distinction was probably less than many would expect.

Anecdotal Responses

When I first proposed to do this study, several individuals, both African-American and Caucasian, sought to dissuade me from doing it. The fear was that, because I am White, African-Americans would not respond honestly to my questions.

Of course, I have no way to prove that the answers were honest, but I received many verbal comments from respondents of all racial backgrounds during the data collection phase of this study that indicated a desire for a discussion on this subject. In particular, a number of African-Americans expressed joy that someone was broaching the subject. One woman was in tears thanking me for conducting this study. Now, it is probable that those with negative comments were less likely to speak directly to me. However, these comments combined with the data suggest that there is a longing in the heart of many church members for a discussion about segregation in the church and a desire to move toward some deeper level of unity.

Implications for the Future

It may be that, despite the strong sociological and psychological dynamics that push people toward segregation in voluntary organizations, the Spirit of God is creating in the hearts of believers a longing for unity that can transcend these pressures. Of course, we will not know which of these competing forces is stronger until actual attempts at unification are made. But Adventist members seem to have enough interest and energy to at least put the idea on the table.

The election of President Barack Obama has caused some in the church to think that perhaps the time has come to review our conference system in North America. After the presidential election, a number of Seventh-day Adventists formed a group on Facebook called The Adventist Desegregation Coalition. On February 1, 2009, a draft of a letter to church leaders was posted, asking them to begin the process of merging regional and state conferences.[3] A perusal of the various postings indicated a strong interest in the organizational segregation in the Adventist Church and a desire for the church to at least discuss the issue. Others are giving a strong call to eliminate the segregation.

Fredrick Russell, who has served as the president of a regional conference, stated that in light of the political developments in the United States, we need to revisit the organizational segregation in the church that “facilitates a racial divide” among us.[4] Elder Russell sums up well the crossroad that the church in North America faces today.

A new generation is emerging in the church, and old rationales as to why we do what we do will not hold. There’s a big country out there for us to reach for Christ. And it will not be a Black Adventist church, a White Adventist church, an Asian Adventist church, or a Hispanic Adventist church that will reach our world. The Adventist Church together will do it. . . . If our church is going to reach this culture, we need to think well what we are presenting to the world, as well as to a new generation in this church.[5]

So perhaps the strongest finding of this study is that it is time to talk. Certainly we would need to create a safe “container,”[6] where interested persons from all ethnic groups could come together for frank and open dialogue about the ethnic segregation in the church. Perhaps this “think tank” could begin to explore the idea of merging conferences and identify the issues for and against. Then the discussion could expand to larger venues and eventually include everyone. This process would have to be managed very carefully so that everyone would be heard and all views seriously considered.

In the end, whether the church decided to merge conferences or to modify or maintain the current system, this process of dialogue, if done properly, could greatly enhance the cross-cultural relationships in the church. Even if the idea of merger was finally rejected, increased cooperation in education, evangelism, youth ministry, community services, etc., could be generated that would draw all ethnic groups closer together in genuine Christian love and fellowship.

Regional and state conferences could also attempt joint experiments by creating new church plants that are multicultural and have leadership teams composed of members from both conferences. These experiments could test the homogeneous unit principle to see if evangelism is enhanced or hindered by the composition of the church membership. An attempt could be made to create ethnic transcendence based on “ethnic fluidity”[7] so that the new identity as the multicultural Body of Christ would override the natural homophily[8] that drives diverse people apart. This research indicates that perhaps the Adventist Church is ready for such steps.

This study was designed before then Senator Barack Obama shocked the American public by winning the primary vote in the state of Iowa, which has a predominately White population. Furthermore, the data for this study were collected several months before the 2008 presidential election in the United States. But the fact that an African-American was elected as president by a country that is over 70% Caucasian should cause us to think seriously about the organizational segregation in the North American Division.

If the country at large is ready to set aside ethnic background as a primary issue when leaders are chosen, then maybe it is time for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to consider the same when it comes to church organization. Certainly we need to take a hard look at our conference system in North America in light of this political change in the secular culture. If not, we run the risk of looking archaic and out of date compared to the ethnic reconciliation that seems to be growing in this nation. We may also sound hollow when we proclaim a message of love and reconciliation while at the same time appearing to have unresolved issues of our own.

If we were to enter the dialogue that I am calling for, it would be extremely important for us not to engage on this subject with a predetermined end in mind. Rather, we would all have to be open to the leading of the Spirit. We should envision ourselves as searching together for the right path forward. And perhaps the dialogue itself may prove to be more important than the decision it precipitates. Even if the church should decide to keep the structure just as it is, the dialogue would enhance relationships in the church across ethnic lines. And the reasons for maintaining the current system would be the practical benefits that we all agreed upon, rather than the prejudice that drove us to segregation almost a century ago.

______

Notes:

[1] The content of this series of articles has been adapted from David Penno, An Investigation of the Perceptions of Clergy and Laity Concerning Race-based Organizational Segregation in the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Doctoral dissertation, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2009).

[2] Student-Newman-Keuls Tests were applied to determine statistical significance for the differences in means for the demographic groups. In the tables, N=number of respondents and M=mean.

[3] The Adventist Desegregation Coalition. (2009). Retrieved 02/06, 2009, from https://www.facebook.com/groups/53734749401/?fref=nf

[4] Fredrick Russell, “The Obama Message,” Adventist Review, February 21, 2008. Retrieved from archives.adventistreview.org/article/1665/archives/issue-2008-1505/the-obama-message

[5] Ibid.

[6] William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999), 243.

[7] G. Marti, “Fluid Ethnicity and Ethnic Transcendence in Multiracial Churches,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47 (2008), 11-16.

[8] M. McPherson, L. Smith-Lovin, & J. M. Cook, “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001), 415-444.

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David Penno, Ph.D., is associate professor of Christian ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and serves as project coach for the Doctor of Ministry program. He previously spent 25 years in pastoral ministry and served as evangelism coordinator in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. He holds a doctorate in leadership from Andrews University.