The long-standing debate about how religious institutions can attract interracial leadership and members is being played out in Seventh Day Adventism (SDA).
The fall issue of Spectrum, an independent Adventist magazine, reports that the denomination’s regional conferences, which were started 60 years ago to minister to black Adventists, have been criticized and even threatened with being dismantled by leaders who view them as segregating blacks and dividing SDA. The regional conferences still have black and other minority administrators, but are now open to all races, while the other local conferences remain largely run by white administrators, even in racially diverse congregations.
Economist Henry Felder looks at membership and financial figures of the regional conferences versus the rest of the denomination, known as the North American Division (NAD), and finds that they show healthier indicators than the other local conferences. By 2008 (the most recent year for which membership figures for both kinds of local conferences are available), the regional conferences were larger than the other local conferences and had a higher rates of baptisms and growth, as well as having indicators of administrative effectiveness that were greater, on average, than the rest of the NAD.
Figures on the regional conferences from 2009 show a growing membership (269,700, or 25 percent of the NAD) and robust tithing (representing 18 percent of the NAD). There are 994 churches in the regional conferences and they have average memberships of 271.3; the 4,230 churches in the rest of the NAD have an average of 192.3 members. Leaders propose dismantling the healthy African-American-led regional conferences to support a “west coast model” of administration that would turn the leadership over to “overwhelmingly white-administered structures that are largely headquartered in suburbs,” Felder writes. Such a plan is “ill-conceived on efficiency, effectiveness, and missiology grounds.”
(Spectrum, P.O. Box 619047, Rosevile, CA 95661-9047)