Today’s Adventist church is not the same church from just a few years ago. Did you know our denomination has over 20 million members worldwide? Only 10 years ago, that number was 16 million members. Attitudes and generational differences are evident in how we relate to each other and to the church as an organization. At one time a church member would not consider suing the church. Many lawsuits against the church today are brought by church members. Good or bad, this is how risk and accountability are processed in our society.
External factors have changed, as well. The litigious nature of the western world has increased as the average settlement for lawsuits have increased dramatically. Many elements of our society are less sympathetic to people of faith and for large organizations such as the church. The expectation is that organizations of our size will have effective policies, controls, and processes in place and that they will be followed.
Risk Management and Mission
The reason organizations engage in the process of risk management is to identify potential problems before they occur. This provides the opportunity to plan risk-handling activities and implement them as needed across the life of the project to mitigate adverse impacts on achieving objectives. In short, risk management means doing the planning and preparation to ensure we can do and keep doing the right things (ministry). This is why risk management is so crucial to the ministry of our church at this time in history.
So why is risk management so hard to talk about? Humans have numerous cognitive-behavior traps that, if we do not guard against, will prevent us from seeing ourselves and external risks objectively. Robert S. Kaplan and Anette Mikes wrote about some of these traps in their joint article for the Harvard Business Review entitled Managing Risks: A New Framework:
“We also anchor our estimates to readily available evidence despite the known danger of making linear extrapolations from recent history to a highly uncertain and variable future. We often compound this problem with a confirmation bias, which drives us to favor information that supports our positions (typically successes) and suppress information that contradicts them (typically failures). When events depart from our expectations, we tend to escalate commitment, irrationally directing even more resources to our failed course of action—throwing good money after bad.”
The church engages in many ministries. New ideas are evaluated continuously, and new initiatives launched. In one church a group of deacons decides to start a “chainsaw ministry” to help clear fallen trees and limbs after windstorms. In another, a counselor chooses to establish a support group with professional counselors meeting participants at the church. To reach more eyes and ears, many churches have begun to stream their services over the Internet.
Good ideas? Perhaps. But is the larger organization (the conference) that will be held responsible aware of this ministry? Are the risks known and understood? Have they knowingly decided to take on this risk and take the needed measures to ensure it is done correctly? Have they considered training, equipment, procedures, and insurance?
Using a different example, consider a large organization coordinating professionals to provide professional services; are they properly vetted and insured? What about the privacy and security of any documentation associated with those professional services?
Too often, there are few answers to these questions. Individuals with good ideas may rely on the deep pockets of the large organization, “the church,” to pick up the pieces when losses and lawsuits happen. They choose not to engage in the risk management process combined with the strategic planning process. As individuals our hearts may be in the right place. But, we must also incorporate an understanding of the nature of our organizations and a clear focus on our organization’s mission in our planning.
The danger is thinking we need more ideas and initiatives. As a mentor of mine once told me, “I don’t need more good ideas, I need people who are able to execute the ideas we already chose.”
“Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” Proverbs 4:25 (ESV)
Perhaps you have heard of the Pareto Principle: focus on the 20 percent of your work that will generate 80 percent of results. What would happen to the risks the church faces today if we focused our energies on ministries generating the most “on mission” results?
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs
Do you remember the story of Mary and Martha? Where Martha was working diligently, and Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. And Martha went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42 (ESV)
I always understood from this story that Martha was doing good and seemingly essential things. The lesson here is not to say Martha was doing a bad thing; it simply wasn’t the right thing. We face this danger in the church today. We may be doing many things that are important to us, but these actions are not what we are here to do.
What is the right thing for Seventh-day Adventists to focus on today? As we look at all of the life-changing ministries in our churches, schools, hospitals, and more, how do we know what we should focus on? How can we determine which ministries are worth the cost, worth the risk? If we are to be about our Father’s business, what would He have us be about?
The mission statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is: “Make disciples of Jesus Christ who live as His loving witnesses and proclaim to all people the everlasting gospel of the Three Angels’ Messages in preparation for His soon return (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, Rev 14:6-12).”
As we serve and participate in this community of believers, let us be mindful of the changes in the world around us so we can be honest and objective in our approach to ministry. The principles of risk management are, at their heart, designed to help us stay focused on the success of our mission objectives. Let us stay focused on our mission, set self aside, and work in harmony with each other to finish the work we have been entrusted to perform.
“I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14 New King James Version (NKJV)
David Fournier is a vice president for Adventist Risk Management
Originally appeared in Solutions, the official newsletter of Adventist Risk Management, Inc.
Harvard Business Review - Managing Risks: A New Framework
Seventh-day Adventist Church Mission Statement