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Randy Robinson, treasurer for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD), recently spoke with Kimberly Luste Maran, an associate director of communication for the NAD, about his role, and how the division is functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The interview was conducted entirely online.
Kimberly Luste Maran: I’m thankful that we’re able to talk through cyberspace as our office family serves virtually. This is a time of great uncertainty, change, and adaptation. How are you doing?
Randy Robinson: By God’s grace, so far my wife Denise and I are well. We are communicating regularly with Denise’s parents, to make sure they are OK. They live just a few minutes from us. We also touch base with our two sons and their wives, making sure everyone is well where they live. These are very interesting times! I appreciate much more now the ability to move around freely since that privilege has been significantly restricted. I pray that all of our members are well and safe, and I am grateful that so far, my family is safe.
You are the treasurer for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America. In a nutshell, how do you analyze the finances of the division; what criteria do you use in figuring out the financial health of this organization?
Before I get into a detailed explanation, I want to say my job sits on two foundational realities. First, I am responsible to God for how I do my job. And second, I would not be here without the faithfulness of God’s people and their investment in the Seventh-day Adventist Church!
Getting current, accurate, and regular financial reports is the critical requirement. The NAD treasury team does an awesome job of providing me with that information. I evaluate the financial health of the NAD on a monthly basis. That includes digesting the monthly interim financial statements, comparing actual performance with the budget, and recommending adjustments as necessary. Without getting into the financial weeds, there is one metric that I pay particular attention to: the number of days of cash we have on hand. That is an indicator that tells us, if all income stopped today, how long can we do business. I recommend that every organization know that indicator, and monitor it on a regular basis. If that is healthy, it will prove invaluable when difficult times come, similar to what we are facing now. By the way, the NAD indicator is currently healthy!
Share with us the division’s financial picture as of December 31, 2019.
As I mentioned, our cash reserves are in a good place, and overall we are healthy financially. At the end of 2019, the North American Division is strong financially — thanks to the generosity of it’s amazing members and God’s abundant blessings!
The true health of an organization is tested when times are challenging. Some people ask why we store cash away or plan to have reserves intentionally. They may ask, why not spend all the cash and resources for mission rather than save it?
It is times like these when we find the answer to that question. Someone once said, “There is no mission without margin.” I strongly subscribe to that position. Cash on hand and a strong balance sheet, which the NAD has, gives us the chance to operate successfully through a downturn, and to maintain support of the mission we are called to. We can continue to provide needed appropriations to our organizations that depend on them. We can continue to pay employees. We can find ways to creatively operate outside the office. We may even be able to provide some assistance for struggling organizations.
As the first quarter of 2020 draws to a close, how have you seen the COVID-19 pandemic impact tithes and offerings in the division? Or is it too early to tell? We know that this time of upheaval and unease is affecting our members who have been so faithful.
First and foremost, I know this is God’s church. He will absolutely care for His people. It may be uncomfortable and uncertain from our perspective. But I trust in Him to carry us through. On that foundation things are, admittedly, unclear. I anticipate a tithe drop from two points of view. First, our churches are closed, and second, many of our members are losing their employment due to this situation. These factors will undoubtedly have an effect and we really won’t know what that is until the April tithes and offerings are accounted for across the division.
Because of the current financial health of the NAD, we have the opportunity to sustain normal operations as well as continue regular appropriations to our member organizations for up to six months, even if we sustain significant tithe losses.
I think our faithful members will continue to be faithful. They may need just a bit of time to adjust to giving in a way other than placing funds in an offering plate. That is not an option now. But I know they will find a way.
One great option is AdventistGiving, an online mechanism that makes it easy to continue giving through a person’s own local church (if the church is one of the many on the www.AdventistGiving.org platform) straight from their bank account, debit card, or credit card.
My church is not meeting on Sabbath right now due to state restrictions, so I cannot give at church. My wife and I went to AdventistGiving and returned our tithes and offerings to our local church in Ellicott City, Maryland. It really is easy. I hope church members try it!
What might the pandemic mean for the NAD’s local churches, conferences, unions, and other entities in the next few weeks/months?
We really do not know quite yet. At the division, we anticipate a downturn, but right now it is hard to say how we will be affected. We are preparing ourselves financially by reducing our spending, encouraging our members to continue their faithfulness, and praying for the grace of God to guide us through this difficult time.
I am so encouraged by the reports I am getting — and by my own experience in my local church. How creatively we are staying together! The other day, our church had a drive-thru prayer event. We drove into our church parking lot, the pastoral team and elders placed their hands on our cars, and prayed for us! What a great way to minister! We kept our distance, and still were ministered to. We also receive regular short video clips from our pastor encouraging us. We participate in a virtual worship service every Sabbath. We are so blessed even during a difficult time!
In what ways have you seen technology help in both our service to the field and in giving?
Actually, this has been a bit of a pleasant surprise. The office closings came so fast that we barely had time to figure out what to do. But we were able to transition our employees to their homes and continue to operate the organization. This same thing has happened across the division! Phones are being answered, important meetings are continuing via Zoom, bills and employees are being paid. The mission of the church is going forward. God has provided us with technology to pull this off and amazing information and technology services (ITS) teams to help us through! I did not think the organization could do it so successfully, but by God’s grace, ingenuity, great people with great minds, technology, and flexibility on the part of our employees, it happened and continues to be successful.
How do you see technology playing a part in the future of the church, its services, and its finances — both in the local context and at the division?
I think we learned a lesson through this experience. We can do much more business in a virtual environment. There will always be a need for face-to-face meetings and travel. But we have learned that much of that travel can be curtailed or eliminated. That can be applied to every level of the organization. I have participated in Zoom meetings successfully with nearly 300 people online. Trainings are happening, board meetings are conducted, and classes are being taken successfully online. This is a huge takeaway for me, and I hope we do not lose sight of it once things get back to “normal.”
We know that times will continue to be challenging for everyone. How long do you foresee the church in North America being able to function as it currently operates?
Policy states in most cases that an organization should have between three and six months of liquid reserves. The NAD has very close to six months. I hope and pray that we do not have to face the possibility of employee reductions, however, that may be a reality for some of our organizations, depending on how long this situation lasts and what kind of toll it takes on our members’ employment.
I want to again thank our members for their faithfulness, even in difficult times! I am amazed at their generosity, and it creates in me an obligation to use those resources in the most efficient way possible. But we do have to face the reality that some of our members may lose their income and thereby lose the ability to return tithe. We do our best to plan for it. We cut back on our expenditures and as a last resort, organizations may be faced with looking at personnel adjustments. That is evaluated organization by organization and may look different depending on individual circumstances. There are mechanisms in policy that help us do that as carefully as possible. We try our best to create a situation where the affected personnel land on their feet. But of course, that possibility is one that is difficult and one that we hope to leave as a last resort.
Small businesses and those people with income instability will be receiving government help. Will the government help defray costs for operating our churches? How about conferences, unions, other entities, and the division—is there government support coming?
The recently passed CARES Act delivers several options for helping U.S. based businesses, including non-profit church organizations such as ours, survive this challenging time. There are loan opportunities to help organizations get through the most difficult times. There are also tax credits available to those who keep their employees on payroll. There are several other government assistance options that we are looking at. Our Canadian organizations are also exploring options from their government that may be of assistance. Our legal teams look over these types of benefits to make sure there are not unwanted strings attached that as Christians, we would object to. It appears, in this case, that there may be some opportunities for us to accept some help if it becomes necessary.
Does the church in North America have anything along these lines to help local church workers such as teachers and pastors?
The financial structure of the church has anticipated these kinds of situations — to a degree.
Some people think tithe is given to the conference, then it goes on to the union, division, and General Conference — never to be seen again. But that’s not true. Yes, some resources stay in those parts of the organization. But the largest portion by far is “repurposed” and sent back toward the grass roots to assist education, evangelistic efforts, and conferences that have less resources. There are significant sums of money that flow back through the organization and target areas that may have less financial lifting power.
One significant evidence of funds flowing back is that overall, we pay ministers the same base wage. Unlike the congregational model where a large church with wealthy members can pay its ministers a large sum, our ministers are paid on the same scale regardless of the church size. That means we can have churches in large urban areas as well as smaller rural areas and still have pastoral support. Our teachers are paid on a similar basis.
That is just one example. There are several other ways funds are returned back to local areas where they would otherwise be unavailable. Again, I have to thank our members for faithfully investing their tithe dollars in the church. Without their partnership, we would not be able to direct funds in ways where every part of the field receives benefit.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I have one last question: What do you take comfort from during these times fraught with uncertainty?
I am trained to be financially conservative. I do my best to place God’s church on a sound financial footing. As important as that is to me, it is secondary to my belief that this is God’s church. I take great comfort in the statement by Ellen G. White that it will seem as though the church will fall. But it will not fall (see Selected Messages, Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1958, 1980, book 2, p. 380). God will see it through!
While we now experience one of those times where things seem shaky, I am absolutely confident in God’s leading and protection. God will never leave or forsake us!
I pray daily for wisdom, discernment, and strength to lead according to God’s plan, not just for myself, but for His leaders and members all around the world. We are a family — God’s family. No matter what happens, that is solid and absolute. I do not fear for the church because it is God’s church and He will see it through!kmaran Tue, 04/07/2020 - 15:17
Even before his state issued a stay-at-home order to curb the spread of COVID-19, Desta Gelgelu, an economics professor, church planter, and pastor of the Oromo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, called his conference executive secretary for advice. This conversation strengthened Gelgelu’s conviction that something had to be done to protect the Oromo-speaking church members from the potential spread of the virus.
It was March 13, a Friday afternoon. Gelgelu, or Pastor Desta, as he is known by his congregation, quickly called his core elders together on a teleconference. They decided not worship in the church for the March 14 Sabbath services.
For a congregation that loves to spend all day every Sabbath fellowshipping together at the church, this would leave a huge void! The leaders scrambled to put together an alternate plan. They turned to teleconference and livestreaming on Facebook.
"Now we are reaching out to five times the number we were reaching before!" Pastor Desta explains. He shares that their church building only accommodates around 250 people, but on that first Sabbath of livestreaming, the reach grew to more than a thousand viewers from around the world. Viewers watched from Australia, Africa, Canada, and states across the U.S., chiming in with spontaneous, affirming comments. When the service finished, people from around the world joined with a hearty, "Amen!"
"The current situation is a blessing in disguise," Pastor Desta says. "It forced us to go out of the box.As it is written in Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’”
“And even this [pandemic], which is a crisis, in one way is working for good,” he adds. “The church is forced to learn something new. Financially, we will be hurt. Spiritually, we pray that we will come out richer than we were before.”
Describing the needs during this time, Pastor Desta says, “People are talking about hand sanitizer. Much more than that, it is time for us to talk about Jesus Christ, who sanitizes us from all our sins.People are rushing to buy bread, but now it is time for us to rush to get the bread of life, the Word of God.”
Pastor Desta, who also serves as the North American Division’s church planting consultant for the Oromo language group, and his team are initiating prayer chains, children’s ministry trainings, and Bible studies throughout the week during this time.
“That sense of attachment and community, we don’t want it to decrease,” he says. “Human instruments are fragile and fail, but God is omnipotent. When they tell us to be far away from each other, no one can tell us to be far away from our God.”
— Terri Saelee is coordinator of Adventist Refugee & Immigrant Ministries for the North American Division.kmaran Wed, 04/01/2020 - 17:55
When Stephanie Seay and “Christine” met more than 20 years ago on the job at an Atlanta nursing home, they were young, single, and relatively carefree. They became fast friends. Seay, the facility’s bookkeeper, was a practicing Christian, and Christine, the social activities assistant, was not.
Marriage, children, and age rolled in and Christine began wondering about Christ, shared Seay. That’s when Seay sent her Message magazine, and though she has maintained the subscription for her dear friend all these years, she never heard another word about it, not until a couple of months ago, that is.
As a witnessing opportunity Message is built for the current crisis. As the coronavirus disease shuts our systems down, our friends, family, and neighbors have questions. We all have time to think about eternity now, and now is the time to ensure we provide Christ and His teachings, applied in the context of these troublesome headlines.
Known for being the oldest, continuously published black Christian magazine in North America, Message injects hope and wholeness in Jesus Christ for the community. The legacy publication, initiated by James Edson White in 1898, was elevated by an impactful lineage of editors who always balanced biblical presentation and everyday application. Now a niche multi-media platform, with online and social media presence, Bible studies and tracts, Message acts as a tool in the personal outreach portfolio of those who wish to reach souls for Christ. As a key missionary journal published by the North American Division (NAD), your financial support and specially-designated offering will bolster the ministry of Message.
The Message Difference
Fortunately, before this crisis hit, Seay was already on the job, sending Message to Christine, and her friends and family. The friends connected a couple of months ago, just to catch up. Christine, now a “very devout Christian” who attends a Baptist church, mentioned that she was headed out to teach the Wednesday night prayer meeting and Bible class at her church. She said she used Message to teach the class, and that occasionally her brother takes the magazine to use to teach the class at his church.
“You do?” Seay was incredulous, and overcome with joy to hear that.
Seay later shared, “You never really hear back if it’s making a difference.”
“Mrs. Seay demonstrates, beyond imagination, the possibilities I've shared with church members for years,” said Carl McRoy, the NAD’s director for Literature Ministries. “Message is indeed a full-message magazine, brimming over with hope and ministering to the whole person. How can one magazine be more relevant when it provides professional relationship counsel, proven health tips and healthy recipes that actually taste good, Bible studies, prophetic insights, socioeconomic commentary from a Christian perspective?”
McRoy said that this experience does not have to be unique. “Mrs. Seay has shown us a simple formula: 1) Subscribe to Message for yourself and a friend; 2) Read and apply its principles; and 3) Pray and watch what God does.”
Go to messagemagazine.com to subscribe, donate to this ministry, and shop for valuable resources for your community. Follow Message on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — Messagemagazine, @Message1898.
— Carmela Monk Crawford is the editor of Message magazine.kmaran Wed, 04/01/2020 - 08:38
According to the World Health Organization, the United States has 63,570 confirmed cases of COVID-19 disease as of March 26, 2020. Canada has 3,409, Bermuda has seven, and Guam has 37.* I can only imagine the turmoil in the lives of those who have been affected directly because they or a family member are or have been sick. And it is concerning to know that all of us are at risk.
This hit home when I was under voluntary quarantine after returning from a conference (prior to the current travel restrictions). My self-imposed restrictions came after learning that another attendee of the same event was being tested for the novel coronavirus disease, now called SARS-CoV-2. I did not have symptoms of COVID-19, and praise God the test result was negative, but it was a trying time for many.
What was it like being under quarantine? And looking back, can I say it was necessary? What about social distancing? What’s so important about it?
These are important questions to ask, especially since fewer adults living in the United States are concerned about the COVID-19 disease compared to a few weeks ago. And even in the midst of strong government-mandated closings and restrictions, large crowds continue to gather.
The Novel Coronavirus
Let’s look at what we currently know about the novel coronavirus so we can understand why it is of such great concern. First of all, it is termed “novel” because it was only recently discovered. Prior to December 2019, we did not know this virus existed.
But we have had some experience with some of its relatives. The SARS-CoV virus, which caused the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, comes from the same family of viruses. This family also includes MERS-CoV, which lead to an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. Both of these viruses led to many deaths, but not to the same worldwide extent as the current SARS-CoV-2.
SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus that has the ability to replicate, or multiply, inside the human body. The virus will actually hijack the activity that happens within the cells of our bodies so that more viruses are made by those cells. We can then become a carrier of the virus with the potential of infecting other people.
When Sharing Is Not Caring
Experts believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus is spread from one person to another mainly through droplets from sneezing or coughing. It’s also possible to get it from contaminated surfaces and objects such as doorknobs, tabletops, etc. The virus is most often spread when the infected person is showing symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath), which is why people with even mild symptoms are asked to self-quarantine. The more severe the symptoms, the more likely you are to spread the virus.
This puts health workers at particular risk since they are physically in contact with the most serious and critically ill. Hospitals can become overwhelmed if a large number of individuals require critical care and also if they lose workers who contract the disease while caring for their patients.
We also know that some people are more likely to have severe COVID-19 disease requiring hospitalization and intensive care. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we are most concerned about “older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions.” These medical conditions include chronic lung disease such as asthma, serious heart conditions, cancer, severe obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, and liver disease. Note that even younger adults can become seriously ill. In fact, 20 percent of patients who require hospitalization were aged 20-44 years.
With more than 20,000 deaths so far, it is not a disease to ignore or take lightly.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered just under three months ago yet it has spread like wildfire around the globe. Many are racing to develop medications to help the sick or vaccines to protect others from getting sick. Although some are possibly helpful, none have yet successfully passed the rigorous trials that precede approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In this current context, the only known ways to slow or prevent spread of the disease is by practicing good hygiene (regular hand washing with soap or using sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces), by avoiding close contact with those who are sick, and maintaining social distancing when the virus is present in your community. The last method seems to have been useful during the 1918 flu pandemic. Although there are claims that certain products boost the immune system and thereby prevent COVID-19, there is not enough scientific evidence to verify their use or safety. And quite frankly, there is still so much that we don’t understand about the virus itself.
We won’t know the outcome anytime soon as COVID-19 numbers continue to multiply. Some are ill and struggling to recover from this disease. Some have lost family members. Many have lost jobs, or will soon. There is much uncertainly.
Sheltered in Place
I return now to my personal experience in being self-quarantined. Those days while we waited to learn if the other person was positive or negative were very trying. My mind jumped back and forth between concern for my own health and fear for those who I could put at risk if I ignored this precaution. And in reviewing all the data and experiences in other countries that did very little social distancing, or started it too late, I felt it was only right to do my part to protect my friends, neighbors, coworkers, church members, and family. Even though it was low risk that I had been infected, I stayed away from others.
My situation is admittedly better than what many others may have to face. I’ve had the opportunity to share a home-office space with my husband since both our employers instituted a temporary work-from-home policy. We’ve even been able to enjoy afternoon walks on sunny days. But some of my most meaningful experiences have been in gaining spiritual lessons from this situation.
In Acts 2:42-47 we are given a glimpse of a church that shared everything together — from food and resources to prayers and Bible study. And I’ve had to wonder, how can that be done in today’s context? They met daily for fellowship. No doubt social distancing was not part of the formula at that time. I then realized that this picture of peace and harmony came after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the young church. And that was preceded by days of earnest prayer and confession.
Although our current situation is different, and we are not able to meet in one physical location, we have technology that allows us to connect from around the world. Surely the Holy Spirit has the power to bring us together even in these times!
Ellen G. white writes that, “With the consecrated worker for God, in whatever place he may be, the Holy Spirit abides” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 51).
All of this makes me wonder, what does God want me to get out of this situation? For one, I have time to deepen my bond with my husband during our first year of marriage instead of spending much of it traveling. And perhaps now is my opportunity to pray more, study more, fellowship more (using technology), and prepare for new ways of ministry. Maybe this is the time to really invest in the 100 Days of Prayer starting on March 27.
Certainly, it can be easy is misunderstand spiritual things in times of a health crisis, and vice versa. But I’m even more certain is that God is working something good out of a horrible situation. Until He reveals the plan, I find comfort and purpose in the Psalmist’s words: “e merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me! For my soul trusts in You; And in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge, Until these calamities have passed by. … I will praise You, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing to You among the nations” (Ps. 57:1, 9, NKJV).
* UPDATE: These numbers continue to change rapidly. As of March 31, 2020, the WHO is reporting 140,640 confirmed cases of COVID-19 disease in the U.S. while Canada has 6,317, Bermuda has 22, and Guam has 58.
— Angeline D. Brauer, DrPH, MHS, RDN, is director of Health Ministries for the North American Division.kmaran Thu, 03/26/2020 - 17:16