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North American Division news:
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
Social distancing. It’s a term that has become ubiquitous in light of the coronavirus disease pandemic. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, “Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. Staying at least six feet away from other people lessens your chances of catching COVID-19.” Unprecedented, widespread measures have been enacted to decrease gatherings and increase physical space between individuals in public spaces.
While society at large has taken a metaphorical detour in terms of its normal operation with the closing of businesses and schools, the needs of the marginalized remain — many are still without homes and/or jobs, require medical attention aside from care related to COVID-19, or need food and supplies for their families.
“It’s important for ministries who serve the vulnerable to continue their ministries in the middle of a global pandemic because when people are the most vulnerable, they need the hope and assurance these ministries provide,” said Bonita Shields, vice president for ministries of the North American Division.
Among the constant news coverage of the coronavirus disease cases, deaths, and responses have been stories from local community members, religious organizations, and charities serving and looking for ways to help others.
The following are glimpses into three services operating within the North American Division that have remained committed to serving the disenfranchised population in their communities as they face daily evolving challenges and the potential dangers presented by the coronavirus disease.
Sheltering the Homeless
Since January 3, the Omega Seventh-day Adventist Church in New Haven, Connecticut, has turned its fellowship hall into a warming center for some of the city’s homeless population. Every day, up to 70 people, known as clients, have benefitted from a warm place to stay overnight and two meals — dinner and breakfast. The clients also have access to showers through the Adventist Community Service “Showers of Blessings” mobile shower van. Yoga mats and pillows for sleeping are also provided by the church.
The operation is guided by ordinances set by the city of New Haven.
The alarming influx of COVID-19 cases prompted New Haven to make adjustments to services provided to the city’s marginalized population. The warming center was directed to make changes that coincide with recommended hygienic practices and social distancing measures, including maintaining six feet between clients.
“We had to reduce our occupancy by half,” said Shaunette James-Marquis, member of the Omega Seventh-day Adventist Church, a professional social worker, and director of the warming center. “We took away the yoga mats and pillows. Our clients now sleep on chairs. They’re understanding.”
New Haven also sends a doctor to the center every other day to take the clients’ temperatures to help spot symptoms related to the virus. At the time of this reporting, none of the centers’ clients had contracted COVID-19.
The number of volunteers has decreased. Many were students attending Yale University, an ivy league university located near the church that also moved all its courses online due to the disease – sending students to their homes. Two elderly women who were faithful volunteers have followed recommendations given for their age group, which is considered “high-risk” for contracting the disease. The volunteers who remain wear masks and gloves.
“I’m great, wonderful, simply amazed and blessed. I’ve learned so many lessons from this. I tell myself, ‘If he called me, He’ll qualify and protect me during this time,’” said James-Marquis.
James-Marquis says the clients are feeling more restless with having fewer places to spend time during the day due to citywide closures and social distancing protocols. Many are lining up three to four hours before the center opens its doors because they don’t have anywhere else to go.
Anxiety is also high among the clients because the warming center was only designed to give shelter during the region’s coldest months. The plan was to end the center’s services on April 15. According to James-Marquis, they have been put on notice from the city of New Haven that they may need to extend operations depending on the situation with COVID-19 in the city. Until then, the clients are nervous about knowing where they’ll be able to shelter at night after having the church as a refuge for four months, in addition to living without a home, especially during a pandemic.
“Most are showing signs of separation anxiety. I remind my staff to maintain patience and compassion,” said James-Marquis.
Safely Treating the Sick
“A community that’s gone through trauma has learned how to rally together. They know the only way to get through is together,” said Elisabeth Gundersen, president of MEDSPIRE, referring to residents of Paradise, California, a community that experienced devastating wildfires 18 months ago.
MEDSPIRE is a mobile health clinic that formed in the immediate aftermath of the “Paradise Fires.” It provided medical care since health care facilities had been destroyed. The area has since gained three primary care facilities and one urgent care clinic.
Prior to social distancing directives from local officials, the clinic operated twice a month with services provided by doctors, nurse practitioners, physicians assistants, social workers, mental health professionals, paramedics, and a pharmacist. The clinic served as a way to triage urgent, persistent needs and help patients link to a primary care provider. For others, the clinic became a long-term medical home.
Since the clinic is a mobile unit and not an official “brick and mortar” business, it is not considered an “essential business” that is allowed to remain open. When preparing for their clinic that was scheduled for March 22, leaders of MEDSPIRE did not want to increase risk of exposure to its volunteers and patients by operating in close proximity, even if the clinic was outdoors or functioned as a “drive-up” service.
In order to continue serving the community, MEDSPIRE transitioned to a “telemedical clinic” where patients called a number to share their symptoms with either Gundersen, who is also an adult nurse practitioner, or Theodore Muller, MEDSPIRE’s medical director who has more than 20 years’ experience as an emergency doctor. The two provided guidance on how patients could treat symptoms of various ailments.
“The name of the game is to keep people at home. Whatever we can do to help ‘flatten the curve’ by keeping people in their homes will be our goal. We want to help keep people out of urgent care and the emergency room,” said Gundersen, speaking on the state of overrun urgent care facilities and ERs in cities throughout the U.S. that are experiencing high volumes of COVID-19 cases.
None of the 14 patients who called with medical concerns on March 22 had symptoms related to the coronavirus disease.
Another factor that contributed to the transition to telemedicine was the desire to donate the clinic’s personal protective equipment (PPE) to the closest hospital in the area — approximately 40 minutes from Paradise.
“We don’t want to use PPE, there’s a greater need for that in hospitals,” said Gundersen.
MEDSPIRE’s clinic also offered to drop off supplies or shop for groceries for the elderly or high-risk residents. The clinic’s paramedic now operates as a shopper for patients of this demographic.
“If you’re elderly, the less contact you have with the public the better. People who are 80 years old can’t go to six stores looking for flour, but we can. Our paramedic went to 10 stores in neighboring towns and even searched online. We had trouble locating some supplies, but we’re all healthy people who can run around," said Gundersen. "It’s nice to be able to give people something they don’t have to pay for or go out to get for themselves.”
“There was one wheelchair-bound older gentleman who has been struggling with chronic bronchitis since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He attempted to go shopping but was asked to leave due to his heavy coughing. We were able to pick up his groceries for him,” said Gundersen.
The clinic used a recent, sizeable contribution to purchase supplies for distribution. The supplies were used to create kits, which included vitamins C and D, granola bars, nuts, apples, oranges, low sodium canned food, coffee, paper towels, and hand soap. Moving forward, MEDSPIRE will also shop according to lists provided by clients.
At the time of this reporting, Gundersen indicated the clinic will continue operating as a telemedicine and supply delivery service for its community on a weekly basis.
“This is how we’re going to practice moving forward,” said Gundersen. “We still have an option to see people in their home if it’s necessary. It’s my nature to just want to jump and run out to whomever needs help. There’s a desire to help our neighbors, but we could be endangering them if we’re not careful. It’s important to be mindful how we help and maintain social distancing wherever possible.”
Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington (ACSGW) operates many services for low-income families of Montgomery County, Maryland, including a free clothing closet, computer literacy classes, ESL courses, and a food pantry. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the only service the center has been able to run its food pantry, albeit with some strain.
In recent years, ACSGW has operated one of the strongest food pantries in the Washington D.C. region, according to Kenneth Flemmer, executive director of ACSGW. While others in the area operate on a monthly basis, ACSGW has its food services available on a weekly basis by appointment.
“It’s like a little supermarket,” said Flemmer.
The center curates baskets with 30 pounds of food, which can usually feed a family of four for a week. The baskets have pasta with pasta sauce or rice and beans, as well as canned or fresh vegetables, fruit, and a baked good. The produce and baked goods are collected by “food rescue volunteers” through the Community Food Rescue organization in Montgomery County. Surplus, unused food is gathered from stores for pantries such as the one operated by ACSGW. Staple foods such as rice, beans, pasta, and canned goods are provided by local food banks and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As more businesses close in response to guidance issued by local officials, many families’ sources of income have been temporarily stripped away, leaving them in greater need of support.
“These past couple of weeks have seen about a 50 percent – sometimes 100 percent – increase overall in use of the pantry with a third of clients being people who have never used the ACSGW pantry before,” said Flemmer. “[I believe] this trend is going to continue for some time.”
As of April 1, ACSGW has provided more than 27,000 pounds of staples, produce, dairy, and baked goods to 425 families. Some clients are furloughed from their jobs without pay, other families have children who would normally get free meals from school. With the increased clientele comes an increased need of supplies, which have begun to decrease throughout the region.
“There seems to be supply bottlenecks emerging that could limit the capacity of pantries like ACSGW to serve at the community level. I did not anticipate such a rapid deterioration of the regional food safety net,” said Flemmer.
Where Flemmer was once confident in the pantry’s ability to always have staple foods to distribute, he’s now communicating a need for donations.
“The concern is the limited supply of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) shelf staple foods. The supply chain will take some time to meet sharply increased demand,” said Flemmer. “In the meantime, it is very probable that TEFAP foods will be inadequate and could run out before the next delivery in three weeks. Help will be needed to fill the ‘staples’ gap.”
Other food items seem to be in great supply, allowing ACSGW to share items with other local pantries.
“Fortunately, the many ACSGW food rescue volunteers … are robust. This week the ACSGW Pantry had over a dozen different veggies and fruits, plus baked goods to add to the shelf staple basket,” said Flemmer.
ACSGW is facing significant challenges. Flemmer says if a member of his staff contracts the disease the center will close. The center is also heavily dependent on volunteers, four of which are elderly and are unable to volunteer. Others are able to come, but only on an inconsistent basis. Further, the increase of service needed, and the safety and cleaning materials required to keep staff and clients safe are adding $200 in costs a day. In spite of the obstacles, Flemmer says the center will continue to do all it can, for as long as it can, to help families in need.
“We got to do something even though we’re in a period of extreme isolation. We have to keep reaching out. We have to keep network alive,” said Flemmer. “You can always pray, but you can’t stop there.”
Click on the following links to learn more:
Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington (ACSGW): https://acsgw.orgmylonmedley Wed, 04/01/2020 - 09:06
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