Currents of Change Roil Seventh-Day Adventists

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In the beginning, there was disappointment--the Great Disappointment, as the faithful of the Seventh-day Adventist Church would come to call it.

It happened on a brilliant Maine day in the fall of 1844. A sickly teenage prophetess named Ellen G. White, the church’s scriptural architect, waited with her brethren for Jesus Christ’s predicted return.

When he failed to materialize, White urged her disheartened followers to cherish the surety that such a day indeed would dawn.


Today, ask some Adventists about the Great Disappointment and the response might well be: Which one?

As the church best known for its hospitals and colleges emerges as among the world’s fastest-growing religious movements, it is suffering growing pains that are straining at its conservative traditions.

Where there once was strict obedience to the hierarchy of the multibillion-dollar church, there is now sometimes grass-roots rebellion prompting firings of pastors who have challenged the status quo.

In a denomination whose founder dictated quiet resolution of conflicts, some members today are exposing the dissension in lawsuits, on Web sites and in maverick publications that accuse church leaders of everything from authoritarianism and cronyism to fraud and financial abuses.

Some educators at Adventist colleges have joined the fray as well, resentful that church leaders want to formally assess their and their students’ “total commitment to God” with annual reports and outside evaluators. Some women, meanwhile, are voicing objections to the irony that a church co-founded by a woman, although it allows women to serve as pastors, limits their duties and refuses to fully ordain them.

Overseas--where membership is swelling--controversy also is swirling.

Questions about the church’s use of international relief money have mounted, a power struggle among Ethiopian Adventists has erupted, and a pastor from Rwanda has been charged with genocide for allegedly orchestrating the executions of thousands of people who sought refuge at a church compound in 1994.


Internal divisions have afflicted other American-born religious movements as their ranks have grown and diversified. Indeed, strife seems a rite of passage in the maturation of many denominations.

But such historical perspective provides little reassurance to Adventists roiled by currents of change in the here and now. Even though only a small percentage of Adventists are openly challenging their leaders, historians of religion say the church may be facing some of its most serious upheaval.

“Some congregants desperately don’t want to hear anything negative. It shakes them,” said Queens College sociologist Ron Lawson, an Adventist who has studied the church’s development. “But others are extraordinarily involved in these issues, because they feel some of the things that are happening [in the church] fly in the face of what Christian love and justice is all about.”

Seventh-day Adventist Church President Robert H. Folkenberg, 57, a pilot whose 6-foot-5 frame belies a soft-spoken nature, shakes his head when he hears of such criticism. He dismisses much of it as the baseless griping of a disgruntled few among a membership of roughly 10 million, most of it abroad.

“You can always find something you’d like to improve,” he said in a wide-ranging interview. But he insisted that the Maryland-headquartered institution remains “a vibrant, positive, engaged church affecting powerfully the communities where it serves.”

The son of missionary parents, Folkenberg said the church represents not a roadblock in the path to, but a vehicle toward, a deeper relationship with God.


Adventism offers “a chance to touch somebody’s life,” said Folkenberg, who worked for years in Latin America for the church before being elected its president in 1990. “It answers the questions: Why am I here, where am I going, what’s right, what’s wrong? When you live within your own framework, you self-destruct, as society proves every day.”

Dramatic Growth Overseas

To outsiders, Seventh-day Adventism remains largely a theological mystery, its members often confused with those of other little-understood Christian offshoots.

Much to the church’s embarrassment, its public persona has been unfairly shaped by such radical defectors as David Koresh and his Branch Davidians, many of whom perished during a fiery 1993 confrontation with federal authorities in Waco, Texas. The church sent a public relations team to the scene to make sure the media knew that the Davidians were not affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

The church--formally established 135 years ago by White; her husband, James; and retired sea captain Joseph Bates--takes a strict approach to all things biblical. This has triggered long-running tensions with other Christians over what day should be reserved for worship.

In their most distinguishing characteristic, Adventists celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday--the seventh day--a practice drawn from the Old Testament.

With almost paranoid fervor, some hard-liners in the church believe that other Christian denominations are intent on forcing them to fall in line with Sunday observances. The more extreme deride the pope as the “antichrist.”


Adventists also believe in the gift of prophecy, as manifested in church matriarch White and her voluminous visions. Some church historians say she borrowed some of her writings from other religious thinkers of the day, but her works remain at the center of the faith.

Church members seem to have taken to heart and soul White’s words that Adventists were “chosen by God as a peculiar people, separate from the world.” They tend to be communal, often living near each other and working together. The greatest concentrations of Adventists are around major church institutions, such as Loma Linda University Medical Center near San Bernardino.

Imbued with a reverence for physical well-being, the church preaches abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, pork, shellfish and caffeinated drinks, considered unhealthy and contaminants to spiritual growth. Vegetarianism is encouraged but not required. One of the church’s most famous turn-of-the-century members, in fact, was corn flakes inventor John Harvey Kellogg, who developed the earliest meat substitutes for the sect’s vegetarians.

Although many Adventists still believe that an apocalypse signaling the Second Coming, or advent, of Jesus is imminent, the church today appears to be banking on its earthly future.

The church is worth an estimated $15.6 billion and runs a publishing house, broadcasting system and food factories. Officials boast that their 5,400-school system, attended mostly by Adventist children, is the biggest in the Protestant world.

The church’s 87 colleges and universities--including La Sierra University near Riverside--seek students from all walks of life. The same holds true for the church’s network of 161 hospitals, which serve not only Adventists but hundreds of thousands of others around the globe.


International outreach--providing medical care or religious indoctrination--has always been a fundamental tenet of the church. Many Adventists spend years in far-flung places, caring for the needy, spreading the Gospel, just as their parents did and their parents before them.

The results have been dramatic, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The church estimates that its foreign congregants number more than 9 million, dwarfing membership in the nation of its birth.

In the United States there are roughly 828,000 Adventists, including about 110,000 in Southern California, the largest concentration in the country. Unlike overseas, the church’s domestic growth has been modest--most of it attributed to newly arrived Third World immigrants--creating concerns that young people here are falling from the flock.

Sharing “a strong anti-institutional” attitude, many in the younger generation have come to resent the church’s rigid hierarchy, says minister and author Steve Daily, chaplain at La Sierra.

So too have some disenchanted older members, who argue that Adventist higher-ups are so focused on expansion abroad that they have forsaken the needs and finances of U.S. churches.

Larry Downing, senior pastor for a Los Angeles congregation, traveled to Peru last year with several dozen fellow Adventists. He says the same refrain surfaced again and again in their discussions: “That when we talk, we are not heard. That the one thing people [in the church leadership] do understand is money.”


Protests, Petitions

In a sea of edicts by Ellen White, some Adventists deem this one to be among the most sacred: “Matters connected with the church are to be kept within its own borders.”

Consider what happened after an independent publication called Adventist Today ran an article about alleged child abuse among the brethren. Passionate members wrote in with their concerns--not about the reputed abuse, but about the San Bernardino-based magazine’s decision to put the issue on its cover “for all postal employees to see,” as one writer put it.

“We really don’t need that publicity,” a Virginia woman wrote.

There are signs, however, that the walls of silence are tumbling down.

Protests and petition drives have broken out at defiant congregations worldwide. In-house publications have grown more brash.

An Internet site, independent of the church organization, has given critics a powerful venue for debate. One writer griped about a lack of top-level accountability, advising rebels to cut off contributions or leave the church altogether--”vote with your wallet or with your feet,” she urged.

Adventists who feel wronged by their church also have increasingly turned to the courts for redress--most notably in a lawsuit filed by David Dennis, who had been the head auditor at church headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.

Dennis sued the church over his controversial 1994 firing, simultaneously placing in the court record an assortment of allegations of financial and ethical misconduct.


Among them: that Adventist leaders misused millions of dollars in charitable donations and overseas government relief, received “unauthorized perks,” doled out powerful positions in exchange for internal support and gave pastoral titles--and considerable tax breaks--to administrators who did little or no ministering.

In a church that has traditionally kept its problems closeted, Dennis’ lawsuit has created some of the deepest divisions in the denomination’s history.

Members as far away as Australia signed a petition demanding that a full investigation of Dennis’ “alarming” allegations be launched to prevent further “erosion of trust in church leadership.” Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), an Adventist, joined the appeal, calling for “a quick and thorough resolution so that God’s church can get on with her appointed mission.”

Church officials have fought back with a battery of high-powered lawyers. They allege that Dennis was fired for having sexual relations several times in the mid-1970s with a teenage girl he and his wife had befriended at an Adventist school in Singapore. The woman--now a 38-year-old mother in Oregon--came forward after Dennis began questioning the church’s financial dealings.

In a sworn statement, she said she had buried the alleged relationship “deep inside me as my own dark secret.” Finally, her lawyers said in an interview, she told her minister, who in turn informed church executives.

Although the church says Dennis, an ordained minister, was afforded a full hearing before his firing, some participants in the tribunal question its fairness.


“They gave him the bum’s rush. It was a kangaroo court,” said William Shea, a former member of the executive committee of the church’s highest governing body. He contends that Dennis was forced out for doing too good a job as a “whistle-blower.”

For his part, the 59-year-old Dennis denies ever having had sex with the Oregon woman and insists that he became a “marked man” after he crossed paths with top elders over the alleged problems he uncovered from his unique access as fiscal watchdog.

“There’s a sense of loyalty in the church--misguided loyalty, I think--that demands that you don’t do anything to embarrass anyone,” Dennis said. “But if there was something that was wrong, I felt I had an obligation to pursue that.”

A Maryland judge, ruling that elders “are permitted to conduct their hiring/firing as they see fit,” threw out the wrongful-discharge portion of Dennis’ suit. But he let stand Dennis’ allegation of defamation. A trial date has yet to be set.

So far, church leaders have withheld comment, except to broadly deny Dennis’ allegations and characterize them as a pretext to collect civil damages. They have urged church members to “please be patient and withhold judgment.”

“When all the facts are on the table,” the church’s president says, “we won’t have any trouble.”


Financial Controversies

For some in the church, the Dennis allegations rekindled memories of other financial controversies.

Many still fume at the mention of Beverly Hills physician and developer Donald J. Davenport, an Adventist once known as the “king of post offices” because of his skill in making money by building such facilities.

In the early 1980s, several hundred Adventist churches and individual members put their faith--and money--in Davenport. When his real estate empire collapsed in bankruptcy, losing up to $40 million, rank-and-file congregants angrily accused elders of promoting a questionable scheme to invest in post offices and other real estate.

Davenport’s holdings, investors would learn, were built on deceptive underpinnings. Worsening the backlash, Adventists learned that some church officials received lucrative “finders fees” for bringing business to Davenport.

Many in the church have neither forgotten nor forgiven, harboring lingering concerns that, as Garden Grove pastor Margo Pitrone put it, “we can’t trust [church leaders] to handle our money.”

When Folkenberg assumed the presidency in 1990, he exacerbated those concerns, as he now apologetically concedes.


For nearly a year, a wealthy church member paid tens of thousands of dollars in “salaries” to the wives of Folkenberg and the newly elected North American president for phantom church jobs so they could afford to travel with their husbands.

The anonymous donations were funneled through the church’s Worthy Student Fund, intended to be used for charitable scholarships.

Moreover, the church’s North American president, Al McClure, received a $140,000 interest-free loan that also was channeled through the scholarship fund. Jerry Lastine, then an officer in the church’s mid-Atlantic region, remembers hand-delivering a check for more than $100,000 to a real estate broker in the deal.

Lastine says he thought little of the transaction until auditor Dennis began raising questions about possible financial wrongdoing. Lastine says he soon came to resent the “total injustice” of the perks, and he quit his post.

“I thought of my wife sitting at home without a salary,” he said. “I was disappointed to think that as a church, we would allow money to dictate so many policies. I expected it to be more spiritually driven, rather than money talking.”

With wounds from the bad investments with Davenport still festering, the episode stung the church badly.


“It went sour . . . [and] I’m deeply sorry that some people may have had their confidence factor shaken by that,” Folkenberg said of the student fund affair.

He said he saw the donor’s offer as an “answer to prayer,” an innocuous way for him to see more of his wife during his hectic travels. To ease any ethical concerns, he said, he sought approval from other elders.

Would he accept such an arrangement again? The answer, he said, is “a no-brainer. Absolutely, categorically, no.”

Just months later, the confidence of many Adventists was again rattled--not by spousal salaries or postal investments but by something much closer to the heart: video Bibles for kids.

Last year, amid a spate of accusations and apologies, the church closed down an in-house publishing company that was supposed to produce the Bibles. In the end, none were distributed. At last tally, losses totaled $3.4 million, with the church’s West Coast region taking the biggest hit.

Church elders say they don’t know where the money went. What is known, according to a church task force report, is that the Bible venture was “highly speculative,” financed partly through investments with offshore firms that promised tens of millions of dollars in returns.


With that kind of money at stake, one East Coast elder apparently was so eager to participate that he improperly--and admittedly--diverted about $265,000 to the Bible project from his region’s coffers, according to the report.

Folkenberg characterizes the Bible venture as “a tragic mistake” and says the church has now strengthened its accounting procedures.

The notion of spreading video Bibles to children was a noble one, Folkenberg said, but often “the trail [to financial problems] is paved with good intentions and bad decisions.”

Church critics acknowledge that mistakes can happen but say that, somewhere along the line, the lessons they pose should take hold.

“It seems to me we have not learned from past mistakes,” said Shea, the former executive committee member. “There’s no effort to be more open and declarative to church members about the way in which church funds are handled.”

Pastors Ousted

Despite Ellen White’s admonition that God “will not have his treasury replenished with unwilling offerings,” fired Adventist pastor Richard Fredericks says the church leadership these days is sending a different message: “Pay, pray and shut up.”


A growing number are unwilling to do so, given the questions surrounding the organization’s finances.

Risking their jobs, some pastors have refused to turn over the 10% tithe to the larger church organization as required of all employees.

Congregants’ contributions are passed up through the multitiered bureaucracy unless designated for local use by the donors. But some pastors are encouraging members to forward less of their offerings to the wider church.

In fact, although Adventists remain among the most generous church contributors in the country, recent research by the church has shown that they are increasingly earmarking their tithes for use by local congregations to pay for such necessities as an organist or youth leader.

At Fredericks’ church in Damascus, Md., members last year wanted to expand, raising more than $300,000 in seed money. Church higher-ups saw the effort as a clear usurping of their authority and breach of established rules for the use of church contributions.

The elders sparred with Fredericks for months and finally fired him in October, effectively abolishing his Adventist congregation. Many members followed Fredericks to a new, independent church based on Adventist principles.


Fredericks, who worked for the Adventist Church for two decades, sees something twisted in the idea that the tithe--a heartfelt gift to God--has become so important to the church’s leadership.

“People learn to put their faith more in the organization than they do in Jesus Christ,” he said.

There also have been similar showdowns in Maryland, South Dakota, Colorado and Oregon. Bob Bretsch, a popular senior pastor in Portland, was fired last year by his superiors in Oregon.

His advocates talk passionately about the progressive ideas he brought to his 1,450-member congregation--new forms of music, prayer and outreach. But his ways bothered some traditionalists, and his failure to pay accepted amounts to the church hierarchy was a key reason cited by elders for his dismissal.

“They are afraid . . . of losing control of the local parish, of creeping congregationalism,” Bretsch said.

He has now started an independent church, taking with him several pastors and more than 400 members from his former congregation.


Pastor Clay Peck, who also created an independent Adventist-based church north of Denver, says church members have tired of the old ways.

“People want to invest in something they can see,” he said, “where the ministry is touching their lives, rather than supporting a hierarchy that they see as bloated with too many levels.”

Along with other Adventist “taboos” that Peck’s congregation flouted--such as serving coffee in the foyer--its low rate of contributions passed to the church hierarchy proved a constant source of tension with higher-ups. He says he was warned: “You’re not going by the book, so you’re gonna be out.”

Soon, he was.

“The bottom line,” Peck said, “is how the money is going to be controlled.”

Adventist President Folkenberg contends that despite pastoral skepticism, the world headquarters in Maryland does send a majority of the donations it collects back to local regions.

The problem, he says, is that leaders have “done a very poor job” of letting members know how the money is used. And even if that message gets out, he says, there will still be rabble-rousers who believe that “the organization is always the enemy.”

‘Moral Fences?’

A 1996 document innocuously titled “Total Commitment to God” has also sparked passionate opposition from some members who resent it as force-fed spirituality.


The concept is Folkenberg’s, and it admonishes those at all levels of the church--from pastors and congregants to teachers and doctors--to formally rededicate themselves to fulfilling the Gospel directive: “Go, teach, baptize, make disciples.”

“ ‘Total Commitment to God’ is effectively quality management, in the context of a spiritual agenda,” Folkenberg said.

The proposal asks church members to pledge to meet standards for spirituality and, for some institutions, requires annual reports and outside evaluations to assess the success of Adventists in becoming the “salt and light” of their communities.

In a sermon given in October at Andrews University, the Adventists’ seminary in Michigan, Folkenberg demanded that graduates “give evidence to indicate that they know Christ as their personal savior and Lord.” In addition, he said, “any hint of skepticism with regard to our fundamental beliefs or our heritage is out of order.”

But the idea of “proving” something as personal and intangible as one’s faith has met with outspoken resistance in some quarters--particularly at Adventist colleges, which would have to submit a “spiritual master plan” for review by a panel approved by the church’s highest governing body.

The Adventists’ colleges and universities offer courses in religion, medicine, liberal arts and other areas to 59,000 students. Walla Walla College in Washington state has already seen ideological clashes sparked by conservative donors who object to “liberal” curriculum. “Total Commitment” has fueled the fire there and throughout Adventist academia.


Spirituality “by fiat” is how UC Riverside anthropologist Ervin Taylor, an Adventist, characterizes the concept.

A bizarre attempt to erect “moral fences,” said La Sierra professor Frank Knittel.

“This is not a day and age in which people respond to this,” said La Sierra President Lawrence Geraty. “Our kids here, they’ll say, ‘Shove it.’ They’ll leave the church.”

Although some already have left, many more of all ages have remained loyal, despite the many controversies facing the church structure. Such hot-button issues as the “Total Commitment” document or the Dennis lawsuit or the tithing flap pale in comparison to their devotion to the church and its spiritual message.

Mary Anne Carter of Loma Linda is a fifth-generation Adventist. Until the birth of her children, she was a greeter at her church. Today, she teaches young children in Sabbath school and serves on the congregation’s social committee, offering to help cook for various functions.

“I try not to get into the politics,” she said, echoing the sentiments of others. “I don’t want it to hurt my personal relationship with God.”

Next: The Adventists’ overseas relief operations have caught the eye of federal regulators.



Fundamental Teachings

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is conservative and evangelical, born in the United States and heavily steeped in overseas missionary work. Adherents believe that eternal salvation comes through God’s grace and faith in Jesus Christ, whose advent they consider imminent. Here are other aspects of the church:


* Formally organized in 1863 in Battle Creek, Mich.

* Founded by James and Ellen G. White and retired sea captain Joseph Bates.

* Ellen White’s voluminous writings and biblical interpretations form the denom-ination’s spiritual and administrative basis.



* Adventists follow a strict and fundamental reading of the Bible, including that God created Earth in six days, resting on the seventh.

* They believe that the Old Testament establishes the seventh day, or Sabbath, as Saturday, and that the tradition was honored by Jesus himself.

* The church promotes a healthy lifestyle, including abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, caffeinated drinks, pork and shellfish. Vegetarianism is advocated but not mandated. Health-food reformist and corn flakes inventor John Harvey Kellogg, who provided vegetarians with the earliest meat substitutes, was a prominent turn-of-the-century Adventist.

* To an Adventist, the grave is a place of unconsciousness, where believers simply are asleep, awaiting resurrection upon Jesus’ second coming.




Officials list international membership at about 10 million. U.S. membership is estimated at 828,000. The church operates a 5,400-school system (with science books that embrace creationism) and a 161-hospital network, plus health-food factories. The largest concentration of Adventists in the world lives in Loma Linda, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Most dramatic recent growth has come in Africa, Asia and South America.

Source: Seventh-day Adventist Church