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 we can 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 fewer 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 when 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!
* For our members in Canada, AdventistGiving can be accessed here. (UPDATED April 10, 2020, 10:25 a.m. ET)