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An Open Letter to the Oregon Conference Church Family From Pastor Dan Linrud, Oregon Conference President

An Open Letter to the Oregon Conference Church Family From Pastor Dan Linrud, Oregon Conference President

March 1, 2024
 
Dear Beloved Oregon Church Family,
 
Many of you have seen or read the information we shared via my video and written statement about our conference financial circumstances. The consequences of the situation has called for many financial adjustments and reductions for our field, which were shared in those earlier releases. Such reductions always cause us to deal with feelings of loss—lost jobs, lost programs, a sense of lost security. In any time of loss, it is natural for us as humans to experience the stages of shock, denial, confusion, anger, hurt, sadness, resignation, and other emotions. I accept, as part of my role as a leader, when that pain is directed at me. I am praying unceasingly for our whole conference church family as well as our affected employees.
 
I am truly so sorry for how difficult this situation is for many. We are not promised that everything will be easy or smooth in this world, but we are promised that our God is with his people at all times and will see us through. Nonetheless, it is painful to face the kind of circumstances that we must relate to now. It affects personal lives, families, friends, and vocational journeys. And this affects both conference employees and members.
 
It is understandable how it seems “unbelievable” that the financial state of the conference could shift so quickly. Let me clearly assure you that there is no nefarious financial mishandling or embezzlement. The financial challenges began in 2022, when post pandemic costs became inflated and showed up at year end. When we got to end of year, it was hoped that the irregular increase in expenses were a one year economic bubble, much as they have been at times in the past, particularly in regard to medical expenses. By third quarter 2023 reports and the fourth quarter budgeting season, it became clear that this was not the case. Operational and employment expenses continued to soar. The increase in health benefits expenses accounted for a significant portion of the financial crisis we experienced, with catastrophic medical nearly doubling. Many people don’t realize that the health benefits system the Seventh-day Adventist church in North America uses is based on a single entity payer pool, meaning that the conference itself pays for every cost of care. We are happy to care for our employee families, yet in just a few years the costs have grown exponentially from $3.5M to more than $7M last year. The health system we have is a larger systemic matter to be addressed as a whole NAD. This is just one way in which employment related costs have significantly increased.
 
As we have all domestically experienced, many other areas of expenses have also grown considerably. All of this cost increase has happened rapidly while the conference has been at fairly static operational and employment levels. While reserves were previously steadily growing at comparable operational and employment levels, the past two years 2022-2023 reserves decreased significantly with the inflationary spike.
 
In the process of relating to this, I personally reached out to presidents of conferences across the North American Division to gather more comparative data to see what may stand out. What we found was that the average Sabbath church attendance ratio to book membership for other conferences ranged from 40%-60%, while Oregon Conference churches’ attendance averaged 27.5% of book membership. That’s a huge difference. There are many reasons for that. One of the differences is that many of the other conferences have much more global immigration coming into their churches from areas of the world where the Adventist church is growing rapidly. This helps mitigate declining North American demographic church engagement for them. The Oregon Conference territory has not been a high global immigration destination, so we are more dependent on North American demographic church engagement. This requires high intentionality and vigilance in building relationships and continuously inviting people in our communities to join us in following Jesus together.
 
Another significant data point was full time employee (FTE) pastors in the field per average church attendance. The data from other conferences ranged from 120-160 attendance per FTE pastor, while Oregon Conference is a mere 85 attendance per FTE pastor. We have many churches in our population areas that once were full and thriving, and now much smaller congregations gather in their buildings. We also have many small churches and districts that are in areas where community growth is static and aging due to major changes in past industries, such as logging and lumber mills.
 
It is no longer sustainable to have an FTE pastor at an average total cost of more than $100,000+ with benefits per year serving churches with total district attendance of 25-50 people attending, or even one church with 75-100 people attending. The most cogent reason for past delay in relating to this has been the love for our churches and desire to see them experience ministry vitality with pastoral leadership. The current circumstances require us to get to a more sustainable FTE pastoral level for our field, which necessitates a reduction of up to 25-30 pastors. This is a very difficult and painful reality that confronts us. I understand how hard this is, and I feel the pain.
 
In addition to pastoral FTE’s the comparison with other conferences’ data indicated that we were also 20% overstaffed in the area of our conference headquarters staffing, particularly in the context of the higher employment expenses of the past two years. This means a reduction of 7 or more FTE equivalence in our headquarters team. Most will be via staff reduction, while some category specific non-tithe funds may reduce conference budget expense for certain positions.
 
Oregon Conference has been blessed with a robust and thriving Seventh-day Adventist education system. We value our amazing educators who give their all to teaching and loving our students and their families, sharing Jesus with them! During the pandemic our schools experienced strong enrolment growth from community students. Our education system is one of the largest in the North American Division, both in terms of number of schools (32), with three stand-alone grade 9-12 academies and three preK-12 schools. Wonderful as this is, our conference active membership is in the mid-range of size, which adds to funding challenges. The Adventist education funding model is based on a three-way cost sharing from student tuition, constituency church subsidy and conference tithe. In previous generations, many students came from the area Adventist churches filled with young families, and those families were contributing to all three of these—tithe, church budget and fully paying tuition. Today, many students are from our communities-at-large (which is a great missional opportunity), but many of them need financial student assistance and they are not contributors to Adventist church budgets or tithe. Many of our Adventist students are also not able to afford full tuition. Under such conditions, a growing education system poses challenges we will need to continue addressing. We will continue praying for God’s leading to new solutions for funding this important mission.
 
The above major factors, along with other many rising costs had been smoothed out over the years by the faithful tithing and generous giving of our active Seventh-day Adventist members. I am so grateful for all who faithfully return tithe as well as donate to your churches, schools, and other conference ministries. Yet, in the context of the 2022-2023 inflationary period, this wonderful generosity has no longer been able to keep pace with costs and cover the needs for change.
 
Change is difficult. We all experience that in our personal lives, and it is doubly difficult for a large body like our conference church family. Reticence to change is often what delays changes that need to take place. Still, responsible stewardship and missional commitment demand that we make changes now.
 
I acknowledge that the administration and executive committee waited longer than we should have to do this. We are sorry that we didn’t address some of these challenges before our current context of inflation led to economic difficulty or us. I am sorry that we didn’t better anticipate the eventual implications of the above factors. It would have been better to try to address more of the employment personnel impact through some natural attrition, especially the past year. I am deeply sorry for those who will most be affected, particularly our pastors and office employees, more than thirty of whose personal situations will change.
 
I am extremely grateful for our administrative team and the members of the executive committee elected by our members through God’s providence. Each of these leaders, and all together, are sincere, smart, honest and courageous in the face of this challenging moment. It is a privilege and joy to serve with them. Please keep this committed group of leaders in your prayers.
 
I am heartened by Jesus’ promise that he is with us. That he will never leave us until the end of the age, which we continue to pray will be soon. That he is our great Provider and will sustain us in this journey together. I believe that he answers prayer, and that is why we are inviting you to pray in your personal closet, pray with others, pray in your churches and schools, and join our online prayer service Sabbath, March 2 at 5:30 p.m. (see the notifications for that).
 
I and our administrative team have appreciated the deep care and concern of members about this season through phone calls, personal conversations, emails and letters. We can sense how strong your love and dedication to the church is. Our Administrative team also looks forward to visiting further with you face-to-face during our annual April Town Hall meetings in each region of the conference.
 
I am encouraged by the fact that we are God’s people, and the Church is his Bride. He cares more deeply about our wellbeing and loves us more lavishly than we can imagine! He continues to call us to fulfill the mission that is All About Jesus—knowing Jesus and others, loving Jesus and others, serving Jesus and others, and sharing Jesus with others. We have the unique Seventh-day Adventist mission in the context of the three angels messages, of inviting all  persons to enjoy a relationship with Jesus together with us here and throughout eternity. The conference team will lean even more strongly into equipping pastors, elders and lay members for even more effective missional ministry in their communities. In Him, together we will go forward, we will grow stronger, and we will fulfill his mission.
 
I’m praying for you all.
 
Yours in His Service,
Dan Linrud

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