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Mark A. Kellner

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Keeping Ethics in Ministry: A Conversation with Juan Prestol-Puesán

The question of organizational ethics — highlighted by the 2001 "Enron scandal" that brought down a major U.S. corporation — is an important one for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As religious organizations worldwide are under increased scrutiny from the media and other sectors, the need to maintain the highest standards may be more important than ever before.

Pastor Juan R. Prestol-Puesán, a native of the Dominican Republic, has served at the General Conference since 2007 as undertreasurer of the world church. He was elected Treasurer in 2015.

In the course of studying ethics and administration, Pastor Prestol-Puesán read and wrote about the work of Dr. Marianne Jennings, an emerita Professor of Legal and Ethical Studies at Arizona State University, particularly Jennings' 2006 book, "The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse."

Adventist Review Online recently spoke with Pastor Prestol-Puesán about ethical issues and how the Seventh-day Adventist Chuch can avoid the problems organizations such as Enron faced.

He said organizational ethics is a subject that is of interest to many of our people, particularly millennials. I think this is a subject that is of sensitivity to them. They understand this to be important. I want to be sure that they at least have received from church administration the assurances that we’re trying to do everything possible to make sure the church handles resources appropriately. When we’re talking about ethics, we’re not talking only about money. We’re talking about also other resources—personnel, technology, as well as finances."

(Questions and answers may have been edited for clarity and length.)

Adventist Review Online: Given the commitment to Christian beliefs and practices that Adventists undertake — at baptism we vow to renounce the world and its sinful ways — what particular challenges does staying ethical provide to employees and leaders within the church?

Pastor Juan Prestol-Puesán: Well, indeed we do make a commitment to walk in the light that we have. But the flesh is weak, and errors are committed with the sincerest intentions. And this unwelcome event actually marred and damaged the reputation of leaders. I’ve seen this to occur early in their lives of service as well as late in their lives of service. We always have to be on guard.

However, as Adventist leaders, we need to look beyond that point. We should not only look at ethics as the desirable goal; we should be looking at holiness as a goal. I would like us to look beyond, past the point at which the world stops.

If you read [Marianne Jennings'] book, you cannot help but think that all of these big companies committed what you’d call an ethical deconstruction. They basically broke themselves down because they did not stay ethical. … The morals of the leaders were compromised. And it’s very easy to do that. Sometimes it creeps up very quickly and surreptitiously. So why should we be always on guard from this? It’s because no one — no one — is exempt from committing the sin of being unethical. We should always be alert for the warning signs.

ARO: In her book, as you wrote about it, Jennings describes what she calls a "yee-haw" culture as one in which leaders believe they can do anything. At the conference level, the conferences and the unions, even at the pastoral level, leaders have a lot of autonomy. How do we avoid that sort of "I can do anything" culture?

Prestol-Puesán: Given our church structure, and given our decentralization, given the fact that yes, sometimes in some local conferences and in some pastorates as well, districts, as well as unions, we do find there are times that checks and balances are not present or not rigidly enforced.

You find that the "yee-haw" culture Jennings mentions sometimes creeps in. That means anything goes. They can do anything. They can act without answering for or showing any accountability. Well, all of those (behaviors), in the end, exact a price.

It is entirely possible that in those companies that she analyzed there were people who were honest, were sincere, were ethical, and they were acting correctly. They were doing their jobs well. In other words, there’s nothing reprehensible about what they were doing. But it is the tone at the top, and it is also the fact that it doesn’t take everyone to be unethical. It just takes one or two people to really create an unethical environment. It only takes a few. … With one person who does it, people on the outside will actually tar us with the same brush. They will say, “Well, that’s the way they are. All administrators are the same, and all church leaders are corrupt.” And quite frankly, that’s not the case.

ARO: This is sort of an echo of what Edmund Burke said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Prestol-Puesán: But it’s more than doing nothing. It’s the fact that in the work environment, outside in the secular world as well as within the church, we all have responsibilities. I’m not supposed to be telling my co-equals what to do, OK? They do their work. They have been entrusted with some resources to do what they need to do. I’m supposed to do my work well. However, if they fail, or if I fail in doing my work, then they pay for my mistakes, because people are going to see that my failure is theirs as well. And that’s why I’m saying that the yee-haw culture is something that not only affected the ones that were doing the wrong, but the ones that were not doing the wrong end up in it just as well.

ARO: Great emphasis is placed sometimes within the church on statistics, and they should always, it seems, reflect growth, or so we would believe. Given that pressure to maintain the numbers can be a trigger of ethical collapse, according to Jennings. How do we reconcile this?

Prestol-Puesán: I believe that has been addressed by General Conference Secretariat for the last five years at least, when they emphasized the membership audits. The interest is in actually verifying that the membership that is reported as the membership in all the divisions of the world, those numbers indeed correspond to the members that we have. I would say many, much of this has been already addressed; and several world divisions, not to say the majority of them, have addressed the issue of inaccurate members or phantom members, if you wish to call them that.

And I believe I need to give credit to the Secretariat in the General Conference since G.T. Ng has been secretary, that he has addressed this issue. I feel a little more at ease with the church now than perhaps 20 years ago, 30 years ago, when some places were basically reporting numbers that perhaps were not properly verified or properly documented. That is less likely to be happening at this moment. Are we above the temptation of inflating anything or everything? No, we’re not. As I said at the beginning, we are human beings, and I think we want to be sure that we tell the people that we want to be sure that our records are appropriate, are reflecting reality, and are not inflated.

ARO: The pressures on businesses and on leaders and on enterprises, organizations, to conform can be great. And in Jennings’ book she talks about Brent Scowcroft, a former U.S. Army general and advisor to president, who was cowed into silence when he (raised questions about allegedly unethical behavior at Enron).

Prestol-Puesán: If I’m not mistaken, in the book it’s reported that he was a member of a board of trustees or board of directors of Enron, and that he became aware of certain things and brought them to the attention of the CEO, and they basically shut him down. That is, without any uncertain terms they told him that he was to stay quiet and say nothing. … If this is indeed what happened, this simply tells us that a person who has a strong personality as a general, as a former National Security advisor to President George H.W. Bush, even a person such as that can be sidelined, can be coerced into silence.

ARO: How does one resist the pressure to go along with what they perceive as compromise (or worse) on the part of a board? Because if I’m newly appointed to a board, and all these senior people say, "Well, we’ve always done it this way," or "We believe this," or "We believe that," how does one overcome that if they see a problem that has to be corrected?

Prestol-Puesán: Your privilege is to vote against it, and even ask that your negative vote be recorded. The ultimate would be for you to simply resign, if you are a member of an executive board. That is in the case that you are in complete and total disagreement with where administration is taking the organization. That is really an extreme. But you can be a dissenting voice. You can have a contrarian position, if you will. And have it recorded. In other words, make sure that in critical actions your negative vote be recorded. You want posterity to know, whoever reads these minutes, to know that you were not in agreement with the action taken.

ARO: In discussing this, I was reminded of what Ellen G. White wrote in Education (page 57) about "…Men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall."

Prestol-Puesán: In administrative matters, there are many grey areas. Administrators are constantly navigating in and out of those grey areas. And because of the support of the people, even when they go into a grey area where there could be dissenting voices on that, individuals, even in their own committees and their own boards, and the people that work with them, their pastors and their teachers, still trust their character and their heart and are willing to go along with that even if it isn’t something that they would 100 percent endorse. But they’re willing to give it support because they’re willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

However, I believe the statement from Ellen White refers to matters of principle. It is likely that most critical decisions are dealt with privately and during the day-to-day operations, and issues may not become public. A fellow leader once told me that when confronted with ethical matters he reflects on them privately and only when the path is clear in his mind, he moves into the public arena. Nevertheless, on most decisions we tend to deal with issues (having) ethical implications away from the public, prayerfully and below the radar. And, of course, you have to decide also how you are going to live with the consequences of the conflict in your own mind. If the issue is just a matter of opinion sometimes, instead of putting your foot down, you may choose to express your opinion, taking the idea in a different direction to what is proposed. When principles are involved, you have no choice but to decide what is in your conscience.

It doesn’t mean that you would do things the way they are proposing. It simply means that it doesn’t rise to the level of becoming a conflict, becoming a source of confrontation. It simply means it is their choice, and if you’re not willing to go with those choices, you probably ought to recuse yourself from the decision, or recuse yourself from the board.

In the case of a principle, lying, let’s say, deliberate lying to the board, that is something that you cannot endorse under any circumstance. And what happened in the case of Enron and other corporations that were practicing unethically is that there were outright lies. They lied to the board. They lied to the investors. Even the auditing firms were facilitating this. And there was a set of circumstances that hopefully will never repeat themselves in American life, and that certainly we don’t want to see in the church.

ARO: You noted that the Good Samaritan was an example of demonstrating leadership character, what you called leadership character. How can Seventh-day Adventists, whether they are local church elders or pastors or those at higher levels, model and mirror such character today?

Prestol-Puesán: The way of service is always the way to reflect the character of Jesus. We are people of service. Whether you are a church administrator of the highest ranking, or simply a lay member that is totally committed to service, going and serving in the post of duty in your local congregation, it really is the same thing. It amounts to the same. What’s in your heart, and how do you express it? In the case of the Good Samaritan, here is the man who actually stops. Not only stops to commiserate, but also to help, to take this man that was beaten by the robbers and care for him. I think that going that second mile, going that third mile, is the best way to express ourselves as not only ethical, but also as the holiest people on earth.

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