Adventist Review editor Bill Knott interviews Michael Kruger, new president of ADRA International.
Published on: 12-24-2019
On October 2, the Board of Directors for ADRA International elected ADRA CFO Michael Kruger president of the church’s humanitarian organization. Kruger was for 25 years the owner and executive of a large financial services company in South Africa, and came to ADRA in 2014 in his first employed role working for the Seventh-day Adventist Church—Editor’s Note.
Bill Knott: You lead a huge international aid organization for the world church—thousands of people, hundreds of programs, so many moving parts. Tell me about something from the last 12 months that moved you as you traveled the globe.
Michael Kruger: I was in eastern Ukraine where ADRA is helping to rebuild towns and villages destroyed in the ongoing conflict. I found myself in a place where most of the men were either gone because they are in the military or had been killed in the fighting. And so they were a lot of women and young children around. I’ve seen many of those places around the world, but for some reason this one uniquely touched me. Here I was in a refuge for women and children, seeing their distress up close.
Knott: Why was that moment powerful for you?
Kruger: I was speaking through an interpreter, and the women in the refuge eventually asked if I would pray for them. And so I prayed. As we were leaving, one woman stepped forward, holding her children. She grabbed my jacket, and she also grabbed the interpreter, pulling him toward her. I thought, “What is this?” And she looked at him and then at me with an intensity as though she could see into our souls. Then she said the words—”Promise me you won’t forget us.” All of a sudden, the reality of war and loss and dislocation became very personal. The most difficult part of it was that I knew as I spoke with her that funding for their program was going to run out. That image of this young women with her children will never leave me.
I got on the train back to Kiev, went back to my hotel room, and adjusted the air conditioner. And I sat on my bed and thought, “There’s something wrong here. There’s something wrong with this picture.” I was personally well cared for, but she was pleading, “Promise me you won’t forget me.”
One of the challenges in my position is that you can get caught up with the metrics, with the numbers. But it’s vital to get to the places of real need, to really look pain and loss in the face.
Knott: Many Adventists have only vague ideas about the size and scope of ADRA’s mission. Give me some sense of how many people are out there doing the work of ADRA.
Kruger: We’ve got about 7,000 full-time staff and about 55,000 part-time staff, including volunteers, who work for ADRA each month.
Knott: That’s a big group of people with a significant footprint. What kind of people come to work for ADRA? How do they “select themselves in” and say, “That’s the organization I want to be part of?”
Kruger: Increasingly, I’m watching Millennials and Gen Z young adults move toward ADRA. They want their lives to make a difference in the world. They want to do something that’s meaningful, that allows them to say, “I made a positive impact on the world.” We have many young adults approaching us from all walks of life who have a passion for people and for service. Even at ADRA International headquarters, we’ve got a large group of young adults employed.
ADRA is blessed to have many mid-career professionals in its employ as well as many who have given many decades of service. There are also those who have given up successful careers in the private sector to work for ADRA in order to experience true fulfillment and meaning in what they do.
Knott: As I walk around the General Conference building, the average age at ADRA seems younger than almost any other department or service I know of.
Kruger: They come here with their vigor, their passion, their desire for life. They want their lives to make a difference. A friend of mine several years ago told me, “You’re so blessed to be working for ADRA.” And I asked him, “Why is that?” He said, “Because your impact is so direct and mostly immediate. A man is hungry: you feed him. A woman seeks clean drinking water: you drill a borehole; you supply it.” He told me, “You know, I’ve been in the ministry many years, and sometimes I wonder whether all those sermons are really making much of a difference. Your impact is immediate.”
Knott: Would you describe ADRA as being in a recruitment mode? Are you looking for people who are interested in making a difference, who share these passions? Or are budgets tight here as in so many other places?
Kruger: When I joined ADRA five years ago, we were trying to plot our future, wondering if we could really fulfill our mission in the years ahead. The wonderful thing is, we just presented our budget for 2020 a few weeks ago—and both the ADRA budget and its impact have quadrupled in the last five years.
Knott: Quadrupled! There aren’t many ministry or aid organizations that can say that.
Kruger: We’ve been blessed beyond measure. So yes, we’re looking for young talented, passionate people to join us: we obviously need to manage those funds well. We need to manage the impact. We’ve been in a recruiting phase, and will continue that into 2020.
Knott: Many people describe ADRA as a first point of contact that people of other faiths or none have with the Seventh Day Adventist Church. What is it you want a person to experience who lines up at the back of a food distribution truck?
Kruger: There’s a story in Matthew 8 that answers that best. A leper comes to Jesus and asks for healing. And the beauty in that moment isn’t only what Jesus says, but what He does. Jesus simply could have spoken the word, and the man would have been healed. But Jesus does more: He reaches out and touches the man. Yes, Jesus healed his leprosy. But Jesus looked into the humanity of the situation and saw the loneliness. The one thing that leper hadn’t experienced in all those years was a touch, and so Jesus touches him.
To me, that’s the ministry of ADRA. Our entry point is the need of humanity. As the humanitarian arm of the church, we see the need, and we place ourselves as Jesus did in that space—whatever it may be. To the man or woman or child who’s looking for a piece of bread, we can provide that. But what we really we want to do is extend the love and care of Jesus to the hurting.
Knott: So it’s more than bread.
Kruger: It’s a lot more than bread. We can deal with a physical need, but we want to introduce them at the same time to the Bread of Life. Jesus is the ‘why.’ Jesus is behind what ADRA does. Yes, we have a unique entry point compared to some ministries. We can save the child who’s sick, or who’s going to be taken into a sex trafficking ring. We can bring clean, potable water to a village, or bring food to those who are hungry, or give shelter to those whose homes had been destroyed in an earthquake. But as Jesus did with that leper, we want to see the need inside the human being. That’s where ADRA has the privilege to touch the lives, and then ask, “Can we each introduce you to the Man who stands as the ‘why’ behind what we do?”
Knott: I know it’s hard work, but is it satisfying work?
Kruger: It’s the most satisfying work I’ve ever done in my life.
Knott: And you’ve done some unusual things.
Kruger: Yes, I have. I still call myself a businessman to this day. For 25 years, I ran my own business and employed many people. But to look in the face of a child or a woman or a man who is desperately in need, knowing you have the privilege to in some way ameliorate whatever they’re facing—there’s nothing more satisfying than that.
Knott: We’ve talked mostly about the caring side of ADRAs operation. That’s point of need we most often see. But there’s a development side of ADRA. Tell me about the projects ADRA takes on that may not be as gratifying as handing out a loaf of bread or drilling a well.
Kruger: You’re quite right. ADRA’s work is divided into components. One is better known as the emergency work, offering immediate relief in whatever circumstance may exist. But the majority of what ADRA does is long-term, sustainable development.
Let me give you an example of that. Some years back, I was in Papua New Guinea, and traveled into the Highlands. And there were several villages that had no access to any kind of flowing water. Villagers were walking great distances each day just to find some source of water. We undertook a project: we worked with the villages, and they agreed that if we supplied food and modest remuneration to them, they would dig a water supply channel from a mountain source—26 kilometers (16 miles) away!
Knott: That’s an amazing distance to move water—especially in a mountainous area.
Kruger: We put in a gravity feed system: we brought water those 26 kilometers over a mountain ridge and into three villages in a valley which never before had running water. I remember there was a man in his nineties who went to the tap to turn it on for the first time. And yes, clean water flowed for the first time. Tears flowed down his face.
The village elders asked me, “Why do you do what you do?” And I prayed silently, “Lord, what would you have me share with them?” Then I spoke of Jesus as the water of life, as the ‘why’ behind what we do. That’s just one of many development projects we’re involved in—sometimes building access roads, designing major irrigation schemes—
Knott: Long, multi-year things.
Kruger: Multiple year projects where we’re creating a sustainable solution for a village. When we leave after two, three or five years, that community is planting sustainable crops. They can feed their own families, and they’ll have a whole lot left over they can move to market. That lets them start to generate a source of income, and receive the dignity that earning a living brings. They get to take charge of their own lives. ADRA has only really done its job when we leave a community that’s sustainable into the future without external intervention.
Knott: The skills needed to design and implement projects like these require very specialized training. I’ve heard of hydrologists and agronomists working for ADRA. Is ADRA really a place where you can work for your church and serve as something other than the traditional minister, teacher, doctor, or nurse?
Kruger: Very much so. For example, we have many engineers working for us—water engineers, soil engineers. We even have psychologists working for ADRA.
Kruger: Because we do a lot of psychosocial work. People in a war zone may need flowing water to drink, and they may need gas for heating. But at the end of the day, how do they deal with the anguish of what they’ve gone through? They’ve lost loved ones; they’ve seen friends and family members killed in front of them. In many of those circumstances, ADRA provides counseling and support.
We’ve got a big catalogue of skills that are needed around the world—IT skills, data management skills. We’re implementing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid around the world every day. We need to generate reports for donors. All of that requires an infrastructure of data collection and the ability to report. And then there is the website development needed to report our work, the communication skills to find donors and supporters.
Knott: How do you keep people motivated when the daily work isn’t always exciting or heartwarming? Management offices like that of the ADRA International can’t always feel as heartwarming as some of the experiences you’ve had this year. How do you motivate the people who work here?
Kruger: First, we try to be intentional about departments sharing their stories and their experiences as they travel to remote regions. Our digital media allow our in-house staff to connect in many ways and on many platforms. We run a Facebook Leadership Forum that allows those in this office to connect effectively with employees and volunteers in the field. We’ve intentionally set up a number of those interactive spaces where our staff can keep themselves connected with what’s happening at the back of the bread truck, or at the well head, or with the irrigation project.
Knott: You’re on the road a lot—probably one of the most traveled people in the Church’s world headquarters. What does it take to be out on the road 180 or 200 days a year—sometimes more?
Kruger: The big challenge is “How do you achieve balance in your life? The need of the ministry is unlimited, not only running the office here, but connecting with the ADRA network of more than 120 offices around the world. We also represent ADRA at various aid forums, including the United Nations, and the World Food Program. Yes, it’s tiring, but it allows you to keep up with the rapidly changing circumstances of a world in need, and to bring about a common strategic approach throughout the ministry.
Knott: So if I were to ask your wife what she thinks of your job—what do you think she’d say?
Kruger: As a couple, as a family, we agreed to respond to God’s call, knowing there were going to be stresses and even difficult moments. And yes, to be honest, my wife would be happy if I’ve traveled less. But she’s committed to the mission and wants to see it moving forward. For her, for me—the most important thing in life is that each person responds to God’s call. Sometimes that brings pressures and challenges on the family, but we’ve concluded God’s call needs to be central to all we do.
Knott: Leaders like you have to think about devising and implementing systems that actually work for those employed—and for those who will get the benefits of a functioning system. ADRA is a big, sprawling system in thousands of locations. Is it daunting to try to bring about change?
Kruger: Everything ultimately comes down to people. It doesn’t matter if it’s a governance system, or policies, or procedures. There are people who work behind all of those things. One of the most crucial elements and challenges of leadership is to engage with and empower your people. In most circumstances, I’ve found that the solutions to fixing a broken system live within the very people who are working with you.
Knott: The ones who know how to fix it are already in the room.
Kruger: They’re in the room. The question is, have you given them a voice? Have you given them a space in which they can share, where they can be heard? And when they’re heard, does that that translate into the ability to fix what sometimes is a broken system?
Knott: That’s a powerful statement about trusting God’s working in other people’s lives.
Kruger: We’re all beings created by God, endowed with talents and gifts God has given us. But Scripture tells us clearly we’re all endowed with different gifts. Any one person who believes they have all the answers is terribly misguided. The solution lies in the collaborative strength of the whole. In that approach, we’re so much stronger in moving forward. Engaged people—people who are heard and appreciated—are people who are passionate about the mission.
Knott: If you could offer one phrase to the more than 60,000 persons around the globe who work for ADRA in some capacity, what would it be?
Kruger: (Pause) I’d say, “Thank you. Thank you for dedicating your life to sharing the love of God.”
Knott: When you put your head on your pillow at night, what do you ask God for?
Kruger: I pray every night for wisdom. I pray for God to give peace to my mind that I may hear His voice. If I attempt to do this work in my own wisdom, I’ll fail, and I won’t be the blessing God wants me to be. I pray for wisdom to make decisions, and I ask for that wisdom for my senior team and all the staff. I need us all to collaborate: I need them to hold me accountable in my position.
Our young adults are blessed with passion and energy, and if we can harness that, if we can hear their voice, we can allow their gifts to build and improve our ministries. Often, it’s the young person who holds you accountable, who challenges the ‘way things are’ because they can imagine a different reality. We’re working hard to listen well, empower their passion and gifts, and see the results in better service to the world.