Lately independent Adventist media has been abuzz with stories of a church leader in the Southern African and Indian Ocean Division office whose academic degrees turned out to be unsubstantiable. The responses to this revelation have been, it seems to me, unnecessarily scathing, as though the church has been irreparably damaged by this one man claiming degrees he didn’t have.
I have enjoyed a relatively peaceful life, at least as far as physical violence is concerned. I’ve not been in a fight since childhood. I’ve never been the victim of a violent crime, thank God, nor even threatened. (I’ve been threatened occasionally over my theology, but not with being beaten up, only with losing my salvation—though I’m reasonably hopeful that those who made the threats haven’t the authority to enforce them.)
It was a question I heard asked in a Sabbath School class—rhetorically, it turned out, for the questioner also had the answer. He opined that we don’t have many big churches because our faith is too rigorous for most people. There’s too much to give up: alcohol, tobacco, meat, a tenth of your income, and Saturday football. “People won’t make the sacrifices,” he said. In his opinion, the Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t for everyone. Like the Marines, we’ll settle for a few good men. As for the unreached, well, “strait is the gate and narrow is the way… and few there be that find it.”
I wrote last month about some of the pressures on pastors, and how that’s affecting the profession. There is a bright spot for Seventh-day Adventist pastors, though: if you’re a good pastor, you can leave ministry and still be a minister. In fact, that’s where the best pastors end up: in conference, union conference, division and General Conference offices.
Aside from growing up on a family farm, I’ve never worked at anything except being a parish pastor. When I studied for ministry I was motivated, as most of us are, by a search for answers to the disquieting questions in my own young heart. (Henri Nouwen had it right when he spoke of the “wounded healer” who heals others in the attempt to heal him or her self.) At the time, I didn’t know much about what it meant to be a pastor.
When a friend sent me David Corn’s column for Mother Jones a few weeks ago, it was like getting hit with bad news I already knew. Sooner or later, someone was going to peek behind the first serious Seventh-day Adventist presidential candidate, and begin to scrutinize the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Through most of my ministry, the conventional wisdom, shared by people from all across the Adventist spectrum, was that we’d outgrown the union conferences. Union conferences had been established at a time when there were no telephones, no airplanes, no internet. At a time when it was believed that pastors needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses at the very top—a whole chain of control.
I’ve been reading Spectrum magazine for decades, and participating in it in as an online forum since—well, since it became an online forum. Spectrum has thought itself a loyal critic of the church, a place where dissenting points of view can be voiced, or underreported church news given an airing. At its best, it functions creatively and constructively.
If you’d asked me a few years ago to make an off-the-cuff analysis of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I’d have said something like this: “We exist on a polarity of moderately progressive to nearly-cultic conservative, with most of us bell-curved somewhere in the evangelical-fundamentalist middle.” All our disagreements seem to stretch to either side of that line: women’s ordination, homosexuality, food and drink, Ellen White, Biblical interpretation, eschatology, the gospel.