“When it comes to racism, I think our church has been too silent. And silence is no longer acceptable today. People are not looking for a place that manages all tenets of faith perfectly. They are looking for a place where people live what they say they believe,” says Ivan Williams, ministerial director for the North American Division. In this exclusive interview, Williams talks about supporting pastors amid the pandemic and protests, encouraging them to be more engaged in their communities and to follow Christ's lead in battling for social justice.
Question: You are the Ministerial Director for the North American Division, supporting more than 4,200 pastors at churches all across that territory. The pastors you work with have had an unprecedented year so far. What are the main issues you have been asked to deal with?
Answer: We support pastors with resources — we train, we help with policy, we equip them with continuing education. We also meet with our Adventist schools, including undergraduate, religion and theology departments and the theological seminary at Andrews University, and work with them on curriculum change.
One of the ways we support individual pastors is through the ministerial directors at our unions and conferences.
We try to keep our ears to the ground through research, listening to our ministerial directors and the NAD pastor advisory, to gain insight into how pastors are feeling.
I also serve as a volunteer pastor at a local church when I am at home, to help me stay current with the micro level, since I serve on a macro level in my full time job.
Our office was planning for a quinquennial pastors’ convention with all of the pastors in the North American Division. This would have been the second one — we had a pastors’ convention in Austin in 2010. We were full steam ahead with the planning until COVID hit in March. Now we have postponed this until 2022.
So in March your office had to shift gears entirely — presumably the problems and needs of pastors changed completely.
The big thing that we were dealing with at first was one of technology. We had many churches who were not equipped to provide worship digitally. Pastors were scrambling. We were struggling to get equipment. We all wanted to make sure that even though we couldn’t meet face to face, we could still worship together each Sabbath.
Our office provided support on how to use a variety of technology, how to continue the worship environment, and how to continue pastoral care. We brought in technology experts who offered training on how to make a service creative with just one camera.
Then we dealt with helping pastors to minister in a time of isolation. We tried to help them help their congregations through loss of jobs, and loss of life. We offered a conference on loss, another on resilience, and one on self-care. We have gotten a lot of traction with our online conferences, and a lot of viewers.
During this time we have to be even more intentional about self-care. We have to make sure each pastor is okay mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually.
We have also talked to the spouses. Everybody is home now together — spouses and children. How do you create a wonderful space for the family in this new environment?
We have also been dealing with women in ministry and trying to support them in some of the experiences they have been dealing with as well.
Our office is not traveling at all, but we are still busy. Our team of ministerial directors meets once a month, and we have many other meetings with pastors.
And what about some of the other things going on right now?
We have addressed race issues with our Let Justice Roll conference, focusing on race, and urging pastors to address this in a systematic way.
Do you feel the Adventist Church can be proud of its historical record on combating racism?
Our church has had a mixed record. I believe that we had a great foundation laid by our pioneers in the church. They were not only addressing the issues of the day, like slavery, many of them were forthright abolitionists. Many of them also focused on temperate living and the temperance movement. They protested. We are Protestants. Adventists were leaders in these areas. But maybe after our reorganization we kind of lost our social justice way and our voice.
Social justice is a part of the Three Angels’ messages in Revelation 14. The message is the everlasting gospel to every tribe, kindred, tongue, and people. It is a message relevant to the issues that divide us spiritually and socially.
The messages are about warning, yes, and telling the world, but the messages are also about touching. We have done a great job of telling the world, but we have not done a great job of touching the world. I think that is the message of social justice. In Luke 4:18, Christ shared the purpose of his ministry: to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.
Social justice is about righting wrongs and speaking truth to power. And it is also about touching the world. If you tell the world, but don’t touch the world, the world will stop listening.
In many ways we have been sanctimoniously aloof. I really believe we should be more engaged in community issues.
One of the tangible ways I am trying to make a difference is meeting with our schools of religion twice a year. We want to help our pastoral students be trained not just in congregations, but in communities. A church is not just a church building, but also the community where the church resides — where the members serve and live.
One of the ways to make sure our churches are more engaged is to train pastors how to meet the mayor, and how to go in and speak to a police chief. What does it look like to have a relationship with a community’s leaders? Then I won’t be on the outside looking in when crises come, but be on the inside and an influencer because I have built a relationship prior to a crisis.
I would rather make friends when I don’t need a friend, and be able to be a friend when a crisis hits. I want to be a solution and an option.
The whole race issue is quite evident in this sense: I believe that most of our organizations that don’t have diversity have hindered the mission. Because we serve the people. Representation should be for the people you are serving. The more diverse we are the better the mission. If our leaders are diverse, then we hear the voices of a diverse group of people. If I only have African Americans around me and I am trying to serve my division, my mission will be hindered. If I only have Caucasians around me, it is the same. Our community is not racially monolithic.
I grew up in the south, in Atlanta. I have definitely seen racism, and anti-diversity. What is important is that we are able to speak honestly to each other. I don’t like to see exclusion or mutedness of voices — even theologically. I think we need diversity of thought. I judge new light by old light.
When it comes to racism, I think our church has been too silent. And silence is no longer acceptable today. People are not looking for a place that manages all tenets of faith perfectly. They are looking for a place where people live what they say they believe.
It is important for our church to believe our teachings, but also to live those out. If everyone is created equally and God is our father, and we are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, how should that impact our view of ministry and life and value?
You are from North Carolina, grew up in Atlanta, and have served in pastoral ministry in different parts of the U.S. You mentioned the South Atlantic Conference, but you also served for many years in California. Have you noticed different attitudes to race in different churches and different communities, depending on the geographical location?
Passions are similar in the different places.
Serving in this role, I have noticed that we don’t have many Caucasian churches in our cities anymore. I know the regional conferences have many churches in the cities, but I want to see more of a state conference focus on the urban mission and not just leave that up to the regional conferences alone.
Before COVID our country had been undergoing this huge gentrification, with people moving back into the cities, including many Caucasians who live in the cities now, and while they can definitely go to an African American church, we need more renderings of church opportunities.
In this time of nationwide — even worldwide — protests against systemic racism, how are you helping your pastors to get involved? Are there any ways you urge them not to be involved?
I sit on the religious liberty board and we were talking just last week about protesting. And there certainly are many Adventist pastors who protest — they just wanted to be there, boots on the ground.
One of our pastors in Minnesota in 2016 when Philando Castile was killed was out with the people, and they asked him to pray. And he is Caucasian.
This is my personal mantra: I believe Jesus gives us the model of being involved and engaged in the human plight of social injustice, and in caring for the least. Jesus himself left the palatial halls of heaven to walk in our cesspool of a world. He got involved. We have a moral obligation to get involved.
To be sanctimonious and aloof in our buildings and homes without working to alleviate the pain of injustice is to be anti-Christian.
There are some people who will not march because of the COVID environment, and I understand that. But there are other ways you can be involved and speak up and help your neighbor. In other words, go outside of yourself to make a difference. When the Lord says: “Well done, you good and faithful servant,” what is he saying it for? I believe the litmus test is actually seen through Christ’s mission in Luke 4:18 of proclaiming the good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free; in Matthew 25:35-36 of serving the least; and in Micah 6:8 to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Our mission cannot be any different than Christ’s mission. If he tells us “well done” it is because we have done our best to complete this mission.
There are pastors who are protesting, ministering through social media, posting messages of anti-racism. There are pastors who are engaged in small and incremental ways on church boards. Our pastors can be the biblical moral voice, teaching to not discriminate because of one’s color, race, ethnicity, or gender.
I am asking our pastors to have conversations. In some ways it will not be easy, but we must be courageous and bold to address the issues.
In our church we have become politicized, and we have become more passionate about political parties than we have become passionate about our Christianity. To address race and discrimination does not mean you are being political — it means you care, and you want to do what Christ has done.
To be silent is to be complicit.
We are trying to give pastors the tools they need to have these conversations. And we are trying to learn from them.
(When I was younger, I used to wonder what all those higher-up church people in all those offices actually did. And now here I am. God has a sense of humor!)
What can our church, our corporate body, do to ensure it is a haven for everybody?
Unfortunately, in the past our focus has sometimes been on keeping people out, rather than welcoming them in.
In Matthew 23, Jesus accused the Pharisees of shutting people out of the kingdom of heaven, and not even going in themselves.
The corporate church needs to not be afraid to address the relevant issues of today. One of the biggest obstacles in impeding mission accomplishments — the spreading of gospel, touching people — is irrelevance. Irrelevance looks like being afraid to address issues of society, whether it be race, or sex, or gender.
I think those who are engaged and Spirit-driven know that we do have answers for these issues and questions. And when we are not engaged biblically, morally, and socially, we become irrelevant because we are not present and available. Being safe is being irrelevant. Being disengaged is being irrelevant. We have to be willing to have tough conversations, to talk about issues. And to be transparent. There is a complicity of not fully sharing everything today — we must be transparent in our ministry so that people can say: “I may not agree with them, but at least I can trust that they are being real and present and available.” To not be present, to not have a voice, is to really be missionarily unfulfilled.
Having a teachable spirit is also crucial. One of the things that impedes race learning is to come to the table feeling like “I already know everything.” Many people really have no idea what their privileges are. A friend told me this morning that we call it the “master bedroom” because on a plantation, that was the master’s room. Whether it is true or not, the point is being willing to understand where we are coming from. Take for instance the many Christian paintings that only portray Christ and the Bible in a European or Caucasian way. My point is that nothing should be so culturally sacred as to not be willing to have a conversation about it. Even the Lord says, “Come now, let us reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18).
These are subtle things that we don’t even notice. And we have to at least be able to talk about these things as brothers and sisters, even if we differ or disagree.
You mentioned meeting regularly with schools of religion and the seminary. I have been told you have been instrumental in building bridges between pastors and the church’s academic community. This sounds like a priority for you.
Leading collaboratively is a priority for me. When I started this role, I found many silos in our division. The professors were not meeting the ministerial directors, those hiring the pastors. The schools of religion were not talking about their best practices. All of us were trying to create this product to serve in ministry, but no one was collaborating and talking. If we are all doing the same thing, and trying to have the same outcomes, but not collaborating then we are spinning our wheels.
We are not taught in school how to be socially engaged. We are not taught how to be community-connected. I want to change that in our curriculum. Why can’t Adventists be known as people who are passionately engaged in the plight of those who need the gospel and need the gospel in shoes?
So yes, our ministerial division meets with the chairs of religion departments, and we go to the academic meetings of the Adventist Theological Society and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies. Pastors want to hear from theologians.
I believe one of the roles of the theologians is to help pastors in the field and be clear about points of faith and what they believe.
Having served with Dan Jackson [retiring president of the North American Division] for nine years, I have absorbed his mantra of talking, and his real push to collaborate more, working with health systems, schools, and more.
Are you looking forward to working with G. Alexander Bryant, the new NAD president?
I am. Ministerial answers to Presidential, so he is my new boss. I am looking forward to it. I had an African American leader as a conference president in the South Atlantic Conference (a black conference). But this is the first time since the beginning of my ministry that I have been able to work with another African American president.
I am looking forward to it, not just because of his race, but because I believe he is a great leader God will use in these prophetic times.
How do you think churches will change permanently post-COVID?
I think things will change. Some churches may not open even until next year.
I think churches will be more intentional — less fluff, and less of the time-consuming things that take place in services. I think we will be more intentional on outcomes. Will we be more engaged in purposeful mission? How can we engage our communities even more? Will we continue to spend 15 mins on announcements? I hope not. Quite frankly, I think church services might be a little shorter.
At least for now, I think church attendance is up. Visitors can slip into an online service and don’t have to be identified. You can hit three services in the same Sabbath!
Ivan L. Williams, Sr. serves as the director of the Ministerial Association for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, supporting pastors, ministerial leaders and associates in Bermuda, Canada, the United States, and the Guam-Micronesia Mission. Prior to this, he served as the Ministerial director for the Northern California Conference.
Williams attended Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, where he graduated with degrees in Communications and Theology, and from Andrews University Theological Seminary, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with a Master of Divinity degree. Williams also completed a Doctor of Ministry degree from Claremont School of Theology, in Claremont, California.
In addition to pastoral ministry, he served eight years as a chaplain for the California State Assembly while pastoring in Sacramento, CA, and recently retired after 21 years in the United States Air Force, serving as a Chaplain-Lieutenant Colonel for the California and Maryland Air National Guard.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Ivan Williams.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.