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The Ear: A Culture for Congregations


Raj Attiken has been president of the Ohio Conference since 1998.  He leads a network of 100 Adventist congregations, 20 schools and more than 11,000 members.   On its website the conference describes itself as “unapologetically Christocentric,” and affirms commitment to a gospel both “liberating” and, in its call for “radical” discipleship, “demanding.”  The conference’s values, reflecting what it believes to be God’s own values, are “compassion, justice, freedom, and peace.” 

The Ohio Conference is welcoming of women in ministry – four in Ohio have been “ordained” to Adventist ministry.  The conference is home to the Kettering Health Network, with hospitals and other entities in and near the city of Dayton. 

Attiken grew up in an Adventist home in the predominantly Buddhist country of Sri Lanka, where his career in pastoral ministry began.  In Ohio he was pastor of five congregations before taking conference administrative responsibility that led eventually to the Ohio Conference presidency.

He has written a short, just-published book entitled Refreshed: A New Paradigm for Church Leadership.  In the book he argues that authentic Christian leadership follows two basic principles.  The first is that the grace of Christ must be the foundation of all that leaders do.  The second is that local churches must be primary; mission, he writes, “is advanced by and through congregations.” In the new, globalized environment, with its connectedness and many surprises, leaders must abandon one-size-fits-all campaigns and programs.  They must instead shape cultures of innovation in which local churches may pursue the church’s “holy purpose” using tactics fitted to their own gifts and circumstances.  More than ever, he says, it is time for governance to proceed by way of love and trust and freedom.

The book is available here.

Earlier this week, Attiken announced that he will be retiring shortly.  He said that in this new “season” of his life he will be using what he has learned “to benefit and influence people and causes that honor God’s purposes in our world.” Crediting the source, he shared this remark: “If you are not dead, you are not done!”

The Ear is publishing occasional, brief interviews of conference presidents over the few months.  The point is to get their key mission and leadership priorities before a wider Adventist public.

Here, then, is Raj Attiken’s perspective.

—Charles Scriven

Question: Your conference is a community of congregations.  What value does a conference bring?  What is your purpose as the leader of a conference?

Answer: A healthy, gospel-centered, missional congregation is the most effective community to bring people to faith, nurture people in their faith, and to equip them for lives of discipleship.   The primary value, anymore, that a Conference brings is in shaping the culture of the organization into one in which congregations can flourish.  My role is that of describing, cultivating, and guarding this culture.  The “anymore” phrase above is included because many of the transactional values and purposes that conferences once had are no longer needed or relevant in a world that is flattened, connected, and in a constant state of flux.

Question: Congregations are not clubs. Members come from different backgrounds – ethnically, culturally and intellectually.  How do you help deal with these differences as constructively as possible?

Answer: As a leader, I try to proactively expand my own personal worldview and enhance my ability to embrace diversity.  I use teaching opportunities to invite others to also examine their worldviews.  Being consistent and uncompromising in our stance that the Adventist “tent” is large enough for those with different ethnic, cultural, and intellectual backgrounds to experience our faith and mission together is vital.  We try to be attentive to how we communicate this, and how consistent we are in modeling this.   

Question: Is doctrinal conflict a challenge where you have responsibility?  How do you deal with it?

Answer: I find that managing conflicts that arise from doctrinal differences is an energizing and rewarding challenge – if the conflicts are really over doctrines and those involved are able to engage in rational dialogue.  In these cases, we go as far as we can to achieve understanding, if not agreement.  What I have discovered, however, is that what often manifests itself outwardly as a doctrinal conflict, or is framed as such, is a personal or family dysfunction, emotional disorder, or other form of anxiety.  Attempts to treat these as doctrinal conflicts are futile.  So, our first challenge is to discern whether the conflict is really doctrinal.  Then come the challenges of sorting out the hermeneutic principles that parties bring to the table, the cultural contexts from which individuals come, their motivations for resolution, etc.  In all cases, however, inviting people to engage in conversations is foundational.

Question: Pastors work without hour-by-hour supervision, and often without close by professional colleagues.  How does a good conference president help motivate, focus and encourage pastors?

Answer: We begin by recognizing that pastors are professionals, pursuing a high calling, and not employees of an organization whose role it is to fulfill the Conference’s desires, goals, or purposes.  We recognize also that pastors must have the freedom to listen to the whispers of the Spirit about their own ministry and the freedom to conduct their ministries in harmony with Heaven.  For our part, we often and repeatedly affirm that pastors have the freedom, in Ohio, to be and become all that God wants them to be.  The vision and focus for their ministry and for the ministry of their congregations must also come from within their own context, and from their own sense of giftedness and calling. 

We attempt to maintain collegial relationships with pastors.  We provide opportunities for groups of pastors to gather regularly in peer groups (without our presence) for mutual encouragement, accountability, and peer supervision;  and we attempt to provide a safe environment for pastors to learn, to experiment, to innovate, to succeed, to fail and to recalibrate!

Question: What, do you think, is the single, most important trait of thriving congregation?

Answer: Congregations that flourish are congregations that recognize that Grace trumps everything when it comes to the life and ministry of a Christian community.  Congregations that thrive have learned to receive the abundance of God’s grace and to order their lives, their relationships, and their ministry around the preeminence of grace.  Grace-filled relationships, grace-centered policies, grace-guided conflict resolution, grace-dominant sermons, grace-motivated mission, grace-centered engagement with their communities – these are the elements of a thriving congregation!

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