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The Ear: Leadership on the Upper East Side


How could you not love an Adventist community whose members take pride in something called “The Last Trump Rook Tournament”?

Perhaps you would not love it if you thought the membership was arrogant or half-hearted or uninvolved in the life of the surrounding neighborhood.  But at the Church of the Advent Hope, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in New York City, Pastor Todd Stout leads a congregation of 250 determined not only to be lively and joyful but also to be thoughtfully passionate about the meaning of discipleship.  With assistance from exceptionally talented lay leaders, a full-time office manager and a part-time pastor “for worship and the arts,” Stout has served this diverse and welcoming congregation for six years, the last four as Senior Pastor.  He and Sarah, his wife of 17 years, have two young children, Levi and Jude, and live on the church’s premises two blocks or so east of Central Park.

Congregations are the basic building blocks of Adventism.  When they work, it’s important to know why.  The pastor’s sense of his own leadership is one perspective on this matter, and here is what The Ear learned in a recent interaction with Pastor Stout:

Question: You lead an Adventist congregation.  What is it that, as a leader, you hope to achieve?

Answer: I hope to lead the congregation to be thoughtful about how we live and share the gospel in this urban context. I believe that God wants to be well represented by his followers in the city, wants us to build a faithful and winsome community that effectively embodies the life and teachings of Jesus through meaningful positive engagement with our neighbors. In the first few centuries of the church, one of the primary reasons that the church grew was because it thoughtfully engaged and cared for those who needed help. I don’t think that has changed today; the church will be more effective as it learns to communicate the gospel through loving service. 

Question: Thoughtful members really appreciate a compelling — ideally, an insightful — sermon.   If there were one key to rising above mediocrity in preaching, what do you think it is?

Answer: Having a very practical application to each message and articulating the message in language, symbolism, and stories that resonate with the congregation. This requires doing exegesis of the culture where the sermon is preached — spending time talking with members of the neighborhood, visiting the cafés, sharing in the art and entertainment.  All are part of the research of preaching effectively — this and lots and lots of reading on a wide range of subjects. 

Question: What the most important factor in your own sermon preparation?  How does it relate to the substance and delivery of your sermons?

Answer: The single most important factor in my own sermon preparation is the quality time dedicated to my own personal prayer life and devotional reading of the Bible.  Together with the practice of serving others in an intentional way, this enlivens the Spirit in me and then I am far more capable to preach the Gospel. 

When I am personally in tune with God the substance of my sermons is deeper and more meaningful, because I am speaking from experience, not from a theoretical perspective. My delivery too is more effective, because I can speak with the confidence and power of being personally transformed by the message. 

Question: You have a mid-sized congregation.  Still, how is it possible for you to connect with your members so they actually see you as a pastor and not simply as a Sabbath morning preacher?

Answer: This is difficult. I think it starts with making an effort to be with people, whether it is for lunch during the week, for a visit in my office (or theirs), for a phone call (or texting session) or for being at events and activities, outside of the church services, where I know the members will be present. 

I certainly can’t say I have mastered this, and in fact it is something that I am trying to be more intentional about putting into practice. 

Question: How do you pay attention both to evangelism and also to the care and keeping of your current members?

Answer: I see those as being very intertwined. If the current members feel like our church is a community they want to be a part of, which is fostering their own spiritual growth, they will be intentional about inviting their friends and family to be a part of it too. We know this by experience. We think of everything we do as evangelism, from each worship service to every fellowship meal, to our weekly prayer service  — it all has the potential to be effective in communicating the Good News. 

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