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Our Biggest North American Division Crisis Isn’t Theological

A few years ago, I called a friend (one to whom I talk seldom, but always happily) who had moved to a small midwestern U.S. city. Among other questions, I asked, “How’s the church there?”

“We don’t attend the Adventist church here anymore,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

He told me of several months of trying to be accepted in the local small church. Of never-ending sermons about prophecy, and going home feeling spiritually empty. Of pointed remarks about jewelry in a Sabbath School class the day his wife wore a tiny cross pendant. Of the criticism of a young man, home from the academy, who had sung a fast-tempo praise song with his guitar, and the improbability that he’d ever volunteer again. About a faction trying to get them to take sides against the dictatorial old elder.

“I feel terrible doing this,” he said. “I always felt like I should make my church better, not just bail out. But you reach a point where it just isn’t worth it. We go to an Evangelical church down the road, and we’re much happier.”

I admit having a little stab of spiritual pain when I heard his comment. I’m not one of those Adventists who write off people when they cease to be part of this church, or who suppose they’ve lost their salvation. But I’m a pastor, and I naturally want those I love to love my church. So it makes me sad when an Adventist congregation can’t keep the respect of thoughtful, dedicated people.

I’ve heard similar stories in the conference personnel committees of which I’ve been a member: of churches who’ve alienated all of their young people, of pastors seeking calls because they’re tired of criticism, of multi-generation conflicts, and new conflicts about things like worship styles and theology.

What’s the conference to do? We’ve always managed to come up with some plan of action, but I wonder sometimes whether we’re doing such congregations a favor by giving them pastors.

Small churches, it seems to me, are most in crisis.1 In a church of thirty attendees, a single difficult church member casts a long shadow, and there are fewer people to dilute the impact of even the smallest crisis. Small churches lack resources, human and financial, so everything they do is more difficult, and less likely to please.

I like to visit churches when I travel. Being a lifelong Adventist, and knowing what to expect, I don’t let unfriendliness, or moronic things said by Sabbath School teachers or preachers, or the shabbiness of the building, or the absence of anyone between the ages of twelve and forty, push me away. Still, I can’t help but ask myself: if I were a stranger with no background in our faith who had stumbled in here today, would I join this congregation?

It has become increasingly difficult to find the best and brightest candidates for ministry, especially for these smaller churches and districts. Lay people, I think, tend to blame congregational failure on poor pastoring. But when a church goes through four or five pastors and all of them exit under a cloud, you begin to realize that the problem isn’t just the quality of leadership.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece for the Adventist Review called “How to Send Your Pastor Packing,” a list of unkind things you could do to get rid of your pastor. It was meant to be a satire—precisely what you ought not to do. I’ve not forgotten a letter to the editor from one man who didn’t get the joke: “We’ve tried all of these things,” he wrote, “and we still can’t get rid of our pastor!”

Conference officers worry about these churches. Of those church leaders farther up the hierarchy, I wonder if too many attend Spencerville (when they’re not traveling on mission trips or to camp meetings or convocations), to have a good sense of what life is like out there. (It is no accident that most of the curricula and resources produced in Silver Spring for churches assume a larger congregation.) Those who teach ministerial students have college talents and churches at their disposal, so they may not know how to prepare their students for what they’ll face the year after they leave school and join a conference’s pastoral staff—often as pastor of a small, conflicted church.

I don’t know exactly why we’re in this situation. It may have something to do with the way we build community around beliefs rather than ministries, rituals or relationships: individual beliefs are moving targets in this relativistic culture, inviting misunderstandings. It may be that we’ve simply grown organizationally old, and have become too crotchety and inflexible to adjust to the times. Some congregations are just trying to survive, and haven’t the energy to adapt and regenerate.

Still, I wonder who we’ll be when the only churches in the North American Division any thoughtful person wants to attend are a handful on college or hospital campuses.

Notes and References

1. Monte Sahlin tells me that “two-thirds of the churches in the NAD have fewer than one hundred members, though only 19 percent of the total membership. The six hundred largest churches (out of almost six thousand) contain 51 percent of the total membership.” In other words, we’re represented well only in a few places. Also, says Monte, “More than two-thirds of local churches have experienced conflict in the last five years.…Adventist congregations are more likely to experience conflict that are most other religious groups.”

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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