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Ray Tetz Lists Hopes and Concerns for Adventism’s Future


Ray Tetz, president of Mind Over Media, the communications firm he founded in 1995, has thrown himself into work that reflects the church’s mission — whether he’s on the larger institution’s payroll or on his own. Mind Over Media works with non-profit organizations — primarily from the healthcare, social action, and international development sectors — to design “mission-rich communication, marketing, and social engagement strategies.”  

He studies the “information and data landscape” with a view, he says, to “bringing the emergent cognitive computing and social media toolset into the non-profit sector.” Tetz has also served the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a pastor, teacher, media producer, fundraiser, and administrator.  His work has taken him to more than 90 countries, and includes service as Vice President for Communications and Corporate Development for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).

He remains deeply engaged in church life, and for many years has taught an adventurous Sabbath School class at the Spencerville Adventist Church.  In this interview, he shares thoughts about why the church matters and what it must do to remain convincing today. 

Question: You’re in private business now, but you still care deeply about the church you once worked for, at ADRA and in other domains.  Why do you put such energy into the Adventist community?

Answer: My communications firm has always been primarily about supporting ministry organizations, and even though our portfolio encompasses work for organizations that are not religious, our entire endeavor continues to be in support of social action, healthcare, education, and international development. So while my work has changed, the ministry focus hasn’t.

Years ago I saw a play by Bill C. Davis called “Mass Appeal.” At the end of that play the main character, a priest, realizes too late that through fear of challenging the status quo in his church he has compromised his own values, betrayed those who loved and depended on him, and all but lost his faith. In a moment of mad passion he finally speaks truthfully — instead of comfortably — to his congregation and tells them: “This our church. Fight for it. You and I. . . must be allowed to help shape the thing that has shaped us.” That scene is a powerful preachment that I’ve never forgotten.

When I think of the number of people who have fought to shape the church that has shaped me — who were fighting for me — I really don’t see a choice for myself. I am convicted to do the same.

I’m not so cynical as to state that “you get the church you deserve.” But unless we are willing to fight to shape the church that shapes us, we cannot honestly expect it to challenge, support and invigorate us — or those we love. And it will certainly not be the body of the living Christ that can call the world to justice and righteousness.

But do you know anyone who is really happy with the state of the church right now? I don’t. Maybe it has always been that way; maybe the nature of church is to challenge the status quo. I am personally persuaded that there has never been a more critical moment (at least within the arc of the Adventist tradition) to be engaged in trying to shape the church’s future.
Question: What is the key, do you think, to a really good—a really memorable—Sabbath School?  And how do you turn the key? What do you have to do to open the door to something that may be life-changing for those who participate?
Answer: I believe that the quality that has been bringing our little Sabbath School class together for a dozen-plus years is complete and unquestioned acceptance. We are diverse in every way except for this: we all share a commitment to accept without reservation anyone who chooses to join us.  

But to sustain acceptance as the standard sets the bar high for other qualities as well.  Authenticity, for example.  Loving each other even when we don’t always like each other. Coming to class fully expecting to learn, not just to debate or complain.

In a place where they had lost the battle twice, the Israelite people established a monument to God’s power when they finally won, and called the rock they set there “Ebenezer.” A few years ago our class members spent several months telling our “Ebenezer Stories,” our individual witness to the things that nearly killed us but that through grace we have somehow survived. There were stories of disappointment, abandonment, death, job losses, tragedy, heart attacks, cancer scares, rebellious children, faithless spouses, failing aged parents, economic downturns, wars and disasters, and countless unexpected turns in our pock-marked roads.

And yet, there we were, gathered together in a very small room, chairs pulled up close as if around a common fire, raising our own Ebenezer stones. It was a remarkable experience that galvanized our community; receiving those stories from one another was akin to a sacrament.

We have one other tradition that I think has much to do with the success of our class. There are four or five teachers who share the teaching of the class with me, and we are all afforded the same opportunity to present a complete lesson before the discussion of it begins. The lessons are generally 20-30 minutes in length, and the follow up discussion is about the same length of time. This has allowed us to develop a rigorous tradition of discussion, but always in response to carefully crafted lessons containing solid scholarship and content. I suspect that most of our class members would point to this as the greatest value of our weekly study together.

Question: We all fret about our children, for whom the church is no longer a near-automatic option.  I often hear you mention your own two children, and express the hope the church will not let them down.  What are the most important things we Adventists can do for our kids?

Answer: It seems to me that the young people I talk to — whether they are my own young adult children and their friends, the young producers, designers, and content creators we work with, or our clients in various organizations and institutions — all seem to be asking the same basic questions. Whether they are believers deciding whether to carry their faith into their adult lives, or people encountering faith and spirituality for the first time, they focus on three constellations of concern.

The first question they ask is, “Does your faith affirm that everyone is equal and is treated equally?” There is only one acceptable answer to this question, and it isn’t “Yes — except…”  No qualifications here.  Either we do or we don’t.  And if we say we do, but we don’t, that’s the same as a no.  Failing to answer yes to this question — in language and practice — effectively signals where the relationship is going to go. Galatians 3:28 has never been a more significant rubric than it is for our relationships with the ascendant generations.

The second question is, “Are you willing to have an intelligent and honest conversation with us that gives us room for differences and doubts?” We must respect their intelligence, the way they view the world and how it differs from our own perspectives, and their amazing agility to navigate the fluid cultural environments they constantly traverse.  While we may immediately think about the faith-science discussion (and that one is very high on the list for some of them), they bring a much broader agenda to the table.

They want to talk about all the same things we want to talk about, but as full participants in a conversation, not as the church in waiting: values, modern culture, economics, politics, theology, history, the environment, poverty, racism, class warfare, gender roles, spiritual practices, family relationships, international development, entertainment, leisure time, sociology — and that’s just the beginning.

We must admit that we’ve given them plenty of reasons to leave us. Honest dialogue may give them a reason to stay, and that’s all they are really asking for: a real reason to stay. There seems to be a genuine need among them for relationships with adults who are willing to forge relationships that are non-judgmental and not defensive. This seems to be the portal that drives a lot of other things, such as engagement with the local church in a class or activity. But I don’t see those other things succeeding or being sustained when there are no real, authentic, open-handed opportunities for a conversation and dialogue.

The third core question is this: “Are you accountable for what you’ve been given?”  Given the way we’ve spoken to them about the importance of recognizing their bodies as temples, and their very life as a gift from God, this should not really surprise us. When we told them that the Lord didn’t discount even the smallest aspects of their lives as insignificant or unimportant, they took us at our word.

Now they’ve turned that question back to us with serious questions about how we are taking care of things. The global conversations they hear around them — about the environment, climate change, and global economics, as well as questions about justice, poverty, and inequity — sadly are topics in which the church seems only mildly interested.

And they extend this query into questions about our life as a church, too. “Why does so much money go to support the infrastructure and the hierarchy?” might be heard from a young adult who has been paying attention to denominational conversations (a fairly small group, I grant you). But their bigger questions are about ministry: “How much more money and time will be spent debating equality in ministry? Why isn’t more money helping the poor? If an Adventist education is so important, why does it cost so much? Why doesn’t more money stay here in our local community where we can truly be the face and hands of Jesus?”  This generation doesn’t seem to be asking any easy questions.

These three questions form the foundation of a “perfect storm” that has arisen relative to the current conversation about equality in ministry and women’s ordination.  Their point of view sounds something like this: “If women — half the human race — aren’t given full and equal opportunity, how can you say that our faith affirms that everyone is equal and is treated equally?  Are you really willing to have an intelligent and honest conversation that provides room for differences and doubts — or are you asking us to set our own questions aside and just accept your answers? How long can you seriously ignore the calling, character, and convictions of women and expect that it will not be noticed? What kind of stewardship is this? Can you in good conscience continue to spend so much time and resources on debating this question and still claim that you are accountable for what you’ve been given?”

Question: The coming San Antonio General Conference session looms large in this regard.  Our community includes all kinds and colors of God’s children, yet we still do not have a consensus on this issue.  Is there any way that we can, at that meeting, take steps toward the equality ideal?

Answer: I find it remarkable that the Lord left no instructions about what to do when the Jewish culture out of which Christianity arose no longer made sense to non-Jewish converts.  He was forcing the church to depend on (and here we see His abundant grace and foresight) the leading of the Holy Spirit, which was what He promised we would receive.

And so, the early church, faced with a divisive issue, sought out the Spirit’s leading, causing Paul to go one way and Silas to go another. The unity of the church was preserved by affirming those things that define our faith (the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the call to discipleship) and putting aside other things (circumcision in that case). When faced with the cultural issues surrounding circumcision, the early church preserved unity for mission by endorsing different practices for different peoples. Their decision then is our example now (Acts 15).

My lifelong conviction is that equality for all in Christ Jesus, in all things, including ministry, was modeled by Christ and the early church, and is the teaching of the New Testament. It is the wellspring of our common life, and I pray for the day in which all Christians understand and accept this.

There is evidence that our early pioneers (including Ellen White) sensed that equality in ministry was, in fact, God’s design, although culture and conventions inhibited their responses. In the last 40 years or so the rationale for not fully embracing it has often been that we weren’t quite ready for it, not at least in some parts of the world.  Disagreement has persisted (think of the late run from the proponents of “headship theology”) and now the rationale has narrowed to, “Well, until we all agree, we won’t ordain women.” Clearly, no such global agreement is going to happen very soon.

Which means that the action coming to the delegates in San Antonio, to remove the necessity of a global agreement, is a very important moment for the church.  Do we or don’t we support a proposal from General Conference leaders to defer the GC role in this discussion to the world divisions, where the outcome of the discussions are most relevant?

I believe some who either oppose or are ambivalent about women’s ordination agree that it makes sense to push issues of practice — issues that are not theological — out to the places where those decisions have impact.  Voting Yes for regional decision-making about equality in ministry would affirm our faith and fellowship, while recognizing the importance of our cultural differences

The urgency of the Advent message demands our commitment to the effective use of all of our gifts, all of our resources, and the discipleship and faithful service of every believer. To respond to the complex issues of our changing times through affirmation rather than prohibition is to be faithful to our roots in the New Testament. And perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that we have complete and total confidence in the leading of God through every challenge and difficulty.

Ray Tetz lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife Rosy, who is a writer.  They have two children.  Andrew is a graphic designer and world-class yo-yoer  (seriously!).  Catherine is working on her doctorate in English Literature and Gender Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  Ray enjoys music, theater, travel, reading and collecting books, and the special joys of living with two energetic cocker spaniels.

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