Author Archives: Reinder

Black and White

On September 22, 1943 the 66-year old Lucille Byard was brought by her husband to Washington, DC. She was suffering from liver cancer in a terminal phase. Through her pastor contact had been made with the Washington Adventist Hospital. The response had been positive: Lucille could be admitted. However, the request that Lucille would be admitted to the hospital had not indicated that she was black, and the rules of the (Adventist) hospital did not allow for admittance of black patients. When James Byard and his wife Lucille arrived at the doors of the hospital, after a long and tiring journey by train, the color of Lucille’s skin proved to be a insurmountable barrier and they had to find another hospital where Lucille would be welcome.

In his recent book about the history of racial issues in the Adventist Church[1]. Dr. Calvin B. Rock mentions this sad occurrence as one of the incidents that stirred the emotions among the steadily growing number of black Adventists in the United States. Dr. Rock (now retired) was a prominent black church leader, who served from 1985 to 2002 as a General Conference vice-president. As no one else Rock was able to acquaint us with the equally fascinating as tragic black (in a double sense) pages of Adventist History—the record of the struggle for equal treatment in and by the church and to have a fair share in the governance of the church.

I feel deeply ashamed to know that my church was much slower than most other Christian denominations in correcting the flagrant injustices Black members were subjected to, just because they were not White. Several of the earliest leaders of the church were ahead of their times regarding the issue of racial equality, but later generations of leaders tended to walk to a very different tune. Unfortunately, we discover time and again that all forms of racial inequality in the Adventist Church do not yet belong to the past.

Did we learn our lessons from this sad state of affairs in the past? In answering this question we much be careful not to fall into generalizations. However, sadly enough, once again the Adventist Church is slower than most other Christian faith communities with regard to discrimination. Today we still see discrimination in particular on the basis of gender. Even today men and women are not treated as fully equal in many parts of our church. The issue whether women, just like men, can be ordained as pastors hides the underlying refusal to fully emancipate women. As a member of the Adventist Church and as a (male) pastor this fills me with shame. The Bible texts that are usually cited fail to impress me. They were written in a very different social context. And those who refused to admit Lucille Byard and those who were against black leadership were also able to quote their Bible texts.

I have long ago concluded that such a use (or abuse) of the Bible is squarely condemned by the third of the Ten Commandments. It is a ‘taking of the name of the Lord in vain’ or: a scandalous misuse of the Word of God!  This commandment is not just about swearing but about linking the name of God to things that are utterly wrong and indefensible.

[1] Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity(Berrien Springs, ML: Andrews University Press, 2018).

‘Running’ for a leadership role

A friend recommended to me Robert Harris’ book about the election of a new pope . The book is entitled: Conclave, and is subtitled The Power of God and the Ambitions of Men. It is a powerful story, although it is not among the ten best books that I read in the recent past. However, it remains a fascinating topic: How does the Roman Catholkic Church elect its highest leader? All cardinals below the age of eighty convene in Rome and must decide with a two-thirds majority who of them will become the new pope. Of course, there is always much speculation as to who are papabili, i.e. who are considered the most likely candidates. During the conclave many prayers are offered to plead for the guidance of God’s Spirit, but that does not guarantee that the process is free from political maneuvering and that human ambitions play no role. Whether this is so omni-present as Harris wants us to believe must remain a question mark for the reader.

Every denomination has its own system for the election of its leaders. Like many other denominations that originated in the USA, the Adventist Church uses a nominating committee that formulates a proposal which must then be voted by a large representative body. This is true for all elected positions at all levels of the church, including the presidency of the General Conference. The rules of the churcb stipulate very clearly that any form of political activity ought to be avoided. The nominating committee must have the freedom to consider which candidate is the most suitable person for a given post, without prior consultations between members of the nominating committee or the open promotion of particular candidates. In any case, this is the theory, which does not always coincide with realty.

Why have I chosen this as the topic of my blog of this week? It was triggered by an article on the website of Spectrum, written by Matthew Quartey. It appeared last week with the title:  Should Ted Wilson Run for a Third Five-year Term? The use of the verb ‘run’ suggests an active strategy to seek  support in order to assure Wilson’s re-election. Quartey’s first argument is that Wilson will have reached the age of seventy in 2020 and that it would be highly desirable to choose a younger successor. But Quartey also leaves his readers in no doubt that Wilson has been responsible for a strong polarization of the church and that it is high time that a new wind will begin to blow. I very much agree, but this is not the point I want to emphasize.

Unfortunately, there are many indications that ‘running’ for a high church office becomes rather common. This is a serious hollowing of the procedures we profess to use. Moreover, if we feel there should be an opportunity for actively ‘running’ for an offices, others (and not only the incumbent leader) should also receive opportunities to do so. Undeniably, the incumbent has a very major advantage. He (unfortunately, we cannot yet say he/she) has the opportunity to travel the world and to acquire high visibility. Others do not have this opportunity, or, at least, to a much lesser extent. However, open competition between several candidates would be a disastrous development. We should do all to prevent a further politicizing of leadership positions. I have participated a few times in the Adventist ‘conclave’ during a General Conference session. I noticed many things that, in my view, could be improved. But actively ‘running’ for a leadership role is a very poor alternative.

Campaigning for a position is totally at odds with what should be the point of depoarture for those who want to serve the church. They are ‘called; in a process—if things go the way they should go—in which the Spirit of God as asked to show the way.

Is that too good to be true? In any case, the alternative is too ugly to even consider.

The Church We Love, Serve and Lead

This past week has been a very rewarding and inspiring experience.  I was one of a group of some 30 people who met for a few intense days in a hotel near San Diego. I was honored to have been invited and to be able to interact with a group of theologians, male and female pastors, and present and former church leaders. Our theme was not only a convenient slogan, but was the very soul of what this meeting was all about: The Church We Love, Serve and Lead: Best Practices and Strategies for the Future.

The meeting was a follow-up on the Unity Conference that was held last year in London, England. During that conference a series of papers was read that touched on some of the major issues with which the Adventist Church is currently struggling. Its special focus was on the response of church leadership at the highest level of the denomination to the fact that some church unions in the United States and elsewhere have ordained female pastors, or have expressed a strong dissidence with the continued gender discrimination in the Adventist Church. The General Conference maintains that ordaining women for pastoral ministry goes directly against the decisions of the world church and is evidence of a serious kind of non-compliance that must have punitive consequences.

This has given rise to all kinds of questions that were, either directly or indirectly, addressed by the speakers at last year’s Unity Conference.  Some of these have to do with the authority of the unions and of The General Conference, respectively. In the view of the General Conference the ordination of pastors is not solely in the jurisdiction of the unions; the General Conference maintains that it sets the criteria for ordination. Another aspect that was high on that conference’s agenda was the true nature of unity and the vital question whether this requires full uniformity.

Since that conference was held new developments have taken place. During the meetings of the full executive committee of the General Conference (during the 2017 ’Autumn Council’) proposals were introduced to enforce compliance with the rules of the church that forbid the ordination of women pastors. A document was introduced that caused much consternation, and in the end was rejected by a significant majority of the committee. It contained the idea that all committee members would henceforth be required to sign a loyalty document, with the explicit stipulation that they would comply with all decisions of the church. It was further suggested that presidents of organizations that were ‘non-compliant’ could be denied voice and vote in committee meetings, as long as their organizations are non-compliant. The manner in which this document was produced and sprung upon the committee members caused great dismay and many felt that there had been an intolerable amount of manipulation by top church leadership.

For many around the world it was a great relief that the proposals outlined in this controversial document did not pass. But this is not the end of the matter. A Unity Oversight Committee has been set up by the General Conference, with the clear intent of preparing a new proposal for the October 2018 Annual Council, that will, once again, focus on what action must be taken against non-compliant unions.  Our meetings in San Diego of the past few days dealt with our serious concerns about this matter. We asked ourselves what can be done to steer the church away from this non-compliance trajectory and to ensure that the church will no longer be sidetracked by the power struggle around non-compliance, but can, once again, give all its attention to the mission is charged with.

During our meetings in depth discussions took place about how certain processes took place in past years. It was felt that there is a need for a publication that reveals some very questionable processes and debunks some myths that have evolved. We spent hours talking about possible ways to disseminate vital information to the members of the ca. 350 member executive committee of our church. Our work was not some kind of conspiracy, but an honest attempt to contribute to solutions and to help bring about full gender equality in the church, with the understanding that not all church entities world-wide would deal with these issues at the same speed and in the same way.

I learned a lot in these past days. Some issues became much clearer to me and my desire to be involved with supporting my church received a new impulse. I thank the initiators of this week’s event for having invited me to this positive and decidedly spiritual event, and I pray that our work will bear fruit and will prove to be a blessing for the church we love, serve and lead.

Wholeness

Last week I started in Walter Isaacson’s  recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Earlier I read his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs. I enjoyed both of these books and this prompted me to also order Isaacson’s newest literary product. So far, I have read only one third of the 500-plus pages. The rest will have to wait until next week. This week I am away from home and I decided to travel light with only cabin luggage. I therefore took my e-reader along rather than a heavy tome that would fill most of my computer bag. The part of the book that I have read has certainly not disappointed me and I look forward to continuing my reading.

The story of the Italian master is fascinating. He was one of these blessed people who not only excel in one area of life, but make huge contributions in different fields, Not only was he a gifted painter, who gave the world the Mona Lisa, but he also was an accomplished sculptor and made name as an architect. In addition, he became a multifaceted scientist and a designer/inventor of all kinds of useful instruments as well as curious contraptions.

As I read I made a note of something that I thought would be useful for a blog. There was a strange paradox in Leonardo. One the one hand he spent lots of time in designing deadly instruments of war, which he wanted to be more cruel and lethal than anything that was on the fifteenth century military market. On the other hand, however, he was a kind-hearted animal lover, who was a passionate vegetarian. His reason was not a concern for his health, but his aversion against killing animals for human consumption. How do these two elements fit together in one and the same person?

This inconsistency that we see in Leonard da Vinci is found in an even more acute manner in people  in past and present who may be caring and loving spouses and parents, but are ruthless in their professional life. Well-known is the fact that several Nazi war criminals were great lovers of art. And Albert Konrad Gemmelker, the commander of the Dutch concentration camp Westerbork, had no qualms about sending thousands of Jews to the gas chambers in Germany. But at the same time he was widely known for his love for his cats.

This strange mix of contrasting character traits is found—though, fortunately, usually in a less extreme measure—in most human beings. Often our lives are fragmented or compartmentalized, and how we act and behave can be quite different depending on the circumstances. Christians are not exempt from this regrettable phenomenon. We meet men and women who appear to be committed and pious when we meet them in a church environment, but who operate in daily life in ways that are quite unchristian. I have noted in many recent discussions in the church that often the most orthodox defenders of the ‘Truth’ do so in decidedly unpleasant, unloving and intolerant ways. One wonders how love for the Truth can coexist with sentiments that often border on hostility or even hatred. (I must immediately add that not all so-called ‘progressive’ church members always show a truly Christian spirit when confronted with people who do not share their views.)

Faith in Jesus Christ means, among other things, that we allow Him to shape our character. For some, faith is primarily a matter of being right and ‘having the Truth’, while it should be first of all a matter of becoming spiritual, well-balanced, pleasant, loving men and women. Jesus said to the leper who came back to thank him for what he had done for him: Thy faith has mode thee whole (Luke 17:19, KJV). I do not often quote from the King James Version, but I cannot resist doing so in this case. For these words seem to encapsulate what Jesus wants to do for all of us: He wants to make us whole. In 1948 the World Health Organization defined ‘health’ in this now famous formula:  A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. In other words: true health equals wholeness. This is also true in the spiritual realm: spiritual health it is a state of wholeness in which all parts of our being are in tune with Christ.

I recognize that it is easy to see the inconsistencies and the lack of wholeness in the lives of others, while forgetting our own challenge to obtain this spiritual wholeness that is the essence of being a follower of Christ.

Leadership

During my various assignments in the church I attended quite a few leadership courses and seminars. I read many books on leadership skills. I have at times even taught modules in leadership seminars in various places in the world. At present I am involved with a Master’s program in Leadership that is provided by the Newbold College of Higher Education and Andrews University. Mature students—for the most part in positions of leadership in conferences and unions in Europe—come together for a few weeks twice a year over a three-year period to attend lectures. In addition, they do a lot of reading and must write a series of papers, and a thesis or project report. The group is divided into a number of ‘learning groups’ of 6-8 persons, who regularly meet and support each other. Each learning group has an ‘advisor’ who functions as a coach.  I was asked to be one of these advisors. My ‘learning group’ consists of seven persons: one from the Netherlands, two from Germany and four from the UK. In 2018 we meet during the two general lecture sessions: one is currently taking place at Newbold College and one will take place in the autumn in Riga (Latvia).  My group tries to meet monthly, alternating between Rotterdam, Düsseldorf and somewhere in the UK.  It is an interesting experience to be part of this program. I am learning many things myself. It is fun to meet so many people from all over Europe. And it is satisfying to also contribute in a modest way.

But as I am spending long days in this leadership course, I cannot help also asking myself some questions. One of the big questions that I cannot shake off is:  Does this type of course really produce the kind of leaders that the Adventist-day Adventist Church needs?  And, if it does, is there any certainty that these leaders do actually get into the main leadership positions, especially in the higher echelons of the church?

There is no doubt that leadership training is of great importance and in the past ten days I have once again seen how it positively affects the participants. But there are things an Adventist leader cannot learn by reading books on leadership models and the other themes that tend to be part of leadership training. The church needs leaders who not only have skills that can be taught and learned, but who are also able to guide the church in translating its ideals and its message into words and initiatives that resonate with a 21stcentury audience. So the question I am struggling with is: How do we make that happen?

And then there is the other question: What needs to happen to ensure that real leaders, who can lead the church in innovative ways and break through the hierarchical and often authoritarian patterns of church administration, are elected when our nominating committees meet to select leaders? I do not know how that can happen. Our structures are not conducive to make this a reality.  We must pray as never before that the Spirit of God may move us forward and will give us talented, well-trained leaders, who can lead the church into the future with ‘present truth’ that is repackaged for a new generation and who can also inspire all those who at present do not feel inspired by their church (see my previous blog).