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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 the Adventist Church is currently struggling with. 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).

 

“The church does not inspire me”

On June 2 the Adventist Church in Utrecht (the Netherlands) hosted a special program that targeted Adventists who are ‘on the margins’ of the church. There was a similar meeting, about a year ago, that was likewise inspired by my book Facing Doubt, which in Dutch has a title that is best translated as Staying or Leaving? The aim was to meet with church members who have either left the church, or are on their way towards the church’s exit. The organizers succeeded in attracting some in those categories, but the majority of those present might be best described as (still) being part of the church, but unhappy about various trends in current Adventism.

The afternoon program started with a live interview with someone who once was an Adventist pastor, but had decided to leave both the ministry and the denomination. What made him leave? What kind of church could perhaps entice him to return? A video-interview featured a young woman, who as a teenager had taken leave of the church, but some ten years later decided that, after all, she wanted to be part of it. The interviews formed the basis of group discussions, followed by a plenary discussion about themes that focused on aspects of church leaving and on the question what the church should be like if it has a hope to stop the hemorrhaging among both young and old.

But a major item was also the taking of a poll–using our smartphones to answer questions displayed on the screen. The program (KAHOOT) that was used showed the score immediately after the people gave their reply to the multi-choice questions.

These questions were intended to gauge the feelings of the participants regarding the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Adventist Church, but also to explore how they view the church. The answers to the questions about the doctrines (“do you consider this doctrine very important, important, not very important, or unimportant?”) were hardly surprising. We usually find in such surveys that some doctrines, such as the Sabbath and the second coming, score quite high, while many consider doctrines as e.g. the sanctuary, 1844, and the thousand years, as much less important. Such a polling exercise is interesting, but, admittedly, its scientific value is limited.  It is clear that many Adventists simply know very little about the content of the ‘fundamentals”, and in many cases would change their opinion if they were aware of some of the doctrinal fine print. For instance, many find the doctrine of ‘unity’ quite important, but do not realize that the church tends to interpret this ‘unity’ mostly as strict uniformity (something most of them do not like). The doctrine related to ‘family’ also scores rather high, but few realize that this ‘fundamental’ provides no space to those who have a ‘different’ sexual orientation.

One answer to a more general question I found most alarming. Although many of those who ‘cast their votes’ said they are still active in the church, the majority of the participants indicated that they feel no longer inspired by their church. That is, indeed, a very serious matter. If a major part of the members no longer feels inspired by the church—by what it has to say and by what it offers its members and those around us—there is no real future for the church.  Is that, when push comes to shove, what is troubling the Adventist Church in the West?

When I ask myself the question whether the church continues to inspire me, I have no unambivalent answer. Some things, fortunately, do, but there are also many things that I experience as dull, uninspiring and sometimes even distasteful. I hang on, and want to do what I can to help turn the tide—together with many others who often feel disappointed by their church but, like me, do not want to give up on it.

How can the church become more inspiring to an increasing number of members who would like to see a different kind of church?  I believe it basically boils down to perhaps five core issues:

  1. We need local churches that provide a warm and welcoming environment, where members and friends of the church feel at home and find a community where they can truly ‘belong’.
  2. It is great to be part of a world-wide movement, but the church is, above everything else, a local community, that must provide space to all who want to belong to it. While being united with regard to some core beliefs, there must be a ‘gracious spaciousness’ to allow for diversity in thought, and there must be room for open discussion. The members must feel they can be who they are, without being judged or criticized.
  3. The church needs the kind of worship, teaching and preaching that, while doing justice to the core of Adventist beliefs, relates to the issues of everyday postmodern life. While we must know what we believe, we must also realize that not all beliefs are equally ‘fundamental’ and that views may (must?) develop over time.
  4. The church can only be true to its calling and inspire if it makes a meaningful contribution to the world around us. We may not be able to be involved with all the issues that are important in our society, but we have convictions that should lead us to choose areas where we can make a real difference.
  5. The church must be a ‘safe’ place, where everyone can feel truly welcome, and where we can bring our friends and others, regardless of their background or orientation, without any fear that they may be looked down upon or worse.

If most local churches would succeed in becoming that kind of community, I am sure I would feel more inspired by my church—and many others with me.

 

Selling and buying church buildings: good or not so good?

A few days ago I read in my newspaper that the Roman-Catholic Church in the Netherlands considers it inevitable that the Catharina-cathedral in Utrecht will cease to be a place of worship. It has simply become too expensive, as the number of worshippers continues to drop. There is an annual deficit of more than half a million dollars to maintain the building and the Catholic community that uses the church is no longer able to cover this. Perhaps the church will become an exposition hall that is connected with the adjacent Museum for Ecclesiastical Antiquities and Art (the Catharijne Convent). Remarkably enough, this cathedral is the church of the Dutch cardinal, Wim Eijk, the head of the Utrecht diocese. The pope will yet have to give his approval, since it concerns a cathedral being desecrated. The plan is to transfer the ‘cathedral’ functions to the St. Augustine church in Utrecht.

It is no exception that churches must close their doors and a must search for another destination of the building. In some cases real estate developers line up to purchase church buildings, since these usually are at prime locations. Sometimes church buildings can retain their function, when other faith communities are ready to move in. The Adventist Church quite frequently profits from such a situation. Last week I participated in a conference held in an Adventist church building in Rynfield, close to Johannesburg in South-Africa. When I complimented the organizer of the conference with the excellent facilities, I was told that the church had been the spiritual home of a Reformed congregation, which had to sell the church when its membership began to hemorrhage.  The president of the Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxembourg told me a few weeks ago that the Adventists in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg have just bought a church building from the Apostolic Church, who could no longer afford to keep it. In quite a few countries the Adventists have been able to buy properties from other faith communities. As a rule this a lot cheaper than buying a piece of land and building a new church. In recent years the Adventist Church in the Netherlands bought Roman Catholic church buildings in Zeeland and in the Hague, and were able to acquire excellent churches in Almere and Utrecht, that the Protestant Church in the Netherlands was forced to sell.

Some will say: This is good news. Apparently, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is still growing, while many other denominations are shrinking. However, this seems too easy a conclusion, and even if the statement were correct, there is no reason to be self-congratulary. Firstly, because it is clear that in the western world the number of active Christians is constantly diminishing. In the past (and unfortunately this is still the case in segments of the church) Adventists looked at other Christians mostly as their enemies (‘Babylon’ and ‘the whore and her daughters’). I have totally abandoned that idea. Other Christians—Catholics and Protestants—are my brothers and sisters! Of course, we may disagree with several of their viewpoints, but we must stick together and uphold each other, in a combined effort to make sure that a clear Christian sound may still be heard in our world. Sure, our own specific melody must also be heard–not detached from the message of other Christian believers, but rather to supplement it, and, if needs be, to correct it.

Secondly, there is another aspect we should not forget. The Adventist Church is still able to hold its ground or has in recent years shown some growth in many western countries. But honesty demands to admit that, in almost all cases, this is due to the immigration of fellow-believers from elsewhere in the world. When we discount these immigration statistics, the situation if far less positive. Without the arrival of these immigrants, Adventists would in many places also have been forced to close and sell church buildings. And, as I have said in earlier blogs: Adventists usually follow the trends that we see in other denominations—albeit with a delay of a few decades. There is plenty of reason to be worried and to do all we can to escape this trend. We will only be able to do so, if we can create open and creative communities that learn to package their message in ways that will appeal to the people—young and older—of our times. This continues to present an enormous challenge.