After the worship service last Sabbath morning in the Florida Hospital Church in Orlando (Florida, USA) a few members of the pastoral staff invited me to join them for an excellent meal in a nearby Mexican restaurant. I did not only enjoy the food but also the pleasant and open conversation. Our discussion focused in particular on the way in which, anno 2017, most pastors function in their Adventist churches. My American colleagues confirmed what I had already concluded a considerable time ago. In the past many pastors had the ambition to ‘move up’ to some job in the conference or union office. Today, only few have such ambitions. The local church has increasingly become the focus of church work. Most pastors (certainly in the US) have only a very limited interest in what happens at the higher administrative church levels. If they have specific ambitions it is often a desire to be called to an ‘important’ church–for instance one that is connected to a college, a university or major health institution.
When we went into some more detail regarding the tensions that may occur between the ideas and convictions of the individual Adventist pastor, and what is expected from ‘above’, one the pastors said something that caught my special attention. She said: “I am not an Adventist pastor. I am a pastor in an Adventist church!” If you think about it, this makes quite a difference!
When you identify yourself as an Adventist pastor, you present yourself as an extension of the Adventist Church. You indicate that in all you do and say you want to align yourself with the policies and the way of being-church of the Adventist denomination. This is what the church may expect from you and this is what you are bound to do as an Adventist pastor. This, however, leaves but little space for a more personal interpretation of your task.
When you see yourself as a pastor who has chosen to work within the Adventist Church, you come at it from a different perspective. You first of all identify yourself as a pastor. As a Christian you have felt the calling to work ‘for God.’ This demanded a choice about the place where you would want to follow that calling, and where–at least in first instance–you would want to receive your ministerial training. You have concluded that you have good reasons to do this in the context of Adventism. But you want to retain sufficient personal space. You work as a pastor within this denomination without losing some critical distance. You feel at home in your church, but you refuse to become a prisoner of the church’s system. You have so much affinity with Adventism that you have gladly chosen to work in and for the Adventist faith community, but you continue to claim the personal space you need and will not slavishly accept all traditional and current interpretations and traditions.
I had never quite thought about my calling as an Adventist pastor in this way, but when my colleague in Florida phrased in these terms, I though: “Yes, this is, in fact, the way I have also always felt it.” And this is how I feel as I write these paragraphs–even though I had never before formulated it in these words: I am not a retired Adventist minister, but a retired minister who is happy to still function within the Adventist Church!