It is Wednesday morning. I am sitting at Schiphol Aiorport near Gate B 36, from where one hour from now my flight toi Geneva will depart. I am on my way to the Adventist College for Higher Education, just across the Swiss-French border, at the foot of the characteristic Salève—an elongated mountain range that is often referred to as the ‘balcony of Geneva’. This is the place where tonight the bi-annual European Theology Teachers Convention will start. One might say that I do not really belong to this group. Indeed, I retired a considerable time ago, and I never was a full-time theology professor for any length of time. But I am happy to be among the group pf Adventist theology professors who are invited for this event and I very much appreciate the fact that the Trans-European Division continues to extend this invitation to me (and allows me to report my expenses to them).
Conferences such as these are extremely useful, not just because of the many interesting papers that are presented around a particular theme, but also because of the opportunity to network and the possibility to talk freely about theological and ecclesial matters that are hot in current Adventism. The theme for our meetings in the coming days is: Pastoral Ministry and Ecclesial Leadership, and thus concerns the relationship between the pastoral ministry and the church administrators. My paper for Friday morning is entitled: The Freedom and Influence of the Pastor.
A few days ago the theology professors of the Adventist universities on the West Coast of the USA met for a few days. Their meetings had as its motto: ‘Conversations among Colleagues’. This could in fact also be used as the sub-theme for our conference, as it points to the atmosphere and the nature of our meetings. Our conferences must provide a safe environment where open conversations can take place, without anyone having any fear that tomorrow some statements, usually taken out of context, will appear on some critical website.
The work of an Adventist theologian is scrutinized through a number of magnifying glasses. Colleagues provide critical comments and indicate to what extent they agree or disagree with what a fellow-theologian says or writes. That is as it should be. The dialogue between theologians sharpens insights, inspires towards further study, and shows that some things may not be clear or that different approaches are possible.
However, the work of the church’s theologians is also put under the magnifying glass of the church administrators. It is a good thing that they want to stay informed about theological developments in the church. It is also essential that they themselves have a theological education, for leading a church is quite different from managing an insurance company. The leaders have the responsibility, when needed, to stimulate certain developments, to put the brakes some developments or, at times, to correct. At the same time, the administrators should never forget that professional theologians play an important role in the continuous process of re-thinking what we believe, what we want to communicate to others, and of helping the church to connect our faith with ecclesial practices and the daily life of the believer. In order to do their work well the theologians need to have the trust of the administrators and must get the space to ask new questions and take another look at traditional answers. Unfortunately, they do not always have that trust and are not always given that space.
The work of the theologians is also viewed critically through the magnifying glass of the church members in general. But they often hand their magnifying glass to people who are mostly on the edges of the church, and who follow the work of the ‘official’ theologians with great suspicion. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who are constantly looking for what they consider to be ‘heresy’ and who find great satisfaction in searching for anything that even slightly differs from the Adventist Truth. A significant number of websites, a flood of dvd’s and various publications warn the members for the dangers that are invading the Adventist Church. I must, however, say that I usually cannot find much spiritual food that nourishes my sould when looking at these websites, dvd’s and publications.
I believe the theologians in our tertiary educational institutions should simply just carry on with their important ministry and not waste too much energy and time in reacting to the critics at the margins of the church. They are seldom listened to with an open mind. The negative activities at the extreme right side of the theological spectrum should perhaps inspire the professional theologians to try harder in making the results of their work more accessible to the church membership at large.
Whatever be the case: the group of theologians that is gathered at Collonges will in the coming days be able to enjoy ‘conversations among colleagues’ in a safe environment.