I was tempted to skip this week’s blog. I am at the European Pastors’ Council in Belgrade and the days are quite full. But over the past few days literally dozens of colleagues from countries all over the Trans-European Division have told me that they are faithful readers of my weekly blog, and thus it seems I must also write a short piece this week.
I am enjoying this pastors’ congress and appreciate enormously that the TED has invited me to be here, even though I have now been retired for almost eleven years. It is great to somehow still “be part of it”. Meeting many old friends is a great joy, and getting to know others is an extra bonus. And contributing in a limited way to the program gives a lot of satisfaction. Yesterday I presented a workshop on “Criteria for a Healthy Church”, which was well attended. And since nobody walked away half-way through the presentation, I assume it was reasonably well received. This afternoon I will do two workshops, one on “Last Generation Theology” and one on “Changing the Church”. A good number of people have chosen to attend them.
I must admit that I have not attended all meetings. Early in the mornings and in between meetings I have done some writing on a new book. And there must always be moments to get away from the crowd and have a good cup of coffee with friends. But, before you get the impression that I am not overly involved with the overall-event, let me assure you that I have greatly appreciated the preaching that I have heard thus far. On the opening night pastor Ted Wilson was the speaker. I must admit that his sermon was pretty good—much to my relief, because I found some of his sermons that I heard in the past pretty hard to digest. On Tuesday evening Wilson preached a biblical sermon that was very much in tune with the theme of the congress: Connect-Change-Inspire. There were just a few EGW quotations. My only problem with the sermon was that his words, which emphasized the fact that the church needs all of us, are not easily matched with some of his administrative initiatives.
As I write, I have also listened to pastor Ian Sweeney, the president of the British Union, pastor Gifford Rhamie, a lecturer at Newbold Colleges, Dr. Daniel Duda, a departmental leader in the Trans-European Divisions, and pastor Anne-May Müller, a pastor and departmental leader in the Danish Union. Sweeney is one of the best preachers our church has. In 1996 he won the prestigious London Times preaching award, and listening to him this week I had no difficulty understanding why he came out in first place. I had never heard Gifford Rhamie preach; his sermon was impressive, in terms of structure, delivery and content. And, of course, Dr. Daniel Duda will always surprise with new ideas and new perspectives on old stories.
For me the entire debate about women in ministry is decisively settled when I hear how some women pastors preach the Word. A few months ago I listened in San Diego to a worship by Dr. Kendra Haloviak, one of the first women to be (illegally) ordained in the USA. Last night I listened to Anne-May Müller, who preached a superbly crafted sermon that had a powerful message for her colleagues. When an issue arose in the early church about the status of gentile Christians in the church, Peter and Paul gave as their most powerful argument for the full inclusion of gentile Christians that the Holy Spirit made no distinction between the Jewish and gentile believers. Hearing women as Kendra and Anne-May preach, I can only conclude that the Holy Spirit does not seem to favor male over female speakers. And that is probably the most powerful argument for having an inclusive ministry, with men and women sharing the same status.
I need events like this pastoral congress for my own spiritual benefit. I see many things in the church that I do not like. I worry about the future of my church when I hear about General Conference plans to enforce uniformity and even punish those unions that are not fully “compliant”. But when I talk with colleagues from all over Europe I realize that I am not alone in my fears and concerns, and that there are many who have not given up on their church but will continue to work for change and renewal. That certainly helps me to keep going and to remain hopeful!