Editor’s Note: Mike Ryan currently serves as a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Prior to his election to this position, he served as the first director of Global Mission (formerly called Global Strategy). Adventist Review editor Bill Knott talked with Ryan recently about his life, his ministry, and the spiritual heritage that brought him to this place.
BK: You began your work for the church as a teacher. What took you from the classroom to your work with Global Mission?
MR: After my wife and I accepted an invitation to go to the Far Eastern Division, I went back to graduate school, finished my doctorate, and was primarily involved in administration for higher education.
While doing graduate work, I had taken a cognate in strategic planning. Later, while working at the division office as the associate education director, the division president, Otis Edwards, approached me. He told me that he had received a letter from the General Conference. They wanted our division to enter into a program that they were going to call Global Strategy.
I asked, “What is it?”
He said, “Well, that’s just it. We’re not exactly sure what it is. But we looked at the name ‘Global Strategy,’ and we know that you just finished a doctoral program with a major emphasis in the area of strategic planning, so we thought this might be something that you can pick up and carry.”
A project such as this, with no particular framework in place, can seem daunting. How did you prepare for it?
In 1988 and 1989 Global Strategy conducted weeklong meetings in Cohutta Springs, Georgia. While attending these meetings, I began to realize that Global Strategy was really a church-planting emphasis and very much involved in frontline mission. It basically involved going into every sector, every people group, every area of the world, and establishing Seventh-day Adventist churches. I thought to myself, Well, they should have gotten the personal ministries director. They should have gotten the ministerial association director. Then I got to thinking, This is a new program, and they’re talking about creating something that someone can develop any way they want. I went back and communicated this to the division president. He said, “So why don’t we just implement some of the things you’ve been learning?”
I was far more interested and had a far greater passion for planting churches than I ever thought I would have. School evaluations are important, but somehow church planting really captured my interest. It was exciting to think that we could have Adventist churches in places that currently don’t have a single Adventist, such as North Korea and Brunei. It was all very exciting.
Where did you get your passion for church planting?
My mother and father were the first Seventh-day Adventists in their families. My father had been in World War II. He was a prisoner of war for four years. He came out and struggled with anything religious. But when my parents met, my mother was in the midst of taking Voice of Prophecy Bible studies. My mother encouraged him to attend the study. She noticed that week by week his chair would get a little closer to the Bible study. It wasn’t long until he had gone through the series.
My parents determined that they would be baptized. My dad said that if he were going to make that commitment, then he would take theology. So he went to La Sierra College in Riverside, California. Somehow he got into a friendship with a group of pastoral interns, and they had a passion for planting churches. I remember before I was in school, we would attend these new little groups. After a while they got together and started the Sunnymead, California, church (now named Moreno Valley). We first started attending there in a rented bar. Pretty soon they bought property, then a church building. This pattern was repeated throughout my life.
My parents also weren’t satisfied that they were the only Adventists in their families. So my parents decided to move back to Missouri and try to bring our families into the church. My parents became part of a church-planting team that established a couple of churches in the Kansas City area. Ultimately, my two grandmothers, my grandfather, and several aunts, uncles, and cousins became Adventists. My mom is 83 years old now, and lives in Ottawa, Kansas. She is still involved in giving Bible studies in her community.
How did these experiences contribute to your work with Global Mission?
My parents’ entire ministry involved planting churches. The talk around the table was, “Sister Jones is at this lesson, and she has this comment.” And my dad, being not only a colporteur but a church planter as well, grew accustomed to interfacing with people who came from a wide range of different faiths. Little did I know that this was preparing my mind to think that if a faith has different values, you should try to interface with them, contextualize methodologies, and seek to understand completely different worldviews. And, of course, this was the challenge of the Far East because they have large populations of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Communists, as well as a postmodern, secular society. My parents’ dedication to church planting also taught me not to fear going to places such as Afghanistan, where there are no churches. God will work out a way to put believers and a church there. My job is to go with God’s wisdom.
Mike, your work is challenging. Not everyone would feel comfortable doing what you’re doing. Yet aren’t you one of those administrators who spends all their time in a building behind a desk?
Office work is important, and I do my share. But God’s work must also include implementing the vision. As I’ve interfaced with the church, I’ve learned that there are two camps. There are those who are passionately using their gifts—and that may not be church planting; it may be something else that involves them in God’s mission. And then there are those who may need a little more encouragement in the fact that they are not really as involved as they could be.
Many people ask me how they might become involved in God’s mission. That question is reflective of an important first step. Every Seventh-day Adventist needs to be asking that question. Involvement must not be defined as going to Africa or Asia or some remote distant place. Involvement must be defined as implementing God’s will for your life. For some, moving into action for God may be going to North Korea or Afghanistan. But for others, and just as important, it may be caring for the needs of family and neighbors.
It is wonderful to be part of a rapidly growing church. If not me, who will continue the culture of growth? If God opened the door of involvement, would I have the time, interest, and commitment to walk through it?