June 16, 2010

Adventist Leadership

2010 1517 page23 capN A HUNCH, I THOUGHT I’D SEE WHAT MY ADVENTIST COLLEGE STUDENTS knew about their Adventist leaders. Not that knowledge of Adventist leaders has anything to do with spiritual health; but it does have something to do, I think, with denominational health.

I teach at Southern Adventist University, a relatively large Adventist university known for its conservative bent. The students ranged from freshmen to seniors, with most being underclassmen. They came from all parts of the U.S., with a few from other nations. Nearly all the students were Adventist.

I asked the students to write the names of the following people: (1) the world church president, (2) the North American Division president, and, depending on where they were from, (3) their union conference president, (4) their conference president, and (5) their local church pastor. I then asked the students to try to name something each leader felt strongly about. Here are the results:

Ten out of 57 students knew that Jan Paulsen was the world church president. Two named something they thought Paulsen feels strongly about: world mission and women’s ordination.

Four out of 57 students knew that Don Schneider was the North American Division president. None of them named something Schneider feels strongly about.

Fourteen out of 57 students knew the names of their union conference presidents. Five named something that their union conference presidents feel strongly about: education, members’ opinions, conservatism, support for teachers, missions.

2010 1517 page23Twenty-one out of 57 students knew the names of their conference presidents. Seven named something that their conference presidents feel strongly about: family, growth of Hispanic churches, biblical conservatism, education, youth, tithing, unity, church planting.

Fifty-three out of 57 students knew the names of their local church pastors. Twenty-four named something their pastors feel strongly about: marriage sanctity, family time, sexual purity, health message, member participation, outreach, drums, music, spreading the gospel, using psychology to preach God’s character, youth involvement, mission trips, community, prejudice, archaeology.

It seems appropriate that students would have the most familiarity with their local pastors. Still, the low number of students who could identify their denominational leaders seems startling. Even more startling is their inability to name what these leaders feel strongly about.

Who’s responsible for this? All of us, probably. Students—and their families—could make an effort to know their church leaders. (I’m quite confident, for example, that most of them could name the director of the film Avatar.) Indeed, one of my students, Jecsy, described how in her home country of Colombia her church members knew all their leaders. She told how surprised she felt when she moved to the U.S. to find comparative apathy among young Adventists.

But the responsibility cannot rest fully on the members. For too long, too many Adventist leaders have, frankly, been viewed as nice but weak, lacking vision and backbone. Adventists are hungry for leadership. Christ, of course, is the head of the church. But He’s always spoken and worked through strong, consecrated leaders. Where are the prophetic voices that can breathe life into this 150-year-old church institution? We need to hear more than “the youth are leaving” and “giving is down.” Inspired people will stay—and give.

The good news: When I’ve personally witnessed young people interact with church leaders, I’ve always felt happy for the dynamic. Our church leaders have to let younger members know that they’re wanted.

A final figure: Of the 240 delegates the North American Division is sending to this summer’s General Conference session, guess how many are under age 30. Zero. This, of course, is two fewer than the number of North American young people who, along with Joseph Bates, cofounded the Adventist movement: James and Ellen White at ages 23 and 17, respectively.

Andy Nash is a journalism professor and lay pastor. His new book is Paper God: Stumbling Through Failure to a Deeper Faith.  This ariticle was published June 17, 2010.