Three weeks into my first solo pastoral district, and brimming with zeal, I phoned the local Chamber of Commerce in the Massachusetts mill town where my wife and I had settled.
“Hello,” I said in my best Chamber-of-Commerce voice. “I’m the new Seventh-day Adventist pastor in this area, and I’m checking to see if there’s a ministerial association in town that I might join.”
The voice at the other end grew grave and cautious. “Well,” he said, as though trying to avoid saying something unpalatable, “there is a ministerial association here in Southbridge for . . . [long pause] Christian denominations.”
I pretended I hadn’t heard the caveat, and plunged ahead. “Wonderful!” I said. “Could you give me the contact information for whoever coordinates that group?”
Slowly, as if fumbling for something he didn’t want to find, he eventually offered the name and phone number of a priest from the largest parish in town. I thanked him for his help, and settled into my second call of the morning.
The receptionist at the Notre Dame church connected me to Father Daniel, who eventually joined the call with a warm, Bing Crosby-sounding voice.
“How can I be of help?” he asked, probably assuming that I was one of his flock seeking pastoral care.
“I’ve been directed to you by the Chamber of Commerce as the leader of the local ministerial association,” I informed him. “I’m the new pastor of the two Seventh-day Adventist congregations in this area, and I’d like information about when the association gathers and at what location.”
The silence was uncomfortably long. “Well,” he said as slowly as he could in drawing out a four-letter monosyllable. “It’s true that there is a ministerial association in town, but it’s for . . . [long pause] Christian churches.”
“That’s wonderful,” I enthused. “How often does it meet, and where?”
He seemed disappointed that I hadn’t immediately disqualified myself and my denomination, but ultimately yielded up the information: at the Notre Dame parish hall, every third Tuesday of the month, at 10:00 a.m.
Two weeks later, buffed and shiny, I opened the door of a too-hot parish hall that smelled heavily of old coffee and older tobacco. A dozen clergy milled about, talking quietly with each other, periodically adjusting their clerical collars or pendant crosses as the perspiration slid down their noses.
Father Daniel soon spotted the newcomer, and carefully made his way to the corner where I had ensconced myself. “You must be the new Seventh-day Adventist pastor,” he said as he held out his hand, and his face wrinkled in a practiced smile. “It’s good to have you with us. Would you be willing to offer the opening prayer for our convocation today?”
After agreeing, I slowly began to realize the dimensions of the long examination that was just beginning. “Will he pray as a Christian—in the name of Christ?” “Does he believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” “Are Adventists actually Christians?”
I preached better sermons because they were listening—and even taking notes.
Every newcomer to a professional organization recognizes how longtime members place responsibilities on the “new guy,” and I cheerfully took my turns. But during the coming months, as I continued to attend association meetings every third Tuesday, my “turns” were coming up with disproportionate rapidity.
“Bill, would you offer the devotional at next month’s meeting?” Father Daniel would ask. “Could you lead a breakout group when we talk about how the ministerial association will address the hunger issues in our community?” “Would you have the benediction at today’s meeting?”
My wife soon greeted me upon my return from each month’s meeting with a cheerful laugh: “So what did they ask you to do today?”
I began to understand that though Adventists had been present in my community and that region for decades, we were barely known at all. As I met other clergy, civic leaders, medical personnel, and businessmen during the next three years, I found myself sharing a simple and yet carefully framed explanation of the faith in which I had been raised: “Seventh-day Adventists are a Christian denomination that gathers chiefly around the two biblical ideas featured in our name. We observe the seventh-day Sabbath as found in Scripture, and we believe in the literal soon coming of Jesus to this world.” Elementary as they were, those lines were more than any of the influencers and decision-makers in my community had previously known about my faith.
An ambassador explains the identity and character of the government he or she represents.
The rotary dial black phone on the office desk of my suburban Grand Rapids congregation startled me from my early Tuesday afternoon drowsiness.
“Hello,” announced the gravelly voice at the other end. “This is Dr. Anthony Hoekema from Calvin College.”
I sat bolt upright in my chair. On the other end of this phone line was the man whose well-known volume The Four Major Cults had deplorably misidentified Seventh-day Adventists as a cult, lumping Adventists with Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists. Millions of Christians around the world had been influenced by his volume.
“How can I be of help?” I asked carefully, wondering why this well-known scholar and critic of Adventism would be calling a thirty something Adventist pastor in a midsized suburban church.
“I’m wondering if you could give me the address of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists?” he asked. “I need to contact them.”
I suppressed the thought that came immediately to mind: how would evangelical Protestantism’s most intense critic of Seventh-day Adventists be unaware of the physical location of the movement he so strongly criticized? Deciding that was a question for another day, I began reciting the address, 12501 Old Columbia Pike . . .
He thanked me briefly and then ended the call. I stared out the window at the early May blooms and foliage, wondering if I had naively accepted an invitation to minister in a place where nearly 70 percent of the population were churchgoing Christians, and almost half were adherents of Hoekema’s Dutch Reformed tradition. This was going to be more challenging than I knew.
Since there were no active ministerial associations on the southern side of the city, I began looking for opportunities where the Lord might bring me in contact with ministers of other faiths. The racquetball court at the nearby gym opened the first opportunity. Jeff was a tall, lanky associate pastor of a local independent charismatic church with a broad smile and a fierce “kill shot” I could never quite handle. We began playing every second Wednesday at 6:00 a.m., often praying together before we played, and later again over breakfast after showering and shaving at the club.
Jeff had a seminary textbook awareness of Adventism, though mostly gained to counter its call for Sabbathkeeping, the state of the dead, and the Bible’s dietary requirements. He would look at his breakfast plate of bacon or sausage at the diner, smile broadly, and then say, “You won’t be offended if I eat this, will you?”
“Not at all,” I would assure him, secretly imagining that my Vegeburger-and-vegetables diet might one day help me master his unconquerable kill shot. The differences in our culinary habits and doctrines soon took second place, however, as we discovered how much each of us was seeking a closer journey with Christ. Even in the diner Jeff would place his hand on my shoulder and pray earnestly for my life with Christ as no Adventist colleague had ever prayed for me in 10 years of min
istry. Our families shared meals and conversations, joys and sorrows, during the next three years. We talked about the Sabbath, God’s call to holy living, and the necessity of heart preparation for the soon coming of Jesus. And we prayed—always—multiple times on each occasion we met.
An ambassador explains the identity and character of the government he or she represents, while making friends for its purposes and aims.
The cordless phone beside my desktop computer chirped cheerfully, and my assistant spoke softly at the other end.
“Bill, Reverend Franklin from the Episcopal church is here to see you. I didn’t have him on your schedule: I hope this is OK.”
“Please send him in,” I urged, puzzled at what would bring an Episcopal priest from the other side of the valley to the large collegiate church I served.
Jim Franklin walked in slowly, shook my hand, and waited a moment to explain his errand. “Bill, we’ve had our eye on you,” he said, no doubt secretly delighted at the consternation evident on my face.
“And would you like to tell me about it?” I managed, knowing nothing of what was coming.
“You probably don’t know this, Bill, but within our valley ministerial association there is another group of six of us who meet each Thursday afternoon for conversation and prayer. I don’t mean to sound exclusive, but it’s an invitation-only group. We’re not trying to grow, and we don’t invite anyone new to join until we’ve all prayed about it—until we’ve all agreed to make an invitation. And I’m here to ask if you’d consider joining us.”
He quickly named the other group members, most of whom I had met in monthly meetings of the area ministerial association. “I don’t need an answer today,” he said slowly, “because it’s not a casual commitment we’re asking you to make. When I say that we meet each Thursday, I mean every Thursday, without fail, unless you’re on vacation or in the hospital. This weekly appointment to meet with each other takes priority in our lives and ministries.”
“Oh, and one other thing,” he added as he turned toward the door. “We hold one 24-hour retreat every quarter up in the mountains where there are no phones and no media. I know you have a wife and two small children, so perhaps you’d like to ask your wife how she feels about your being part of this group.”
That night I explained the invitation to Debby. “I think you should take it,” she said quickly. “You know how much you’ve treasured relationships like these in the past. And don’t worry about me or the boys. We’ll be fine for 24 hours once a quarter.”
And so the next Thursday at 2:00 p.m. I parked in front of the Episcopal church—apprehensive, but also certain this was of the Spirit. The conversation was gentle, warm, supportive. The prayer was intense, focused, and deeply personal. After one week, I rearranged my sermon preparation schedule to be available every Thursday afternoon. Within a month, I would miss the occasional subcommittee meeting when there was a scheduling conflict, but never my gathering with six stalwart believers who loved me and encouraged me with the healing kindness of Jesus.
On that first overnight retreat in the nearby mountains, the others waited until I had chosen my spot on the carpeted cabin floor and unrolled my sleeping bag. “Come over here, Bill,” they said with knowing smiles. “We have a tradition with the new guy on these retreats.”
They pointed to a single chair in the center of the circle where they stood. “Sit here, Bill,” they said. “We’re going to pray for you. Don’t get worried: it’s going to take a while. So just be quiet as we lay our hands on you and pray.”
And so a Baptist, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, an Independent, a Pentecostal, and a nondenominational pastor laid hands on me and prayed for the next 45 minutes—about my health; my marriage; my friendships; my professional life; my daily walk with Jesus.
Every Sabbath as I preached on live radio from an 1,800-member church, I knew that Ron and Rick and Jim and Carl and Mike and Don were listening to me open the Word of God—praying I would do it well, that the Spirit would speak through me. I preached better sermons because they were listening—and even taking notes, as they sometimes laughingly admitted to each other. Explaining my beliefs so that pastors of other faiths could understand them taught me a skill that never would have grown if I were preaching only to Adventists. And when I ultimately announced that I was leaving that congregation to be an editor of the Adventist Review, my Thursday prayer group surprised me on my last Sabbath, sitting directly in the center of the sanctuary where I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—miss them. The tears in parting were reverent and real.
An ambassador explains the identity and character of the government he or she represents, while making friends for its purposes and aims, extending its reach and influence.
More than 120 years ago God’s inspired messenger to this movement wrote of the important role Adventist ministers play as ambassadors for this faith: “Our ministers should seek to come near to the ministers of other denominations. Pray for and with these men, for whom Christ is interceding. A solemn responsibility is theirs. As Christ’s messengers we should manifest a deep, earnest interest in these shepherds of the flock.”2
It is, like too many other messages given by God to His remnant, a message that has frequently gone unheeded. Intent on building that fraction of God’s kingdom we can see, we have often forgotten the kingdom we have almost no part in producing: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how” (Mark 4:26, 27).
Nothing is ever wasted in God’s economy. The friendships formed, prayers shared, and truths discussed with ministers of other faiths will one day yield in “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9, NIV).
Support—no, actually encourage—your pastor in using the gifts the Spirit has given them as an ambassador for your congregation and your faith.
Bill Knott is the executive editor of the Adventist Review.