By T.J. Sands | 28 June 2022 |
It was a long drive from Oklahoma to Kentucky, but at least there were beautiful sights—God’s creation, and humankind’s. Sarah and I began our journey early Sunday morning, and by evening we’d passed a candy factory, a closed-down wax museum, endless acres of wheat and corn, massive rock outcroppings, the Gateway Arch, pastures of cows, towering downtown buildings, and countless scattered wildflower blooms.
After twelve hours in the car we were too exhausted to leave our room. Thankfully, the North American Division (NAD) Called Convention had us covered by live-streaming all of their morning and evening arena meetings on YouTube.
If you’re social media friends with a pastor, over the past week you may have seen his or her pages ablaze with pictures and audio/video snippets from the Lexington-hosted pastor family convention. Meeting friends was a big part of the joy of this event.
Lifting my spirits
Much of what I heard coming out of the General Conference (GC) Session left me feeling disheartened, demoralized, and disenfranchised. Inflammatory language, judgmental attitudes, top-down leadership style, elevating an institution above God’s kingdom, pitting social justice against the gospel, Adventist culture wars, and viewing one’s journey with Jesus more like a fortress to defend as opposed to a path to walk—these seem to me some of the reasons we see more and more people becoming discouraged with the denomination. These are views that were lifted up (and bowed down to) throughout the GC session, which is why so many of us found it so disheartening.
The tone and tenor of the NAD’s Called Convention could not have been more different. This event lifted our spirits, and encouraged our souls.
The morning and evening arena meetings are available for viewing on the NAD Ministerial’s YouTube page, so I won’t spend time discussing them—though I will encourage you to make a point of listening to Ty Gibson’s Sunday evening sermon.
On Monday morning, we (my wife so graciously attended every single seminar and activity with me) attended Tara VinCross’s seminar, “How to Follow the Leading of God.” When Pastor Tara started the meeting by asking everyone to take a deep breath, hold it, then let it out slowly, I knew I was in the right place. Mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, and spiritual formation practices have become a big part of my life over the past few years, an immense help in fighting the ever-present dangers of anxiety, constant hurry, and burnout.
Her talk was practical, easy to follow, and came with a handout for further reflection. She left plenty of time for private prayer, group prayer, and open sharing. Much of the content she covered came from her book, Deep Calling, which I strongly encourage everyone to read. I left the meeting feeling centered, calm, and loved by God.
After lunch (provided with our registration, and excellent) we went to an afternoon seminar entitled “Evangelistic Potential of LGBTQ+ People.” (It was originally going to be entitled “LGBTQ & Christian? A Conversation About Creating Inclusive Worshiping Communities,” which I think was a better reflection of the seminar.) With such a topic, the room was packed to the point of standing room only. The panel included a pastor, an administrator, a chaplain, and a clinical therapist who is an openly gay Adventist young adult and pastor’s son.
The presentation was powerful, and full of heartbreaking stories of the church’s history of rejection of queer Adventists. The panel saved some time at the end for questions and answers, though a few opportunists in the audience managed to slip in the usual “clobber texts,” as if none of the speakers had ever read them before.
Allow me to diverge a moment to offer a bit of pastoral counsel to anyone reading this that is frustrated, confused, or angered by Christians who choose to love, affirm, or support those who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community: read some books on affirming theology before assuming anything about the LGBTQ+ community, or their allies. Voicing your assumptions, and vain repetitions of Bible verses you believe to be “clear” on the topics of gender identity and sexuality, are not conducive for constructive dialogue.
Plus it is woefully presumptive to assume that an affirming Christian can answer all of your questions in a short conversation. If you truly have a heart for understanding those you disagree with, you must be willing to do the research. More on this later.
Later in the afternoon we took a tour of the Exhibit Hall, an auditorium-sized room packed with both official church ministries and independently run ministries.
I’m not perfect, but I do my best to try and not act as an Adventist gatekeeper, pontificating on who is or isn’t “Adventist enough.” That said, the whole Exhibit Hall experience left a bitter taste, not because of who was there, but because of who wasn’t. I’m personal friends with board members from both Adventist Today and Spectrum, so I was already privy to the fact that neither ministry was allowed a place at the proverbial Exhibit Hall table. I’d personally love more transparency concerning the way in which NAD leadership chooses who is allowed to host a booth at upcoming Called conventions.
In the evening we went a few blocks away to a gorgeous Presbyterian church for a Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International seminar entitled “Creating Welcoming Congregations.” The off-site venue was necessary because Kinship wasn’t allowed on site. While I am grateful to our brothers and sisters from another denomination for hosting, I do wish ours would be a little more accommodating to a ministry that envisions the church they love so much as growing into a more welcoming and safe place for all.
The atmosphere in this gathering was friendly and open. During Q&A we heard from individuals that held to affirming views, and traditional ones, yet the tone was respectful and courteous throughout. I believe the Seventh-day Adventist Church has much to learn from Kinship’s intentional pursuit of dialogue and inclusion.
As the sun was setting, my wife and I were treated to a lovely dinner out with our friend, Loren Seibold. Food and fellowship was the perfect ending to our first full day.
The next morning we attended a seminar called “Social Justice in Adventism: A Part of Our Prophetic Calling.” The presenters all did a tremendous job, and I only wish they were given more time to share! This pastor’s heart was encouraged by learning more about what some of our inner city churches are doing for their communities, but also convicted about what more my church can be doing. They offered a number of examples of how to get started learning about the needs of a church’s community. I’ve already begun research into how to be more involved with my local town hall and city council meetings.
On Tuesday evening it was back to the Presbyterian church hall for a seminar entitled “The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists,” with LGBTQ+-theologian Alicia Johnston. Her talk was intellectually stimulating, a flavorful feast of ideas. We were treated to her reading and interpreting Romans 1:18-32, with deep contextual Roman and Greek history, and finished with questions and discussion.
Alicia was engaging, thoughtful, and patient with her responses. One participant openly confessed that they struggled to find any common ground with affirming theology. Yet that they felt safe enough to share was to me a powerful object lesson in creating open spaces for dialogue and disagreement.
This talk was a preview of Alicia’s new book, The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists, which promises theological depth and honesty. In a phrase I mentioned earlier, reading this book would be a great way to do your research on this topic.
Called Convention 2022 was a refreshing example of all the good Adventism is capable of, while also being a reminder that there is always more room for growth and progress. It was great to see old friends, and make some new ones. I had some amazing conversations, and it was nice to have seminars and sermons that filled my pastoral cup, for a change. It’s tough out there for a pastor, but my time in Kentucky provided a much needed reprieve. The Spirit’s presence spent a little extra time in downtown Lexington, and I, for one, am thankful for the additional bit of attention.
TJ Sands is the pastor of the Edmond, Oklahoma, church.