April 14, 2018 |
In the Walla Walla University Seventh-day Adventist Church, on Sabbath morning April 14, Pastor Alex Bryan announced to his congregation that he would be moving from senior pastorship of that church at the end of this current school year in June. Although he intends to continue living in College Place, Washington, with his wife Nicole Ward Bryan and their two children, he will begin working for Adventist Health, based in Roseville, California, as administrative director for mission identity. The position entails leadership of the healthcare system’s alignment to mission, its spiritual care program, and church and faith community relations.
Alex Bryan has been the widely known senior pastor of the WWU church since 2009 (with a one-year break in 2013 when he briefly served as president of Kettering College in Dayton, Ohio). Before that in 2012 his church also thought he was leaving because he had been nominated to serve as president of Walla Walla University. However, that recommendation by the WWU presidential search committee was unexpectedly turned down by the university’s board. Bryan’s nomination had elicited an anonymous online campaign in opposition due to theological right-wing perceptions of him as a dangerously liberal Adventist.
Besides his local congregation of WWU students, professors, administrators, professionals, and blue collar members, Pastor Bryan’s sermons broadcast online and on television have become a safe harbor and a spiritual home for many Adventists far beyond the Walla Walla Valley. In spite of his reputation as a progressive pastor, denominational tithe from his church (that all goes from the local church to support worldwide Adventism) has not decreased, but has increased year by year even as it has declined in many other Pacific Northwest congregations. This would suggest that Bryan’s support for worldwide Adventism has not been weak or questionable.
Asked by Adventist Today why he had made this decision now, Bryan gave no specific answer except that “I have felt it was time for a pastoral change,” noting that previous senior pastors at this church also have had a certain time of service. He repeated his love for WWU and its church, and emphasized that he loves “preaching the gospel.” In private conversations Bryan has mentioned concerns about organized Adventism, including a massive administrative overhead that leaves local congregations weakly supported, the maltreatment of women in ministry, and attitudes that appear at times anti-science and anti-LGBT+.
Alex Bryan is well known for his co-founding of the very popular One Project that ended in February with its last meeting, held in San Diego. Bryan pointed to the statement published on April 11 by “General Conference Executive Leadership with Division Presidents” targeting the recently disbanded One Project. The “Executive Leadership” demanded a written response from the One Project or the Global Resource Collective before they would recommend this movement as approved by the General Conference. Explanations were required of the organizers’ stances on issues such as “understanding of 1844,” “role of doctrine,” “uniqueness of SDAs,” “Young Earth Creationism,” “the little horn of Daniel 7,” “the anti-Christ,” and their positions on “gender and sexuality.”
One Project speakers (there are many different ones at each meeting) have generally offered supportive, generous and wide rather than narrow interpretations of some of those topics. Those issues involving social questions are topics Bryan himself has discussed in a series of student-initiated sermons in the “Ask Anything” series held for the past two years. Most who heard those sermons felt Bryan successfully walked the fine line between openness and honesty in permitting students to “ask anything” and yet supporting a very Biblical response to each question including those on sexuality and gender inclusiveness. The One Project with its emphasis on Jesus first and doctrines second has been considered by many of the thousands who have attended to be “the salvation of the Adventist church,” or “the best thing happening in Adventism”—not a challenge to it. But this movement in Adventism is obviously not endorsed by present church administration, and perhaps that disapproval contributes to the background of why Alex Bryan feels it is time to move to a less restrictive platform.
A week ago on April 7, in response to a controversial social media posting by WWU students that seemed racially insensitive, Bryan repeated a sermon he had previously given on racism and Adventists (ending with the examples of racial equality given her church by the elderly Ellen G. White). Bryan’s congregation gave him several impromptu responses of applause during that sermon, and with the students who shared their testimonies about racism, a prolonged standing ovation at the end of the sermon.
This Sabbath the response to his announcement of leaving was more muted as members were generally saddened by the news. Some close to Bryan said they were disappointed yet not surprised by the news. One young professional said he had hoped that Bryan could have established a pastorate buffered from the negative trends in Adventism at this strong local church. “I was hoping he would become a Roberts [Loma Linda University] or a Nelson [Andrews University], an untouchable institution here at Walla Walla.”
Alex Bryan graduated from Southern Adventist University in 1993 with majors in history and religion. He then earned his Master of Divinity from Andrews University in 1996, and his doctoral degree in ministry from George Fox University in 2009. George Fox is a nationally recognized Christian university based in Newberg, Oregon.
A pastoral search committee will now be appointed. It took over one year to find Bryan in the first place from Southern Adventist University and then only after the Upper Columbia Conference had turned down the church’s request for female pastor Chris Oberg (subsequently very successful at the La Sierra University church) to be WWU’s senior pastor. In 2012 when Bryan left for Kettering, no replacement had been decided until he unexpectedly decided to return one year later, to his congregation’s relief. Former head elders Austin Archer and Beverly Beem agreed that the WWU church would get along, but that finding a pastor like Bryan would not be an easy task. Present head elder Darold Bigger, a past senior pastor of the church himself, will lead the new search committee.