An Interview with Dan Wysong
Dan Wysong was pastor of the Chico, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church, a 750-member congregation in the denomination’s Northern California Conference. Chico is a city of 93,000 about 100 miles north of Sacramento. There has been considerable controversy around this congregation’s accepting an LGBTQ person for baptism into church membership. Among the outcomes is that Wysong is now the pastor of a congregation affiliated with another Christian denomination. Adventist Today editor Loren Seibold recently interviewed Wysong to sort out the story.
Adventist Today: Tell me about your background in the Adventist church, and what brought you into ministry.
Dan Wysong: I grew up immersed in Adventist faith. I’m a sixth-generation Adventist, and a third-generation Adventist minister. My parents both spent their entire vocational lives serving Adventist institutions. I am so grateful to have grown up in a loving and caring environment where I learned about God, scripture, spiritual community, and serving other people as a response to God.
Having grown up a PK (preacher’s kid), I didn’t really want to be a pastor. I was a few months away from graduating from Union College with a degree in business finance. I was prayerfully considering some really good job offers from some secular business corporations as well as Adventist Health, when I got a call out of the blue to go pastor a church. The conference president recommended that I pray about it, send out my resumé and see what happened. I ended up getting four calls to be a pastor even though I was a business major. I figured it was divine intervention and took one.
Four years ago, a couple who had been away from church for years started coming back. They felt loved and included, and found a home at our church. One of them had grown up in our church, and had been baptized as a child. Her spouse asked me what the process was for joining. I told her that it was through baptism, but that I wanted a chance to talk the issue over with our elders, since baptizing a person who is married to someone of the same sex is something of a new situation. I presented the issue to the elders, and asked them to spend some time in prayer about it. After three months of praying and discussing the issue, our elders came back unanimous that while they might not agree on the subject of same sex marriage, they felt God was calling us to include Alice in baptism and church membership. Never before had I asked for permission from church elders to perform a baptism, but in this case, I wanted to make sure the church was on board before moving forward. And although in Adventist polity only local churches have authority over who becomes a member, I went to the conference and explained the situation to them, too, since this was likely to affect them as well. My president said that I couldn’t do the baptism, since it would place me in violation of church policy.
I went back and told my elders I couldn’t do it, and one of them volunteered to do the baptism instead. Alice was baptized, and the church strongly voted her into church membership. To be sure, some of them disagreed or didn’t understand. I actually had one person come up to me and ask why I had let this happen. When I asked why this person hadn’t voted against including Alice in membership, they replied “That would be mean. I didn’t want to be mean.”
Amber and Alice were married long before they joined our church, and it wasn’t by me, nor did I baptize them, nor did I vote when they were voted into membership.
All that said, I am so proud of the Chico Adventist Church in how it has put Jesus’ highest commandment first: loving other people the way Jesus loved us.
Tell us about how and when your feelings about being a Seventh-day Adventist pastor begin to change.
The more I’ve grown and matured, and the more time I’ve spent with the text, the more I have noticed that Adventism has quite a few priorities that can conflict with embodying Christ through loving people well. Adventism tends to care a lot about having the truth figured out, being the remnant, following Sabbath as the seventh day, conditional immortality, and predicting the eschaton. The problem comes when these things become more important than following Jesus and His one commandment to love others as He has loved us. Orthodoxy is viewed as being superior to orthopraxy.
I think the church’s basic purpose is being the beloved community, responding to the Spirit’s movement in the local context. This worked well in the early church, where the Holy Spirit was the locus of authority, and eroded with the rise of the Doctrine of Apostolic Succession and creation of the institution as the source of authority.
The reaction of the wider church to our local decision to baptize Alice and include her in church membership was pretty disheartening. I believe the Spirit was at work in our local congregation, and the denominational pushback seemed to be placing itself at odds with where God was moving.
The General Conference in San Antonio was pretty rough for me, as well. Instead of moving forward, it felt like the church was moving backward. Rather than following the Spirit toward inclusiveness, Adventism took steps toward a more exclusive practice of religion. Even if I was making a positive difference in my local context, the institution I was supporting was causing significant harm. I had to stop.
In spite of my inclination to leave, I was still deeply committed to my local congregation in Chico. I love those people from the core of my being. I managed to keep going for another two years, but realized I needed to leave as the denomination became more punitive, vitriolic, and exclusive. I feel called into helping people continue to learn and grow. The Spirit is at work everywhere, and on everyone, and I believe we are all invited into this incredible endeavor.
How did you begin to interact with the United Church of Christ congregation, and what drew you into ministry there?
For ten years my mother-in-law has been teaching a one-room day school housed at the St. John’s United Church of Christ (UCC) in Woodland. My older children have attended there and our family became well acquainted with the members of the congregation. I would occasionally be asked to preach during the students’ formal programs, and when the church’s pastor moved on, they asked if I might be willing to fill the position. Honestly, it wasn’t until they extended this offer that I even began to look into the UCC denomination. Once I started learning more about it, I was impressed with their humility, wisdom, and church polity. They believe in loving God and one another, and leave everything else up to the individual and local church. It’s beautiful.
Realizing that I’m not required to change any of my personal theology to fit in was surprising and empowering, and definitely something that attracted me to this next step. I am learning so much by experiencing church through a different tradition. We all have so much to gain from each other’s perspectives. Why wouldn’t we open ourselves up to a broader experience and understanding?
Others have gone this road before, as you know. Some have found leaving our rather theologically-opinionated and sectarian community for another denomination a difficult transition. For many of us, our whole family and circle of friends are in the Adventist church. How have you found it?
I’m still pretty early in the process, but here is what I am experiencing about the transition so far: I am very intentionally not walking away from any of my friendships with Seventh-day Adventists. I love every single one of the people I know more now than I did a year ago. As long as I continue keeping my heart open to them and find ways to stay in contact, I don’t anticipate these friendships will change.
I am finding the freedom of the UCC to be a beautiful thing because it allows me to be exactly who God is calling me to be and to say exactly what God is calling me to say. Love does not demand its own way. I am discovering that I am better at loving people when I don’t feel the need to give my opinion on their theological beliefs (or the contents of their grocery cart).
What do you say to people who tell you, “You should just stay in the church and try to change it from within”?
I believed this myself for a long time, but no longer. I had been doing everything in my power to help the Seventh-day Adventist Church move forward, and instead it continues to move backwards.
The Adventist church started with a beautiful concern for the freedom of conscience of each member. That’s gone. The Adventist church ordained women a hundred years ago. Not anymore. If we can’t even get the inclusion of women right, I’m not all that hopeful about Adventism’s capacity to grow to the point where it includes LGBTQ people as equals. I’m not willing to use my life to lead a community where some of God’s kids are institutionally and doctrinally excluded.
On the positive side, I have been developing a deep appreciation for the inherent creativity God has instilled in all of us. My wife recently built a ballet studio from the ground up. She created a community where students treat each other with respect, grow towards excellence, and add beauty to the world.
I believe God has placed this kind of creative energy in all of us, and we honor the image of God as we continue to create new things. Like religious communities. What if more people took the initiative to create new churches the way we create new businesses? I think there would be a much wider, deeper, and more relevant experience of church available. Maybe God would love to use us in making communities that powerfully and creatively re-imagine and embody Christ in each locale.
There may be people who have been made anxious, or those whose faith is shaken by their pastor becoming a pastor in another denomination. How do you explain it to people who are genuinely puzzled or hurt?
Worrying about people misunderstanding my decision to transcend Adventism kept me in Adventism for a while. However, I have come to realize that while some people will inevitably misunderstand and misconstrue my decision, I’m not actually helping them by catering to their perspective. In fact, while cognitive dissonance is almost always something we avoid, it is also the only way we ever learn and grow.
I am very willing to have open conversations with people about why I chose what I chose. I also want to make sure I am honoring the very valid choice many people make to remain within the Adventist denomination.
What parts of the Adventist faith will continue to be important to you?
This is a fun one for me, and one I’ve spent quite a bit of time articulating for myself. I have a document I’ve been working on for over a year titled “Gratefully Walking,” with a list of stuff I am gratefully walking away with and gratefully walking away from. Here’s the bullet list of what I’m grateful for:
What I will gratefully walk away with:
- A wonderful picture of a God who is love. Any thing else is of the slanderer – this is the core of the Great Controversy.
- The weekly rhythm of Sabbath – grace, celebration, rest, belonging, resilience, resurrection, and beauty.
- An appreciation of present truth. God wants to keep growing and developing us.
- An appreciation of love as freedom: our original refusal to adopt a creed was such a beautiful thing.
- Thought inspiration: that scriptures are inspired, but not written by God. This makes room for the humanness of the scriptures, while still allowing room for the Divine to work within them.
- An awareness of Jesus’ second coming: that our day to day lives now are not the only reality, and that Jesus is returning to make all things new.
- A wonderful global network of rich friendships and connections. This is so good! I am incredibly grateful for all of the deep relationships I’ve made through the Adventist network.
What I will gratefully walk away from:
- An institutional need to be better than others.
- A need to control others.
- The need for theological certainty and being right, orthodoxy over orthopraxy. I believe Jesus taught that loving well is more important than doctrinal correctness.
- An eschatology that reinforces a sense of institutional elitism and complacency.
- A worldview that everything is going to get worse and worse. This perspective often thwarts our investment in making the world a better place, which is exactly what Jesus told us to do between his first and second coming.
- An institution that sees uniformity as the source of unity, and resorts to compulsion, secrecy, and propaganda to achieve this end.
- An unwillingness to extend freedom of conscience and speech to members and employees.
- An unwillingness to include everyone as equals.
- An unwillingness to trust and give freedom to the local congregation.
- A distrust of science. God is the ultimate reality, and science is a means of describing that reality. We do not need to fear it.
Dan Wysong is married to Heather Renee, and they have four children: Abigaile, Grant, Ryan, and Gianna. The Wysongs lost their house in the Camp Fire, and are now couch surfing with friends and family. Dan is the pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ (UCC) in Woodland, California. He talked with Adventist Today editor Loren Seibold.