by Adventist Today News Team
The senior pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church, Ryan J. Bell, has been relieved of his assignment, placed on administrative leave and “counseled to resign” by the denomination’s Southern California Conference. He has until April 20 to sign a severance document given to him by the conference on Tuesday (April 2) and will be terminated from employment at the end of the month.
Probably the most visible Seventh-day Adventist church in Los Angeles, it is located on Hollywood Boulevard overlooking the Hollywood Freeway (US 101) where 290,000 vehicles pass each day according to city planning documents. A statement from the conference “expresses recognition of and gratitude for the many creative and effective ministries the … church has extended to the interfaith community and to persons in need. However, there are multiple areas of belief and practice outside the parameters of Adventist Church positions that have been compromised.”
Pastor Bell told his congregation last week that “this Sabbath will be my last Sabbath” as pastor. “This turn of events breaks my heart. I have served the Seventh-day Adventist Church imperfectly for 19 years. It is the only thing I have done since graduating … from Weimar College when I was 22 years old. But sometimes people grow in ways that are incompatible with the institutions they have been a part of.”
He has no major doctrinal differences with the denomination, but Bell told Adventist Today that “my views about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals is one significant issue.” And, “I have expressed discomfort with the expression that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church of Bible prophecy … feeling that statement simply goes too far” as well as “ambiguity about the church’s belief in a literal six-day creation.” Surveys show that significant minorities of Adventist pastors in North America have similar opinions.
Bell, like most pastors who agree with him on the issues noted above, has not been outspoken on these topics. “I have written articles [published] in Huffington Post and Spectrum that have been construed as critical of the church,” he said. “My goal has never been to slander the church that I love, but to nudge her along the path of growth … in the hope that by bringing the church’s practices out in the light, those who are sometimes hurt by those practices would be heard and that perhaps the system might change a little.”
“While I will be leaving paid pastoral ministry, I am not angry with the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” Bell stated. “This denomination has given me my whole career and most of my education. I have been able to do the things I have done because the church has supported me. For that I remain grateful. I wish her only the best and I believe that there are many signs of hope within the denomination [while] at the same time there are signs of calcification and retrenching that cause me deep concern.”
At 41, Bell represents a generation of Adventist ministers in North America, Europe and Australia that are relatively few in proportion, forced to deal with significant change in the social context and severe polarization among Adventists. He came to the Hollywood Church eight years ago from Philadelphia where he had led the Bucks County Church in the suburbs for five years. He earned a Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena in March 2011, and recently became an adjunct professor in that program. He also teaches part-time at Azusa Pacific University, Loma Linda University and La Sierra University.
He has had a leadership role in the community organization LA Voice, currently serving as co-chair of the clergy caucus. This group got a permanent supportive housing development built in Hollywood and helped pass a responsible banking ordinance in Los Angeles, among other achievements. Because Hollywood is the global center of the film industry, Bell worked with his congregation to start a faith-based production company called New Name Pictures. Together with a church staff member, he helped found Just Hollywood, an organization that has established community gardens—including one on land that used to be a piece of the church parking lot—and has reached out to high school students with training in gardening, healthy diet and cooking.
When Bell arrived, attendance at the church was 50 to 60 people each week, he told Adventist Today. After three or four years it had grown to 150, although more recently, with the economy tightening the gas budgets of many people, it has leveled off between 100 and 120 each Sabbath. The total membership is 196, according to official records. The average Adventist church in North America has a typical Sabbath attendance equal to about half the official membership, while the same measure is over 60 percent for the Hollywood church.
The announcement of Bell’s firing sent shockwaves across North America, Australia and the United Kingdom because he is widely known among his peers as an innovator and mission-focused leader. While he was at the seminary at Andrews University from 1998 through 2000, earning his Master of Divinity degree, he was asked by Russell Burrill, director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute, to organize a series of seminars to encourage young pastors to plant new local churches. It was called Re-Church, and resulted in a network of mainly Generation X pastors who met yearly. The Re-Church Network has become an international connection and Bell has continued to be the coordinator.
Bell is also a significant spokesman for the Adventist Church in interactions with other Christians and other religions. He has developed a close friendship with noted Christian author Brian McLaren since they met at an academic conference in 2000; McLaren telephoned in recent days “just to see how I was doing,” Bell told Adventist Today. Well-known Christian writer and lecturer Alan Roxburgh was Bell’s major professor in the doctoral program at Fuller Seminary where he also became acquainted with theologian Mark Lau Branson. He also communicates regularly with Evangelical leaders Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt. In 2004, Bell arranged for Tony Campolo, the noted Christian author and sociologist, to speak for a gathering of Adventist pastors from across North America.
As an Adventist pastor, Bell has also entered into dialog with Muslim leaders. “A group of 10 to 15 of [Hollywood Church] members met for three months, every other week, with a group of 10 to 15 members from the local mosque (Islamic Center of Southern California) to talk about our faiths … and build friendships,” he told Adventist Today. On the Sabbath a day prior to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 he invited a Muslim Imam to speak.
A regular writer for Huffington Post, the national secular online publication, Bell’s articles appear regularly in the religion section and also from time to time in the books, politics, and “Impact” sections. He has contributed chapters to four books, including two from Adventist publishers. He has had articles published in Fuller’s Theology, News & Notes, in the Adventist Review and Spectrum, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums. He is also a writer for Adventist Today and was elected recently to the board of the Adventist Today Foundation.
The elders and other lay leaders of the Hollywood Church have not yet met to debrief this shocking turn of events, “but they are strong and committed to the missional vision we have developed together for the past eight years,” Bell said. When the conference leadership gets around to meeting with the congregation, there will be many questions.
Tensions about change in the church are not new to the leadership of the Southern California Conference. They, along with the other conferences in the Pacific Union Conference, have had differences with the General Conference officers over the last year on the topic of ordination. Local pastors are hired and fired by the conference, while the General Conference has no such authority over conference and union presidents.