By Danny Bell, November 26, 2014:    Graduation was imminent and there was an excitement about campus. We were graduating as a special group – with a Bachelor of Theology degree. We were going to be pastors!  All our hard work had finally paid off, as we anxiously sat on the “bench” waiting for the “call” – unfortunately, the call never came for many….what went wrong?

The year was 1995, and the rumour coming from many conferences was that placements were thin, as there were too many graduates to fill the few available positions. Technically, this was correct, but later we learned that many multinational pastors from other countries were “imported” by conferences at the same time graduates from Avondale College came off the rank.

Conferences eager to get experienced or novelty pastors put out calls to overseas Unions, inviting them to come and be on the team to inject something different or new into what was (and still is) a dire situation in Australia. This left graduates an anxious wait, often forcing them to take voluntary positions or move overseas to countries not of their origin.

A few multinational graduates were on the bench with us but got snapped up quickly, while homegrown boys were left wondering when it would be their turn. We were happy for our multinational colleagues and wished them well in their new placements but then settled back down for another long wait. My call came through eventually, but as I walked away I remember looking back at my mates patiently waiting, wringing their hands trying to remain positive.  I felt sad – these were good guys. We later learned that some got calls; some didn’t.  Some had gone home devastated and disillusioned.

This is the first negative impact I could see of multi-national pastors being placed into Australian churches. The claim that there were no positions was not entirely true.  If not for the stream of imported pastors from other countries, our Union would have had more than enough positions for Australian graduates.  With more positions available, some who temporarily left ministry might have been able to return.

If you do a “church crawl” in Sydney or any major capital in Australia you will be hard pressed to find a church that does not have a multinational pastor.  Australia has had large increases in immigration recently, and all the new arrivals need ministering to, but what impact does importing multinational pastors have on average Australians1 when it comes to attracting them? When an average Australian visits a church for the first time, will it be possible for her to find an Australian pastor, at a time when third world ethnic percentages are a small minority in our country?

Adventists welcome multinational pastors and have high regard for the excellent work they do but how will average non-Adventist Australians feel when they walk into a congregation made up largely of Africans, Spanish or Tongans? Many of these churches also reflect the pastors’ culture of origin, which leads to the question: Was it the intent of the church to go down this path? or did it just happen?

The problem is not isolated to Australia or the Adventist church.  Evidence suggests that in the United States2 and United Kingdom3, churches have a problem identifying with their community, while creating cultural ghettos within congregations.  Part of the argument centres on pastors being called to churches outside of their normal cultural context. Placing a pastor in a church not of his own culture can have unforeseen side effects, including keeping away the community the church is trying to reach. For instance, imagine sending an Australian pastor to China or Russia and slapping him bang in the middle of a foreign congregation. This may appear to work with evangelistic efforts (although evidence suggests these communities don’t warm to foreign imports), but in the West it has resulted in congregations’ not accurately representing their local community.

We can’t coldly say (although it has been said), “Too bad; people just have to learn to ‘fit in’ and not be so racist.” This is not about racism but about balance and the community’s perceptions.  We as Adventists may feel excited about the diversity in our church as multinationals flood in and take up positions in the pews – the church is alive, right?  Isn’t God about “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight”?  Yes, He is, but the church’s creation of a cultural eddy that doesn’t reflect the wider community can isolate nationals who feel that the church is irrelevant to their context.

When a neighbour attends church for the first time he may be shocked to see so many ethnics, wondering if he has just walked into a local culture club – he might as well be in another country. We need to beware of what is happening to our churches, putting more effort into making sure they reflect the wider community. We should shy away from creating environments that will make first time visitors find our worship strange or feel they don’t belong. Churches that target certain cultural groups are needed but when average churches morph multicultural (usually hailed as a sign of success) without forethought, their outreach and relevancy in the local community can be negatively impacted.

I have written before about problems that result when churches turn ethnic;4 how this may appear like success on the surface, and how a church can be keeping away the wider national born population.  An overrepresentation of multinationals in a local church, when multinationals make up only a small percentage of that community, may work against us.  Importing pastors from other countries exacerbates the situation. In the United Kingdom, in the Adventist church the British nationals are largely marginalised and going unreached.  Most churches have experienced what is called “white flight,” where churches that once reflected the surrounding community have “turned” and become multi-ethnic and irrelevant to majority Brits.

In our excitement to see the church fill with different cultures, have we forgotten that the average Australian needs saving too? Is the best pastor to minister to average Australians going to be multinational or Australian? Is the fact that churches are filling up a convenient cover-up of the very real and present disaster we are having in terms of growth?
This presents a dilemma, I admit, because many inner city suburbs have concentrations of ethnicity who need reaching. But we could ask; if you come to live in Australia, wouldn’t you expect that your local pastor would probably be Australian? Just as if I went to Africa, I would expect my local pastor to be African and not Australian (as nice as that may be).  But here’s the thing: Have suburban mainline churches that once ministered to average Australians “turned” as a result of continuing to send in multinational pastors?

Pastoral mismatch is a phenomenon that reflects a deeper issue that goes beyond conference committee tasks of just matching pastoral personalities with churches; the matching may need to include nationality. Some may label this approach as racism.  Australian Adventists who suggest matching nationality are not against other races; they are making a serious attempt to deal with a problem that is crippling our ability to reach an ever more distant Australian culture.

Negatives for churches that have elected to have multinational pastors fall into a few categories:

  1. Language Barriers – congregants (and visitors) complain that they can barely understand their pastor when he preaches or teaches. This can be detrimental to the hearing of the message, and be off-putting to visitors who speak English well and expect professional standards from clergy.
  1. Cultural Nuances – again, this can result in offenses occurring both ways. The congregants’ cultural differences can often clash with the pastors, and vice versa. Pastoral mismatch can end in disaster, with churches splitting and conferences bearing the brunt of the fallout.
  1. Theological Persuasions – pastors from Eastern Europe, for example, are very conservative in their theology and and in the application of their religion. Unwittingly, they can impose their styles of worship and dress standards on a more progressive congregation, being totally unaware of the context of the local congregation.  This has led to churches and families going through untold hurt, with collateral damage to the community of faith.
  1. Fiscal Outlook – pastors who come from poorer countries may be reluctant to spend money on church outreach. On the other hand, some pastors who come from virtual poverty to huge financial opportunities and perks in a western church pay system n do harm to themselves and their families, making financial decisions that shock congregants and onlookers.
  1. Multicultural Influx – as mentioned above, this can be seen as a good thing for outreach purposes to a particular minority culture but can also repel the majority culture in a community. Average Australian seekers looking for an Adventist church are often startled to find a high concentration of ethnic members upon entering the building. This in turn may cause them to feel uncomfortable; after all, they don’t see the same representation reflected in their neighbourhood. They are not being racist but may genuinely have a disconnect experience the same as would happen in another country if a person walked in off the street to find a church full of Australians.

Decisions to import and place pastors into contexts that do not reflect the cultural origins of the pastor may be harming the work of the church and isolating the pastor and his family when the grafting process does not take. There is room in Australia for a multinational approach in reaching particular ethnic areas but let this not be at the expense of average Australians who deserve to be reached in their own community context and not be kept away by our insistence on cultural diversity. The men sitting on the bench and those having a break from ministry can be a ready supply for giving churches what they need to reach Australians and bring us out of the growth crisis.

1Despite Australia’s cultural diversity and long history of immigration, the average Australian was born in Australia, and so were both of his parents. In 2011, nearly three quarters of people (74%) were born in Australia, and more than half (54%) had both their parents born in AustraliaAustralian Bureau of Statistics 2011.

2More sources at https://books.google.com.au/books?id=19rscdvGCBcC&pg=PA349&lpg=PA349&dq=clergy+mismatch+ethnicity&source=bl&ots=vjOA_57BBX&sig=qjhdvQXYQnP0nGbc-wJjEYffvb0&hl=en&sa=X&ei=LZxmVIrdMaLpmAWeiYG4Aw&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=clergy%20mismatch%20ethnicity&f=false

3https://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2011-12-14/church-chat-where-did-londons-majority-white-church-population-go/

4https://atoday.org/churches-filling-with-ethnic-members-not-necessarily-a-sign-of-health.html