25 January 2018 | Pastor Robert L. Dale passed away on Sunday (January 21). He served as assistant to Dr. Charles Bradford, the first president of the Adventist denomination’s North American Division (NAD), during its formative years in the early 1980s, and then as secretary and later vice president of the NAD until he returned to pastoral ministry in Portland, Oregon, in 1995.
Dale quietly managed many significant changes in the denomination, including the Caring Church Strategy which has become the primary conventional methodology for church growth in North America. The strategy, although elaborated in much detail, is essentially the fact that a local church which provides significant “pre-evangelistic” or non-religious service to its local community and does a good job of nurturing its members, as well as some kind of consistent evangelism, will have real increase in its active membership. Research has confirmed this approach as correlated to actual, multi-year church growth in studies done in 2000, 2010 and 2015.
When Bradford was elected General Conference (GC) vice president for North America in 1979, the NAD was a “legal fiction.” It existed only on paper and its territory was the only part of the world where no regional branch of the denomination existed. The 19th century paradigm of the NAD as the “homeland” and the “overseas divisions” as missionary territories still persisted despite all of the changes in the 20th century; major wars and a post-colonial world.
By the time Dale became Bradford’s assistant in late 1981, the concept of creating a real division structure was under active discussion. Dale participated in those discussions and guided the many studies, documents, committees and policy changes paving the way to the vote by the GC Session in 1985 that made the NAD a “real” division. He was the consummate ecclesiastical bureaucrat who never lost his vision for the local church.
A special issue of the Adventist Review (dated August 9, 1984) addressed the need for an NAD organization and the concerns of the global Adventist movement about this development. Dale worked closely with the editors on this issue and arranged for it to be distributed to every member household in the NAD. It pointed out that even then the NAD was “no longer the largest division,” and contained “less than 17 percent of the church’s members,” a percentage that has shrunk by more than half in the intervening 33 years.
Yet “the world church has its eyes on North America,” an introductory editorial said. The hope was expressed that the NAD’s “generous coffers continue to supply the needs of a world work.” In an interview Dale pointed out that with the creation of a real NAD staff, “personnel from the General Conference could focus more directly on the entire world,” thus meeting many unmet needs when the GC staff were “too busy dealing with North America.”
Dale pointed out in the interview that the NAD was becoming an increasingly complex, multiethnic and multigenerational culture. He recruited Dr. Des Cummings and Clyde Morgan from the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University to prepare an article with a detailed analysis of Adventist demographics compared to the censuses in the United States and Canada. It ended with a section on “American lifestyle and Adventist mission.”
In 1988, Dale coordinated the 100th anniversary of the 1888 GC Session in Minneapolis with the annual meeting of the NAD executive committee which was held there, a symposium by historians and the release of all the original Ellen G. White materials related to the significant theological changes made at the meeting 100 years earlier. A more evangelical, less sectarian direction emerged at the 1888 GC Session as White backed some younger leaders from California and the GC president resigned.
Dale had to deal with a number of controversial issues during his years as an NAD officer. “This church stays alive because truth grows,” he told Adventist Today in an interview published in 1993. “The Adventist Church has never been and never should be a closed church. We’re searching for truth,” he continued. “We need to be careful in trying to force a particular concept on somebody else.”
Asked about “the diversity of voices” among Adventist Bible scholars, Dale said, “I do believe that the church leadership is willing to listen to different opinions. We always have heard many different opinions, on many different topics [over the denomination’s history]. As individuals study, they need to be able to express what they have learned.”
Dale entered the ministry in the 1950s, serving initially as a pastor in the denomination’s Nevada-Utah Conference. He moved to Indiana in 1963 and by 1967 was elected secretary of the Indiana Conference where he was president from 1970 through 1974. He became president of the Wisconsin Conference in 1975 where he served until he joined Bradford’s staff at the GC in 1981.
Remembered for his patience, kindness and quiet approach, Dale was truly “bigger than life” to many who met him through the years. He had a consistent vision for the local church: “Living God’s love will produce sparkling reflections of the loveliness of God in the church, in our homes and in our lives because we are at peace with God and our fellowmen,” as he expressed it in a 1979 guest editorial in The Lake Union Herald.