by Loren Seibold | 2 July 2019 |
You know the old saying that everyone likes sausage, but no one wants to see it made? I sometimes wish I didn’t know how the church works—that I could sit in my pew and assume that everyone was happy, every leader and pastor inspired, every decision personally blessed by God.
Turns out (spoiler alert—for those of you who would rather not know, quit reading now) that working for the church has a lot in common with working for any other human organization. Much of one’s work as a pastor doesn’t have a fragrance of holiness about it, any more than if you were working in Walmart, a hospital, or for Microsoft. “Customers” you are knocking yourself out to take care of are often appreciative and gracious, sometimes indifferent, and occasionally just plain mean. Having an organization above you is what lets you be hired and paid, but organizational priorities can also trample on people and make your work unnecessarily difficult. Some denominational leaders are good, a few are incompetent, many are probably redundant—and a handful are just cruel or stupid, and you have no idea how they got to where they are.
After all these years, I know too much about how the sausage is made. The denomination works, with its committees and constituencies and too-many levels of peripatetic administrators, but it works in spite of, not because of, all that. Some things, particularly those having to do with bookkeeping and records, the denomination does pretty well. I’ve been pleased to see how organized the retirement process is, for example, and through the years I’ve not had much to complain about in regard to how my remuneration and insurance were handled.
However, lay people might be astonished at the amount of money spent on DOA projects, the casual and inexpert way the selections are made for those who are called “up higher,” the bad employee behavior that gets transferred somewhere else, the hard decisions that are deferred rather than handled, and the number of disillusioned people working for the church.
Lay people shouldn’t be surprised at the clumsy management of certain complex problems, because in constituency sessions they’re complicit by insisting their leaders not do things that need to be done, like closing institutions that have no chance of surviving, or changing counterproductive doctrines or policies.
As for theology, at this point in our denominational history rarely is it done just to seek truth and enlightenment. The kind of creative theological exploration we did in our early Adventist history could now get you fired. We do theology to reassure ourselves, and sometimes to advance someone’s agenda, whatever that happens to be. The worst, it seems to me, is the creation of theology to defend someone’s authority, such as the General Conference Executive Committee Newsletter, whose purpose appears to be to support the claim that the GC has the authority to do whatever it is currently deciding to do.
Inertia and presumptuousness are our enemies: too much, in my opinion, is continued because we’ve always done it that way, or initiated and promoted on prayer and faith rather than good business principles. If the church fails, it will be because we kept doing the same things over and over again long after they stopped working, because someone in the 19th century, or someone in an office somewhere, told us we should.
I will say here, undoubtedly with excessive candor, that I expected the church to be better than it is. I’ve seen too many congregational fights, too many people driven away, too many struggling with spiritual insecurities that the Adventist message exacerbated rather than salved, and too many bad denominational decisions that couldn’t be covered over by Ellen White quotes about the General Conference’s heaven-gifted authority.
I’ve seen pastors and their families suffer, too, sometimes criticized nearly to death. One superb pastor wrote me recently: “My close to ten years in this congregation almost destroyed me.” He has, happily, since gone elsewhere. And he should. In our denomination, congregations have been trained that if they feel discontented, or just bored, changing pastors is the reset button.
Which reminds me to say that I now know the best strategy for climbing the denominational ladder: move early and move often. Take every promotion that comes your way, before you’re around long enough for your fallibility to be noticed. Only a handful get longevity in the Adventist system, unless they make it into the sinecure of a denominational office.
The Bad Years, and Why It’s Gotten Better
In those early years pastors and their wives could be treated abusively. I saw pastors moved yearly as a sort of punishment, a putting-you-in-your-place and showing-you-who’s-boss. I knew a pastor who was sitting to dinner with his eight-months pregnant wife when the moving truck showed up—unannounced. They moved in a day. Another read about his impending move in the Northern Union Outlook. Pastors could be denied Christmas vacation (even with plane tickets purchased and plans made) for not reaching a magazine subscription or ingathering goal. (More than one reached the goal by reaching into his own pocket.) I knew one conference president who insisted that every pastor who bought a car had to buy it through him, because he’d get a commission. Another pastor told me how he was phoned by his president on Christmas Day and chewed out for three hours while his family waited at the table.
All of these things happened decades ago. Leaders in the NAD are generally kinder now, or no one would work for them. (The stories I hear of how church workers are treated in some of the so-called “mission fields” are still rather concerning.)
I got in on the tail end of that. I was once told by the president that because my congregations hadn’t shown any growth in the past quarter, “You might as well be dead and buried, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to God.” How’s that for encouragement to someone working all by himself in a handful of tiny churches in the middle of nowhere? Whether or not he was qualified to speak for God, he was right in this: I was not a good evangelist. I always wanted to hear what people had to say, not pin them down to a baptism date. This, I’ve often felt, was my primary failure as a pastor in a denomination that values the ability to sell our doctrine above all else.
There were moments when I experienced my calling more clearly than others.
I remember a visit with Margaret who, though we’d visited many times before, no longer knew me. For about an hour I listened as she told me about the children she’d taught in Sabbath School, the cooking schools and health seminars she’d led. She was most proud that she’d run the Dorcas Society for many years, and told me that as soon as she got better she was going to take it over again. I praised and thanked her repeatedly, ending with a hug and a kiss on her cheek—which was covered with tears just from having had someone (someone she no longer recognized) listen to her stories of a past that was more vivid to her than the present.
I’m sure she didn’t remember my visit a minute after I left. A week later she died, and I told her stories to her family and friends. They all knew them, of course, but it was lovely to tell them in a time like that. She is gone, but remembered by me and a handful of others, and of course held close in the mind of God.
I remember a funeral for a stillborn baby. The parents were an almost-middle-aged couple, their attempt to have a child finally succeeding—and as quickly ended. I was young and inexperienced: I can’t imagine that I was able to say anything even remotely useful. But I was there, and experienced sadness with them, and they were appreciative.
I remember talking with a young man who had only just come to realize he was gay, and had begun to realize what this was going to mean to his lifelong Adventist life in an Adventist community. Again, I had no idea what to say, though I knew better than to tell him just to overcome it. I mostly listened. I wanted him to keep his home in the church, but he couldn’t see the way—and frankly, back then, I had my doubts, too. Since then, I’ve tried my best to make a place for LGBT+ people in our church and our life. It’s why my wife and I didn’t hesitate to appear in the film “Seventh Gay Adventists” with a precious couple and their children.
These are among the moments that I cherish—when even not knowing what to do, I was blessed to be there.
Yet I confess there were other times when merely being addressed as “pastor” seemed far too heavy a responsibility to bear. The title conveys people’s expectations that you stand in for God. This is something a wise pastor dare not take to heart.
Success in Ministry
The tragedy of ministry in our denomination—it’s time the lay people knew this, for it is as true today as it was 40¾ years ago—is that for many, success isn’t about congregations at all. Because of how we’re organized, success in a congregation just means you get to move out of parish ministry entirely. The mark of achievement in my profession is promotion into an administrative office, where you can be a “pretend pastor”: you still get your tax benefits, still get addressed with an honorific, still get to preach and get complimented at the church door. But you don’t have to actually visit the sick or bury the dead or be berated weekly by an elder or Sabbath School teacher who hates you. Even if people somewhere in the conference don’t like you, you don’t see them every day or two for 10 years and have to pretend that you’re loving siblings in Christ. You don’t have to work alone, like most pastors: you go each morning to a nice office, with assistants, and furniture that wasn’t left over from someone’s garage sale, and new computers and phones and tablets. You’re surrounded by people who tell you you’re great—which you are, of course, because you made it into the coveted office job. You travel to events and meetings, and you only have to worry about your job every five years or so at constituency session.
In one of my last words as an official Adventist pastor, I want to hope we might reclaim the real purpose of pastoral ministry, and that is to pastor—which word, I remind you, means to be a shepherd. Not a business manager. Not a TV star. Not a traveler to every board meeting of every hospital and college and judicatory in the denomination. Not a guy twisting arms to get baptisms. Not even a theologian, but a shepherd who imitates Jesus by restoring souls, comforting people, feeding the flock, gathering the lambs, and gently leading. Small congregations are dying, folks—hundreds of them a year. At least part of the problem is that in our desire to run an impressive denomination we have lost appreciation for local ministry, and if we don’t find it again we may end up with lots of offices and no congregations.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.