by Edwin A. Schwisow

Where Are We Going? By Jan Paulsen. Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2011, $13.99

Reviewed by Edwin A. Schwisow
Submitted March 2, 2012

Jan Paulsen is the first modern General Conference (GC) president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to pen a reflection about the church, based on his experience in leadership. He served as GC president from 1999 to 2010, and prior to that as a GC vice president, leader of the denomination in Europe, and a professor and education administrator.

His book “Where Are We Going?," like the biblical book of Daniel, is composed of 12 chapters, the first six of which reflect primarily on his story and contemporary issues, the final six on the future of the church. Several typographical errors suggest that the book was edited and printed in some haste, perhaps to meet a deadline, such as the GC annual meeting in October 2011. The book was released at that time.

Paulsen begins the book by identifying with the Apostle Peter (page 9) who, he says, had “both great leadership potential and great potential for messing up.” He reflects almost casually on the tremendous numerical growth of the church (more individuals entered Adventism under Paulsen’s administration than under any previous leader) as “a very complex global community of some twenty-five to thirty million people” (page 9), the estimated number of adherents generally attributed to the Adventist movement, including the denomination’s book membership (currently about 17 million) and millions more who identify themselves as Adventists to census-takers and pollsters.

In fact, a few paragraphs later (page 11) he states bluntly: “I see an incredible range of ways people can ‘be Adventist’ within their own culture. Our core values remain unchanged, but our culture lends a special flavor to our faith.” Paulsen clearly sees himself as a relatively open-minded moderate within the traditional definition of Adventist faith. Like the Apostle Peter, who seemed to accept and embrace both Paul’s and James’s divergent views, Paulsen sees himself as a synthesis of both traditional and at least some progressive Adventist positions.

He writes that the church has “stayed together as a church and weathered difficult times in large part because we talk to each other” (page 11), and that “Annual Council is the time each year when world church leaders reaffirm to each other and to God that we will work together as one people, with one faith and one mission.”

In Chapter 1 Paulsen describes himself as a man who was raised in the hardship of first-generation Adventist parents, the son of a Norwegian cobbler who was forced to set up his own shop, in order to be able to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Born in the mid-1930s, Paulsen experienced the trauma of World War II in Europe and gained the conviction that “no one should have to suffer because of where they come from or what they look like” (page 16). At one point he and his family had to share living quarters with 300 German soldiers in an old school building, where some of the troops were only 14 or 15 years old and cried at night for their homes and parents. He reflects that his mother’s family was from an austere Lutheran sect known as “Laestadianer.” Adherents were not allowed to display potted flowers in the home and could not wear neckties. Whistling was forbidden and sternly rebuked. Paulsen determined that in his life, being a follower of Christ would be a joyful experience and that he would not judge others who seemed to interject joy into their faith experience (page 18).

After the war, the family was able to resume attending Adventist services. Paulsen writes that faith did not become special to him until the age of 14, during a prayer meeting with his mother and others. He also determined at that time to become a preacher, though he stuttered badly at the time (page 19).

The remainder of the biographical chapter tells of his education in Adventist institutions, his marriage and early family life, and his call to serve as a missionary in Africa. It was during missionary service that he concluded that in his ministry, “people matter most. Remember that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath,” and that “rules and their application can be so wooden and insensitive that, in enforcing them, we can inflict such unreasonable punishment on someone that we dishonor God, who made both people and rules” (page 23).

He also determined (page 25) that “mixing socially with people of different faiths or no faith is the best way to share your values and show people why you’re passionate about your beliefs.” He served as a missionary administrator and college president, before becoming a division president and then GC president in the wake of the resignation of Robert S. Folkenberg, in 1999 (page 26).

The book then turns to Paulsen’s views on leadership, a chapter he may have drafted long before he left the presidency. In fact, he dedicates only a few sentences to the events in June 2010, when he was not re-elected. He writes, “Any form of spiritual dictatorship in the church and any leadership that comes across as self-serving or driven by a political agenda are offensive and doomed to failure” (page 31). He adds on the following page, “Good church leadership will always have an element of softness or gentleness in it” (page 32).

Clear thinking is essential in leadership, he writes: “God has given us our intellects and our capacities to understand, and He expects us to use them even in matters of the Spirit, so we can find safe ground to stand on” (page 33). “Leaders who retreat into themselves to seek a personal, God-speaking-to-the-moment—an experience that can be notoriously subjective—will be perceived by others as unreliable and perhaps even manipulative.”

He sees leadership as including the management of change (page 34). He states that he has known men with an “unbelievable and irrational resistance to change…. This is a brittle and dangerous leadership posture that threatens their survival in the church.”

Women and Ordination

He then reflects (Chapter 3, page 38) on segments of the Adventist movement not well-represented in current leadership and decision-making bodies. He deals at some length with the church’s failure to adequately employ the gifts of women and young people, countering the view that ordaining women could split by the church by declaring, “Well, maybe. But not ordaining women may be every bit as likely” to do so (page 39).

“The refining, softening influence of Christian women is needed in the great work of preaching the truth…,” he writes. “In parts of our global church, the younger generation finds it difficult to understand why we don’t fix this. They don’t feel they can be part of a church that discriminates in a way that society has already moved beyond, moved to a higher standard” (page 41). He suggests that the best place to fix this problem is during an Annual Council meeting, when there is time for quality dialog, rather than during a GC Session when time for actual discussion is comparatively sparse, competing with elections and special events. He assumes that his readers know that denominational policy defines General Conference sessions as primarily electoral in substance, and Annual Councils as the arenas for hammering out real policy changes. He concludes the section on women’s ordination on a bit of a negative note: “I see no prospect that some future session will resolve the question of the ordination of women differently than past sessions have. If the leadership of the church requests the session to transfer responsibilities for this matter to Annual Council, then I believe we will have a forum that can deal with this question effectively” (page 42).

Young People, Minorities and Immigrants

Approaching the center of the 127-page book, beginning on page 43, he writes, “Today, far too many of our young people and young professionals are not contributing to church leadership.” Two pages later he writes, “Young people are also frustrated by the sheer numbers of their peers who are leaving the church,” citing several discussions he has had with knowledgeable young Adventists. “Young people should be commissioned to take greater responsibility for ministry to their peers” he concludes. ”It’s a task for which they are uniquely equipped.”

He dedicates Chapter 4 (pages 47-53) to matters of racial and cultural equality, noting that the Adventist movement was once involved in the abolition of slavery in the United States. “In the Netherlands, I’ve seen firsthand how the Adventist community and tens of thousands of immigrants are slowly learning to live together as a family,” he writes (page 51), and affirms that this is reflective of efforts to “nurture an environment of hospitality and welcome in our churches that extends love and acceptance to everyone.”

He continues on a related theme in Chapter 5, dealing directly with his own practice of enjoying close personal friendship with non-Adventists, particularly high-level officials of other denominations. Of Christ’s life, he writes, “Staying within a sacred enclosure, separated from humanity, was not the way forward then, nor is it for our church today.” He is haunted, he says, by repeated questions from journalists, government and state officials, and leaders of other churches and religions: “Who are you, and what do you offer to the life of my community or country?” (page 57). The answer, unfortunately, is that we are often “an irrelevant sect that nurtures its separation and isolation” (page 57). Within such a perception, public evangelism of any kind simply cannot flourish.

He continues the discussion in Chapter 6, and writes on page 63, “Of the estimated 670 million Protestants in the world, only about 17 million—less than 3 percent—are baptized members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” Adventism is a distinctive minority, he says, yet “some adopt a bunker mentality, timidly withdrawing…and calling any communication with other religious groups ‘dangerous compromise’” (page 64).

He notes that Ellen White enjoyed strong ties with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a group whose views did not always coincide with the Church’s. She wrote, “We are not to stand aloof from them, but, while there is to be no sacrifice of principle on our part, as far as possible we are to unite with them in laboring for temperance reforms” (Review and Herald, June 18, 1908, page 8).

The President and His Associates

In chapters 7 through 12, Paulsen directs his vision and pen more incisively to the future of the church. He decries leaders who “expect loyalty to themselves” (page 75), those who gather “disciples” unto themselves. “If you’ve reached the point where you both supply and evaluate the thoughts, ideas, and values of your associates, you’ve gone far beyond the boundaries of appropriate leadership,” he writes (Ibid).

He continues, “Men or women who don’t have the suppleness of mind or personality to cope with change cannot safely be given leadership in a church that operates in a global context” (page 76). Rather, he writes on page 77, the church needs leaders “with creative minds…and compassionate hearts.”

In a telling aside on page 79, he writes, “Our church is a very conservative community, which means, among other things, that we rarely depart from the familiar.” He ties this in with his belief that “freedom of thought and expression among the leadership team allows for the testing of unfamiliar ideas in what is perhaps a safer, more disciplined environment than many other settings provide….”

In Chapter 8, he seems to think that the laity are generally less conservative than denominational leaders, and that local churches “have more scope for independent decision making than any other administrative entity within the global church.” He then restates (one of the few redundancies in the book) his view (apparently strongly held) that a truly spiritual and effective leader will not “tend to act because of private ‘inspiration’ or by convictions that have arrived during the night season” (page 86).

He begins Chapter 9 (page 91) by defining unity and contrasting it with uniformity. Here, more so than in any other section of the book, we see Paulsen the pastor, writing that “members must be humble, be gentle, be patient, and bear with one another in love.” He continues on page 94, “While secular society is inclined to talk about power and greatness, Christ presents humility as the virtue on which almost all other virtues depend.”

He laments “critical or offshoot groups” who develop around a strongly held view of end-time events. These groups operate on the fringes of the church and “tend to bring a spirit that fractures and divides the faith community.” Labels like “conservatives” and “liberals,” he says, “pigeonhole people, generate suspicion and fear, and lead us to make judgments about another person’s commitment or spirituality, judgments that belong only to God.”

He sees those who call for “a straightjacket of sameness” as placing an “unbearable strain on our unity…. A good example of this kind of issue is how we understand the role of women within the church, but there are many other issues, both large and small, that can cause us to dig in our heels and insist that ‘our way is the right way.’”

The final three chapters (pages 101-127) are less pointed in tone, addressing the need to provide places of safety in our church services and to see ourselves (Adventists) as on a journey, rather than as having already perceived all truth. He believes the church must move away from pulling tares and reforming the behavior of members, and except in the clearest evidences of overt undermining, allow the “weeds” to grow, while the good seed bears fruit.

The possibility of misidentifying “weeds” (especially among the young) is unacceptably high, he says: “The risk we take when we weed God’s garden is too high because of our own humanity” (page 105).

In Chapter 11 he warns about the negative side of the call for “revival and reformation.” “Revival presupposes that something has died,” he writes, and is a form of judging others. Too often, he says, we call for “reform and reformation” because “it just feels right.” He says the phrase captures the tension between reality and our ultimate goal, to be better than we are. But we must ask questions about what we mean by the phrase, he says, concluding page 110 with the thought, “Apathy is far more hazardous to the body of Christ than is critical thinking.”

Ultimately, he says, the desire for “revival and reformation” will be a continuous state of mind, formed by a tension between reality and the ideal. “We’re all pilgrims,” he writes. “But in Christ’s first coming we find the moral power we need to stay the course.”

Chapter 12 is essentially a benediction, in which he mentions his successor, Ted Wilson, by name for the first time. He cites a real incident in which a questioner from an independent publication (SPECTRUM) was physically punched by an unnamed member of the gathering who was apparently upset by the kinds of questions being asked by the SPECTRUM reporter. While not holding Wilson responsible for the attack, Paulsen uses the incident to show that the use of words such as liberal, conservative, rebel, loyalist, progressive, and reactionary can lead to “caricatures and vilification….The language of polarization will only move people who already stand some distance apart even farther away from each other” (pages 122, 123).

He concludes, “So many people around us are traumatized by a lack of hope, because of poverty, fear, abuse, injustice, war, or disease. It’s something very hard to look at what’s happening in our world through the lens of hope. But pilgrims are, above everything else, a people of hope” (page 126). Paulsen sees the Adventist Church as a pilgrimage of fairly broad diversity, holding out to the world a sense of hope and redemption.


In this book of reminiscence and advice, Paulsen presents himself as a moderate and pastoral man of feeling and compassion, fully supportive of the 28 Adventist fundamentals. Though many have decried the apparent lack of “action” on matters raised and discussed from Paulsen’s bully pulpit, he did raise issues and apparently believes that the seeds sown from the higher echelons have more potential for sprouting and growing at the “grassroots level” than from the top down. Paulsen says that the topmost levels of the church have less potential for effecting reform than changes and adaptations springing from below.

How much of the book is intended specifically for the ears and meditation of his successor? Has Wilson managed to read it yet? To what extent has the book created a buzz in the hallways of the GC? We will probably find out, in time. The book is clearly not an attack piece, in any sense; but it does raise issues near and dear to the hearts of moderate, well-educated Adventists. Returning to the past will not yield unity, Paulsen is saying, except among those who because of lack of subtlety of thought see such a recipe as the patent spiritual medicine for all ills.

Paulsen makes no apocalyptic predictions about the church, its downfall, or about Wilson. He sees the church at its highest levels as inveterately conservative—by inference, presiding as a conservative is the easier course, but one strongly out of step with the complexities of our times. That theme, in fact, runs strongly throughout the book and may be the central legacy of the Paulsen years. There’s little doubt that what he did, and did not do as president, “worked.” His was not a perfect administration, but historically it may well be seen as a very difficult act to follow.