Are Adventist pastors teaching hypnotism?

Examining criticism of Lab I seminars

Monte Sahlin, D.Min., is vice president for creative ministries at the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland. An important collaborator in this research is Hoger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, who serves as research director for the Adventist segment of Faith Communities Today (FACT).

Have you heard the story? Hundreds of Seventh-day Adventist pastors have been trained to use hypnosis in their visitation and counseling. They are transferring their knowledge to unsuspecting lay volunteers. Since no self-respecting Adventist would ever agree to learn hypnosis, the instruction is disguised as "NLP" or "Lab I."

A photocopy of a computer printout is available to "prove" the allegations. Sure enough, it lists names of Adventist pas tors under the heading of Lab I and Lab II. Books can be found in secular bookstores on the subject of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), including some with obvious links to New Age ideas and organizations.

Is there a conspiracy at the General Conference? Is it another example of how far church standards have fallen, or perhaps how naive leadership is permitting New Age principles to worm their way into the church?

What is Lab I?

Back in the 1970s an interdenominational training organization named LEAD Consultants, Inc., developed a seminar to teach pastoral visitation skills. Founder John Savage, a Methodist minister, was interviewed in Ministry by Robert Spangler in May of 1983. Savage titled his seminar "A Laboratory School on Skills for Calling and Caring Ministries," commonly referred to as Lab I. His instructor training program became known as Lab II.

A number of Adventist ministers began using the curriculum because we had no comparable materials. Their goal has been to encourage effective visitation of church members, especially in reclaiming nonattenders. Lab I provides information about why members drop out and how to encourage them to come back. It focuses primarily on helping them to cope with suffering from such crises as illness, death of a loved one, divorce, unemployment, loss of faith, etc.

Lab I is not designed to be doctrinal in nature. What little theology it contained offers no threat to Adventist beliefs. Almost all of the time is spent learning 14 listening skills in order to improve interpersonal communication during visits. Good listening enables one to show compassion to a burdened individual.

What is NLP?

One item presented in Lab I is the concept that people have different thinking patterns. Through genetic inheritance and environmental influence, individuals process information in various ways. People not only think different things; they think the same things in different ways. Much research in recent years has probed how the brain functions, and at least three major patterns of information processing are identified.

The technical term for the way an individual processes information is called the "neurolinguistic programming of the brain" NLP. To understand this concept, consider how a computer requires a Disk Operating System (DOS) before any word processor or other application can work. Similarly, the human being has a basic information processing system that enables and influences all learning, language, and thinking. 1

One page in the 78-page Lab I manual presents this idea. The suggestion fol lows that during home visits, one should observe the NLP, or thinking style, of the church member to know what choice of words will communicate most effectively. This is much like hearing another person speak Spanish and (if one is bilingual) switching to Spanish in order to facilitate the conversation.

It is also following the counsel of Paul who tells us we need to adapt our communication to be like the person we are attempting to reach (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Is NLP dangerous?

Several organizations have taken the above information about the neuro-linguistic programming of the brain and developed a method of counseling that claims to cure entrenched habits in a single interview.2 They teach NLP therapy and give a NLP certification. Many ideas espoused are speculative, and the Adventist Church cannot endorse them.

No NLP therapy or certification is taught in Lab I. Some books about NLP therapy are listed in the bibliography of the Lab I manual, but Adventist ministers who teach Lab I should warn the participants that these books contain ideas Adventists cannot accept. Some even tear the bibliography page out of the manuals before distributing them.

It would be best if we Adventists had our own materials, not only eliminating bibliographies we cannot endorse but also teaching visitation skills based on a firm foundation of Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy. Four years ago writing began on just such an Adventist curriculum, and the Church Ministries Department and Ministerial Association of the NAD are now sponsoring its distribution at our Learning to Care seminars.

Using ideas from non-Adventist sources Some Adventists object to any method or idea that originated outside our church. Unless a particular approach or program can be traced to the Spirit of Prophecy or Adventist traditions, they urge that we ignore it. This seems a safe policy, but it contradicts the counsel of Ellen White herself. In the book Evangelism she insists: "New methods must be introduced. God's people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living." 3 She also asserts that "in these perilous times we should leave untried no means of warning the people." 4 In Medical Ministry she specifically points out one source of new ideas. "I have been shown that in our labor for the enlightenment of the people in the large cities the work has not been as well organized or the methods of labor as efficient as in other churches that have not the great light we regard as so essential." 5

She further counsels us to seek new approaches in dealing with changing reality: "The work of bringing the message of present truth before the people is be coming more and more difficult. It is essential that new and varied talents unite in intelligent labor for the people." 6

Ellen White counsels against being too quick to reject new methods and new ideas. "There has been much lost through following the mistaken ideas of our good brethren whose plans were narrow, and they lowered the work to their peculiar ways and ideas." She continues by saying that this narrow-minded thinking results in the failure to reach some kinds of people because "the appearance of the work" was made to seem like "some stray off-shoot of religious theory, that was beneath their attention. Much has been lost for want of wise methods of labor." 7 "There must be no fixed rules; our work is a progressive work, and there must be room left for methods to be improved upon. But under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, unity must and will be preserved." 8

Is there any truth to the rumors?

Most of us believe that "where there is smoke, there must be fire." The "fire" under this particular cloud of smoke seems to have been sparked by the fact that LEAD in the last few years has been sponsoring NLP certification classes and publicizing names of those who have taken prior courses or purchased materials. Some Adventists who have no real knowledge of Lab I have jumped to the conclusion that it is the same thing as the NLP certification program and thus spun a story from quotes out of various books.

Have Adventist pastors learned hypnotism? No! Not in any training program known to the North American Division staff. The denomination has taken a position against hypnotism, and if any workers were teaching it, they would be immediately disciplined.

Isn't NLP really the same thing as hypnotism? As stated above, what is taught about this topic in Lab I and Lab II is in no way connected to hypnotism.

It is true that LEAD now offers courses in NLP. This may be part of the reason that some people associate "hypnotism" with Lab 1. But hypnotism has never been part of Lab 1.

Doesn't the computer list of names prove that something is going on? What it proves is that someone collected a list of names. It may even prove that certain people attended certain seminars. How ever, it proves nothing about the content of those training events or the behavior of the people named on the list.

Is lab learning dangerous? A laboratory style of learning in which students not only hear lectures and have discussion but actually practice the skills they are learning is the most effective kind of adult education. Some may oppose it, asserting that lecturing is the only legitimate method.

Ellen White counsels: "It is highly important that a pastor should mingle with the people that he may become acquainted with the different phases of human nature, readily understand the workings of the mind, adapt his teachings to the intellect of his people, and learn that grand charity possessed only by those who closely study the nature and needs of men." 9 "It requires a knowledge of human nature, close study, careful thought, and earnest prayer, to know how to approach men and women on the great subjects that concern their eternal welfare." 10 "Men in responsible positions should improve continually. They must not anchor upon an old experience and feel that it is not necessary to become scientific workers." 11

Is "mirroring" a manipulative approach? "Mirroring" is another word for adapting language and approach to the other person's language and pace. Some assert that doing this manipulates the other person, but the charge is without foundation. Mirroring in no way limits the capacity of the other person to make free choices. It is no more manipulative than Christ's method of teaching sacred truths in parables suited to His culture.

Isn't NLP associated with the New Age movement? It is true that some books list the NLP certification training (not Lab I or Lab II) under the category "New Age." But does that fact make Lab I training bad? Vegetarianism is widely associated with the New Age. Does that mean that the Adventist Church should stop practicing and teaching vegetarianism?

"Associated with" is a tricky phrase, a potential tool of manipulation. For ex ample, one could easily demonstrate that grapes are widely associated with the manufacture of alcoholic beverages. And because of this unsavory, dangerous connection, some could insist that grape juice no longer be used in the Communion service a conclusion that would be unbiblical and silly.

Some would-be defenders of our doctrine seem to think it is more important to be conservative than it is to be Adventist. The conservative, fundamentalist Christian Right suffers from writers who search for the New Age under every bed and make many unsubstantiated, hurtful accusations. Is it inevitable that the same thing will plague the Adventist Church?

The enemy of souls wants nothing more than to see the warped influence of the Christian Right grow among Adventists. They would destroy our unity in conducting their New Age witch hunting. True as that statement is, I realize that some will immediately point to it as proof of a conspiracy and cover-up. But this is nothing more than a self-deluding excuse to avoid honestly addressing the issues.

There are those who, apparently for their own personal advancement, have developed sophisticated means of circulating rumors of this nature around the world even more quickly than denominational organs can disseminate official information. They have access to high-tech video and publishing systems. What is their agenda? Who finances them? Why do some members believe them?

Those who criticize Lab I may wish to consider a Spirit of Prophecy passage from Gospel Workers, which specifically recommends the same listening skills and basic approach that the Lab I curriculum is designed to teach and does so in the same context: reclaiming inactive members.

"The sheep that has strayed from the fold is the most helpless of all creatures. It must be sought for; for it cannot find its way back. So with the soul that has wandered away from God; ... unless divine love comes to his rescue, he can never find his way to God.... There is need of shepherds who, under the direction of the Chief Shepherd, will seek for the lost and straying.... It means a tender solicitude for the erring, a divine compassion and forbearance. It means an ear that can listen with sympathy to heartbreaking recitals of wrong, of degradation, of despair and misery. The spirit of the true shepherd is one of self-forgetfulness. He loses sight of self in order that he might work the works of God.... By personal ministry in the homes of the people, he learns their needs, their sorrows, their trials; cooperating with the great Burdenbearer, he shares their afflictions, com forts their distresses, relieves their soul hunger, and wins their hearts to God. In this work the minister is attended by heavenly angels." 12

The Lab I curriculum has attracted the attention of so many Adventists precisely because of the way it relates specifically to the counsel in this passage. 1. It concerns how to reach church members who have "strayed from the fold." 2. It is based on solid research that shows that the dropout "cannot find his way back" unless someone "comes to his rescue." 3. It teaches "forbearance" and how to "listen with sympathy." 4. It prepares the visitor to hear "heartbreaking recitals of wrong, of degradation, of despair." 5. It teaches the discipline of "self-forgetfulness" in visitation ministry. 6. It is training for "personal ministry in the homes." 7. It teaches how to learn the needs, sorrow, and trials of the people visited, and to "bear one another's burdens" rather than preach or give advice. 8. Its goal is to relieve "their soul hunger, and win their hearts to God."

When we are told that "in this work the minister is attended by heavenly an gels," how can we take a position against it? The North American Division has a massive dropout problem. More than a million non-attending and former Adventists live in our territory. There is a universal feeling among our members that our church needs more compassion ate, caring visitation ministry and a better listening ear on the part of the clergy. When a tool like listening lab training effectively addresses these pressing needs and whose principles have the obvious endorsement of the Spirit of Prophecy, we have to wonder about the real source of the destructive criticism.

The critics have offered no proof showing how the skills learned in these seminars have hurt anyone. Abundant evidence can be given to the contrary showing how many people have been blessed. I feel rather foolish writing this article. I told the editor, when he asked me to do so, that there are really more important topics for which I covet these pages. Topics like reaching the large cities of the globe, the deep spiritual hunger spreading in North America, how small group Sabbath school classes can foster a closer walk with Christ, New Testament church planting strategies, and reaching the masses in our secular age. When will private publications and the rumor mill discuss these questions?

1. Donald William McCormick, "Neurolinguistic Programming: A Review of the Research," The 1984 Annual: Developing Human Resources (San Diego: University Associates, 1984). This article summarizes 44 research projects on NLP reported in scientific literature, 31 of which are doctoral dissertations.

2. Ibid., p. 267.

3. Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 70.

4. Ibid., p. 63.

5. ____, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1963),p.301.

6. Ibid., p. 300.

7. ____, Evangelism, p. 68.

8. Ibid., p. 105.

9. ____, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 4, p. 77.

10. ____, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), p. 92.

11. ____, Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 93.

12. ____, Gospel Workers, pp. 183, 184.

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Monte Sahlin, D.Min., is vice president for creative ministries at the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland. An important collaborator in this research is Hoger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, who serves as research director for the Adventist segment of Faith Communities Today (FACT).

June 1992

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