Let me be honest. For years, somewhere in the crevices of my heart, lay buried a secret desire to be a leader, to try my hand at church administration— perhaps because of the high pedestal on which I pictured leadership, or maybe I just wanted the challenge of leading and influencing the future in a larger setting than the local church. It can’t be because of pride of recognition or the allurement of the position. Well, I would like to think that my motives were not carnal, but . . .
Leadership did come my way, and I am now celebrating the second anniversary. No, celebrating is not the right word—reflecting on or personally debriefing on is better.
After spending the last 10 years of my 25 years of service in pastoring, I was elected a conference president. I have not climbed any mountain to survey the valley below, but from where I am and from the experience of the past two years, I can compare the role of the president with the role of a pastor. I have found several downsides that were unforeseen.
I no longer study as deeply as I did as a pastor. In my years of ministry, I found my greatest delight in deep study of the Word. The power of transformational biblical knowledge and the changes that took place in my own thinking amazed me. Not infrequently I had to pause and bow before the Spirit in grateful acknowledgment of His leading.
Every Sabbath people were waiting expectantly with a question: “Is there any word from the Lord?” (see Jer. 37:17). They needed a perspective from heaven to understand their yesterday and to direct their tomorrow. Spiritual instruction from the pulpit to influence and guide the minds of people comprises one of the vital roles of a pastor that cannot be understated. The weight of that responsibility drove me to a deeper and ever-deeper life of prayer and study. The Bible became a living oracle of God with its living power coming from hours of poring over the Bible and commentaries. It was both a revelation and a mystery to me as I sensed my mind constantly opening to the wonder of the plan of salvation.
I am losing the ability to preach. As an administrator, I find that the demands of meetings and travel usurp the time and the ability needed for deep study. I find I am scrambling (looking over old sermons) for something that will feed the people. An elderly pastor, who had dedicated himself to a life of shepherding the flock, once said, “Always drink from a running stream; never try to give the people water from a stagnant pool.” How seriously I took that counsel in my ministry; if my heart didn’t burn within me, I didn’t preach. But somehow now I find myself repeating the same sermon from church to church until even my faithful wife complains.
I am growing out of touch with the spiritual heart of the people. There is no higher calling than pastoral ministry. You are a surgeon of the soul. Your calling, like that of Moses, encompasses the guiding of your people to the borders of heavenly Canaan. As an emissary of heaven, you are called to live with and minister to the people. This calling embraces the most challenging, yet the most rewarding calling on earth.
In many ways, ministry is much harder than administration. To pastor the flock means living with the saints on a day-to-day basis. You grow to know their weakness and their downsides, but you love them anyway. These saints/sinners are your family, and you forge relationships that are deep and lasting.
In administration, people treat you differently. With the respect for the office comes a distance in relationships. Not intentionally, but slowly. That’s why departmental leaders and administrators tend to socialize together; they feel that pedestal, and they sense that they are different.
I find it much more of a challenge to build an evangelistic base. As a pastor, I made it a priority to constantly try to expand my outreach base. I joined ministerial associations, service clubs such as Rotary International, and as many other organizations as I could. My goal was to build a base to touch the lives of people outside of my circle, and these organizations were always wonderful avenues for building relationships. These contacts brought many evangelistic opportunities. In administration, the demands of travel to churches and other meetings do not allow that luxury, and these demands do not even allow for a wide social base on a personal level.
I have observed that in settings where a large number of Adventists live or work, that social base constantly shrinks. While living on college campuses, I found this to be starkly true; so many build a social network that causes them to keep very much to themselves. Professors, students, and members in general tend to introvert into their own closed social network and therefore lose their evangelistic touch.
I sense a change in my cognitive thinking. I have recently noticed subtle changes in my thinking. Perhaps it’s because I spend so much of my time dealing with various issues. A number of years ago, as a departmental director, I walked into the office of my conference president, who was staring at several dozen notes of phone calls he had to return. As he looked up he said, “I wish I knew that one of these calls I am going to make would be positive and uplifting.”
The job description of administration includes casting a vision and leading the conference toward lofty goals and high ideals, but the vast majority of the work deals with personal and mundane issues. Dealing with problems of this nature on a constant basis subtly changes your thinking. You drift from spiritual counselor and mentor to manager.
Organization and structure naturally evolve to a preoccupation of how well we are managing. When the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed, the average age of workers was 23 years, and that included the elderly Joseph Bates, whose age pushed the average up dramatically. But these young people had vision along with a healthy skepticism for organization and a clear purpose of God’s plan for them. In the 160-plus years since, we have become institutionalized and successful—preoccupied with what we are doing.
I find myself counting the strength of spiritual Israel by numbers. I have become preoccupied with baptisms, tithe gain, attendance records, and formulas to indicate growth success. I am reluctant to mention this, because I don’t want, in any way, to downplay the priority of our mission. Ellen White tells us, “The saving of human souls is an interest infinitely above any other line of work in our world.”* Evangelism is our calling and what we are all about, but I have noticed how easily we all become preoccupied with measuring how we are doing. I find an internal (perhaps external as well) pressure to cross over a subtle line of demarcation that divides corporate success from spiritual calling.
The role of a pastor
As H. M. S. Richards Jr. reflected on his father’s philosophy at my ordination service, he challenged, “Never descend into administration; there is no higher calling than the role of a pastor. Don’t succumb to the pressure to slide into administration; it has been the undoing of too many good pastors.”
I am beginning to see the wisdom in that statement. Don’t misunderstand me. Our times cry for strong leadership in the church with the challenge to place the best in positions of leadership. As I have come in contact with leadership at various levels of our church, I am convinced that God has done just that. I am ever amazed and humbled to see the spiritual focus and sincere dedication of our leaders. Most followers of God don’t yearn for the high place when they are reluctantly thrust into leadership. The fact that they’re in leadership represents a call from God to use their gifts in this capacity. However, the further away leadership is removed from the role of pastoral ministry, the more they lose the ability to understand their role. Perhaps there is wisdom in the concept of a seven-year Jubilee at which all administrators and theology professors are cycled back into ministry to sharpen their skills and reprioritize their focus.
Even as I clearly sense God’s call to this position of leadership, I am beginning to enjoy the challenges that accompany that role. However, because no higher calling on earth exists than the role of a pastor, looking to move up the corporate ladder may not be all you may think it is.
* Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1923), 293.