Editor’s note: The Seventh-day Adventist Church, in order to care for its worldwide mission, has 13 world administrative regions. Two of these regions, known as the Inter-American Division and South American Division, are among the fastest growing areas in the world. The editors interviewed the leaders from these divisions, Israel Leito and Erton Köhler, respectively, and spoke about a wide range of issues.
Nikolaus Satelmajer (NS): Pastor Leito, what is your vision for the church for the next fi ve to ten years?
Israel Leito (IL): We see the church in Inter- America as strong and growing—a church that’s growing spiritually, numerically, and internationally; a church that’s becoming more and more identifi ed with the basic culture of Adventism.
Most of our believers come from and live in a Catholic environment. They come to our church, know our doctrines, but their worldviews are still, in many instances, what they grew up with. But the worldview and the culture of the Adventist Church are quite distinct, and our people today as part of their maturing process are beginning to understand the difference.
We also anticipate a strong financial growth.
The faithfulness of the members in stewardship is refl ected in the strong economic trends of the church in our area. We also envision a mature church that can deal with its own challenges and manage them in such a way that those challenges do not become a crisis for the higher organizations. Our members are keen on being involved in the communities where they live, to take the church to the community, and let the community know their life and faith. In places like Jamaica, for instance, this is achieved in very signifi cant ways. For instance, in most places, the Seventh-day Adventist pastor is considered the parish priest. If there is a burial or a wedding, Adventist pastors are often invited to participate.
As Pastor Jan Paulsen, the General Conference president, once said, “Let people disagree with our doctrines, but never let them say that we are not good people.” This is what we’re stressing.
NS: Brother Köhler, how do you see the church in your area—in South America?
Erton Köhler (EK): Two key words describe our vision for the church in South America: communion and mission. Our dream is to grow in quality and quantity. Our dream is to lead the church into a closer relationship with God and as a result to lead the people to witness about that relationship. Communion and mission will achieve these results.
We are also working to strengthen our unity.
South America has multiple countries with divergent cultures. Within a single country, such as Brazil, we have variant cultures. As we work to maintain spiritual unity, we are challenged to develop integrated programs that provide training and opportunities to church members to participate in administrative issues and strengthen the representation from each area.
Our goal is to involve each member in the mission of the church. At present in South America, it takes twelve members to bring one person to Jesus. We are trying to improve this ratio to one member bringing one person. That’s our goal. We believe that the mission of the church belongs to every church member. The pastor’s function: to train, equip, and motivate members to accomplish this dream.
In addition, we have three targets: First, we want to see the church doing some impact projects. The church expects quality leadership from pastors and administrators. Such impacting projects can continually keep the church challenged.
Second, we want to involve more youth in ministry. We need to build a new generation who are more connected with the church and its mission. Third, we want to build a receptive church, more open to accept those who come.
We want to attract people and give them the feeling that they belong to a spiritual family.
Willie Hucks (WH): The church is known for its growth in Inter-America and South America. What are the reasons for growth in these regions?
IL: I don’t know if the reasons are similar, but to start with, most of our people in Inter-America believe in the church. The church is not something foreign to them in the sense that it’s something they go to on Sabbath. The church is life. And then there is the trust of the members in the leading of the Lord through His earthly leaders. Therefore we, as leaders, are helping our pastors to understand that church growth depends on our attitude towards the church. Another strong reason is the self-understanding of pastors in our field. They view themselves as coaches. And as coaches, pastors allow the church to be the church and not one’s private property.
Last year I conducted an evangelistic series in a remote area in south Mexico.
I found that the district had over twenty congregations with one pastor. I saw a district working and growing. The secret is the involvement of laity. They are involved in everything.
EK: Our situation in South America is similar. We have a dynamic church base in our members. Their ownership and leadership role is vital to the growth and stability of the church. The church board plays a fundamental role in the mission of the church. We have pastors with large districts, ranging from one church to as many as eighty to ninety churches and companies. This is a challenge but also a blessing. I can summarize church growth in South America in two words: focus and unity. Two more things are very important for us. First, spiritual growth.
We emphasize intercessory prayer and integrated Bible study. Second, small groups. Through the small group, church members feel well cared for. As a result, they are better mobilized and motivated for outreach.
NS: Working at the General Conference world headquarters, we have the opportunity to observe the church worldwide.
There’s no question in my mind that the elders play an exceptionally signifi cant role in your two fi elds. Tell us how you view the role of the elders and what we can learn from the function of elders.
EK: We have about twenty thousand churches in South America, but only about three thousand pastors. Each Sabbath about seventeen thousand church pulpits are fi lled by lay people.
They not only preach, but they are also involved in the administration of the church. The ministry of elders is a priority in our fi eld. We are working in different ways to provide recognition to those involved in this ministry and acknowledge their value to the church. We have a magazine addressed especially for elders, and provide Elder’s Digest for them. We are committed to motivate, equip, and empower elders in our churches.
IL: We, too, rely heavily on our church elders. Were it not for them, we couldn’t cope. We believe in motivation and in many, if not all of our unions, the church administration has gone so far as to allow church elders to baptize. So with that kind of motivation, the elders feel that they are not working for us, they are working for their church, and this keeps them going.
EK: In South America, sometimes we allow the elders to enter the baptismal waters to be with those candidates.
WH: Looking at your areas of ministry, what are the challenges that you face in Inter-America and South America?
IL: One of the main challenges we have, ironically, is the speed of our growth.
We’re growing so fast that our acquisition of new pastors is not keeping pace with growth. The problem is not due to lack of money; but that pastors are not there to hire. Our schools are not producing pastors fast enough to handle our situation. A pastor, to be effective, should not be ministering to more than six hundred members. That means having more pastors, and here we’re losing. The church in south Mexico, for instance, last year hired all the pastors that their university produces. They then went to Montemorelos University and hired all the pastors from the other three unions that didn’t get a call, and still they needed more. A second challenge we have is very disconcerting to us: throughout our fi eld, we have unfi nished church buildings—buildings with no windows or doors and buildings that are mere shacks. We also have communities that do not allow the building of too many churches.
A third challenge is the role of members in church governance. We are committed to empower our elders and other lay people, but we must make sure that the notion is not there that they are a balancing force for the conference.
EK: In South America, our biggest challenge is to involve each church member in mission. This involves pastors working with church members as individuals and as congregations as a whole. We know that pastors have numerous functions, and in the midst of it all, it’s easy to lose the focus of the mission. We need to help pastors perform a balanced ministry.
Another challenge is to make sure that the number of pastors, churches, and districts keeps up with the enormous growth that is taking place. Yet another challenge is to retain the members we baptize. While we should have large front doors to the church, we must make sure that the small back door of the church is shut. The small group ministry, we are fi nding out, is one way to address the problem.
Last but not least, we need to give more support to our pastors. Our pastors are often stressed, and their families are under a lot of pressure.
IL: May I add something to what Pastor Köhler mentioned on the importance of quality preaching? We have independent preachers who come from outside our fi eld. They have formed their own brand of Adventism, and they come back to preach that. Those people are becoming very popular. Our pastors tell us, “Do something! Prohibit them from coming.” My response is, “I can’t prohibit them from coming. But what I can do is help you to take away the need for our members to be attracted to them.Improve your preaching and we won’t have a need for them.”
WH: A little earlier you touched on the importance of small groups in the churches. Could you elaborate more?
IL: In Inter-America, especially in Colombia, Venezuela, and the three Central American fi elds, small groups have really taken off. In other areas, they don’t see the use for small groups. It becomes an issue for the church because the members don’t want to leave their congregation, but in these fi ve unions, what we have achieved is to let the members feel that the small groups are small congregations.
They become very effective in keeping the members together. It is not only the core of elders in the church who are leading, but those leaders of small groups become potential elders because they are in charge of spiritual life, the social life, and everything church related in that small group.
EK: In South America, we have around sixty-fi ve thousand small groups, and they are important for several reasons. First, they help us retain church members.
The new members come in and become part of a small group, and they do not leave. Our experience shows that many who left the church have done so not because of any problem with our doctrines but because they were not involved in the church, and they didn’t feel like they belonged. Second, the small group helps us involve members in church life and activities. If I present one special project to a church with five hundred members, maybe that project will not go so far. But if I present the same special project to a group of twelve people, they will get involved.
Third, when we work in small groups, we involve them in the church’s mission.
Fourth, small groups give special values and recognition for members. In a large church, sometimes one member is only one more among many members, but in a small group, each member feels personal recognition of their value as a person, as a member. Lastly, small groups provide the best avenue for preparing leaders. Many church members may not be able to lead a church with three hundred members, but they are motivated to lead out in a group of twelve people.
There is a further reason for small groups. Many may not wish to talk about it, but I do believe in it strongly. Small groups prepare people for the end of the age. In the last days, a situation may arise when the church may not be open or may not openly perform its functions.
We may not have anymore pastors or church buildings. We are going to live as a small group of the church. I believe that this awakening that the church around the world has about small groups is God’s preparation for His people for the end of time.
NS: We’re all ministers sitting around this table. We’ve done different things in our lives. You have specifi c roles now, you’re both division presidents. How does your work impact your spiritual life?
IL: Let me start by telling you a story that happened to me as a student.
We had a terrifi c theology teacher, a master teacher, and he was called to become a conference president. I remember in a private conversation with him that I told him it’s too bad because you may let this gift of preaching slip. Administrators don’t preach well. And because I was aware of that then, I have made it my determination not to lose the edge of being a pastor, a preacher, to feed God’s people.
This is not only in theory, but it’s very much real to me—in living the life of a minister in front of God’s people, in my behavior, in my way of portraying Christ’s love, and in my relationship with the Lord.
Very early on in my ministry, my wife and I discussed this. My wife has never allowed me to forget that. Whenever she sees that I didn’t get up to read my Bible, she says to me, “You didn’t study your Bible today.” I appreciate that. I feel very happy when I feel that the Lord is near me. We can go back and take actions in committee, and we decide things, and then we can say, “You know, truly the Lord has led in this.” I recognize the Lord in my life on a daily basis. Not only when I’m standing there in front of thousands of people, but privately I want to keep this relationship with my God. I feel accountable to Him in everything I do. Therefore, I pray, and I ask my brothers and sisters and everybody to pray for me, for me not to lose that edge of being close to the Lord, for me to refl ect His love in my life so that I can share that love with others.
We can become very administrativelike and forget that we have to be Christlike and refl ect the love of Jesus.
EK: At thirty-eight years of age I was elected to become the president of the Adventist Church in South America. I never worked as a conference president or union president. When the church elected me for this function, I felt like a fl ea, so small because I was young and because I had not enough experience.
That led me to depend more on God’s direction. The South American Division has a lot of challenges: big projects and big problems. I pray every day to God, asking Him for wisdom because I want [to make] only the decisions that God wants for His church. Every day I have the feeling that I need to be more of a pastor than an administrator; but to achieve this, I need God’s direction in my life. As a pastor or a Christian, I have my personal devotion with God, but today I spend more time than I spent in the past.
When I lead out in an administrative committee, I spend more time praying, asking God for wisdom. I realize that I need to depend more on God’s direction, power, and wisdom. And that is the difference that my devotional life has made.
WH: Thank you both for what you have shared with our readers. May God continually bless your ministries and your families.