An interview with George Brown

A former division president shares valuable insights about leadership.

Sandra Doran, PhD, is associate superintendant of education, Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Winter Park, Florida, United States.

Editor’s note: Prior to retiring in 1993, George Brown served as president of the Inter-American Division of Seventh-day Adventists for 13 years. He began his ministry as a pastor in the Virgin Islands. His rich and varied career includes service within the Caribbean Union as dean of men and theology teacher for the college, youth and education director, and president. On the division level, he served for five years as field secretary before being appointed to the presidency.

Sandra Doran (SD): You have spent many years in the ministry in so many different capacities. Tell me about some of your most gratifying experiences.

George Brown (GB): The most rewarding aspect of my ministry for the forty-plus years that I’ve served our church has been the opportunity to work with young people. When you are working with the younger generation, you know that you are preparing a generation for the future. I found young Seventh-day Adventists to be very responsive to the messages, instruction, and guidance. And then how rewarding it was to see them become active participants in the work of the church—either on the payroll or involved in the local church or community!

SD: That’s interesting. Some people feel that it is quite challenging to work with young people.

GB: It all depends on your approach and the subject matter that you are dealing with. One of the most rewarding programs we conducted was our Youth Bible Conference, where we taught our young people to do serious, inspiring, life-transforming Bible studies. We conducted an in-depth study of the Bible, and then taught them how to give Bible studies, how to witness, and how to develop their own devotional experience. This became very popular in the Inter-American Division, with groups being conducted in English, Spanish, French, Dutch, and several hundred dialects.

SD: What would you consider to be among the greatest challenges you faced in your service to the church?

GB: You can understand that leading a division as large as Inter-America, with forty different countries, speaking four languages, with different political, cultural, and governmental entities would call for a great deal of wisdom, tact, diplomacy, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In my leadership of this division, over and over again, I was confronted with the challenge of maintaining unity in diversity. As I am in retirement, I look back with gratitude that in those years, despite challenges, we were always able to keep the church united.

SD: How did you manage to do that?

GB:Unity in diversity does not come by osmosis. It can only be done as we keep before our people the biblical principle of oneness before God. Paul’s appeal in Ephesians 4 has been our directive, where he makes the point that we are to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We have deliberately emphasized that phrase in all of our dealings. And when we make that effort, despite the areas of difference, the result will always be positive.

SD: Pastor Brown, you have been involved in the work of this church for many years. Have you seen many changes?

GB:Oh, yes. And the great majority of the changes are for the good. We are fine-tuning the policy, structure, and organization of the work so it becomes more understandable, more efficient, and more effective. From the theological perspective, we’ve also come a long way. I remember the day when our presentations were more confrontational. But I’ve seen the day when they are friendlier, more sensitive. And I don’t mean to imply that we have watered down the content of our message. We have retained our strong, unique doctrine, while presenting it in a way that is respectful of people. We have also made significant changes in our use of technology for the promulgation of the gospel. Who today is not acquainted with the satellite evangelism that Mark Finley and others have done so effectively? Hundreds of thousands of people are blessed with the gospel with this method.

SD: Have there been any surprises for you as you have watched things change in the church?

GB: One of the most delightful surprises has been the positive involvement of church members around the world in government service. Today, in one place, we have a governor general who is a sterling example of a Seventh-day Adventist witness. We have members of Parliament in Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua.

SD: What would you consider to be your most meaningful experience as a division president?

GB: I suppose I run a risk in answering, because there are so many. Perhaps the most exciting experience I’ve had was that of seeing the Inter-American Division become the first division of the world church to reach the magic number of a million baptized members. That has such a fascinating history. The division was organized in 1922 with just eight thousand members. For many, many years, leadership struggled to intensify the growth of the church in that division.

SD: What changed things?

GB:We began by conducting a massive division-wide training for the laity. With a great deal of prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit, we were able to motivate, inspire, and marshal the laity. By 1972 we had reached fifty thousand baptisms a year. From that point on, we felt the results were so achievable that we went all out in what is known as “evangelism explosion.”

SD: Has the growth continued?

GB: When I retired from the Inter- American Division in 1993, we had more than one million members. Today we have three million members.

SD: Have you found that those who are being baptized stay in the church?

GB: I am grateful to the Lord that the program we are conducting leads people to remain in the Lord. We have a three-part motto: Win, Train, Retain. These three key factors in church growth have given us outstanding results. The retention of members has to do with a continuation of the indoctrination and preparation of candidates. When people are baptized, you don’t just abandon them. You set up a buddy system.

SD: What can the world church learn from the explosive growth in Inter-America?

GB:The key is to train and mobilize and motivate the laity for action. In our division there are pastors with ten and fifteen churches. Were it not for well-trained, motivated, dedicated lay men and women, there would be no way that these churches could prosper. And the lay people are not only mainly responsible for bringing new members into the body of Christ, but for retaining them. I am eternally grateful for the effectiveness of the laity in the Inter-American Division and what they are doing to keep the church growing—spiritually, materially, numerically, and in every other way.

SD: How do you train the laity to be so effective?

GB: Let me give you one example of a specific tool that is used to motivate and challenge and encourage and empower our laity. “Festivals of the Laity” is a program that was instituted in the Inter-American Division in 1997. In this program, lay men and women are brought together in an attractive venue for an entire weekend for fellowship, inspiration, and training. Then they go back home and put into practice what they have learned. The Festival of the Laity is now a standard program sponsored every five years. Results have been extraordinary in terms of evangelism and church growth.

SD: What differences do you see between secular and Christian leadership?

GB:First, secular leadership tends to be vertical in authority, while church leadership, if it is properly understood, is horizontal. We are not above anybody or below anybody. It is a horizontal experience: Christ-centered, Spirit-led. Church leadership is essentially based upon the philosophy of Christ, which is servant leadership. In the church we don’t have CEOs or bosses. At least we shouldn’t.

Second, secular leadership tends to be driven by the desire for power, reward, and prestige. On the other hand, church leadership is driven by love. It is redemptive and transformational. Not only does our focus relate to our present world, but our ultimate goal extends to the coming of Christ and the world that is yet to be.

Finally, Christian leadership is faith-driven. It is based on confidence in God.

SD: In closing, what advice can you offer the world church?

GB:First, leadership should remain Christ-centered, Spirit-led, biblically sound, and mission-driven. Leadership must encourage our people to remember our rich heritage as a church: our prophetic calling, our global mandate as found in Revelation 14:6–12. Fulfilling this mandate should be our magnificent obsession. We should always remember that Adventism is a prophetic movement with a unique global message.

Second, I would caution our leaders to do everything possible to avoid three deadly end-time evils that can affect our church: (1) institutionalism, (2) secularism, and (3) Laodicean apathy.

And finally, we must remind ourselves and our people that it is not by might, nor by power, but by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that the work of God is going to be finished. The Holy Spirit does not empower machinery or organizations or institutions or state of the art technology. He empowers men and women who are fully surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

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Sandra Doran, PhD, is associate superintendant of education, Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Winter Park, Florida, United States.

October 2008

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