In Conversation With Pastors
Nine pastors from across North America met with world church president Pastor Jan Paulsen on September 13 for an unscripted, unedited conversation, broadcast live on the Hope Channel. In a wide-ranging discussion these seven men and two women talked with Pastor Paulsen about the challenges of caring for a local congregation. In this interview withAdventist World, Pastor Paulsen reflects on his experience with “Pastors: In Conversation.”
Adventist World: Many people have seen your televised conversations with the church’s young people during the past four years—the Let’s Talk broadcasts. Why did you decide to open a dialogue with pastors? Why is this conversation important?
Jan Paulsen: I feel that local church pastors are key—absolutely central—to everything we are and do as a church. They are the caretakers of the congregation. No matter who we are, where we’re employed, where we live around the globe, we all have one thing in common: we are cared for by the local church pastor. We come to church each week, and this is where we look for much of our spiritual nurture.
The pastors I met with represent a group of some 22,000 globally who have this very, very important assignment. It’s an assignment of trust, given to them by the Lord. So I wanted to honor these pastors for the sacredness of their task—for the weight and strength of the calling they have. And I wanted to acknowledge that this group, more than any other within the church, shapes and influences our spiritual community around the world.
The very fact that you convened this conversation implies that there is a communication gap between those in church administration and those in local church ministry. Is this the case?
Yes, I think it is. I think that pastors have felt they bear such a heavy responsibility in caring for the church—in nurturing, strengthening, comforting, ministering to the whole Adventist community. And yet they feel perhaps that their voice is not heard directly by senior leadership in the church. And this is a very fair point. I understand this feeling.
I would like pastors to sense also that those of us in leadership wish we had a stronger linkage to them. We wish we understood better their challenges and joys, their frustrations and hopes—for the roles of elected leadership and congregational ministry flow into each other. Fifty years ago I began in church work as a local church pastor. But that’s a long time ago. If there’s a disconnect in my understanding, I would like to heal that.
I hope this recent broadcast is just the beginning of many such conversations in different parts of the world. And I would like to see this dialogue climax at the General Conference Session in 2010 in Atlanta, where we plan to profile the Adventist pastor during five prime-time slots—just as we profiled Adventist leadership at the 2005 session in St. Louis. We will look at the joys, the fulfillment, the challenges, the frustrations, the hopes, and the sacredness of the calling of those in local church ministry. I want the whole richness of that experience to be placed before the church. I want us to acknowledge, publicly, how critical their work is to the well-being of the church.
Many of the questions the pastors asked during this broadcast were very practical in nature, rather than theoretical or theological. Did that surprise you?
I had thought that more theological issues might have emerged, but they did not. Yes, the questions they asked related mainly to the day-to-day demands of pastoring a local church. I sensed, for instance, a concern among many for the health of their own family life—that while they dedicate themselves to shepherding a flock, they do not lose their family. And this is so important. They need to make up-front decisions about their schedules, about getting the right balance.
They also raised concerns about ministering to culturally diverse congregations. A few decades ago a congregation was likely to be of one culture, one ethnicity. But today, people are on the move all the time. Pastors are called on to minister to people of many different backgrounds. And how are they to do this effectively? I tried to convey my strong conviction that finding a solution to so many of these issues must take place within local congregations. Take it to your church board, take it to your elders. Don’t ask your conference or union or division: they probably don’t know. And don’t ask me. I am too far removed from many of these things. So the responsibility for fixing many of these things at the local level is huge.
But on the other hand, there are times when it’s important to acknowledge and draw on the broader perspective—that strong connection to the worldwide church family. I feel that, within some cultures, access to the pulpit by church leaders may sometimes be more restricted than is healthy for the local congregation. It’s good for our members to hear from someone whose ministerial mandate extends beyond that of the local congregation. This strengthens the local church’s bond to the wider Adventist community. I feel that pastors need to filter this into their planning and thinking. Some of them don’t; they are too protective of their own local pulpit.
Were there any other concerns that came through strongly?
Something I had heard before but which really struck me during this conversation was in regard to women in ministry. It came through clearly that the issue for many women is not ordination; it’s simply being able to function in ministry. Many women train for ministry but are not picked up for service in a local congregation. And it’s not necessarily a problem at the conference office but at the local church, which says: Put a woman somewhere else. This is so regrettable. My response during the broadcast was to encourage a woman who feels that God has placed a calling to the ministry within her heart to go with it; to train and prepare professionally. I have a strong conviction that if you are disobedient to this inner call from God, you place your own spirituality in danger. So the challenges that some women face in ministry—this struck me more strongly than it has before.