He’s one of the youngest leaders the church has chosen in decades, and his story is inspiring millions of young Adventists around the world.
In October 2006, the Executive Committee of the South American Division voted to recommend 38-year-old Erton Köhler as the new president of this large, dynamic region of the world Seventh-day Adventist Church. Subsequently elected by the General Conference Executive Committee, Köhler assumed his new responsibilities on January 1, 2007. Adventist World editor Bill Knott met with the new president on January 31 at Newbold College to learn about his new role, his challenges, and his vision for youth and young adults in leadership.
Knott: Church records indicate you are the youngest president of your division ever and the youngest vice president of the General Conference in more than a century. How does the fact that you are much younger than many of your peers affect you?
Köhler: I try not to think about it. If I think about the challenges in our division, if I think about the size of our division, and if I think of my position in history, I get very nervous. My approach is that I need to simply pray and to work. When I went to my previous role in the South American Division to work with youth ministry, I was just 34 years old. Some people said, “This is a big challenge for you. You are a very young man. You need more experience to work in the division.” And I told them, “I don’t worry; I work. If I think of my age and my challenges, I’ll have problems.” I’m praying and working and inviting the people to work together.
Did you have any idea before last October that you might be asked to fill this role?
No—I am a young man! I thought the church would elect a person with more experience. It was a surprise to me, and I accepted the position trusting in God, believing He can help me. My father was a pastor, a conference president, and a union conference secretary, so I know the responsibilities that come with leadership. I hadn’t worked specifically in administration, but I had worked in youth ministry for about 13 years—in south and northeast Brazil, at the conference, union, and division levels. My confidence was in the election system. The people voted thoughtfully, and they elected me. They had good options to choose among, but if they elected me it was because the church wanted it. That’s how I could accept the position with tranquility.
What message does your election send to Adventist youth and young adults in South America and around the world church?
I believe my election is an invitation for the young people of the church. I spoke about this in Brazil recently. If a church elects young people to lead, the church is saying that young people are needed in the church. The church shows it believes in young people, not just in words but in action. For me, it’s an opportunity to show young people that we need their involvement at the division level of the church. That’s why I’m inviting young people to talk to me, to present ideas, share their opinions. I’m listening to what they are saying.
I can tell that our youth and young adults are very happy because they feel they have an open door in our division. They can say, “The president is my same age; I can talk with him.” They’re glad because they have a representative and an open door with leadership. The young leaders in our work are certainly happy, too. It’s an opportunity for them to call me, to speak with freedom about things that trouble them or dreams they have for this church.
Sometimes I hear of gifted young adults who are troubled because they think they’ll have to wait another 20 years or so before they can use the gifts God has given them to serve the church.
During Bible times, God called many young people to lead. God believes in young people, but in our modern world we say: “No, today we need a more experienced person.” God can choose young people today. Young people helped to start this church, and I believe young people have a special responsibility to finish the work of the church. And yes, I’m an example of this.
Being young isn’t always perceived as an advantage. How have some of the older and more experienced leaders responded to your new role?
Our division, like many others, has a large number of senior leaders. I can tell that some of them are finding it difficult to accept me because of my age. But we can work together: we need time to reorganize and collaborate. I understand our more senior leaders and the challenge that this seems to them, and I’m grateful that most of them have accepted me very well.
You weren’t unknown to them, were you? They had seen your skills over many years and found the opportunity to assess your leadership gifts.
Two points here are probably most important. I was already working in the South American Division, so I was known. I wrote a one-page article each month in our Revista Adventista, our Adventist Review. The church knew my opinions, my points of view. I’m a younger man, true, but my ideas were well known.
Second, I’ve always been young in the roles I’ve served in. My second pastoral district was in one of the largest churches in Sao Paulo—more than 1,500 members. I was single, the only pastor, and not ordained. The local church at first thought that the conference was crazy for putting me there. I was young, but I had a beautiful time in that church. I moved to the conference department level at 25, to the union conference when I was 28. And at each move some people said, “But the man is young.” Yet the church knew me and had grown confident in my ability to lead. When I went to the division I was young—just 34. Church members need to know the young adults and their points of view in order to be confident in selecting them for new roles.
You have a lot of confidence that when the church makes a decision, it is confirming something God wants to happen.
Yes, I’m very confident because, in my case, I was able to watch the whole process. We had many good options here. The church could elect other good men, but God directed the whole process. When the election was over, I could see the result was a surprise for everyone, but the majority voted for the name that created the surprise. The people could see I was confident that this was the better option now. This confidence comes from God, I believe.
What would you say now to a 16-year-old who believes that God may be calling him or her to ministry or leadership in the church? What does your story tell them?
I can tell them that God is calling young people: I’m an example. If they have a calling to serve God and the church, they need to move ahead because both church and God need young people involved. Our church in South America and many other parts of the world is a young church. In South America our statistics show that almost 60 percent—58.89 percent—of the members are under age 35. When you look at our pastoral councils you discover that 80 percent of our pastors are young pastors. We have a young church and a young ministerial workforce. When I travel to different regions of our division I see young people working.
My election and the quantity of young pastors that we have is a calling for other young people. Young people are being called to serve: almost 150 new pastors were called just this last year in Brazil alone, and this happens each year. Where our church is growing rapidly right now, as in Brazil, a key reason is the young pastors. They accept the challenges; they have a big view; and they work very hard for the church.
Tell me about the challenges you are going to face in leading the South American Division. What are the challenges you pray about the most?
I’m just learning the full extent of our administrative situation now. We certainly have a challenge to help the church to grow completely. That’s my vision. I don’t accept the idea that the church needs to grow in only one direction. I believe the church needs to grow completely—in its education system, in its health system, in churches, among ministers, in all different places. We need to grow with the community, in cooperation with the government where we can, and to grow consistently. This is the model I used in youth ministry, and it has worked very well for us. That’s the first point.
Our biggest challenge—the one I’m speaking and preaching about—is one for each member in South America. My challenge is for each member to be working with at least one other person. We will build a good system, a good structure—telecommunications, TV, radio, Internet, a Bible school, publications—that can help to support what members are doing. But our biggest challenge is to get each member working with at least one other person.
Each year we baptize more than 200,000 people in South America. That’s a wonderful number, but if each person (of the 2.6 million members in the SAD) worked with one other person, in one year we would baptize almost three million people. The biggest challenge is to involve each member with the mission of the church.
What do you say to those members, young or old, who don’t think they can trust church leadership to do the right thing?
I talk to many people who don’t trust or accept the leadership God has put in the church. Each time a person talks with me and criticizes me or the church, I try to say, “My friend, you need to know our work better.”
First, I dialogue with those who are concerned. Second, I present my work system. Third, I listen to people. These three points help people find a different view. The majority of critics of the church are people who don’t listen. They voice their criticisms, but don’t want to listen. I’ve received many, many e-mails from people critical of the church: I answer every e-mail that I receive. Many people reply, “Thank you, Pastor; I didn’t think you would answer. Thank you: I understand the vision now. I had doubts. Thank you for helping me.” If I can’t help I send them a person who can help them. When these people are helped they get a new vision. They want to speak with leaders. They want to feel loved by their leaders. My work is to stay close to these people. If someone has a problem with the church, come, let’s talk about it. I can help, and I can listen.
When you pray, what are the things you are asking God for right now as a leader?
I talk with God every day about one thing: I need wisdom. I have challenges; I have problems; I have many responsibilities, but I need wisdom. During the first quarter our Sabbath school lessons were about Solomon. It’s a reminder that I need to pray for wisdom, and to use it correctly. I pray every day, “Father, I need wisdom and I need good conditions to use this wisdom for the church.”
I can give my best effort, but I need wisdom to lead with balance and justice. I pray for others things, too, for many different things that come up each day, but wisdom is my first request.
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