Alarmed. Stunned. Bewildered. These are the sentiments that I felt while I attended the 60th General Conference Session this past summer in San Antonio, Texas.

While these sentiments are honest assessments of my own feelings and thoughts, should I really have been surprised? Should anyone have been surprised? This article will hopefully serve as a catalyst toward building bridges of hope for the future of effective regional conference ministry.

In 1943, Lucy Byard served as a catalyst for a movement of leaders to move toward what became regional conferences. Certainly this was not the first attempt. J.K. Humphrey, the pastor of the Ephesus Church in 1921 in New York City attempted to create a literal “Utopian Society” in the New York metro area. It was in the midst of the boom of the raring twenties and the Harlem Renaissance, a period of black empowerment and thought, the Humphrey’s ideals were in full swing. The church rejected the idea. Humphrey was perceived as having not having sense and wanting to start his own “kingdom.

W.H. Green and other leaders served as capable evangelists and effective leaders to help the cause of black leaders in ministry. G.E. Peters was a prominent evangelist erecting churches and starting them from the ground up. E.E. Cleveland served as a pioneer teaching evangelist; training ministers as he preached. Cleveland is also one of the most prolific black SDA authors of nearly twenty books. While evangelism served as a catalyst for the boom and growth of the 50s, 60s and 70s, leadership began to rise on the front lines to meet emergent needs. Each of these pioneers in ministry had the next generation in mind during their generation of ministry.

Leaders have always been important in SDA culture. Elder C.E. Dudley, dean of regional presidents and C.E. Bradford served as vital components for effective policy and decision making on the highest levels of the church. The 1970’s brought on further challenges and opportunities. Neal C. Wilson, father of the current church president, and son of N.C. Wilson was a friend to blacks in SDA ministry. Realizing the need for equity in leadership, Wilson created the sixteen points that allowed for blacks and minorities to be leaders on all levels of the church. Instantly, there was a new paradigm and opportunity for parish ministers to be viewed as capable and credible.

It should be noted that Elder C.E. Dudley made inroads into the continent of Africa. He built bridges with fellow workers from around the world. Dudley developed exchange programs for service and opportunity. Was he ahead of his time? Yes. Should we continue to adopt his practice of reaching out across the globe? Yes. Without reaching across the globe and partnering with others around the world we face a looming destiny of being a dinosaur before our time.

It is very clear that the agenda of the current administration of president Ted N.C. Wilson has more concern about world mission than regional work. Is this philosophy wrong? No. Is it imbalanced? Certainly! Regional leaders have served as catalysts for evangelism, church growth, nurture and have been viewed as examples of thriving ministry through national and international church upheaval. The missionary movement among blacks is not new. There have been countless missionaries in the past.

Simultaneous to the movement of need for blacks in leadership, there arose missional needs around the world. M.T. Battle, C.D. Henri, Walton Whaley, James Hammond, W.H. Robinson, Louis Preston, R.J. Wright, Craig Newborn and others dedicated their lives in service to the mission field. Their sacrifice along with their spouses and children cannot be understated. There are many stories that will not be told until we get through the gates of heaven.

With all of the aforementioned in mind, what happened in San Antonio? In my view, San Antonio served as evidence of a lack of forethought and planning. By whom? The church. The seventy years of regional conference leadership never lacked for succession or planning. In 1962, F.L. Peterson’s election to General Conference Vice President did not come by accident. Lay-led movements by Mylas Martin, Frank Hale, and others caused the leaders to think twice. Behind these movements were people of strong conviction who were not afraid of leaving office. Those leaders were backed by colleagues in regional leadership; who were backed by pastors; who were upheld by church members. Everyone wanted to see growth; not just because of skin color, but because of a desire to see progress in their church community.

Where is the progress today? We have praise teams, podcasts, Internet broadcast ministries, but where is the progress? The progress is right in front of us. In addition to a Regional Conference retirement plan, we have capable leaders in front of us. It is viewed in pews, workers’ meetings, academies and colleges across the globe. What is the cause worth fighting for in this time?

Am I suggesting that there is no vision or plan for growth? No. What I am suggesting is that the plan may extend beyond the boundaries of conferences and unions in the United States of America. What is now clear from the San Antonio General Conference (GC) Session, mission is a new priority. But what happens if mission is not seen or viewed as important anymore? Like you, I have been to countless mission programs at Sabbath School time and there seems to be no real connection between my money and the person in the story. I would suggest that there may be a missing link and an opportunity for a bridge of hope for the future.

In conversation with a leader from an African division at the GC session I learned many things. I wondered why so many on the African continent seemed to be aloof toward relevant church issues. During the voting session I had a very insightful conversation with a person who is an African who works on the continent of Africa for a denominational entity.

While in the conversation, I mentioned that the regional conferences supply 20% of the SDA church budget. The person (basically) said, “That’s nice.” In essence, he said, “It’s good you give money but we don’t see it, because our funds come directly from the GC. I asked, “What would you suggest then?” He said, “Invest in the future leaders on the university campuses, send money directly to students to impact the universities.” It made perfect sense.

The world is actually becoming smaller. I would suggest that we partner with other church and para-church organizations such as Maranatha to build churches and develop the wider community. If every one of the regional churches built a church it creates bridges of connection to the future.

I would like to offer a few suggestions that would help extend the influence and impact of the message and mission.

  • Invest – Invest in the future leaders at home and abroad. Everyone has different gifts. It is the duty of the conference officers and leaders to invest in the gifts of all workers. This may mean sending to conferences and also intentionally assist in paying for doctoral degrees. I would also suggest that conferences must also help their pastors find their path in ministry faster. Time is fleeting, if someone is a great writer, evangelist or revivalist let them go. Holding gifted people back only restricts the true growth of the conferences.
  • Develop – Development of future leaders does not begin at a constituency meeting. Real leader development begins the day after commissioning or ordination. I say that because ordination or commissioning is the seal of the church and conference saying we trust the person. Development may include business classes, leader training, mentoring and shadowing. Why give a person access to millions of dollars and not train them?   Development means also to allow leaders the opportunity to see the inner workings of the conference.
  • Reach – It is time to reach out to other ethnicities deliberately. Our world is shifting its lens of color beyond black and white. Cultural issues of the 1960’s are not dead. They are still alive, but they are not at the top of the world church agenda. There are other cultures being marginalized that need to be encouraged, through what our community has learned, “thus far on the way.”
  • Collaborate – The time for silo ministry is over. Collaboration is key for kingdom and growth sake. Conference leaders must encourage collaboration between churches, conferences and pastors. Without collaboration, needs that could be met are not met, because no one is aware of the need. Every conference must have a global and local mission. Each conference should send pastors annually to evangelize the world. Also each conference could send pastors of large churches to evangelize their church and smaller areas. Hosting their own internal field schools with other pastors and evangelists from other territories.
  • Plan – Regional leaders must plan for the succession of the leadership of the conference. Also there must be a summit every two (2) years of all regional conference executive committees to plan furtherance of the work and to discuss potential leaders. At that meeting vision, mission and action plans must be well-defined and then shared with all constituents. This could also be a time to pray, plan, and prepare plans.
  • Financial Empowerment – It’s time to empower the people who we serve in churches and every setting encouraging financial faithfulness. Its also time to find ways to make help our members be able to use their own money wisely and set up trusts for the perpetual benefit of the church.
  • Structure – Structure the conference for missional effectiveness. Does every conference need an National Servicemen’s Organization department (If you don’t know what an NSO department is that is a problem)? Why not have an NSO department in a central location, that offers all service men and women one location that can communicate with a local church. Three conferences could combine this one department. Are there other departments that need to be combined between conferences to be more effective?
  • Who’s next? – Can we have more than one program in each area. I feel that Breath of Life could be a hub. However, we need a radio program that reaches rural America, we need publishing hubs that print at cheaper prices. Who are the next E.E. Clevelands and W.C. Scales, Jrs, who help evangelize the world and encourage other pastors to win souls without having to pay an admission fee? Who are the next C.E. Bradfords and C.B. Rocks who can administrate in Egypt like Joseph without forgetting his brothers? Where is the next Rosa Banks? Where are the next globetrotting missionaries? Where are the great parish pastors like Leon Cox, William Deshay, Henry Fordham III, Benjamin Jones, Jr., C.B. Preston, T.A. McNealy, and E.C. Ward? Where are the next scholars and professors like W.B.T. Douglass and Benjamin Reaves? They may be reading this article.

Upon leaving San Antonio, I was discouraged. I wondered how could two leaders representing the African-American and African Connection be dismissed as if they have made no contribution to the world church. I am tired of going to caucuses licking wounds hoping that something good will happen. Planning does not mean all plans come to fruition.

After sometime, I have become more resolved that my church is changing and if I do not want to be left behind, I have to do something about it by collaborating with others. I am engaged. What will you do?

 

Juleun Johnson
Juleun Johnson

Juleun
Johnson

Juleun Johnson is a graduate of Oakwood University, Andrews University, and Fuller Theological Seminary where he conducted doctoral research on clinical pastoral care. He currently serves as a chaplain in the Florida Hospital Network. Follow him on Twitter @juleunj.

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