Not long before my grandfather died he said something that, on reflection, was almost unbelievable. My grandfather Norm Overend lived a good, honest but sometimes quite hard life. He certainly didn’t pursue tertiary studies. In fact I don’t think he even went to high school. He lived through the tough Depression years and two world wars. He made a living for his family as something of a jack-of-all-trades around Goulburn in rural New South Wales.
But even though he could be a bit rough around the edges at times—that independent Irish-Australian spirit—I remember him as having something far more valuable than tertiary qualifications, wealth or urban sophistication: he had a deep, abiding faith; a faith that expressed itself through a lifetime of service to our family, our Church and our community.
Adventism is not Christianity-lite. It is not the lowest common denominator. It is not reheated evangelicalism with a little apocalypse on the side.
I’m sure he knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer. After coming home from hearing a sermon by South Pacific Division president Pastor L C Naden, we were sitting together around the dinner table reflecting on the way life had a habit of throwing up surprises. While I cannot remember too many details about the conversation almost 50 years later, I do remember this: he looked over and said simply, “you never know Barry, one day you might be president of the Division!”
I was young, full of plans, hopes and dreams. And none of them had anything to do with ministry or Church administration, let alone being president of the Division! That was a long way away from where my young mind was. I have no idea how I responded but I think I probably just laughed.
Today I smile to myself for a very different reason, because I’m writing this to you as I prepare to pack up my personal effects and move out of the president’s office at the South Pacific Division (SPD) after a lifetime of service. It has been an amazing journey. You see, when through a series of remarkable events I found myself at Avondale preparing for ministry, I planned to spend my life as a local church pastor serving our Church family. I never imagined being the president of the Division would be on God’s agenda and it certainly was not on mine. But somehow what God impressed on my grandfather’s heart happened anyway.
As I prepare to leave this office I have been asked if I could pass on some final thoughts to you. I suppose you could say these are my dreams for our Church family. To use the well-worn metaphor, there are rocky shores I want our Church to avoid and a bountiful harbour in which I hope we will anchor.
A Christ-focused Church
It is my deepest desire that we become a far more Christ-focused and biblically anchored community.
I hear you say that we are already Christ-centred and who is more biblically based than us? Yes, in theory that’s true. But let me ask you a few simple questions; questions that I ask myself:
How much time did you and I spend studying or even reading the Bible yesterday?
On the other hand, how much time did we spend watching TV or doing something else just as insignificant?
How much effort did we put into endeavouring to understand the life and character of Jesus and modelling our lives after Him?
On the other hand, how much effort did we put into making money?
It gives me considerable grief to say it but the typical Seventh-day Adventist today is spending far more time absorbed in secular pursuits and entertainment than in the Word of God, and we are far more focused on earning a living than letting God live through us.
I don’t say this to be judgemental. I say this because I love our Church. And when I see the way we invest our time and the priorities around which we organise our lives, I know God has something better for us. Something higher. Something deeper. God wants to do miracles in our lives—but we have to open the door so He can. We need to be Christ-focused and biblically anchored.
A unique and special Church
The Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t here by coincidence. This Church is a movement predicted in ancient prophecy, called for a very specific time and equipped with the most awesome mission ever entrusted to anyone on earth.
And yet, I fear we are forgetting our calling. We are trading the exceptional for the mundane, the best for the passable, the unique for the generic.
Yes, it is good to love other Christians. We can even admire and learn from aspects in other Christian denominations. Most of our hymns were, for example, written by Christians who were not Seventh-day Adventists. And it’s good to appreciate what is best about all cultures and faiths. Adventists are not called to a chauvinistic or triumphalist view of the world. But we can appreciate others without forgetting our own, very unique calling.
Our understanding of the great controversy provides a context for a perspective that is unparalleled in Christianity. It is time for every Seventh-day Adventist Christian to delve into the depth and breadth of this unique message. From the remarkable health message God has given us to the laser sharp insights on education, from the breathtakingly broad understanding of prophecy to the beauty of our understanding of the character of God. All of it, and much more. Yes, it makes us different. And yes, that is good! It is good to be different for God. As everything God has given to us is good.
Adventism is not Christianity-lite. It is not the lowest common denominator. It is not reheated evangelicalism with a little apocalypse on the side. This Church has been called into existence by the Lord God of Hosts to prepare a people to meet the Son of God Himself upon His return. There has never been a higher calling. And that highest calling is yours and it is mine. What a privilege! Let’s never trade away our Adventist birthright in exchange for a tepid substitute.
A loving, caring Church
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” asks the psalmist. It’s a very good question. If a sinful human being was in God’s position, would he care about a planet full of impotent rebels grinding their way to self destruction? I don’t think so. And even if the sinful heart did begrudgingly care a fraction, would a sinful person leave the splendour, love and contentment of heaven to come and die for those rebels? It’s completely inconceivable.
And yet that is what our God did.
And that fact should colour everything we do. It should colour how we talk to each other. It should colour how we treat each other. It should impact how we invest our time, what we do with our financial resources and how we think of other human beings—even those who despise us.
As a Church family, I think we can do better. I don’t want us to think about how people have mistreated us in the Church—all of us could make our own little lists. Rather, I want all of us to think about how we have mistreated others. What have I said or done; what have I failed to say or do? If Jesus were actually directing every thought and action in my life, how would the way I treat others change?
Jesus said there is a simple test to determine if we are His followers. Ultimately there is just one sign of authentic Christianity—it is whether we love one another (John 13:35).
My heart grieves when I hear of abuse in the Adventist community. Let me be clear: if you are employing physical violence or emotional blackmail against anyone, particularly against family members, your heart is not at one with Christ. If you are abusing another sexually, your heart is not at one with Christ. If you are using your words to denigrate and humiliate others, your heart is not at one with Christ.
Every one of us needs to humble our hearts and beg for Christ to break our sinful character and rebuild us so that, as we’re told in Philippians, we will have the mind “which was also in Christ Jesus”. When we have Jesus’ mind we will be patient with one another, as He was patient with everyone—from His strong-willed disciples to the little children. If we have His mind we will care for others, just as He cared for the lepers, the soldiers who crucified Him, the crowds of people who followed Him and just as He cared for His mother. If we have Jesus’ mind in us we will be very, very different people. Going to church, keeping the Sabbath or even giving offerings doesn’t make us Christians. What makes us Christians is our acceptance of the grace of God and loving each other. Under Christ’s grace we can do better.
A strategically-minded Church
There is one more thing I want to touch on. It’s an area that we sometimes don’t give enough thought to, and that is strategy. There are many, many things we can do at any given time. Good things. But unless we act in a thoughtful, strategic way, prioritising wisely, we will end up running in a thousand well-intentioned directions but achieving very little in the process.
As a community we are not strategic enough in the way we employ our resources and invest our time and effort. Which is good news as we can improve our impact for Christ dramatically if we act strategically—even without dramatically increasing the cost and effort.
Let me give you one example. Health has always been a very strong part of the Seventh-day Adventist community. In the South Pacific we have health departments at the Division, the unions, the conferences and the missions. We operate Sanitarium Health & Wellbeing, Sydney Adventist Hospital and Atoifi Adventist Hospital, 57 island clinics and Avondale’s nursing school. We have first-rate dietitians, a network of Adventist health professionals who run everything from consulting rooms to health retreats, and much, much more. And we also have a first-rate media arm that includes a myriad of websites, magazines, books, radio and TV networks. The strategic failure? We’ve never pulled this all together in a manner that delivers our health message to the general public as part of a sophisticated outreach process leading to Jesus.
We have all the activity. And we all share the same goal. We have an enormous amount invested. And we have tremendous professional capacity. We just haven’t coordinated in a manner that produces a first-rate, high profile, attractive and engaging product that all of our society can readily interact with. In many of our communities people do not even know we exist despite the fact that they interact with us in some way almost every day!
As we look to the future, the SPD is about to release a strategy for the next five years that aims to improve our effectiveness. It is our goal to focus our collective energies around health, media, discipleship and our mission to the cities. There are many, many other things we can do. But we are looking to focus our effort. Why? Because by acting strategically we can do a better job introducing people to the magnificent love of Christ. It is my hope that, going forward, our work at every level of the Church will be much more strategically focused.
Along with this, we need to be united. It’s true that when we do things by ourselves or in a small group we can implement ideas very quickly. But it takes coordination to do very big things.
It’s like the little torpedo boat commanded by John F Kennedy that was rammed by a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands during World War II. It was a fabulous little craft—very fast and manoeuvrable. But, of course, as important as torpedo boats were, they weren’t the tool that proved decisive in the Pacific campaign. No, for that you’d have to look at the aircraft carriers. An aircraft carrier is relatively slow, it takes a long time to turn and a lot of coordination to operate. But when it gets going, what an immense power it can project!
We all have a choice. We can choose to put our efforts into little torpedo boats or we can pull together as a team and be part of an aircraft carrier for God. Both are very good things to do. But if we want to do the best—to make the most of our time and talents—there is no substitute for working together. On the aircraft carrier we might be the ones who arm the planes. We might steer the carrier. We might navigate. Maybe we might fly one of the planes. There are thousands of indispensable parts that are essential to be played to make that aircraft carrier function. When all of them work together, aircraft carriers win wars.
We are in a spiritual war. We each have a part to play. Let’s act strategically, intelligently and in a unified manner. Why? Because when this war is won, the great controversy will finally end, God’s character will be vindicated before the universe for eternity and we will all go home to a far better land.
My vision for our Church family as we move forward is that we will be Christ-focused, confidently unique, love each other far more and organise our strengths to act strategically. Together, one in Christ, focused on the mission He has given us and full of love for each other, our Church family can live out the destiny God preordained for us.
Before I close I hope you don’t mind if I mention my family. If it wasn’t for them I would never have had this extraordinary experience. My thanks begin with my parents. Like myself, my father felt the call to ministry. He was only a few months short of graduating from ministerial training at Avondale when I arrived. And that changed everything. With a newborn baby and no money in the bank, he was forced to put study on hold and go to work fulltime.
He never did finish that theology degree. A lesser man might have resented the baby who came in the way of following his calling. But that wasn’t my father. I’d like to think God rewarded his faithfulness because, at a mature age, my father was finally called into the ministry. What a privilege we had to serve God in ministry together!
As many of your know, ministry is a team effort. That effort is heightened when one is called to Church leadership. The truth is, the presidency of the SPD is not a position that is easy on the family. We have a vast territory, very complex institutions and the president serves on a number of entities at the world level. Sometimes the hours are punishing and the days away from home are long and taxing
God has given each of us more than one calling. Being a pastor and a leader is a calling from God but I also have a calling to be a husband, a father, grandfather, brother, etc. In the years ahead I plan to dedicate myself predominantly to those callings, without neglecting His calling on my life to ministry. It is, as the term is popularly known, a time for rebalancing. Not abandoning, but balancing my life back towards my calling at home.
And so, soon after writing this, I will be walking out of my office for the very last time as president. I’ll be shaking hands in the hallway, getting into my car and driving up the long road home. And I pray God will give Julie and I many, many happy years together reliving the highlights of the incredible experiences God has given us, spending time with our children, grandchildren and extended family, enjoying catching up with dear friends, and the blessing of being part of our local church family. And not having to pack another suitcase or sit in another board meeting for a very, very long time.
Dr Barry Oliver retired from his role as president of the South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on July 6, 2015.