A few hours after his election as the 20th president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Pastor Ted Wilson sat down with Adventist Review/Adventist World editor Bill Knott and GC Communication director Rajmund Dabrowski to talk about his new role:
Knott: You’ve had wide-ranging international experience in the life of the Adventist Church. You’ve served as a leader in several world divisions. What has that world experience brought to this moment?
Wilson: It’s impossible to calculate the blessings and the benefit of that experience — absolutely impossible. Growing up in Egypt, working in West Africa and in Russia, being connected with other divisions through my work in Secretariat — it really helps a person see a much bigger picture. You don’t focus on just your own parochial viewpoints: you begin to understand that we are truly a world family. What binds us together isn’t political maneuvering and policy. The message, the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit bind us together as an international family.
Dabrowski: When you consider your first pastoral appointment years ago — did some of that help shape you for your new role?
Wilson: Absolutely. I learned more in the first nine months of pastoring than I did in all of my college and seminary training. You necessarily learn a lot of academic and theoretical knowledge, but the first few months in a pastorate puts you right on the firing line. You’re dealing with people, dealing with real situations where you’re called upon to try to resolve unmanageable problems. Over a period of time, this helps you as you fall on your knees, as you ask for guidance. One thing I try to do in the morning is to claim James 1:5, to ask for wisdom. I don’t have the wisdom: I must get it from heaven. And when you’re in a difficult situation, whether as a young pastor, or as a seasoned leader, you are always in need of that wisdom. Those early days in pastoral ministry formed me beyond anything I can explain. I praise the Lord for every experience I had.
Knott: Some of those early experiences were also urban ones. Tell us what working in an urban environment has done for your vision of reaching out to the world’s great cities.
Wilson: Early on, I was offered an opportunity to work for the Greater New York Conference. As I talked it over with my father, he said, “If you really want a challenge, go to New York City.” I took that advice, and it changed my life. New York is still a very real part of my life and my heart. New York, as Ellen White says, is a symbol of how the rest of the world can be worked. We now live in a time when fifty percent or more of the world’s population lives in large cities. That means that we must all carry a great burden for people in the cities. You can’t evangelize New York or Sao Paulo, or Mexico City, or Tokyo or Hong Kong from just one place. You have to have a comprehensive approach, and the Spirit of Prophecy has given us many instructions on how to reach the cities. I’m very strongly committed to seeing a revival of practical medical missionary work where people know how to help others who are in specific need.
Dabrowski: What qualities of leadership are needed to inspire a new generation? There’s a new generation of young people, some of whom are disaffected — even in the church.
Wilson: That’s a huge question, and it deserves a fairly lengthy answer. The most important thing for young people to understand is that leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist Church aren’t just people in an administrative framework who push all the right buttons, but they are truly spiritual people, people who have a living connection with the Word of God, with the Lord Himself through prayer — who believe in what this church is called to accomplish. I hope no young person or older person will ever think that belonging to the Seventh-day Adventist Church is just like belonging to any other organization or denomination. We have a calling, and I would hope that young people will be reinvigorated by that calling. Yes, they may see hypocrisy and things they don’t like: they may think the church should focus on other things. But they ought to also see the big picture, the Great Controversy theme that illuminates any questions about why we are really here. When young adults see the beginning and the end — and everything in between — they become re-energized for doing what we all need to do. Our leaders need to be humble: they need to be highly connected with Jesus, and they need to be approachable, not standoffish or exclusive. They need to be balanced: they need to be great listeners, rather than just having the right answer every time. You just need to listen a lot. Leaders need to also be grounded in the Word of God and Spirit of Prophecy so they understand who they are and how to accomplish things.
Knott: The vast majority of people who are in leadership positions in the church are volunteers, persons who aren’t paid to do this work. I know that you are currently the head elder of a local church — one of those volunteer positions. What would you say just now to that large volunteer force that operates local congregations, to those who may preach on Sabbath, or care for the building, or manage the ministries of the church?
Wilson: Volunteers are of absolute value to the church. There’s no way we could get along without them. When you are a member of a local church, as all of us are, and you become involved in that local church, you really don’t need payment for that. The payment is the results you see in changed lives, and the excitement that young people find in their faith, and the way that things grow in a local church.
Dabrowski: One of the church’s core values is unity. What does church unity mean, and how can we achieve it?
Wilson: Church unity doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone walks in lockstep and simply salutes when told to. We can have differing opinions: we come from very different cultures, languages, backgrounds and social settings. What unites us is more than our policies, more than the mass-produced material. Beyond all other things, the Holy Spirit unites us. I’ve remarked to my precious wife, Nancy, that it’s amazing how you can go all around the world, you can see all these different cultures, but the evidence that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is God’s special church is that the Holy Spirit holds us together. I don’t think that we should follow the current habit of always being “politically correct.” We need to be balanced; we need to be careful; we need to be sensitive. But unity is not something that we necessarily manufacture. Yes, as leaders we hope to keep people moving in a certain direction. But if we’re pointing them to Christ and to the power of the Holy Spirit, and to a message that is grounded on the Word, with an active prayer life, and evangelistic activity, this people will be united because the Holy Spirit unites them.
Knott: Say a word to those in the church who wonder if leadership can make a difference right now. What do you think might change in the coming years through your ministry and that of others?
Wilson: Well, I have no illusions that I will effect change in a huge way myself. Only the Holy Spirit is going to do that. Most people don’t know much about church leadership. And, to be honest, they really don’t care. They know their church pastor, and that’s important. But beyond that, some may know who the General Conference president is, or maybe their conference president. But it’s not important that they know those things. What is important is the influence that does come through the church — that the church is a spiritual movement, truly grounded on the Word, and that the Holy Spirit changes us to be more and more like Christ so that we truly can fulfill that mission. If that kind of influence can be felt without being attached to any names, or people, or administration or to initiatives, I would be absolutely delighted.
Dabrowski: On a personal level: When you called Nancy and your daughters about the news, what did you hear?
Wilson: My wife is precious. She is a spiritual backbone; she loves the Lord intensively; she studies Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy; she has full confidence in this movement. When I called her — I guess she won’t mind me saying this — she started crying. She recognizes and knows the kinds of pressures and responsibilities that go with this, since we have watched other leaders. As we have done in other situations, our family will simply look to the Lord for the kind of encouragement and guidance that is so necessary when you meet challenges that are beyond you. You just lean on the Lord. I covet the prayers of everyone, and people have told me they’re praying for me. That is the best news I can get. It’s not only for me; I take it that they’re praying for the church. They’re praying for this wonderful movement that we belong to, the Advent movement.