If we had only heard this type of material years ago we would never have been so concerned about what is happening in our church!" These words were shared with me by a group of conservative elders at the breakfast table on Sabbath morning, the last day of one of our Elder's Summer Schools.
Over the last few years the Trans-Tasman Union has run three Elder's Summer Schools lasting for one week in different locations in Australia and New Zealand with the following goals in mind: (1) To help elder's become better informed regarding the doctrines of the Seventhday Adventist Church. (2) To help elders come to a better understanding of how the church functions. (3) To help train elder's to be able to assist their pastors in the practical work of ministry. (4) To provide a place where the leaders of the church can meet with the elders to be able to better understand their concerns regarding the issues which are dividing many local congregations.
The first was held in the Summer of 1994 at Avondale College. We chose the College because it provided the classroom atmosphere. Dr William Johnsson was the main presenter and taught classes on Biblical Theology. He was asked to spend much of his time in the areas which had caused divisions in Adventism over more recent times. His class presentations were videoed and hundreds of sets were sold. Because of this it was possible to share some of the inspiration of the meetings with others who had not been able to attend. Drs John Dybdahl and R. Bruinsma also taught classes on conflict management and church administration.
The enthusiastic response of those who attended encouraged us to conduct another school the following year. This time we had Dr Gary Patterson from the General Conference dealing with the topic of inspiration as found in the Gospels, and Ed Dickerson a layman from the State of Iowa, teaching classes on the book of Revelation. The early part of the school in New Zealand started out somewhat stormy as some of our more conservative elders felt threatened by some new concepts that were being presented. By the end of the week, however, that had changed quite dramatically and many were declaring that they were seeing some things in a different light.
Workshops were also conducted by the Trans-Tasman Union Departmental team on: Six different ways that people think; how young people look at the church; developing preaching skills; how to make Sabbath School more relevant; understanding our health message.
Our last school, conducted at the beginning of 1997, featured Dr Jon Paulien from Andrews University teaching classes on: Eschatology; studies from the book of Romans; reaching the secular mind.
Workshops were conducted by local personnel in the following areas: How the church organization works; how to chair board and business meetings; styles of leadership; how to make pastoral visits; how to handle stress.
Classes were also conducted by Lylell Heise, our newly appointed Worship Director for the Trans-Tasmanian Union Conference, on how to develop more positive worship services in our churches on Sabbath mornings.
Elders who attended were only required to pay one third of the cost of accommodation and transportation. The local conference and local church also paid one third each. There was overwhelming affirmation given to us in the evaluation sheets filled in at the end of each school. So many said that they were thrilled that the church was prepared to spend some time and money on their laymen to have them better equipped and informed to help in the work of the ministry. However, another vital return from the schools is the bonding that took place as church leaders and local elders spent a week together. It wasn't only what took place in the classroom that was appreciated, it was also the fact that key church leaders made themselves available to be part of the group dynamic. The conversations that took place out of the classroom and at meal times were very important in bringing about mutual understandings and bonding. So far we have put some 850 elders through our schools.
As an outgrowth of the schools an opportunity has been created for Theological Consultations with some of our more conservative and loyal laymen and women. So far we have run three and plan another three during 1997. In these consultations we invite by mail a select few of our conservative people who we feel would benefit most by attending the consultation. We like to have between 25 to 30. If the group is too large we lose the ability to be able to communicate. The local Conference and the Union share the costs. These people are our guests for the weekend at a campground or motel. We stress that there will be no winners or losers. We are simply coming together to listen to each other.
Presentations and discussion is invited on the following subjects: What is true historic Adventism?; the role and function of Ellen White in settling doctrinal differences; how to study the Bible; the nature of Christ and sinless perfectionism; why has Jesus not returned?
The results and unity it has given us have encouraged us to conduct more. The second time around we will let those who are the attendees nominate the subjects to be presented and discussed.
We regard the summer schools and the theological consultations as playing a vital part in helping to bring unity and understanding among church administrators, pastors and laity. We are finding that when you sit down and listen to people you usually find that they have some fairly valid reasons for thinking the way they do. Most people do not sound so 'way out' when you let them explain their convictions for themselves.
Graeme Bradford writes from Australia where he is the Ministerial Secretary for the Trans-Tasman Union Conference.