A question frequently asked me, especially when I am with young people, is, "What is your work? What is involved in it?" In replying to this question I usually explain about the committees and boards, the personnel problems, the financial problems, the approving and adopting of building plans, the study of administrative policies for the various fields, the days we spend on occasions studying the wage scale, and our dealings with government agencies. I mention the many hours we must spend on institutional problems and prospects, on departmental problems and planning. The list is endless.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
But there is something more important than any of these things. And it's time for us to make first things first. God has priorities for us. Matthew 6:33 plainly counsels: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."
For many months I have been analyzing my own leadership and administration, and I have come to some agonizing conclusions that I want to share with you. I have asked myself some soul-searching questions, and the answers I was able to give didn't satisfy me. I want to ask you the same questions.
We deal with many items pertaining to the mechanics of the church, but how many items on your committee and board agendas deal strictly with the spiritual needs of the church?
How much time have you spent in studying ways and means of changing the sad picture in many of our Seventh-day Adventist homes? Too many homes are in trouble because communications have broken down. The love of Christ somehow has slipped out. How much time have you spent on your knees and on your committees in studying this vital problem?
How long has it been since you have truly evaluated the spiritual impact of your life and leadership upon the members of your congregation?
Do you really know the heart struggles of your fellow brothers and sisters? I know from personal experience from letters I receive, from my contacts on campgrounds, in meetings, and in churches that some of our people are really passing through some traumatic heart struggles. How much do you know about them, how much do you pray with them, encourage and try to help them?
Have you devoted as much time to your apostasies as you have to your baptisms? Today I received an advance copy of the statistical report. My heart was heavy when I noted in it the too large number of apostasies. During the course of the past few years these apostasies would equal the membership of some of our larger divisions.
Can you freely preach the old Advent message in your church and expect to receive approval from the members? In a few churches, this kind of message is not too welcome these days. Do some of your brothers and sisters think they have outgrown such sermons? That they are not relevant today? If so, are you really concerned about it?
What are the Sabbath School teachers doing? Where is their emphasis? Being an elder in a Seventh-day Adventist church today is no small assignment. Many elders are leaders in their own right. But, brethren, how much time do you spend urging the members of your congregation to study, to take time for prayer? Do you spend some time to prepare messages that will reach the hearts of the members? Do you visit the members in their homes? If you don't have time to shepherd the flock, what are you doing to try to change the situation?
Are we bringing new people into the kingdom or just getting them into the church? Are we making Seventh-day Adventists out of them, or are we selective in our work and just preaching about love, acceptance, and forgiveness, and dipping them in the water and hoping that someday someone else will teach them the message, and somehow they will become true Seventh-day Adventists? This is a most important question for everyone who is leading God's people today!
Where is the money of today's church going, and how do we divide up our budgets? How much is directed to soul-winning endeavors? I am sure you have checked and know how the pie is divided how much goes for social programs, how much for education, for building maintenance, but how much is your church spending for public evangelism? And if it is like too many of the pies that I see, only a small piece is left for direct preaching of the Word.
GOD'S FIRST THINGS
Is the spiritual experience of our members our very first concern? I feel that some of us need to make some changes in our priorities. We need a revival and reformation in our leadership and administration and among the leaders in the local congregation. This late hour demands different priorities than in any other period of this world's history. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness." I believe the Savior is directing these words to every leader in God's church at this time more than at any previous time. We need to make room in our activities for God's first things.
What do I mean? I must make it clear. The business items that we must care for are certainly not wrong. They are not to be considered unnecessary, not to be avoided. They are important. Inspiration admonishes us to be efficient and honest leaders. Ellen White wrote much on this subject. I thank God for the capable Christian business people God has placed in this church.
We can't turn all our committee and board meetings into prayer meetings; although in a good many instances, it would be better if we did. There have been times when we have turned committee and board meetings into prayer meetings, and the Lord came near and brought solutions to our problems. Speaking of the strictly business items on our agendas (as Jesus said in Matthew 23:23, last part), I say "these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." What I am appealing for is that we make room on our program of activity to consider items that will "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17). This is our first work!
What does this mean? What is God's plan and His desire for His people?
A VICTORIOUS PEOPLE
God is waiting for a happy, healthy, holy people who will vindicate His justice and wisdom in dealing with sin and sinners. Through the centuries and millenniums, Satan has said it couldn't be done─man could never keep the commandments, man could never develop a character like Christ's. But when the character development has taken place in His church, Jesus will say, "Here they are─a victorious people, a people who amid the tests and trials and temptations of the last days have overcome the sins that so easily beset them, a people who are right with God and with those about them, prepared for translation. Hating and evil surmising have no place in them. They are vibrant, pure, honest, upright, winsome, loving, kind, courteous, selfcontrolled." This can never be accomplished in our own strength, but His victory will be ours. Where we failed, He conquered.
Only such a people can God use in ushering in the loud cry, and only such a people will be prepared for the Advent. As leaders, if we "seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness," such a people, under the blessing of Christ, will be prepared─in our day.
But we are still here in a world of sin, waiting. Brethren, our present programs, plans, and priorities are not good enough. All of our great speaking, our great music, our great teaching, even our great healing, and our great worldwide welfare program have not brought a finished work and a returned Lord! Something is wrong.
TO MAKE READY A PEOPLE
A revival and reformation in our congregations must come. Not until we let go of all these handfuls of earthly sand that we are clawing for and clinging to for dear life and begin to cling to the Rock of Ages and seek His Spirit can we ever hope to succeed in the assignment God has given His remnant church. Only as we seek the Holy Spirit as the source of power for our leadership, the energy for all our assignments, will we ever rise above the miserable limitations of our own abilities and break out into that glorious experience that God speaks of as the loud cry.
I appeal first to my own heart and then to yours to place at the top of church board agendas the spiritual needs of the church. When elders and other leaders of the church meet in committees, and consider each item on the agenda, I plead with you to ask: Will this plan help "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord?"
I would like to make some practical suggestions. I believe that elders, other leaders of the church, as well as pastors, need to be released more and more for spiritual leadership.
It is my conviction that we all give great lip service to the high regard in which we hold our pastor, but do we truly treat him as if he is the key man in our church program? Do we as elders enable him to do the work God really intends a shepherd of the flock to do?
Perhaps we should think of having some lay administrators to look after the business of the church, especially in our larger churches. I believe the pastor ought to spend many hours every week preparing to feed his flock. If there ever was a time when the sheep needed to be/ed, it is now, and the pastor and elders are the ones who should do most of this work. Somehow we must give our pastors more time to study and pray and visit the members.
Some folks tell me they have not had a pastoral visit for months, even years. Shame! Our pastors and elder's first work is to get into the homes of the members, to study and pray with them, to encourage them, and to help them with their missionary work. That is where their help is needed. Can we not find laymen with business expertise who would gladly carry much of this work for our burdened pastors and elders? I wish we could study this possibility carefully.
ETERNAL INTERESTS FIRST
"What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt. 16:26). This is a good text by which to test our activity in the church. What will it profit us if we fill the church with fine material things and neglect the spiritual phase, which will result in the erosion of faith and the eternal loss of souls? Notice this statement: "The work of saving souls is the highest and noblest ever entrusted to mortal man; and you should allow nothing to come in between you and this sacred work to absorb your mind and confuse your judgment. One standing in the responsible position that you occupy should make eternal interests first, and temporal matters of secondary importance" (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 371).
Are we measuring up? Are we giving example leadership? Are our homes little heavens here on earth in which we are preparing to go to heaven? Are we kind and tenderhearted, patient and courteous?
Are we following all of God's counsel? Do we preach enough sermons on healthful living? We leaders ought to be in the lead when it comes to habits of healthful living. What about our dress, our recreation, our socials, what we read, what we watch? Are we prepared to meet the Lord? We can't expect our people to measure up unless there has been repentance and revival and reformation in us as their leaders. I appeal to you as I appealed to my own heart as I have searched my soul many times in recent months. There need to be some changes. You and I are the ones to make these changes. By God's grace I want to make the needed changes in my own life. I want to "seek ... first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness." I don't want to delay the time any longer when God can point to His people and say, "'Here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus'"─a whole church of them.
A number of years ago, in Yosemite National Park, there was held what was known as the "fire fall." Beneath a high rocky face, people would meet at night for a program. As the program ended, someone would look up and in a mighty voice call out, "Let the fire fall." Shortly after the sound of his voice had died away, another voice at the top of the cliff would shout back, "The fire falls." Then the people would watch a sight they could never forget─the fire in the darkness cascading down that mighty cliff. Brethren, God wants to let the fire fall. Do we respond, "Lord, let the fire fall on me?"The fire will fall only when the Spirit of God has done His work in our hearts. I want to be the first to make a new commitment of my life and my leadership and place them both on the altar. Do you join me in this commitment to "seek ... first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness?"
Robert H. Pierson was president of the General Conference when he wrote this article. The editor o/Elder's Digest has gleaned thoughts from it to share with you (see Ministry, December 1978).