Church Leadership Culture

The Man That Will Make You Rethink Age and Leadership

April 17, 2015

Recently, the “Why the Next General Conference President Should Be in Their 30s” post received a lot of attention and generated good discussion about the need for younger leaders. Among the better discussions was an online thread that included many nuanced views on the matter:

“We cannot compare the maturity level of yesteryear with today. While before, the youth hardly had a normal childhood but it was mostly trained in hard work, today we see the pendulum moving in the opposite direction. I doubt a 30 year old person today has the experience necessary to lead in a complex life.

I am for opportunities for young people to shadow our leaders and learn early in life so they can see what it takes. I have seen young pastors given positions of responsibility too early in their ministry and it has not necessarily benefitted them. Just for the sake of clarification, I have the GC presidency in mind when I make the comments above.”

“I think the older some people get, the harder they find it to trust young people with responsible positions. And I get that – but it’s something I keep reminding myself of (‘remember what it was like when you were younger’) – and hope not to be guilty of.”

“Interesting…50 and probably 75 years ago, the young adult generation was saying the same things and promising that when they were in charge it would be different. Control and power are difficult to give up. Look at all the pastors, teachers, administrators that are well past retirement age and do not step aside so that the youth have a place….not just in the church setting. Some feel they need the money – so do the young adults. But many just don’t think anyone younger can do the job. Jesus was 12 when he started teaching.”

Someone even suggested that someone around 40 might be a good fit: “Young enough to think straight and old enough to feel our problems of aging.” Another person agreed with this: “I’m 43, love youth, and have a bum knee. Perfect balance.” There are very legitimate concerns regarding having a young person in a prominent leadership position.

Could someone in today’s world really be as mature as the pioneers were and have what it takes to lead a conference, union, division, or even the world church? Or, stated another way, some may argue that it might have worked 100 years ago, but could a para-church organization like a conference, union, or division still be effective today with a young person at the helm?

There is good news; we don’t have to guess the answer! There is a modern day case study that we can examine.

In October 2006, the Executive Committee of the South American Division voted to recommend 38-year-old Erton Köhler as the new president of the South American Division; a large, dynamic region of the world Seventh-day Adventist Church. Subsequently elected by the General Conference Executive Committee, Köhler assumed his new responsibilities on January 1, 2007.

Köhler, now about 47 was the youngest president ever in the South American Division and the youngest vice president of the General Conference in over a century. The last time something similar happened was around the time when G.I. Butler became president of the General Conference at age 37.

Shortly after his election, Adventist World did a feature article on his journey and he shared some of his experiences. It’s really quite remarkable. You should take some time to read the whole thing here. I’ve combined some portions of his interview as it is extremely important for our conversation today:

I moved to the conference department level at 25, to the union conference when I was 28. And at each move some people said, “But the man is young.” Yet the church knew me and had grown confident in my ability to lead. When I went to the division I was young—just 34. Church members need to know the young adults and their points of view in order to be confident in selecting them for new roles” In that role, he believes that his age played an important factor in how the church was perceived in the eyes of the younger generation:

“I can tell that our youth and young adults are very happy because they feel they have an open door in our division. They can say, “The president is my same age; I can talk with him.” They’re glad because they have a representative and an open door with leadership. The young leaders in our work are certainly happy, too. It’s an opportunity for them to call me, to speak with freedom about things that trouble them or dreams they have for this church.

During Bible times, God called many young people to lead. God believes in young people, but in our modern world we say: “No, today we need a more experienced person.” God can choose young people today. Young people helped to start this church, and I believe young people have a special responsibility to finish the work of the church. And yes, I’m an example of this.”

To me, his best one-liner was this one:

If a church elects young people to lead, the church is saying that young people are needed in the church. The church shows it believes in young people, not just in words but in action. “

So here we have a modern day example of someone who has, by now, served almost a decade in this position. What has been the track record in this division under his term since 2006? The first thing the division decided to do was to produce an updated membership list.  The Adventist review noted that this actually resulted in about a 14 percent loss of its membership after a division-wide membership audit from 2007 to 2009.

They continued by adding, “Still, the region is home to one of the fastest growth rates of any of the church’s 13 world divisions. Accession rates are more than 8 percent, and leaders at the world headquarters say those figures are solid.”

The division’s present membership totals about 2.25 million. This information was compiled before the last General Conference in 2010. In contrast, the North American Division has 1.2 million members, but we’ve never had a similar intentional push for an updated membership list to remove our missing or inactive members.

In more recent years, leaders in South America have implemented a variety of evangelism outreach initiatives – from weekly small group meetings to major, continent-wide projects advertised in magazines and billboards, some members even covering their cars with ads.

Here is a sampling of the mindset of a Division that is intentional about listening and implementing the suggestions of its young people:

Twitter Presence

The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s worldwide initiative to encourage daily Bible study was a top trending topic on Twitter for a couple hours yesterday.

The Twitter hashtag #RPSP – the acronym for “Revived by His Word” in Portuguese and Spanish – topped the Trending Topics in Brazil, the official index of the most widely-discussed topics among Twitter’s Brazilian users. July 2012.

[photo courtesy South American Division]

[photo courtesy South American Division]

Massive Major City Prayer Rallies

Moving – literally – to bring hope to the big cities of the South American Division, a group of 7,000 Seventh-day Adventists and friends gathered in the Brazilian capital for a March 10 prayer walk. Gathering in front of the Cathedral of Brasília, the group walked approximately 600 meters to reach the National Congress building.

The event is part of the Adventist Church’s initiative to bring hope to the big cities, and completed a period of 10 days of prayer and 10 hours of fasting that began on February 28 in South America. Understanding the commitment to pray for the people who live in the city, the group met for special times of prayer and praise. March 2015.

Roughly 7,000 people met on March 10, 2013 for a Prayer Walk in front of the National Congress in Brasilia.

Roughly 7,000 people met on March 10, 2013 for a Prayer Walk in front of the National Congress in Brasilia.

 [photos by Felipe Lemos]

[photos by Felipe Lemos]

Live-Streaming Webcast on Relevant Bible Topics 

Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders in South America say a new method of interactive, online evangelism is connecting with young adults worldwide.

Called “Countdown,” the prophecy series was broadcast last month as a livestream on the church’s Spanish and Portuguese websites in South America. The web-based format meant viewers could interact with speaker Luís Gonçalves throughout the series.

A panel of young adults discuss prophecy during an episode of “Countdown. [photo: Mani Maria and Carolyn Azo]

A panel of young adults discuss prophecy during an episode of “Countdown. [photo: Mani Maria and Carolyn Azo]

Series organizers said they chose the subject of prophecy after young people who participated in a church-administered survey said they were most interested in learning more about end-time events.Statistics seem to confirm that interest, organizers said. During the series, the hashtag #ContagemRegressiva (“countdown”) was a repeat trending topic in Brazil.Erton Köhler, president of the church’s South American Division (SAD), said the “Countdown” series will serve as a model to build upon in the future.“As a church, we have to go where the people are, and if they’re on their computers, we need to go to them, speaking a language they understand,” Köhler said. October 2012

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in Adventism’s heyday there was a general trend and willingness to engage the predominant popular culture at the time. Adventists were willing to explore the values that the larger society held dear and tweak their outreach methods to meet the culture where they were, and thus transform culture into one of the most engaged generations ever.

The South American Division kept the principles and have used them effectively. We in North America, have generally embraced the methods that were effective back then.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the South American Division is free of any systemic problems either. In my interviews with pastors in that part of the world, I’m told that in certain places, church leaders wield autocratic authority over their workers with mandatory baptism goals. Add this to public shaming (and even withholding a ministers’ salary) if those goals aren’t met, and an accepted culture of workaholism that forces pastors to work 7 days a week and that puts this conversation in another light.

My point in bringing this up is to point out that every part of the world has its challenges, but clearly the South American Division is still reaping the benefits of the decision to invest in the younger generation today. We could learn a thing or two here at the North American Division from their success.

Again, please don’t read into this; I don’t want to be the President of anything. I’m saying all of this because the message is just as important now as ever and God is already raising up powerful young men and women for service.

At the end of the day, neither the youth nor the elders of our church have all the answers. We need each other in this journey. Find someone to invest yourself in today! Have any thoughts? Leave them below!

The Global Leadership Summit's photo.