Chapter 09 Aa

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From 1844 to Eternity Chapter 09

The effect of not using the original Adventist model of ministry

As seen in the last chapter, the model of ministry for the Seventh-day Adventist Church has changed over the years since the beginning of our denomination. In the beginning, the church was very mission-driven, and the duties of the ministers reflected that. The church members lived for the salvation of the lost. The church at that time never had any plan to settle pastors over established churches. The ministers were to be church planters and evangelists who go into areas where there were no Adventist churches and start new ones, grounded in the Three Angels Messages. Then, the ministers would move to other unentered areas, and repeat the process. Established churches were pastored by locally elected church elders. It was a time when the Adventist church patterned itself after the apostolic church. Many new churches were planted, and the overall growth of the Adventist church was rapid.

Since those early years, many changes have been made in the list of duties that Adventist ministers are responsible for performing. Ellen White said: “There has been so much preaching to our churches that they have almost ceased to appreciate the gospel ministry. The time has come when this order of things should be changed. Let the minister call out the individual church members to help him by house-to-house work in carrying the truth into regions beyond. Let all cooperate with the heavenly intelligences in communicating truth to others. — The Review and Herald, June 11, 1895.”1 While there has been renewed interest in planting new churches lately, there has also been a trend for ministers to spend more time, energy and resources to strengthen the existing churches. Odd as it may seem, this effort by ministers to fix churches is counterproductive. Ellen White warned against ministers spending time trying to fix churches.

God has not given His ministers the work of setting the churches right. No sooner is this work done, apparently, than it has to be done over again. Church members that are thus looked after and labored for become religious weaklings. If nine tenths of the effort that has been put forth for those who know the truth had been put forth for those who have never heard the truth, how much greater would have been the advancement made! God has withheld His blessings because His people have not worked in harmony with His directions.

It weakens those who know the truth for our ministers to expend on them the time and talent that should be given to the unconverted. In many of our churches in the cities the minister preaches Sabbath after Sabbath, and Sabbath after Sabbath the church members come to the house of God with no words to tell of blessings received because of blessings imparted. They have not worked during the week to carry out the instruction given them on the Sabbath. So long as church members make no effort to give to others the help given them, great spiritual feebleness must result.”2

Testimonies for the Church, volume 7, p.18, 19.

This has been going on in North America as well as many other areas of the world. There has been a progressive journey from the apostolic model of the early Adventist church to a model characterized today, by churches that are becoming more and more pastor-dependent and congregationalist in nature. Many steps have been involved in going from the apostolic model of ministry to where we are today. We will be looking at 6 of those steps, but first, let’s learn about the apostolic mindset of the early Adventists, as revealed in the writings of Ellen White and early Adventist leaders.

The Early Adventist, Apostolic Mindset

Perhaps one of the most interesting quotes from Ellen White on this subject is one where she clearly states that ministers should not even have districts of existing churches. We saw the quote already in chapter six, but let’s look at a few sentences which follow also. “Our ministers are not to hover over the churches, regarding the churches in some particular place as their special care. And our churches should not feel jealous and neglected if they do not receive ministerial labor. They should themselves take up the burden, and labor most earnestly for souls. Believers are to have root in themselves, striking firm root in Christ, that they may bear fruit to His glory. As one man, they are to strive to attain one object, - the saving of souls.3

The existing churches themselves were not the mission of the minister, but they had a mission for the minister to perform—the establishment of new churches. After elders and possibly deacons had been elected to care for a new church, the minister would leave to plant another new church somewhere else.

In the earliest days of the Advent movement, the ministers often worked without sufficient financial means. They were mostly itinerant, going from place to place without the company of their families for much of each year. The following is an excerpt taken from a message given by Elder James White to those assembled at the General Conference Session at Battle Creek, Michigan, held from June 3-6, 1859.

“We have no settled pastors over our churches; but our ministers are all missionaries, as were the early ministers of Jesus Christ, consequently they are most of their time deprived of the blessings of home. For Christ’s sake, and for the salvation of their fellow-men, they sacrifice the society of dear ones at home, go forth into a cold, selfish world, and wear out their lives in preaching unpopular Bible truth. God bless them! But they must be sustained, and God has made it the duty of the church to support them, as they go on their mission of love. . . While a great work is before the church, the time that remains in which to accomplish it must be short. The last events of prophecy are being fulfilled, and the last warnings for the church are being given. . . Our ministers must be regarded as very economical in their expenses, and abundant in their labors. Most of them preach from two to three hundred discourses in a year. And it is a painful fact that they often suffer hardships, care and deprivation for want of means.”4

The Signs of the Times, a witnessing magazine, was published from 1874 through 1979. In the December 17, 1874 issue, Uriah Smith wrote an article titled “The Seventh-day Adventists. A Brief Sketch of their Origin, Progress, and Principles.” In explaining how the Seventh-day Adventists organized their local churches as they were planted, he wrote “This is exceedingly simple. A body of believers associate together, taking the name of Seventh-day Adventists, and attaching their names to a covenant simply to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. The Bible is their only creed. A clerk is chosen to keep the records of the church, and an elder, elected by vote of the church, is ordained to look after its spiritual interests. If the church is large, its temporal affairs are assigned to one or more deacons chosen by vote of the church for this purpose. . . None of the churches have pastors established with them. They maintain their worship without the aid of a preacher, only as one may occasionally visit them, leaving the ministers free to devote almost their whole time to carrying these views to those who have never heard upon them.”5

In comparing the differences of ministry methods and growth rates of the Seventh Day Baptist denomination with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, James White wrote in the Review and Herald, November 20, 1879, “The widest difference between the Seventh Day Baptists and the Seventh-day Adventists, is in the manner of labor. For want of sympathy from other denominations, and for pecuniary and religious advantages, the S. D. Baptists, at an early date in their history, collected in certain localities. Their influence upon the world at large has consequently been small, hence their growth very slow. . . The growth of the S. D. Adventists has been rapid. Our existence as an organized body dates in the year 1860. We have no settled pastors, but like John Wesley, our ministers regard the world as their parish. They go everywhere preaching the word, and everywhere find converts. The field is a broad one, and the laborers are few.”6 It should be noted that the Seventh-day Baptists trace their roots to England in the 1600s. Today, in 2018, they have not more than 3000 to 4000 members and about 100 churches in the United States with approximately 50,000 members worldwide according to information obtained by phone with their world headquarters. By comparison, the Seventh-day Adventists which became a denomination in 1863, had over 13,000 (mostly in the U.S.) in 1879 when James White was writing the article and over 50,000 worldwide in 1897.

The following quotations from Ellen White illustrate the issue well.

In 1855, she wrote, “Our ministers are not to spend their time laboring for those who have already accepted the truth. With Christ’s love burning in their hearts, they are to go forth to win sinners to the Saviour. Beside all waters they are to sow the seeds of truth. Place after place is to be visited; church after church is to be raised up. Those who take their stand for the truth are to be organized into churches, and then the minister is to pass on to other equally important fields.”7

In 1886 she wrote, “Do not, my ministering brethren, allow yourselves to be kept at home to serve tables; and do not hover around the churches, preaching to those who are already fully established in the faith. Teach the people to have light in themselves, and not to depend upon the ministers. They should have Christ as their helper, and should educate themselves to help one another, so that the minister can be free to enter new fields. An important work is to be done in the world. New fields are to be opened; and the zeal and the missionary spirit that Christ manifested are greatly needed. Oh that the power of God would set the truth home to every heart! Oh that all might see the necessity of having a living connection with God, and of knowing and doing his will from day to day!”8

Looking at 6 of the steps involved in going from the Biblical model of ministry to where we are today.

Step #1: Ministers began to spend too much time with the churches.

As the ministers began to spend too much time with the churches, time spent on the mission of the church to seek and save the lost was declining. Ellen White responded with messages from God. The following are a few samples of what she wrote.

“If the ministers would get out of the way, if they would go forth into new fields, the members would be obliged to bear responsibilities, and their capabilities would increase by use.”9

Letter 56, 1901.

“The Lord’s vineyard is a more extensive one than the present working force is able properly to cultivate. Therefore it is necessary that every one should labor to the full extent of his ability. Whosoever refuses to do this, dishonors the Lord of the vineyard, and if he continues inactive, the Lord will disown him. As the human agent endeavors to labor, God works in him and by him. When the Lord sees that little real effort for the conversion of souls is put forth in regions beyond, when he sees that golden opportunities are lost, and that the spiritual physician is devoting his energy and skill to those who are whole, neglecting the maladies of those who are ready to die, he is not pleased. He cannot pronounce the “well done” upon such work; for it is not hastening but hindering the progress of his cause, when rapid advancement is most necessary. Time and energy and means are devoted to those who know the truth, instead of being used to enlighten the ignorant. Our churches are being tended as though they were sick lambs by those who should be seeking for the lost sheep. If our people would minister to other souls who need their help, they would themselves be ministered unto by the Chief Shepherd, and thousands would be rejoicing in the fold who are now wandering in the desert. Instead of hovering over our people, let every soul go to work to seek and to save the lost. Let every soul labor, not in visiting among our churches, but in visiting the dark places of the earth where there are no churches.”10

Please notice that Ellen White indicated that members, as well as ministers, were to be laboring and “visiting the dark places of the earth where there are no churches.”

On April 15, 1901, at the 34th General Conference Session, held in Battle Creek, Michigan, Ellen White gave a talk to the ministers, titled “An Appeal to Our Ministers.” In her talk she said:

“My heart has been filled with sadness as I have looked over the field and seen the barren places. What does this mean? Who are standing as representatives of Jesus Christ? Who feels a burden for the souls who cannot receive the truth till it is brought to them? Our ministers are hovering over the churches, as though the angel of mercy was not making efforts to save souls.

God holds these ministers responsible for the souls of those who are in darkness. He does not call you to go into fields that need no physician. Establish your churches with the understanding that they need not expect the minister to wait upon them and to be continually feeding them. They have the truth; ‘ they know what truth is. They should have root in themselves. These should strike down deeply, that they may reach up higher and still higher. They must be rooted and grounded in the faith.”11

Notice that the church members are not even supposed expect a minister to “wait upon them and to be continually feeding them.” They should have “root in themselves.”

Step #2: The practice of assigning ministers to labor in the churches began as early as the 1890s, while Ellen White was still alive. Her instructions against doing that were not followed.

The practice of assigning ministers to pastor churches, had its beginning even before the death of Ellen White in 1915, despite her God-given, repeated counsels against it. As early as 1895, we can see in her writings that the churches were calling for workers to labor in the churches and that the requests were being granted.

“The cities in America, in this country, and in other countries, are not worked as they should be, and yet we are admonished to be laborers together with God. Instead of this, many churches, collectively and individually, have been so far removed from God, so separated from his Spirit, that they have left souls to perish all around them, while they have been calling for workers to labor in the church. This labor has been granted them, and the impenitent and the sinner have been robbed of the messages which the Lord would have given to them. If the church were a living, working organization, having life in itself, its members would experience travail for souls. Individual members of the church would strive to impart the light of the knowledge of the truth to those who have never been enlightened by the truth.”12

Even though the practice of settling ministers over churches as pastors began while Ellen White was still alive, it was limited. This can be seen from the following statement written in 1912 by Elder A. G. Daniels, who was the General Conference president at that time.

“We have not settled our ministers over churches as pastors to any large extent. In some of the very large churches we have elected pastors, but as a rule we have held ourselves ready for field service, evangelistic work and our brethren and sisters have held themselves ready to maintain their church services and carry forward their church work without settled pastors. And I hope this will never cease to be the order of affairs in this denomination; for when we cease our forward movement work and begin to settle over our churches, to stay by them, and do their thinking and their praying and their work that is to be done, then our churches will begin to weaken, and lose their life and spirit, and become paralyzed and fossilized and our work will be on a retreat.13

He went further to say, “Now when I entered upon the ministry, I never expected to do anything else but preach the message in new fields. I had not the remotest idea of anything else. It never entered into my head nor heart, nor was it a desire. I had one thought, and that was to go out and preach the third angel’s message to people who did not know it. I did not think of anything else for a long time. As any man of any reason would do, I began to study how to do that work most successfully. That led me to study methods of labor, policies, ways of working; and. I will say, brethren, that for a dozen years, or thirteen I think it was, my whole time was spent in what we may call the field work, evangelistic, endeavor. I had no conference responsibilities, nothing in the way of administration. I was just plowing, plowing, plowing, all the time, in new fields.”14

Even though ministers were sent to pastor only the largest churches at first, what would become a growing trend had begun. The effect was disastrous. The Bible says in Galatians 5:9, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Ellen White was clearly against ministers presiding over churches because the practice would result in many souls being lost and the churches becoming weakened. Her warnings were not taken as seriously as they should have been.

After Ellen White’s death, as the little bit of leaven grew, the rapidly increasing trend to assign ministers as settled pastors of churches could easily be seen by the early 1920s. The General Conference Committee was alarmed by this growing trend which was gaining momentum. Evidence of their concern is seen in the minutes of the 1923 General Conference Committee Autumn Council meeting. The minutes from October 15, 1923, contain a committee report with 20 recommendations. Recommendation number 18 stated: “That we view with concern the rapidly increasing practice of placing ministers over churches as settled pastors. We urge our conference committees to give careful study to this question with a view of developing as far as possible self-dependence and leadership in all our churches, leaving all able bodied ministers free to establish the work in new fields.”15

Step #3: Ministers were assigned to all churches.

A. G. Daniels retired from being president of the General Conference in 1922. The practice of settling ministers over churches as pastors rapidly growing stronger as time went by. Regardless of repeated warnings from denominational leaders and the writings of Ellen White, the churches were crying for ministers to pastor their churches and their desires were granted.

F. M. Wilcox said, “Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency in the denomination today toward settled pastorates, and the time of too many of our preachers, instead of being occupied with carrying the message into new fields, has to be taken up in settling church difficulties, and in labor for men and women who should be towers of strength instead of subjects for labor. We cannot feel that this is in God’s order.”16

“There is a growing tendency to tie up ministers as settled pastors over churches. In every religious reform movement this has been one of the first steps leading to stagnation and decadence.”17

G. A. Roberts and W. C. Moffett18, Review and Herald, November 11, 1926.

By 1930, the practice of assigning ministers to pastor churches was becoming entrenched as the norm. This can be seen from an article written in 1930, by J. L. McElhany, president of the North American division at the time.19 It was published in the January 1931 issue of The Ministry magazine.

“Shall we go on year after year, simply pastoring our churches and engaging in spasmodic missionary endeavor, and expect to see this work finished? The insistent cry from our churches is for pastoral help, and one of the chief problems faced by conference administrators today is that of providing settled pastors for our churches. Yet this is quite contrary to the plain instruction which has come to us from the Spirit of prophecy.”20

At first, ministers who were settled pastors did not usually remain for a long time in their district before being moved to new districts, and baptisms were a major priority. Evangelism was still a vital expectation for all pastors. When my father-in-law entered the ministry in 1939, although he was given a church assignment, he was expected to hold an evangelistic crusade his first year and get at least one baptism in the crusade, or he would be put out of the ministry. Today, it is unfortunate that the importance of local church evangelism is not stressed as much as in the past.

Step #4: Some churches began to request that pastoral candidates being considered, possess specific traits.

By the late 1960s or early 1970s, when a pastor would move to another district, some conferences were beginning to ask the churches what kind of pastor they would like to have. This created self-centeredness in some of the churches. In effect, many churches were becoming their own mission. By merely asking the churches what kind of minister they wanted, the message received by members and ministers could give the impression that the care of church members was a higher priority than seeking the lost. The term “Gospel Minister” now had a confused definition. The “Gospel Ministers” were spending more and more time preaching sermons to people who had the knowledge of the truth, and less and less time preaching the gospel to the lost.

Step #5: Ministers began to be interviewed by prospective churches.

The next step in the trend toward a more pastor-dependent model of ministry was that churches wanted to be able to conduct interviews with prospective ministerial candidates before pastoral assignments were made by the conferences. This gave the members in a church an opportunity to see if they wanted a specific minister before the conference would send the minister to pastor the church or church district. If the church members decided that they did not like a minister during an interview, the conference would often look for another candidate. In these situations, the church members could easily think of the minister as responsible to them to do as they wished. This method can have a damaging effect on the concept of the God-given mission of the church. Evangelism becomes less productive, and the maintenance of the existing churches becomes a significant focus. Baptism rates, as well as growth rates during this time, continued to remain low when compared to the years before ministers were being assigned as settled pastors. The planting of new churches was not as high a priority as in the past. During this time, I knew a minister who had pastored churches for 20 years but had never conducted a single evangelism campaign. Oddly, he was considered a good minister because the congregations liked him.

Step #6: A professional ministry which is trending in the direction of congregationalism is developing in some areas.

Churches today, are beginning to give the conferences the list of ministers they would like to interview. Sometimes ministers submit resumes to be placed on the list of potential candidates for pastoring a particular church. In this situation, it is challenging for a minister to take a firm stand on unpopular issues. It would be easy to allow political concerns to dominate in this kind of situation. Spirituality can decline in some cases. Sometimes the lost just remain lost because the primary mission of seeking the lost does not take the priority that it should. It can be very difficult for ministers who have an intense burden for saving the lost to work under these kinds of conditions. They have a God-given call and responsibility to spend more time to save the lost, but they are required because of their church employment to spend a large amount of time with the saved. One minister I know, in a group discussion, asked the question, “Is ministry a calling, or a career.”

I can remember when I first got into professional ministry. Previously, I had served as a lay church planter while earning my living in health care. I spent most of my time with people who did not know the truth. I was called from lay church planting into professionally pastoring a church district in a conference. After being in the district a while, I knew something was wrong, but could not figure out just exactly what it was at that time. I remember praying to God and asking Him something like this: How can I maintain my connection with the lost when I must spend so much time working with the baptized church members who already know the truth? Before becoming a salaried pastor, I had always worked among my evangelism target audience. When I became a salaried pastor, however, I could not spend as much time with lost people who had never heard the Three Angels Messages. I now know that this is not how Christ intended for His church to operate. This is not the Biblical model for either the lay members or the ministers. God has a better way.

To understand what the Biblical/New Testament model for both members and ministers should look like today, we need to re-examine the Biblical model in three areas: local church governance, professional ministry, and lay ministry.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What justifies our continued use of settled ministers?
  2. What does it mean to minister the gospel?
  3. When you think of the term minister, do you think of the leader of a congregation or a winner of lost souls?
  4. How is a pastor’s preaching affected, when the pastor is worried about how the congregation will like what he must preach?


  1. Ellen White, Welfare Ministry: (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1952) 110.
  2. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 7: (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1855) 18-19.
  3. Ellen White, Australasian Union Conference Record, August 1, 1902, par. 7.
  4. James White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 9, 1859, p. 21.
  5. Uriah Smith, The Signs of the Times, Volume 1, Number 11, December 17, 1874. p. 84.
  6. James White, Review and Herald, Volume 54, Number 21, November 20, 1879. p. 164.
  7. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 7: (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1902) 19-20.
  8. Ellen White, Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists (Basie: Imprimerie Polyglotte, 1886) 139.
  9. Ellen White, Evangelism p. 382, 1946. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1946) 382.
  10. Ellen White, The Review and Herald, July 25, 1895, paragraph 6.
  11. Ellen White, General Conference Bulletin, Volume 4, Extra Number 12, April 16, 1901, page 267.
  12. Ellen White, The Review and Herald, June 11, 1895, paragraph 4.
  13. A. G. Daniels, Pacific Union Recorder, Vol. 11, No. 01, April 4, 1912, paragraph 2.
  14. Ibid., paragraph 6.
  15. General Conference Committee Minutes for 1923, October 15, 1923, page 486.
  16. F. M. Wilcox, “Standing by the Preacher,” Review and Herald, June 4, 1925, page 5. F. M. Wilcox was editor of the Review and Herald from 1911 to 1944.
  17. G. A. Roberts and W. C. Moffett, “Building the Home Base,” Review and Herald: (November 11, 1926) page 8.
  18. W. C. Moffett was the president of the Southern New England Conference from 1926 to 1928 and president of the Eastern Canadian Union from 1928 to 1932. G. A. Roberts was the Inter-American Division President from 1936 to 1941.
  19. J. L. McElhany served later as president of the General Conference from 1936 to 1950.
  20. J. L. McElhany, The Ministry, Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1931, page 7.