Dishonest pastors: does your church have one?

The recent passing of Robert Folkenberg (a retired GC president of the Adventist world church), reminded me of my time at Avondale and the unsettling events I witnessed as a theology student in the early 1990’s. As theology majors, we came from many parts of the country and for many different reasons. 

Some came because Avondale was the next logical step from high school. With no work experience or any real break from academia, these naïve schoolies landed at college bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to soak up whatever they were told without question. Some arrived for the excitement going to college brings. Young single men had a smorgasbord of young ladies desperate to snag a husband heading for the “ministry” with all the glamour and popularity that it brings.

There were other students who came at the urging of successful well known Adventist families who made a career out of working for the church. Many of these kids had fathers, uncles, grandfathers even older brothers who made it into high administration roles by starting out as pastors--a sure fire way to get top jobs if you play your cards right.  If you had Adventist royalty in your blood, shut your mouth, didn’t make waves, and gave a big cheesy grin for the cameras then you were guaranteed promotions. All you had to do was tow a “positive” party line, support the Adventist dynasty and your future retirement was secure.

Others came to Avondale as mature age students, mostly married and some had children. But far from the tradition of pastoral succession, these students came from working class backgrounds and had experienced life outside the Adventist bubble. They were often poor, working night shift at the Sanitarium factory to fund massive fee costs and put food on the table. The stories of why they came varied but had a common thread--they felt “called” to serve God as pastors. They mostly had no support or pressure from families to enroll, in fact the opposite was sometimes true. Many endured family ridicule and discouragement to make the long interstate journey to do what they believed was something they could not turn back from.

When you spend 4 or 5 years sitting in class with fellow theology colleagues, you get to know them in depth as they do you. You know each other’s characters, pet peeves and importantly what beliefs are held in regard to the church’s teachings. Many debates were had in dining halls, back of classrooms and all over campus about the merits of the church’s fundamental beliefs. What I didn't expect was alot of open denial of our beliefs and not just by students.

As the years progressed, some of the mature age theology students found themselves at odds with some of the lecturers and their pets.  In a class on eschatology we were told by the head of the theology department that “the 2300 day prophecy is irrelevant."  Some of us couldn't believe our ears and objected strongly, only to be scorned by the new "pastoral interns," overseen by an approving lecturer smiling smugly at his protégés who received high marks for their blind loyalty.

In our science classes the same thing happened. Plate tectonics and evolutionary theory was taught and defended by the science lecturer (no, he was not testing us but fully believed this stuff as we found out in after class discussions). In our psychology classes we were told by the lecturer that Ellen Whites council on masturbation and the damage it causes was "myth" because we know differently now and that it is “healthy." The debates got stronger and more personal. As we neared graduation the "enlightened ones" jeered at us as we sat stunned knowing that these classmates would soon be released on the churches.

Our objections didn't go unnoticed.  A few of us were threatened by the “unholy triad” (a name we affectionately gave to the Theology Department Head, the Psychology Head and the Church Ministries Specialist), who hauled us in and warned us with low work prospects or expulsion if we continued the agitation.  Even though Avondale encouraged questioning and debate, we didn't know it was only to be the kind they liked. I saw many fellow students, likeable men, good solid Adventist lads of conviction leave Avondale disillusioned during these tough times.

After such threats my wife and I prayed like crazy, asking God to confirm that it was truly here he wanted us, and always came back the reply, to stay the course no matter what. The pressure was enormous, even the financial officer of the college snidely remarked when we were struggling to make payments, “If God wanted you here then why are you finding it hard to pay your fees?”

Time eventually came for graduation and the interviews began. We were warned that we were to be scrutinized by the union presidents. I thought to myself, how are my fellow pastoral interns going to go when they are questioned by the union bosses? How will they answer these experienced men when they ask about church beliefs, the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, the inspiration of Ellen White, creation, our health message and particularly, drinking alcohol? All beliefs I knew many pastoral students disagreed with.

Our curiosity was eventually assuaged at the interviews.  The toughest question asked about anything remotely theological from the presidents was, “Can you see yourself fitting into the theological framework of the Adventist church?” Yep, that was it!

Of course it was to the delight of the teacher’s pets, who answered a relieved “yes," slipping through the loophole and out into waiting fields of innocent churches who had no idea what was coming. Complete with high distinctions (for not causing grief to their masters), the new "elite" pastors were snapped up by unsuspecting conferences. Unquestioned and praised by Avondale as the best in the business, they snuck into the sheep pen where their destruction is on record for all to see.

I still catch up regularly with these guys since graduation and we still have the same old debates. Some found the backlash and pressure from local churches too much to bear and so left the ministry--these were the honest ones. Many survived however, by learning to keep their mouths shut about their theological views if they wanted to hold onto their jobs. Many conferences know of these men who hold contrary views but it’s a political potato and so they continue on as employees working dishonestly in a belief system they don’t support. They have become financially dependent on the church and built up empires, manoeuvring expertly within the system, not paying it any loyalty whatsoever.

Do you have one of these pastors? I know you do because I talked to one of them yesterday. They are still out there in the dozens and leading churches and conference departments. They take baptismal candidates through the prescribed church pamphlets but don’t believe most of it themselves. Have you ever wondered why your pastor doesn't teach some of the doctrines, particularly the prophecies? Now you know.

The church is already suffering a growth crisis. Imagine throwing into that mix leaders who don’t even believe what we advocate as Adventists?  When a robber breaks in and destroys your home, there's a lot of anger. But imagine for a minute the anger you would feel if you knew a family member gave them the key?  Now that’s something to worry about. Maybe pull your pastor aside one day and ask him, "What are your views on the 2300 days?” I will leave that challenge with you.
Whoops...I forgot to tell you the Robert Folkenberg connection. Briefly, Gerhard Pfandel came to stay with us when we were in ministry and listened to my stories about Avondale.  He was the Ministerial Secretary of the SPD at the time and was shocked by my accounts. In short he amassed a file on these reports and handed them to Folkenburg at a meeting in the U.S. Folkenberg waved my particular report (I am told), above his head at the meeting and was heard saying, “Brethren, these things ought not to be in our colleges”. What followed was a sudden unscheduled visit to the South Pacific Division around 1996-1967 where heads rolled at Avondale. For whatever reason, some lecturers stepped down and some saw the writing on the walls and got out. Just goes to show you that the last laugh was had but it wasn't by the puppet masters.

I don’t know what Avondale looks like these days as it is under the leadership of Ray Roenfeldt who is a solid man theologically, so this is not a reflection on him but it may be a warning that the interview process needs double checking just in case