11/03/2011

A leader should take you forward

Jan Paulsen, author of Where Are We Going?

There is an anecdote Jan Paulsen, author of a newly published book, Where Are We Going?*, sometimes shares about Odd Jordal, a fellow Norwegian, church leader, and a missionary from decades ago. In a conversation about a challenge with preparation of so many new sermons, week after week, Pastor Jordal quipped, that after one preached the sermon for the third time to the same congregation, that the full benefit would be obtained.
            Odd Jordal’s comment came to mind as I read, underlined, and paused to re-read many a statement in Where Are We Going?
            Jan Paulsen, until last year the world leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has written a 127-page volume of reflections and lessons from his lifetime of leadership of service.
            With book reviews still in the works, mine is a set of thoughts that resonate with me on my own, personal level. Having watched, read and heard Jan Paulsen over many years, I was wondering if the book would include some of his earlier memorable statements and concepts - some of which would have perhaps matured as time went by - that would be worth revisiting. I wasn’t disappointed.
            In short, the book is a timely and concise reminder of things on record, expanded, and continuously relevant.
            A blunt assertion could be made that in a faith community such as Seventh-day Adventists, softer, well-rehearsed topics are preferred, and as such are comfortably repeated again and again. There is safety and comfort in a quiet sameness. So, it is resolved to better not to touch uncomfortable issues. An image is created of a forbidden truth to be kept at bay and best untouched.
            However, Where Are We Going? is laced with themes that should never leave the leadership menu of Adventism. For many a reader, the book will be a welcome thought-stimuli. A book such as his gets attention even simply because it is authored by a world ecclesiastical leader. When leaders speak, we usually respond with some interest.
            Immediately after his election as the world church leader, Paulsen identified three main audiences for his particular attention – the youth and women (“two majorities often treated like minorities”), as well as church leadership. In his book, Paulsen spells out his concerns as to how the church nurtures these individuals and groups, how it responds to their particular needs and interests, and what course needs to be pursued. You will not find a “them” and “us” language in Where Are We Going? whether the author is dealing with the church members in their internal church setting, when in conversation with young people, or with adherents to other religions.
            In the realm of social media, Paulsen’s volume is a book of quotes suitably destined to populate the Facebook pages. Here is a sample: “Adventist ministers and leaders don’t have mysterious powers to assign people to heaven or hell” (p. 31). Again about leaders: “Outstanding Adventist leaders realize that they are not always right,” (p. 35).
            Another, “True communication takes place only in the absence of fear. Do our colleagues feel safe when they are talking to us?” (page 32). On the same page: “God will save people, not statements.”
            Speaking about “The Church and ‘Other People’,” the author writes: “Contamination is not a significant threat if we’re sure about who we are and who walks with us,” (p. 55).
            The book offers a metaphorical mirror into which we look and hopefully review the state each of us, and particularly church leaders. What do you see?
            Paulsen uses plain language when he speaks about a frequently recurring attitude of “I know it all.” Many a leader has fallen on such a self-sharpened sword. He writes, “I’d hate to spend my time surrounded only by people who think they have everything worked out just right. They become arrogant, clinical, and judgmental of those who still have a lot of growing to do.” (p. 107).
            Throughout the book, there are many what I would call as “Paulsenesque” phrases, with many a sentence understated - a manner of speaking one recognizes as his trademark. As one ponders on a context to each of those statements one glides into a deeper meaning.
            Where Are We Going? is a book of questions. Countless questions. Simply start with the book’s title. It opens with a question, and is an invitation to a conversation.
            Asking questions is an effective method for a teacher, whose interest is to make his students think and think for themselves. Paulsen invites the reader to consider a language of openness, “communication without fear,” as he puts it. He calls for more listening when relating to each other, with a language of civility and acts of generosity. As “our words matter,” what’s needed is that we “really listen,” he writes.
            In a chapter entitled “Living in Tension,” Paulsen challenges with a comment, “We tend not to like those who ask difficult questions. … Questions lead to a dialogue, which in turn contributes to the bonding between God’s people. And questions keep us alert.” And he continues, that “As an Adventist leader, don’t be afraid of questions. Instead, fear silence, for apathy is far more hazardous to the body of Christ than is critical thinking” (p. 110).
            It’s quite expected that many readers will appreciate what the book presents. Some may perhaps study it. Others will have mixed, even negative feeling about it. In any case, such is a destiny for all endeavors when thoughts are put into words, and are made public. Paulsen will smile and simply quip, that if there was no criticism, the author has failed.
            Indeed, in an ecclesiastical world of sameness and predictable, lofty declarations, some readers will find the author’s invitation to a healthy, civilized discourse about the church’s future as threatening. As I see it, the author is unapologetic when pointing at the values stated, and re-stated by Scripture, and the reality that “we have not arrived yet.”
            Considering the unfinished journey of a Christian pilgrim, one knows exactly what Paulsen means when he reminds himself, that “it’s impossible to walk backwards into the future with eyes fixed on how things used to be,” (p. 34). The book makes numerous assertions that for a Christian church, there is only a future to be considered. As one expected, page after page, Paulsen re-states a firm belief that the church’s mission is yet to be accomplished.
            Neither is God finished with me, he comments.
            Though offering plenty to chew on, the Where Are We Going? leaves one with wanting more.
            Until we hear again from Jan Paulsen, there is already plenty to reflect, reclaim, and … change. 
*Jan Paulsen, Where Are We Going?, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2011.

Building the future through listening: Jan Paulsen in conversation with young people in New York City during one of 25 televised live, unscripted and unedited Let's Talk events.