Looking Back: Ted Wilson on the Last Five Years
I’ll admit to an internal conflict as I approached my interview with Elder Ted Wilson about his perspective on his past five years as General Conference president. The conflict is real and the tension persistent. On one hand, I have a deep love and respect for Wilson: he’s truly one of the most sincere and genuine Christian leaders I’ve ever met. I admire many things about him—his marriage, his role as a dad, a shared passion for evangelism, our mutual love for this church.
But I can’t deny the great differences in how we approach what some consider the defining issue of this moment—women’s ordination—nor can I deny that my pastoral experience has been made more difficult by the attacks of church members who sometimes mistakenly cite Elder Wilson as the inspiration for their crusading zeal.
I decided to let you meet him as I know him—a complex, caring, and multi-faceted person wrestling with one of the most difficult jobs I know of. If I have erred in my approach, blame it on a recent reading of 1 Corinthians 13, which tells me, among other things, that “love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). This would be how I would hope to be treated if I were interviewed someday by a guy young enough to be my son.
As I stepped into Elder Ted Wilson’s office, he apologized for the delay in our meeting: we were starting about fifteen minutes late. Why? Elder Wilson had been praying with a maintenance man on his final day of work at the General Conference headquarters. It’s this type of personal touch that endears so many in this building to Wilson. Across the board, those that see eye-to-eye with him on issues and those who oppose his positions all speak of his personal kindness. The personal birthday cards that every individual in the building would receive from him when he was a Vice-President; the flowers that would be sitting on an employee’s desk when they returned from an extended absence due to medical issues or a death in the family. Colleagues speak of his warmth, his genuine Christian attitude, his compassion, his love for people whether they agree with him or not.They recount their own stories of the kindness that would invite a maintenance man into his office to pray in the midst of an extremely busy schedule.
It’s a picture often missed by those whose only familiarity with our General Conference president is through his perceived position on women’s ordination or his inaugural sermon at the 2010 General Conference.There he somewhat famously requested that there be no clapping during his sermon—a request that truly came from a place of humility, but was taken by many in the exact opposite way from what he intended.
The humility and kindness comes through as I sit across from Wilson discussing the day of his election five years ago:
“Whenever you go to a General Conference session and you are part of those who are being considered for positions in God’s church, you’re not quite sure what will develop., So you simply place yourself completely in God’s hands, and you recognize that you’re here to serve and that nobody owes you anything—that you owe everything to the Lord . . . .When the nomination occurred, I was seated on the floor in the dome, listening to some report. I was contacted, and it was indicated that I should come quickly to a particular place. So there was an opportunity then for them to explain to me from the Nominating Committee what had happened. It’s a kind of overwhelming feeling, because certainly none of us are ever prepared or fully capable of carrying a load like that. It’s only as we lean on the Lord and His guidance that we find strength. It was a challenge, and of course I called Nancy to talk with her, and she was quite overwhelmed as well . . . . To be honest, none of us are equipped to handle all the needs in this leadership position. We’re just servants of the Lord in this position, and we have to just rely on Him so much and pray a lot, ask for guidance, ask for wisdom every day. I try never to let a day pass without claiming James 1:5 or asking for wisdom. Once in a while I may forget, and probably on that day I regret that, because I just desperately need the wisdom.”
Wisdom and guidance like that often found its way into Wilson’s life through his dad, Elder Neal Wilson, General Conference president from 1978-1990.
“I wish my dad could have been there, and I wish my grandfather could have been there, but Grandpa died many years ago. Grandpa was a pastor, and my dad was a pastor. Dad was suffering from some mini-strokes [in 2010] and he couldn’t be at the Session. I called him with the news, as I remember it, and then went to see him. And of course I would visit with him quite often and would help to care for him. But I’m not sure that at that point Dad caught the full significance of what had happened. . . . It kind of makes you think, and just kind of wonder how things develop. I mean, here we are in this office. This is the desk he sat at, the very desk, and you know, some of the furniture was here when he was here. And he’s the one who, working with his officers, moved the General Conference headquarters from Takoma Park to Silver Spring.He was in this office for about a year and a half or so.
When I talked with him, I’m not sure that he fully understood the implications, but he just would smile and encourage me, you know. That was an encouragement. All through my life I depended greatly upon advice from my father. I’ve watched him, I’ve listened to him, he’s instructed me, he’s been my best mentor—my best earthly mentor. And then at the very end when you can’t quite communicate all of that, it’s a little bit different, strange.”
“I’m sure he would have been proud,” I say, but Wilson is still thinking about his dad . . ..
“He died six months later. It’s a little over four years ago, now,” he says, as he pulls a picture from his Bible. “There’s a picture of my parents—before I was born, I think—back when they were in Egypt. They were married for six years or so—no, eight years—before I was born.”
How were you and your dad similar? How were you different?
“Well, Dad, of course, was a consummate administrator. He also had the heart of an evangelist, and he did that for many years as well in Egypt, as well as administration. He was a pastor. So in some of those things we are very similar. But our personalities—obviously, our personalities are a little bit different. Dad passed on to me some values that I think are extremely important: fairness: standing up for the underdog or the person who has no voice; being willing to stand for your convictions but do that in an appropriate way; be balanced in the way you approach things; listen to people. Dad had great gifts for many things, but one was recounting a story that he’d experienced in great detail. And he had a dramatic flare to him, you know. He also had an unusual gift for remembering names and facts. He would see someone he hadn’t seen in 20 years and call them by name, you know, and ask them about their family and all that. That, I think, is a natural gift but it was also perfected and honed by his experience in the Middle East. In Arabic, names mean something, and if you don’t say the name correctly with the right inflection, you will insult someone. So I think he really focused on learning how to pronounce the name correctly and fix it in his mind. So some of these things came through some practice as well. But Dad taught me a lot . . . . Anyway, we’ve wandered far—talking about my dad.”
Wilson sees it as wandering far, but I see it as a side of him that we need to see. Those like me who differ from him on women’s ordination; those who have at times been uncomfortable with certain statements issued or public presentations given where Wilson comes across more formal and intense--they need to see that he is more than just these ideas. We are more gracious when we see the humanity and the spirit in the person with whom we differ.
I also wanted to hear Wilson talk about some of the things he viewed as his successes over this five-year term in office. He was quick to remind me that it was neither he nor a singular group in the General Conference who deserved credit for the successes:
“Some of the things I’m most excited about are those in which the Lord has just so incredibly blessed, and we’ve gotten such incredible backing from many of the divisions. And let me just start out by saying that the General Conference is not some super-organization with power levers that simply when pushed, make everything happen like some kind of automatic sequence everywhere around the world. We work in a committee system. We work in a collegial system. We have to listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading in a committee setting where voices can contribute to the overall direction.”
I sense we’re about to head down a bypath. We’ll get back to the successes in a moment…
“That’s why a General Conference session is so important. We’re going to be facing some big issues.”
“I’ve heard about some,” I say . . . . Wilson laughs.
“Yeah, everything from Fundamental Beliefs to ordination to even, you know, some Church Manual changes that are perhaps not earth-shaking, but certainly there will be different opinions. And those opinions can be maintained and held, and those convictions, based on your own personal study of the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy, prayer, and the Holy Spirit’s influence. Those convictions can be shared. But when we take a vote, then we’re given counsel that we need to close ranks and pull together. And that’s probably going to be the biggest test for the church.”
Are you nervous?
“No, not really. I have no doubt that the church will march on with great dynamic activity because it’s led by the Holy Spirit. It’s not led by the president of the General Conference or some other individual. If the Holy Spirit weren’t in this movement, we would have long ago disintegrated. And this is a prophetic movement with a prophetic message on a prophetic mission. Without that, the Seventh-day Adventist Church would be just another organization. But I’m not worried about it. I certainly have some concerns, but I believe the Holy Spirit’s going to do something extraordinary, and we’re going to see people—whichever way votes are taken—we’re going to see people humble themselves before the Lord, and the church will march on with its mission, its full mission. But certainly, we do our work in a collegial way. We consult; we meet; we talk. For instance, before Spring Meeting here, and before an Annual Council, we will have a Presidents’ Council. All the vice-presidents of the GC, all the division presidents, all the assistants to the president—they meet. And we usually spend a full day, and we talk about many things. Sometimes the agenda’s very heavy; sometimes not so heavy. And we will pray together; we will listen to each other; we will come to consensus on many items, though some we may not come to consensus on.
But at the last Annual Council, we had some meetings with very senior leadership including our Secretary and Undersecretary, Treasurer and Undertreasurer, and it was amazing to see how a quiet, Christ-like approach to solving problems helped produce something which most people could support as a unit. And that’s the power of the Holy Spirit: that’s not any great tribute to any one of us . . . . But we’re together, and we clarify, and keep proceeding.
So we do all this consulting. We talk to each other, we listen, we pray together. And out of that you build consensus.”
Off the bypath now, and back to the successes . . . .
We’ve had some marvelous opportunities to see how God has worked through the Great Controversy project which offered several different editions of the Great Controversy—the classic version; the Great Hope edition which was 11 selected chapters, and a children’s version. About 140 million copies have been distributed worldwide, with about 25 million downloads, of the classic version.
Then, of course, we have two programs which are so precious in God’s sight and very close to my heart. First is Mission to the Cities, which the Spirit of Prophecy has indicated for a hundred years ago that we ought to be doing in the cities. Many people have given untold hours and tremendous support to working in the cities. But we haven’t implemented the full package of having churches and church members working with young people and literature evangelism and media integration, vegetarian restaurants, health centers, health promotion, community service outreach—everything working together out of a city clinic or reading rooms. Connected with that, somewhere on the periphery of each great city, we should have a lifestyle health center, a training center for people who are working in the city or wanting to, and a place where some people can live and commute back and forth. Obviously, some people have to live in the cities, and they always will, at least until the very end. But you’ve got this complete picture, and we don’t have yet a total model that is functioning. And that’s the next step that I really hope we’re going to be working on, so it can be replicated in many places without spending millions of dollars. And church members are saying, “Yes, I can do that. Yes, we can.” So you can do 75 percent or 80 percent of that in every large city, and people will pick up the burden. So city work—we have to be doing practical, comprehensive health ministry. It could be something as simple as instructing church members on how to talk to your neighbors about the eight natural remedies. You know, good exercise, and diet, and the rest. This will become an even stronger focus for the future.
Another huge thing that we are focusing on and developing rapidly is a strong, strong emphasis on media—social media networks, television, radio of course, Internet, the whole thing.
I informed him he isn’t doing a very good job with Twitter . . . .
“In the future we are going to—my office will probably have to enter considerably more into the social media aspect. I’m not on Facebook personally, but I recognize that’s where a lot of people are.”
Should I tell him Facebook is losing touch? J
Another area of success I’ve observed is in the area of public evangelism. I’ve been so proud of Wilson, because as General Conference president he has personally preached entire evangelistic series . . . . not just one, which would still be more than most his predecessors while they were in office, but many!
“Now, how many series have you done in this term? This is really kind of amazing—the General Conference president doing evangelistic series . . . .”
“Yeah, it’s very high on my priority list because I think when I do that, I am refreshed personally; and by God’s grace, we’re participating in the promotion of the Bible and of the Bible truth, so God blesses that. So there’s a result because of the Holy Spirit’s power.”
And you’re modeling for the leaders . . . .
Yes, and I’m helping people know that this is something you can do, too. And lay people, church administrators, department directors, pastors—everybody can be involved. And everybody has to do it in their context. But we’ve held meetings now in New York City, which was an absolute thrill to be back in the very church that I actually started out in in Lower Manhattan, in Greenwich Village. And then we’ve had meetings in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea—a reaping meeting, and that was a phenomenal thing where you have 20,000 people seated out there. You make a call, and 500 people come up to the front for baptism. It’s just amazing! It’s just marvelous. And I get so excited preaching these sermons!
Wilson’s enthusiasm and gestures are building as he speaks about evangelism . . . .
It’s just so much fun, and the Lord blesses. But I was preaching, and this particular program somehow had gotten corrupted—the technical part—and it wouldn’t advance beyond a particular slide. And I kept preaching, and trying to push this thing, and nothing would happen. So finally I said, “Well, I’m having a little technical problem.” There were like 15-20,000 people out there, and all seated on the ground, and they’re all sitting very quietly, very orderly. It’s was amazing.. So I said, “Well, maybe we can sing a little while I fix this.” So somebody starts singing, and then it still wasn’t working. And then finally Barry Oliver, the division president, got up and started to speak, trying to talk along the same theme. Because he worked in PNG for many years, he was talking to them in Pidgin English, and oh, they loved that! So here he’s preaching away for about 15 minutes, and I’m still working on this slide that won’t advance, but I couldn’t get it done. Finally, I just made an administrative decision, and I just switched from one topic to another one. We started the new topic slide sequence, got the program going, and just kept moving. So we were talking about one subject, and then we talked about heaven. Later the division president asked, “Well, did you kind of change course there a little bit?” I said, “Yeah, I just started in.”. You just have to adapt.
It’s heartening to hear Wilson has some of the same struggles all the rest of us experience in doing evangelism . . . .
Then we had a series in Ho Chi Minh City, the old Saigon, that was just thrilling. The first time—no credit to me, but to the Lord—first time that a non-indigenous person had been allowed to preach a public series like that since 1975. And it was just thrilling. And we had a baptism. They had prepared a number of people, about 35 or so to be baptized. It was a marvelous experience.
And we had another series near Manila, and then followed up that with our big series in Manila at the Philippine International Convention Center. That was a thrilling experience as well.
Soon [May 13-31] we’re going to be holding a big series in Harare. They’re doing phenomenal work in Zimbabwe. And small groups—thousands, literally thousands, maybe 5,000 small groups—working in Harare, preparing for all these meetings. They’re also going to hold meetings in Bulawayo and in another city called Gweru, and all across Zimbabwe. And we will hold meetings every single night—no break—for two weeks, basically. Then the last Sabbath, because they’re preparing all these people and many people will come also, but the last Sabbath they’re hoping to have 30,000 baptisms all across Zimbabwe on that Sabbath. It’s just going to be, well—we’ll see what the Lord provides.
At this point I throw in, “We’re going to be holding the first public evangelistic meetings in nearly 20 years at the Spencerville Church [six miles from the General Conference building] this November.”
Wilson: “Fabulous! I’m so excited!”
Side note: I’d normally take that as “engineered enthusiasm,” but three weeks later when Wilson greeted me in the GC building, he said as he walked away, “Chad, I’m still praying for your meetings in November.” The man is passionate about evangelism!
In the midst of sharing enthusiasm for evangelism, the phone rang . . . .
“The doctor is here; OK, thanks.”
The doctor is Dr. Peter Landless, someone Wilson tells me is one of the individuals who most ministers to him.
He (Landless) will just come up to me sometimes and look me right in the eye: “How are you doing? And can I pray for you?” And he’ll just drop by the office or maybe in the hallway, or whatever, and he’ll pray for me.
We spend a few more minutes talking about evangelism, about the need for more young people in ministry and service to the church. What did he want to say in closing?
We’ve got a lot of wonderful things happening, and people need to remember that this church is not just a church. It’s a movement. And the Lord has called us for a particular reason. And that’s probably one of my biggest challenges, I suppose, as an administrator in this position—to help our church members realize what God has called us to do. And we have all of heaven available to us to accomplish this mission through His power. That’s why revival and reformation is so important.
I’m trusting that God will truly lead this movement for His glory to accomplish His mission for the world.