A Candid, Pastoral Heart
Interview with NAD President Dan Jackson
special contributor to Adventist Review,
The following interview was conducted before the beginning of the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas—Editors
What endears Elder Dan Jackson to so many who work with him and know him? Maybe it’s that he is a pastor dabbling in administration, not an administrator who dabbled in pastoral ministry.
For 24 years, Elder Dan Jackson served as a pastor in various churches in Canada, and even though he is now a division president he still sees the local church as the place where the most significant ministry happens,
I had a lot of friends who said, “When are you gonna grow up, get out of pastoral work and get into departments and administration?” And I used to say, “Are you crazy?” You’ve got to have leadership; you’ve got to have the vision-casting; but the action is in the local church. And I’m not saying this politically to make you feel good, but our church—it happens in the local congregation.
So then how do you see administration fitting into the picture of the church?
Administration is important in terms of setting the tone, of casting the vision and trying to implement it, but not for the purpose of dictating to the local church what should happen.
None of this should suggest that Elder Jackson doesn’t possess the gift of administration, or that he lacks the experience. Prior to being elected to the role of North American Division president, Jackson served as president of the Canadian Union for nine years.
I admitted to Elder Jackson that I had never heard about him prior to his 2010 election and that the people who were texting me about who would be nominated never mentioned the name “Dan Jackson.” I wondered, did he have any idea he would be nominated and elected?
Nobody told me that they were going to throw me in. But I can tell you, the day prior to that small committee meeting that recommended my name to the GC Nominating Committee, one of the leaders in the NAD came to me and said, “Do you know what’s going on?” And I said, “You know, sometimes there are real advantages to being a Canadian, because nobody talks to you. And that’s a blessing to me.”
In fact not only was Elder Jackson not entertaining the thought of becoming division president, his wife, Donna, had talked him into resigning as Canadian Union President.
“You need to step down and let somebody else lead,” my wife said. So that very weekend I had made a commitment to God that I would not allow my name to stand for another term in the office in Oshawa. But I said to Him, “Lord, just give me something with a little challenge. I don’t care if it’s a church with 200, and I don’t care where it is. I don’t do well when I’m not challenged.”
Be careful what you ask for!
Then on the day of the NAD nominating committee/caucus, we were sitting in the committee itself. There were six names, and they were about to close. At the last minute, somebody said, “Can you put in the name Dan Jackson?” Like, the chairman was saying, “OK, we’re going to close nominations now,” and then my name came in.
This pastor wasn’t the only one who didn’t know the name of Dan Jackson,
There was somebody on the committee who didn’t know who I was.
I was sitting next to Dave Weigley, and when they moved away from the blackboard and my name was on top, I said to Elder Weigley, “What’s that all about?” So I was surprised. I did not go to the General Conference [Session] with the intent to—I mean, I nearly swallowed my tongue. And I’ll never forget, I mean, everybody was in shock because again, I was the generic guy. I mean, “Who is that?”
It wasn’t just a surprise to me: it wasn’t just a surprise to Dan Jackson, or the people in the room who voted for him.
They said, “OK, the GC Nominating Committee has voted. You need to be on the platform in less than an hour.” So I phoned my wife back in the hotel and I said, “Sweetheart, you need----” She had stayed back to pray because, to be blunt, there were some things going on that weren’t all that cool. And I had said to her and said to others, “I’ve begun to pick up what’s going on, and if I smell it, I’m just old enough and cranky enough to stand up and call a spade a spade.” And my wife knows my mouth, so she said, “I’m just going to stay back here in the hotel and pray.” So I phoned her and said, “You need to get dressed and come over to the Dome, because we need to be on the platform in less than an hour.” “Well, why?” “Well, they’ve just nominated me as president of the North American Division.” This was her expression: “Well, whatever for?” [laughter] And then she said, “You’re joking, aren’t you?” I said, “No, I’m not actually joking: I’m being very serious. You need to get over there.”
It must be a God thing that a bunch of Americans voted for a Canadian to lead them . . . .
Yes, the [Canadian] Union had 65,000 members. You’ve got over a million members here in America, and just logically, and supportively, the president needs to come from the base where he understands the nuances, the backs and the forths, and so on.
It is this type of humility and self-deprecation that has endeared him to the majority of individuals in all parts of the North American Division.
I’ll be honest with you. And this is my—I still can’t figure it out. I don’t know why, because I know who I am, but it’s never about us. It’s about Him. God put me in a position to steward His work. I was asked to be the steward of the office of the president. And I tell the people around me, “The fact that I’m the president does not mean I own the position. I’ve been asked to steward this office for five years, and I need your help because I can’t do this alone.”
And while Elder Jackson has endeared himself to many in the NAD, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. There have been challenges and mistakes, which Jackson openly acknowledges.
Elder Jackson if you had a do-over as NAD President from the last five years, what would it be?
Where do you want to start? (Laughter)
We did this E-60 policy in 2010.
Yeah, I remember.
I was a part of the original union president group that made the recommendation that we change E-60 to say the conference president should be an ordained/commissioned minister. There was a very real reason for that, and people don’t believe it. They think we’re lying when I say it, but there are guys still alive who could tell you different. The purpose of that direction was so that we could avoid a fight on the ordination of women.
Many conference presidents have shared the same with me…
We were trying to avoid it, Chad!
Now, a promise was made to the executive committee in the NAD, a promise was made and the GC has asked us to pull that back. That was still under Elder Paulsen’s time. He found out that we had made that vote on the floor of the NAD Year-End committee. He called Don Schneider and said, “Pull it back, because we’re going to go to Atlanta, and we’re going to have this discussion. And if nothing happens, you can bring it back.” Well, nothing happened, and the promise was made to the floor. And people said, “What are you going to do about that?” And I said, “A promise is to keep.” And that wasn’t because I was rubbing my hands giddily. I knew it would be so much easier for me to say, “Well, forget it.” And tell the people, “Look, that promise was made by a previous administration. If you want to vote it in, you can do that.” But I just said, “A promise is to keep.” So we went, and we did the thing, and they voted. Then we got into this whole hassle with folks ultimately saying to us, “You don’t have the authority.” So we hired a lawyer. That’s where people have the stories so messed up. We hired the lawyer, and we asked him to go through policies—
This piece of news shocked me! “What? Most people think that the General Conference hired the lawyer.” This was due in part to an alternative Adventist source of news that tends to revel in the scandalous without always checking the facts—
I know. Of course!
In fact, it was the NAD that had hired the lawyers on themselves—
Back to the story…
We asked him to go through the policies, go through the handbooks, go through every piece of evidence that he could find. This was Bob Nixon, the former GC Counsel. We asked him to do it. And he came back and said, “I have to be honest: I agree with your position, but you don’t have a leg to stand on.” So we withdrew. I wrote a letter to all of the executive committee members and said, “Look, I apologize. I should have known. I didn’t. I did not know the structure of the church. But you all elected me, and you get what you pay for. And I’m sorry; I apologize.” And I’ve told people, “I know what it’s like to feel the egg running down your face through your pant legs,” ‘cause I had egg all over my face. But we acknowledged it.
So, what would I do over?
“Know the policy,” I say sarcastically, to which Elder Jackson laughs.
Yeah, I would have learned the policy. But none of us seemed to know the policy. But what I would have done over? To be frank, I could have initiated more rapidly the “Women in Ministry” building block, and not have focused on E-60. I would have put as much money as I could have found into that.
You would have charged straight at women’s ordination?
NO, NO, women in pastoral ministry. And I would have built the critical mass, and kept building the critical mass until it would be very challenging to deny the work of the Holy Spirit.
The sky is not gonna fall in San Antonio. The church is not gonna all of a sudden split. There are going to be many people who walk out of that place very disappointed, disillusioned, and there may be some who leave the church over it, whichever way it goes. The church isn’t going to fall apart. I just don’t believe that. And it’s not because I’m trying to be political. It’s from a sheer commonsense point of view that says, “So God would allow His Son to be crucified and die to build His church, His movement on earth, and then He would let a bunch of guys (well, it is mainly guys) arguing over women’s ordination to break it apart?” I just don’t think so: I’m sorry. That doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t need change, that we don’t need to learn.
Our conversation then rolled out of the women’s ordination topic and into another challenge that was a part of Elder Jackson’s first term,
You know, people said to me at the time of the election, “You will feel the weight of this office in the near future.” Yeah, it took about 30 feet. I received e-mails from leaders of our media ministries saying, “Something has to be done. This has to be changed.” So we talked that through with committees and with different boards and different groups, and came to the conclusion that the best solution for media in North America was to give people the right to settle in their own domains and build their ministries again. That was very painful because it involved people.
The people Elder Jackson is speaking of are not the media personalities, but those who support them behind the scenes…
We take for granted that the people who work in our offices somehow don’t feel called. That’s just not true. These people who work there, whether it’s packaging up film or being a receptionist or whatever—these are godly people. They do this because it’s a part of their religious outreach, and it is. And to assume that there aren’t going to be people hurt is a very bad assumption,. We knew that people would be hurt. You know, right after we made the decision, we called the staff of the Media Center together and told them what decision had been made, and that at this point in time this is not about money. This is about mission, and we feel that the mission objectives of this institution are not being met, that we’ve lost it.
See, we were putting right around $6 million into the Media Center, and one of the things that we discovered was that a lot of that money was going to infrastructure, not direct into the ministries that were in the Center. They found their own places. They’ve got La Voz and Faith for Today and Jesus 101 in Riverside, along with the support services. So it’s almost like a small media center, but a very nice office. We put in some money, and we have them there. Then Loveland, Colorado, is where The Voice of Prophecy has a beautiful office, and they’re excited. Then It Is Written is over in Chattanooga, and Breath of Life in Huntsville. We’ve tried to strengthen each of those ministries. We’ve been quite generous with the moving allowances and so on. And I will tell you, Chad, I have visited every one of those offices since they’ve moved, and there is an entirely different spirit. There is excitement, there is creativity, there is initiative taking place that blows me away, really. There’s a difference!
Elder Jackson’s pastoral heart goes back to the people who lost their jobs in this move…
I know there are people who are hurting, and I feel very badly for them. We tried very hard—we actually changed policies to ensure that people would leave that place with solid finances so that as they were trying to find new employment, they would not have to worry about running out of funds.
HMS Richards is one of my heroes, even though I was only 5 when he passed away. But I’ve read that one of his big frustrations was that he always felt like the brethren were trying to control and pull him into something, He liked being on his own, apart from the group think. It sounds like we’re getting back to that.
These media leaders, whether you like it or not, are thoroughbreds. They’ve got to run. And their creative juices! You know, we’ve said very plainly to all of the ministries, “Remember, you’re owned by the North American Division. You are our ministry. We don’t want to lord it over you in that, but we will come together.” We’ve changed Adventist Media Center to Adventist Media Ministries, so we have an AMM board now rather than an AMC board. We’ve asked all the leaders to be a part of that because for too long the institution just kind of ran that place without consulting the ministries. The media people weren’t even on the board! So we’ve restructured that. We’re still doing more restructuring because we need to ensure that they have a voice. We can’t stop. We’ve got to keep moving.
Elder Jackson, can we turn to another topic—reorganization of the structure within North America? Should we get rid of conferences or unions?
My goal would be to make every conference a regional conference, but we’d just have a lot fewer conferences, paying attention to the realities of ethnicity and race, so that we are perceived—and are—faithful and—
So you’re saying, “Don’t get rid of all conferences, just like maybe combine Nevada-Utah, Arizona, or—
I believe we need to redistribute the territory. Yes, I do!
Can I quote you on that?
Sure. Everybody knows I think that. But my point is that what we saw at the Media Center is being duplicated over and over again in our work. Conferences are being crushed by retirement and health. We can’t go on like that. The rubber is going to hit the road in a disastrous way if we don’t start thinking ahead.
The same was true with the Review and Herald. And that’s another very touchy subject. The NAD was offered two presses. We said, “We’ll only take one, because we don’t need two presses in North America now.” In 1901, Ellen White made a comment. She said, “The time will come when the presses in our publishing houses will no longer be needed. They will be sold, and the money will go into the work.” Now, it’s interesting that she had it figured out in 1901, and 114 years later we’re still trying to fight with each other over keeping two presses going. The whole publishing program had collapsed in North America, and yet the presses were dependent upon that publishing program. So how do you then keep it going? So there you have another illustration. The infrastructure can crush the mission. We need to revitalize the publishing work—not publishing work as we know it, but literature ministry in North America. We do!
This is what I love about Elder Jackson. He speaks and he speaks freely. It gets him in trouble at times, but it helps me and all who work with him feel like we are a part of the big picture . . . .
We have these large organizations that weigh so heavily because of the costs on the conference and the local congregation. You know, there had been attempts made. We cut the tithe that was retained by the NAD for the GC by two percent. Those funds were to have been retained by the local conference. But the emphasis of those funds was to go back to the local church. Now we’re studying it again. And I hope if I’m not chairing it I at least get to see what happens at the NAD year-end, because the subject matter that’s going to come to this year’s year-end meeting is going to be revolutionary. Some of the recommendations are not going to be as easy as people think.
One of the focuses is, How do we allow the local church to retain some of its tithe? That’s a controversial subject, right? But there has to be a downward pressure on the funds of the church that move more funding into the discretionary authority of the local congregation.
Well, of course every local pastor loves to hear that!
But it’s true. I used to say it when I was a pastor, you know, I did. I was pastoring in Toronto. We were giving $3 million to the conference in tithe and asked for an appropriation for evangelism and received $8,000. Those are the kinds of things that get to the pastor: I understand that feeling. I didn’t say polite things about the $8,000. I said, “Well, just keep it. We’ll raise the money here locally.” Well, I recanted and took the $8,000, and we raised another $35,000. But this is a major issue in the church.
But you have to restructure in order to do that, though.
Of course! Here’s what you have, and here’s the roadblock. And it’s not a roadblock, because I have confidence in our constituency, I do! But you can’t do any of those changes without individual constituencies agreeing to it. So you have to have vision among leadership that says, “OK, we need to change.“
Whenever infrastructure gets so heavy that it kills, why do you have it? What are you trying to prove? Are you just maintaining an organizational structure? NO! you’re trying to do God’s work.
Elder Jackson, speak to your relationship with Elder Ted Wilson. There are, of course, rumors that the reason the NAD wants to move out of the [General Conference] building is because of the “conflicts” with the NAD and the GC brethren.
The General Conference does not want us to leave. They are not pushing us out. I think they would prefer that we stay; however, they recognize the need of the NAD to grow and expand. I don’t mean expand in the sense of having more people working in the office, but expansion in terms of mission and outreach and the development of an overall strong strategy for the North American Division. Secondly, we no longer have the space in this building to house the people that we have brought in.
In regards to Elder Wilson and I there are differences. But what people don’t stop to consider when they focus on those points of difference is that Elder Wilson and I agree on a whole lot more than on what we disagree. We’re different people. God doesn’t call everybody to be the same. But I have great respect for a lot of things, a lot of positions. I have great respect for them, and I have great respect for him as a person. But the General Conference leaders don’t sit in our office and say, “Well, how can we--.” That’s just not true: it’s just not fair. But people like to write it, and they like to comment on it because it means a good dollar in their pocket. But I know there are some people who made a lot of money over trying to exploit the differences between the North American Division and the General Conference. What people need to remember is that the North American Division, the proper name of this division is the North American Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. We are the General Conference in North America. In terms of the theology and the mission of the church we are united. We are united! We don’t agree, of course, that everything that we do in South America should be done here, or whatever. But on the overall mission, the theology, the prophetic insight, the history—we are united. There are some areas where we’re not, and to exploit them so I can sell another book or sell another magazine I think is shameful. And I mean that. And I would stand in front of anybody and say it.
Thank you Elder Jackson for your time, for your honesty. I pray for you in these next five years as you work to know and lead God’s vision for His work in North America.