It was my first church where I was the senior pastor and the 7th and 8th grade teacher was for a reason that I can’t now recall needed to be gone and I was asked to teach Bible and PE for a week or so. I had never had any pedagogical training but went to the elementary school to be a teacher. I quickly learned to appreciate the challenges provided by pubescent boys and girls. They were quick to give all the right answers in Bible class but when then we went to recess the Bible lessons we spoke of in class did not have any effect on behavior when it came to playing baseball. I quickly learned that the theory of Christian living in a Bible Class did not always translate into behavior on the ball field.
What is true for pubescent boys and girls is also true of adults who listen to preachers giving moral instruction in church, and is true of some university students who find the freedom of university life releases them from the moral constraints of their home life. After my week of substitute teaching I was ready to go back to pastoral ministry with a greater appreciation for those who have given their lives to teaching. I would encourage every pastor to have such an experience. I not only had a greater appreciation for teachers and the work that they do but I had developed a relationship with many students who were also parishioners of mine and who would, hopefully, pay more attention to the pastor when he/she preached on Sabbath because he/she had spent time on the ball field with them.
Leadership, as John Maxwell says, is influence, and the influence of a pastor is dramatically increased with parishioners when he/she spends time with the children of those parishioners. Whether those children are in elementary school or in college or university. Influence is gained through relationships and there is no quicker way to develop a relationship with church members than to connect with their children. And there is no better way to do that then to spend time either in a local elementary school, academy or college connecting with the young people of the church. It is said that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” well the way to the heart of parishioners is through their children.
My experience as pastor of the university church in Collegedale strengthened the conviction of the importance of building relationships. Being at the university church enabled me to connect with many college students and I learned that they are just older elementary school students. They appreciate personal attention in the same way as younger children do. Connecting with them on the racket ball court or the ball field developed the relationships that enabled my spiritual influence to be more significant. As previously said, “leadership is influence” and you don’t gain influence without building relationships and you don’t just do that from the pulpit.
When I became president of the university I tried to build relationships by teaching a class or two but found that my schedule did not allow it to be done effectively (and besides that I was not the most effective teacher), so I sought other means to build relationships with students. Once again it was playing on the ball field, just watching football/basketball games or eating with students in the cafeteria that enabled me to build connections with students. Showing interest is building influence. When it comes to college students it is not necessary to play games with them. (In fact, given my skill level it was better if I didn’t play with them.) It was just important to show up, listen, and talk to them. The word transparency comes to mind. Influence is developed when the students see the “real you” without putting on the pastoral cloth.
Ellen White wrote in the book Education that “the work of education and the work of redemption are one.” (page 30) For many pastors the most significant evangelism campaign that they embark on will be the work they do among the young people of the church.
I have found that what is true for students in elementary school and academy is also true in the university setting. The expression “out of sight out of mind” too often applies to students who leave home and the local church and make their way to a college or university to continue their education. They are often forgotten by the local church. There are those who complain about the young people leaving the church when they graduate from academy or when they go away to college or university, but do those people remain connected with the young people? As previously indicated, “Leadership is Influence.” We have no influence over those with whom we maintain no connection. It is about relationship and maintaining relationship with the church, and that is not a building, but it is people who love and care for young people and show that through actions.
The single most significant thing that a pastor can do after establishing a position of influence with the young people in his church is to use that influence in encouraging them to attend a Seventh-day Adventist school. Generally, parents and students, particularly those of modest means, believe that they can’t afford higher education. They have heard stories of tuition rates in the multiples of 10 thousand dollars and on their wages, they don’t see how it is possible for them to even think about having their child go to one of the 13 SDA higher education institutions. But the fact is that when you consider scholarships, government aid and work it is not as expensive as it sounds. In fact, it is generally less expensive than sending a student to a boarding academy.
Research[i] demonstrates that when young adults attend Adventist higher education they are
· Eight times more likely to experience professors who helped me develop spiritually.
· Seven times more likely to experience professors who studied the Bible, and prayed with me.
· Seven times more likely to participate in mission service or mission trips.
· Four to five times more likely to work on campus.
· Three times more likely to experience positive dating interactions
· Three times more likely to participate in campus activities, such as sports teams, music groups campus publications, student clubs.
· Two to four times more likely to develop lifelong friendships with classmates, faculty and staff.
· Two times more likely to learn the importance of healthy living.
Churches have school boards to monitor the function of schools, they have Sabbath School Departments that plan programs for all age groups. It would be helpful, even if the church has no young adult class, for there to be a young adult ministry department that maintained connection and therefore relationship with young adults no matter where they were living. When my daughters left home and went away to school you can be sure I maintained close connection with them through care packages, phone calls and visits. It would build influence with our young adults if the church family worked at maintaining close connections with their young adults who went away to school. Why not:
1. Send a care package of goodies.
2. Make a pastoral visit to the campus and take the students from you church out for a meal.
3. Send personal notes or call on birthdays
4. Make a special announcement and welcome students back when they come home for vacation. (“You are missed and loved.”)
5. Make a financial contribution to the student’s education (no matter how small. Education is expensive and your gift will send a significant message of support.
On more than one occasion when I was president of Southern Adventist University I received a thank you email from a student when I simply showed up to watch a basketball game or football game. The pastors who made the effort to travel to Southern once or twice a year to simply take the students from their congregation out to eat developed a positive influence in the lives of those students. So, to sum up the pastor and his//her relationship with college or university students – just show up.
Gordon Bietz serves as the associate director for higher education for the North American Division Education Department
Reprinted from the second quarter 2017 issue of CALLED
[i] CollegeImpact research report results from a study of the college experiences of alumni of Adventist colleges and universities and Adventist graduates of public colleges and universities in North America November 2014