Meditations on what I’m being taught by spending a year away from my family and community on a professorial exchange between Avondale College and Southern Adventist University.
Being away for a year from my home church and responsibilities has allowed me to focus much more on my personal spiritual growth—but I have also been able to participate in a wider range of church activities here in Australia than I usually do at home, where my focus is my local church. This has been an important exercise for me. Our church in Australia is of course quite different from North America, but some of these differences have helped me think more about my own context and I will hopefully be a better citizen of the Adventist communion because of this. As usual, all of these “observations” are extremely limited to the time and places I have visited in Australia and lived in the US, and are no doubt inaccurate and flawed. Please do not think this is in any way an “objective” study of either the North American church or the one in Australia.
Because the Adventist church in Australia is more finite and tightly-connected than we are in North America, I ironically feel more informed and integrated into the official, structured church than I do back at home. Here the membership (while spread out geographically) is smaller, the culture is tighter, and people tend to know each other better throughout the entire union/division. As at home, there are definite complaints about how often administration is seen as a “promotion” for pastors, and how few talented long-term employees stay at the local level. But one can see more clearly here that in each particular case of a beloved pastor or colleague moving to the conference/union/division level, people seem happy for that specific person or glad that they will be in leadership. It’s important to remember how the aggregate of a situation (massive, top-heavy layers of bureaucracy) develops from dozens of smaller situations of which we approve.
Those personal relationships, where so many active lay people know large percentages of their administrative leadership throughout the entire country, are very different from at home where, for instance, I know only two or three names of conference/union officials both in and out of my own Georgia-Cumberland Conference. I think this makes both criticism and support very personal. There are people at the “edges” of the church, who have never worked for the denomination, but who know a wide range of leaders in Australia and seem to be quite loyal to them, and thus (in some odd ways), more sympathetic to the church than they might otherwise be. It also, of course, makes disagreements and problems a bit more intransigent than they could otherwise be, when hurt feelings and a personal conflict can permeate an entire career in the church rather than dissipating as quickly through a move to a faraway part of the division (as in North America). In the best-case scenario, closer (if not always 100% positive) relationships can allow for a loyal opposition, such as in the recent alternate statement regarding Australia’s vote on marriage equality by committed lay people and church employees.
The school situation in Australia is also radically different from the North American one. While there may be many small schools that I didn’t see, the vast majority of Seventh-day Adventist primary and high schools I am aware of in Australia are larger and better funded because of the nature of government support here than our schools in North America. There are also many more non-Adventists attending our Adventist schools than there are at home. This is an exciting development with many possibilities for evangelism/discipleship, although it seems to remain challenging for parents, teachers, church members, and pastors to stay on the same page about how best to do that.
I think we have a great deal to learn in North America about how not to be afraid of engaging the community around us, especially in the form of their children who might attend our schools. The financial and political foundation for education may be very different in the US, but even in places where the government could subsidize students from failing schools, pastors and church members too often see these kids as threats rather than as a mission field. Of course, pastors and teachers appear to work less closely together here in Australia than at home, for better and for worse. It doesn’t always appear that the teachers in our Adventist schools feel totally empowered as ministers of the church, equipped to disciple children.
My own local church doesn’t have a church school, but seeing the ways in which Australian Adventists invest spiritually in young people has inspired me for our own situation. This is especially true for university-age youth. In the US, it feels like we completely depend on our Adventist universities to develop and integrate our young adults, especially in helping them find spouses and a support community within our own tradition. While I think Avondale is providing a first-rate education and hope that even more young Australian Adventists will continue to take advantage of the “Avondale experience,” it doesn’t seem to be the culture here to depend on young people going to Avondale in order to “stay in the church.” Each church knows it needs to include and nurture their university-age young people, and some churches in the larger Australian cities with the big state universities are especially good at this. It is also possible that not assuming all young adults should/will go to the Adventist college prevents the social marginalizing of those young people who aren’t going to pursue tertiary education at all.
As in North America, where the Adventist church remains more ethnically integrated on Sabbath mornings than most denominations, the average church in Australia appears to be slightly more diverse than the community that surrounds it. In Australia, this is compounded by the close relationship with the countries of the Pacific and the British Empire and the extensive traveling many Australians do. I appreciate the immediate closeness and connection I get to have with people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, just by walking into an Adventist church. Just in the last week, as I interacted with Adventists at camp meeting in Brisbane and back on campus at Avondale, I was able to chat with women originally from the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico who helped provide perspective for me on the recovery from and responses to the hurricanes in that region. Belonging to a global church helps me be a better global citizen, expanding my heart and tolerance. In fact, this entire exchange year has been made possible because of the sisterhood of Adventist schools and universities and the trust we have in each other’s professionals.
This year has connected me to the world church in a way that is often challenging for me, focused as I usually prefer to be on the local and particular. I could say more about how I’m inspired by the high level of production and creativity in the church here, about how they have chosen to handle some of the conflicts in the church in ways that lead to reconciliation, about the rich culture of “Big Camp” camp meetings in some states, and much more. I am finishing my time here more strongly connected to my church; I’m more inspired by its variety and the strength that this cultural diversity provides. I’m grateful for this time to become more optimistic about this global community of faith with whom I’ve chosen to identify.
Lisa Clark Diller is Professor of Early Modern History at Southern Adventist University. She is currently enrolled in a year-long faculty exchange program at Avondale College of Higher Education. Learn more about the exchange here.
See also: Exchanges Down Under Part 1: Hospitality, Exchanges Down Under Part 2: Communities of Grace and Celebration, Exchanges Down Under Part 3: Reflections on the Exotic, Exchanges Down Under Part 4: Being “American”, and Exchanges Down Under Part 5: How Do You Like America?
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