John Brunt Reflects on 50 Years of Ministry

Senior pastor of California's Azure Hills Church, John Brunt, retired from his long career in the Adventist church two months ago. In his 50 years of service, he has seen the church grow and change and has been present at some pivotal moments. Spectrum asked Brunt about the milestones of his ministry, the evolution of his faith, his greatest disappointment and his advice to the next generation.

You have spent your life working for the Adventist church as a pastor and administrator, from Walla Walla University to your final post as senior pastor of the Azure Hills Church in California. What is the best job you have ever had?

I have thoroughly enjoyed all 50 years, from starting my ministry as youth pastor of the Paradise Valley Church near San Diego on September 1, 1965, to my retirement from the Azure Hills Church on August 31, 2015 — 50 years later to the day. It seemed to get better and better, and in that regard the last thirteen-and-a-half years at Azure Hills stand out as the best. I not only had the opportunity to pastor a wonderful, gracious congregation and work with an incredibly dedicated group of associates, but I also had the privilege of teaching at La Sierra University and Loma Linda University during that time. Therefore I have able to combine my interests in pastoring, preaching, and teaching all at the same time. It kept me busy and (for the most part) out of trouble, and I have truly enjoyed it.

What has been the biggest challenge, or the most disappointing thing, about your career in the church?

It is sometimes a bit discouraging to sense that we have made progress on some issues and then see us slip backwards. A small and maybe trivial example: I thought we had gotten past the distrust of modern translations of the Bible and had educated the church to understand the process of the transmission and translation of the Bible, but then in some circles we see old attitudes that the King James Version is the only trustworthy Bible pop up again. Progress can never be taken for granted. We have to keep educating on issues that should have been settled.

Is there a particular moment you would consider the most difficult?

Yes. We went through a period at Walla Walla when the School of Theology was under attack by some of our own church leaders at the time. I was the former Dean of that School and was then serving as academic vice president, so I was very much in the center of the conflict. It was an extremely difficult time. Fortunately the board created a commission that investigated and issued a report that put a number of the charges against the School of Theology to rest, although it also made suggestions for improvement in the School. It didn’t totally solve the problem, but it did help mitigate the conflict.

What do you count as your greatest success?

I think I would rather think in terms of what has been the most rewarding. Success belongs only to God. We plant and water, but only God gives growth. I have found it especially rewarding to help mentor those who will carry on the future ministry of the church, both in the educational and pastoral roles. At Walla Walla I was privileged to search for and hire several young faculty members who have gone on to become significant teachers and leaders in that institution. At Azure Hills I have enjoyed working with young associates, some who continue to bless that congregation, and others who have gone on to other places to make significant contributions in ministry. Watching the next couple generations develop and blossom, and being able to have some small part in helping them along, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my ministry.

What motivated you to become a pastor? When did you decide?

I grew up in the Glendale City Church where we had a long series of great pastors who were also excellent preachers. From a very early age I started looking to them as models and thinking about becoming a pastor. I like to think God was leading in that process.

How would you say the Adventist church has changed over the decades of your career? Has the way the administration works/how decisions are made/the hierarchy changed? What about the beliefs and general overall thinking of the church members?

In 50 years the church has changed a lot and most of it has been for the better. For example, at least where I have been working, congregations now have much more say in pastoral selection and pastors are much freer to make choices about their placements. I think this is good because it gives both congregations and pastors greater buy-in and commitment.

We have also grown theologically. I believe that over all we have become less legalistic and more Christ-centered. Many Adventists have become more involved in engaging with the social and ethical issues of the world as part of their Christian commitment. There is less preoccupation with trying to figure out when Christ will come and more with living the Kingdom now. We have recognized that we prepare people for the Second Coming not by scaring them with beasts but by inviting them to commit their lives to Jesus and His mission to bring the values of God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Yet such progress is never without setbacks. And there are areas where we as a church have regressed. When I grew up, to be an Adventist included a commitment to peace and a refusal to engage in combat. We were conscientious non-combatants. That has almost entirely been lost today, and I think we are the poorer for it.

Another area of regress has been the growing tendency to try and shore up the borders of Adventism by defining beliefs ever more precisely and divisively. Discussions on both the Fundamental Beliefs and the Church Manual at the recent General Conference Session are examples of this tendency. On the other hand, local churches seem to be flourishing by recognizing, as my friend Rick Rice has taught us, that church is about belonging as well as believing and behaving.

Have your personal beliefs changed or evolved in any way?

I think I can best answer this by expanding on what I just said. Over the years my basic theological beliefs have not changed as much as my approach to ministry. What we believe is important. It inevitably affects the way we live. Therefore theology is vital, and I have devoted much of life to it. But I hope I am more attuned to the personal aspects of our faith than I once was. I am much more engaged in the belonging aspect of church. I found over my years at Azure Hills that transformation comes less from theoretical beliefs than by involvement in a community of faith and caring. I still care about and work to do theology, but I also believe that Sabbath fellowship meals may have more to do with salvation than fundamental beliefs.

You were on the Southeastern California Conference Committee that helped to elect Sandy Roberts, the first woman conference president in the Adventist church, and you have spoken out strongly in favor of the ordination of women. What do you think will happen in the future as the Adventist church wrestles with this issue?

As my friend Gerald Winslow says, “You can’t hold back the dawn.” The church will end its discrimination against women, in spite of what happened in San Antonio. I remember all the supposedly “biblical” arguments that were used when I started my ministry for racial segregation and opposition to interracial marriage. Today we look back at those arguments with embarrassment and disbelief. The day will come when we recognize that the supposedly “biblical” arguments against the full involvement of women in ministry are equally specious. We are already seeing more conferences and unions take various actions to mitigate the General Conference vote. Even after the disappointment of San Antonio, more rays of dawn are becoming visible.

Let me add that I had the privilege of serving on the nominating committee that elected Dr. Roberts as our conference president in Southeastern, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. She is one of the best administrators I’ve ever worked with, and the conference is flourishing under her leadership.

I have also had the privilege of working with several women associates at Azure Hills over the years, and every one of them has been a huge blessing to the ministry of that congregation. I can’t imagine some of the good things that happened there, especially in our generational ministries, without the dedicated women who have given their lives to ministry. And the idea that the church should not affirm their ministry in the same way as that of the men they work with is hardly in keeping with a God who shows no partiality.

You and your wife have moved north to Seattle, to be nearer to your children and grandchildren. Besides spending time with your family, do you have any other specific plans of how you will be spending your time now that you have officially retired?

It’s hard to think too much about that as we are still surrounded by boxes that we need to unpack. But once everything is settled I have some writing I would like to do and have already accepted several speaking appointments, most in this area but some internationally as well. I’m sure I’ll keep busy. But we really are enjoying lots of time with our grandsons, and we don’t want to become so busy that we infringe on that.

What advice would you have for young ministers in the Adventist church?

Keep your eyes focused on Jesus. The work will not always be easy, but then Jesus already made that clear. After all, ministry is about service. But there is nothing more rewarding and exciting than watching God work and being part of what God is doing to bless people. Also, when you get criticism, don’t become defensive. We all get criticism. You will be amazed at how God raises up saints who support you. Love the people, and they will love you as well.

What do you think the Adventist church needs to do or focus on if it wants to continue to grow, as well as keep the members it has?

Let me answer with a passage of Scripture: Ephesians 4:15-16 (NRSV)

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

I think we have been better at speaking the truth than we have at building up the body in love. But if we focus on Christ, truth cannot be truth apart from his compassionate love for all, especially those considered outcasts and unworthy by the good religious folk of the day. The church will succeed as long as our local churches are caring communities that demonstrate the compassion of Christ, by speaking the truth in love.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7167
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One of my regrets is not having had the privilege of working with or even near John Brunt–an East Coast/West Coast challenge. But I have read almost everything he has written, I think, and have been blessed enormously. Even this closing interview clearly exposes his love of the church and his love of the Lord.

Bless you John and don’t stop contributing~

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God bless you Pastor Brunt!
Now … how are we going to replace you??

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John, don’t forget to come to Walla Walla and teach your old Sabbath School Class in Canaday Technology Center - started by Chuck Scriven and Hollibert Phillips back in the 70s.

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I particularly like and appreciate his one statement –
You cant hold back the Dawn.
I would consider this as a statement of confidence in the leadership of the Church, both the Ministry and the Laity to do what is right.
There are a lot of “rights” to do yet. At the Local Church, Conference, Union, North American Division.

Jose –
You put up 2 graphs with no indication as to what the numbers mean. But flourishing can mean much more than just of the numbers of NEW members.
Flourishing can mean Spirituality being promoted among the OLD members, and renewed, positive commitment to fellowship, to relationship to God.
Just agreement with 28 propositions and NOT relationship with God. And agreement with the 28 without relationship is meaningless. In fact it is Tragic, as we have been studying Jeremiah this quarter in S.S.

I would like to put up this proposition to Jose — HOW MANY former [or even current SDAs] have or are having to attend a Sunday church in order to learn how to develop a relationship with God? One that goes beyond just agreeing with “28”?

Having served on the Azure Hills Search committee that eventually selected Pastor Brunt (with the help of the HS!), it has been an honor and a privilege to have a front-row seat to the way he pastored our congregation. Seeing him in action in Board meetings, in our Elder’s meetings, on various projects we held, with all the different ministries, and of course, his sermons–all were a blessing to our church.

My wife and I had the honor of being Adventurer Directors early in his time there–I remember because Summer was like 5 or 6 years old (she’s now 18), and he was the most supportive senior pastor I have ever seen. How many senior pastors will preach 2 services in the AM, then drive out 3+ hours to El Capitan where the Adventurers were camping for the weekend, just to spend the Sabbath afternoon and early evening with us? Then after sundown vespers and smores, turn around and drive all the way back home that same evening! His dedication and support to the children of our church always amazed us parent-leaders.

Speaking of kids, many of my friends and my wife and I had our first borns a few years before he came to AHC, so for the next 13 years, we were blessed to have him see our kids grow up. He supported kids being involved in the church–from being deacons, to helping in the media ministry, to leading out in praise teams or be on the platform. Kids are an integral part of AHC because of Pastor Brunt!

Those same kids, now 18 years old, led out in one of their last praise teams on one of his last Sabbaths. He was retiring and moving to Seattle; Summer and her friends were graduating and most were leaving home and heading off to college. A new chapter for all of us in so many ways.

He deserves the break and time to focus on his grandkids so that they can be as blessed as all of our kids were blessed these last 13 years. I pray that we will be able to find the next senior pastor to continue what he started at Azure Hills Church!

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Pastor Brunt was an immense blessing to the Azure Hill Church, and to anyone who he came in contact with. I wish him a great retirement, hoping that he will keep very busy.

And he is right, discrimination against women will one day be elinated from our Church. San Antonio was just an attempted maneuver to give some kind of legitimacy to discrimination of women, but all based on what some people in other cultures believe. It was an expected maneuver from the GC, that did not surprise many of us. Remember how many times I repeated that the result will be NO? Because it was all a maniplation that we could easily recognize.

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I hope John has lots of time now to write for Spectrum and many other publications. The encouragement he gives to the next generation is priceless.

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… flourishing

In fairness to SEAC, seems SCC is in the same boat… flourishing

I’m for equal opportunity and fairness, regardless of gender, etc., etc. And being truthful as well as fostering our sense of belonging, believing, and behaving.

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This is why his ministry has been to productive.

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Rejoice! Hear ye all! The long-anticipated shaking has begun! (Okay, okay…-0.005 in the graph, if a proportion and if even factual, is admittedly quite measly and could be attributed to mere bookkeeping vagaries. But hey, a woman may well be finishing off what another woman began more than a century ago. Now if only we could rid ourselves of more like 0.5 rather than 0.005 of the rebellious “West Coast” membership. That would be a true demonstration of leadership!)

BTW, I do hope that someone will be able to quantify someday the impact of “San Antonio” on church membership numbers–here in North America and globally.

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Jose
You put up 2 graphs. But gave no indication as to what the numbers or blue lines mean.
But flourishing can mean much more than just the numbers of NEW members.
Flourishing can mean Spirituality being promoted among the OLD members, and renewed, positive commitments to fellowship, to relationship to God.
Just agreement with 28 propositions is NOT relationship with God. And agreement with the 28 without relationship is meaningless. In fact it is Tragic, as we have been studying Jeremiah this quarter in S.S.
Sorry! Remembered this was my SECOND post, and NOT ALLOWED!

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Fifty years and growing optimism Pastor John Brunt pearls of wisdom with age getting more radical in his true sense of modesty, kept saying for half a century, over and over without exhaustion, “ I am far better served by being of service. I am taught it is better, somehow more spiritual, to be small not large. Because that divine spark is godly in origin, anything is possible through Jesus and nothing beyond our reach in believing Christ.” Pastor John Brunt you are God sent! Thank you. Thank you so much. Congratulations! Happy Retirement!

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Congratulations, Pastor Brunt, for a life spent in discipleship. I wish that Adventism had many more like you because the church would only grow in the Fruit of the Spirit.

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from what i’ve seen, being an adventist pastor has to be the hardest job on the planet, and 50 yrs is a genuine milestone…wow…

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Pastor Brunt was the best! He was/is so affirming of all people and I respect his acceptance of groups of people that others shun. The last few weeks at church I have felt a real sense of loss! I wish him and Ione well! For me there have been two pivotal pastors that helped me understand Jesus and grace. Morris Venden was such a blessing and came along at the right time and the last few years with Pastor Brunt have made such a difference in my spiritual life.

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Jose, did you look at the magnitude of the numbers on the Y axis?

They show quite clearly numbers that are small compared to the changes in the surrounding populations. For instance: http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/jtf/JTF_CentralValleyJTF.pdf

Unless you adjust the Church Membership numbers for factors such as church members moving into or out of an area, or changes in the makeup of the surrounding community, the graphs tell you nothing about the effectiveness or otherwise of actions by the denomination.

Dr. Brunt, thank you for this interview, for your service, for your integrity, for your faith during difficult times, and for your devotion to your family and your dear wife, Ione.

Blessings and Godspeed.

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John Brunt is one of the clearest writers and thinkers in Adventism. I remember in particular his article in Spectrum concerning clean and unclean meats–one of the most persuasive arguments I’ve read on any subject.

To that he has added a lifetime of undeviating love and grace and wisdom and courage. As he ends his career (while continuing his fruitful ministry), certainly God is smiling and saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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My wife and I first heard John Brunt at the Glacier View Faith & Science Conference in 2003 where he gave a devotional. His command of scripture, from memory, was impressive, but more than that, through his intimate familiarity with it, he brought the words of scripture to life. We deeply appreciated his spirit in that potentially divisive atmosphere, and have been admirers from afar ever since. May his tribe increase! (And thus, how fitting, that he should move closer to his grandchildren!). Congratulations, Dr. Brunt!

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