In February, Lake Union Herald Editor Debbie Michel sat down with Pastor Dwight K. Nelson in the Pioneer Memorial Church sanctuary to reflect on God's call on his life. What God can do with a life devoted to serving Him is remarkable.
Read the full transcript interview below or click here to read the shorter published interview.
Debbie: So, Pastor Dwight, thank you so much for sitting down and having this conversation with us. So, 50 years in pastoral ministry and 40 years right here.
Dwight: Are you serious? Has it been 40 years?
Debbie: 40 years right here in this building at Pioneer Memorial Church. And so, I want to start off by reading this quote from an article you wrote in “Focus” magazine 20 years ago, and its reflections of 20 years of pastorate back then, “Confessions of a rookie marathoner.” And so, it says, “The starting gun went off April Fool's Day, 1983 when Charles Keymer, the Michigan Conference president, phoned Karen (your wife), and me in Salem, Oregon, with the invitation to come east at the age of 31 and begin a new pastorate on the campus of Andrews University. And I can assure you, I have been running ever since. We thought it would be just another professional sprint a few miles down life's road—never dreaming that it would become the long and winding marathon that it has.” So, as you reflect on these long and winding 50 years and 40 years here at [Pioneer], what are your thoughts? What's going through your mind? And I'm sure there's probably a lot, but summarize for us what's going through you at this point?
Dwight: Well, I'm not sure, Debbie, that I've even gotten a hold of all those thoughts tramping through my mind. My first reaction is, when I hear those numbers quoted back to me, is like, wow. Number one, we're dealing with a very gracious God who says, I can keep doing business with you. I need to start over now that we don't want that again. Stay with me. You're going to grow out of this. So, there's no question, there's been a very gracious God who has journeyed beside us. But the other point is, since this is for the Lake Union Herald, this congregation has been an incredible congregation. There's no way that Karen and I could have stayed had it not been for a congregation that was full of compassion, full of patience. We can do business with this kid. And by the way, April one, I was 30 when that phone call actually came through.
And it just blew us out of the water. I mean, when I first got word back in February that there was going to be a change in this church and that maybe we might end on up on a list somewhere. And then the president of the university shows up in my little church in East Salem, Oregon. I'm telling you, there were many nights of just sleeplessness. It was just like, this can't be. But here we are, these 40 years later, and A, God has done it and I praise Him for it. And this has been a great congregation here. There's no other congregation like this on the planet. The people that sit in these pews every Sabbath, we have fallen in love with them over the decades, and they have been good to us. And so, I praise God and I thank them.
Debbie: So, I mean, I'm sure you could have had other opportunities to go as they talk “higher up” in administration, but you stayed local, and you talk about your love of the congregation. Why didn't you say, you know what? Yeah, I can go up to higher administration. Why not?
Dwight: Well, I grew up in a home where the administrative ladder was very evident. I'm a fifth generation Adventist, fourth generation preacher. But a lot of the family were just moving up the ladder. And I suppose along the way, when those opportunities did present themselves, there were times when I was like, really, God, maybe this has been long enough here. Do you want me to try this? But what kept me coming back here, Debbie, and all candor now, is there is nothing in the world like life in the trenches. And I tell my guys, I teach over here at the Seminary, I'm starting a class in a couple weeks in preaching. That's the only area I teach. But I say, guys, you have been called to live in the bloodied-up trenches of human life.
Bloodied up is what I call it. Yeah. This is where your head goes up. There’re bullets. You're not safely ensconced in some office far away from the battlefield. You are the battlefield, and your trenches are there. And that's the life of a pastor. And as time went on, Debbie, I realized that that's the life that I've been called to, that I was actually wired for this. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, I am what I am. And then he talks about the super apostles. So, I've thought about the administrators as those super apostles and Paul's saying, I'm not one of 'em. I am what I am. And the other day, true story, oh, probably within the last six months or seven months, I looked out my window in my office here. This is in between.
So, we have first service, Sabbath school, second service. So, I'm in between now, I'm looking out and people are coming and going, coming and going. And oh man, there is an older single guy that I know, had been a friend of mine. And I thought to myself, I wonder how it's been. I haven't seen him in a long time. Wonder what he's looking at faithfully showing up for first church. And then a couple moved by, and they have two little kids hanging onto them. I said, ah, man, look at those kids. They're sure growing up. And then come the little lady kind of hobbling with her hair all done up nice every Friday as it is. And I thought to myself, I stopped, and I just heard this voice. It was me talking to me. And the voice said, Dwight, you are helplessly a pastor. And I realized right then, that's it. I was called to do this. So, these other little opportunities, God bless the people that say yes, because if everybody said no, I'm staying in the bloodied-up trenches, we'd have no organization. So, I don't fault my buddies and friends and in higher places, I love 'em all, but I just know that to be true to Jesus and to be true to me, in the trenches was where I belonged. And I just can't believe that we got 40 years in one trench.
Debbie: Wow! So, this is a good time for us to go back to the beginning when you had that first call to ministry. So, born in Japan to missionary parents, childhood dream to study medicine. And in your junior year of high school, this General Conference visitor comes to the school. Tell me about that experience that you had.
Dwight: I can see it. The name of the church is a Balestier Road Church in Singapore, because I went to boarding school, missionary's kid in Japan, lived there 14 years, but then went off to academy in Singapore. And I don't know who the man was, and I have no idea what he was saying that day, but all of us missionary kids are here to hear him. And man, these children of pastors, doctors, dentists, teachers, missionary people. And somewhere in the middle of his talk, he stops, and he looks out. He said, I want to see all of you boys, because it was back when only boys went in ministry. I want to see all of you boys who are thinking about going into ministry. I want you to stand right now. So, I'm thinking, man, well, I know where I'm going. But I said, there’s going to be guys standing up all over this sanctuary.
So, I look around like this, there's nobody standing there. So, I keep turning, no one. And I count, the truth, three, maybe four in a school of 70 kids. And I'm thinking to myself, I can't believe this, four guys in this whole school are going into ministry. Where's everybody else? And just like that, I heard a voice that said to me, now, I didn't hear voice, but I heard a voice. You know what I'm saying? And the voice said, why aren't you standing? I didn't stand. But from that moment on, it was just like shift, paradigm shift, advance, next chapter, and I'm going into the ministry. I mean, it was just like that.
Dwight: And I need to add to that, not all calls to the pastoral ministry are so evident and noticeable and maybe even dramatic. There's always a Damascus Road and you got to solve for that. But there are many calls that are Elisha, which is you're just minding your own business, doing your work. Some guy comes along and say, do you ever think, hey, boy, you're in Pathfinders. I've done this with a pathfinder. Hey, did you ever think maybe that instead of taking the engineering, you ought to take ministry? And no, I never thought about that. And the call is extended that way. Elijah just comes along and says, and Elijah says, well, what am I supposed to do? He says, well, what Elijah says, what's that to me? Yeah, that's your issue. But he knows because a guy said, you're next.
Dwight: And so, it doesn't have to be dramatic. It's just there's a certainty that just grows into you. For me, it was that voice of my junior year in academy.
Debbie: So then fast forward to college, Southern Adventist University. You’re studying theology, but you start to have some doubts, struggles a little bit. Talk about that. Because we sometimes go through that whereby we sense the call, but then there's still that doubt.
Dwight: I haven't talked about this for a long time, but it's true. I was just wrestling with, do I really want to do this ministry thing, up front preaching and what I'd seen my dad do, and I was a history minor and a theology major, and I thought, well, you know what? Let's turn that minor into a major and I'll go into law school, because I can talk. I mean, that's what you got to do. But I didn't know. I just wasn't sure. It was the day that we have to go to registrations. Christmas break is over. And back then we had to register for the semesters in January, so I have to go and sign in on something. And I've been a year and a half doing ministry, and my folks were overseas, and I just was in my room praying, this little sophomore knows how to pray.
And I look up on my little bookshelf humbled collection of books, and there's a book, and it just was sticking out, and I pulled it out. Carlyle B. Haynes speaks to young ministers. And I look at that, my mother had given me the book when I left the house. And I look at that and it's just all the Holy Spirit needed. He just wanted something to trigger memory. Come on, boy, we're in this together. You've forgotten. See, and just like that, Debbie. And I said, okay, all right. And I continued my major and the rest is history. But I got to add this because there are some preachers out there and church members who have preachers. Let me tell you, your pastor goes through this struggle maybe two or three times a week. I mean, it's not something that we lock in like Spock on Star Trek, I'm on move now.
Pastors wrestle with it again and again. And when the times are low, pastors ask, so, maybe I'm not supposed to be doing this. This is God's way of showing me. No. Most often it's just the devil's way of saying, I'll get you while your down boy. I can't get you when you're up, but I'll kick you when you're down. And I remind pastors, listen, don't walk out. If you've been cut out for this, and if your 1 Corinthians 15:10, I am what I am, then you stay in those trenches, those bloodied-up trenches, because there's somebody you can't see who's ducking with you, who is loving you through this. And the best is yet to come. Don't quit. Romans 11:29, both the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Irrevocable! I don't take that call away. You want to leave me? You can. You want to leave ministry, be my guest. But I'm not removing the call. And when that dawns on a person, that's a sober moment. But just, we can do this. God, you and me.
Debbie: And so, one of those, we can do this God, you and me, transformative experiences happened here at the Seminary. Talk about that experience when you were there.
Dwight: Yeah, I did here. I've been out in the field for a year. Karen and I fell in love at 19. We got married later just before coming to the Seminary at 22. And a professor here, beloved professor, teaching his class. I was taking it and one of the European professors and a great man, he quoted a line from David, Psalm 19 and Psalm 139. He said, gentlemen, and there was a girl or two in our class. Ladies, we need to ask God to show us our true sinfulness. So, I wrote it down saying, hey, this might be on a test. I'm going to get it right. So, I wrote it down, that was it. After the quarter's over, we were on the quarter system back then, Karen's working midnights, 11 to 7 up here at St. Joseph Hospital, as it was known as back then. And I'm going to bed. And I just kind of felt restless. And the words of that professor just popped into my mind. I said, hey, I've never asked God to do that. Let's do it right now. I don't have much to show. He doesn't have much sin to reveal in my life. He'll get it over with and I'll feel better and sure enough, Debbie, I prayed the prayer, didn't see a thing? I said we're okay. Went to sleep and slept like a baby. Coming back from Christmas break, coming across the Kentucky, Indiana border driving north. Karen’s folks were in Charlotte, North Carolina. Anyway, it's just this, a dark oppressive cloud just descended over my life. And it just was squeezing every light out of me.
And I said, ah, I don't know what's going on. Maybe I didn't promise God this is going to be a good new year. And I wrote out my resolutions on a little piece of paper. I'll put it right here and God will be impressed. And I couldn't tell Karen because she'd think I'd be going crazy or something. So, this goes on. And then in my night dreams, little sins that I just kind of laughed off, they're not a big deal and all they're guilty of is just passing in front of me and I'm thinking, what is going on? I now realize that little prayer I prayed, God said, you asked me, reveal to you your true sinfulness. That's what I'm doing. I finally went to the same professor, and because I've taken another class from him, and I said, hey, doctor, I did what you said. I asked God to show me, and I'm overwhelmed with guilt. What am I going to do now?
And I needed the professor to say, hey, boy, come to my office. Let's talk and pray together. I just needed to cry. This thing was just building up in me. But he's old school. And he looked at me and said, go read Steps to Christ. I thought, oh man, I needed somebody, not a book. But I had the book in my library because I had to read it to get baptized. So, I pulled that old Army Navy edition out, and that title Steps to Christ became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And God just said, come on Dwight, you forget we're in this together. You can't go any further without me. You have to have me. And it was a reconversion for me.
Debbie: Powerful book. Love that book.
Dwight: The author of that book, I found a quote that she later wrote, I long to be converted every day, reconverted every day. So, it's not a once in a lifetime thing. And that was the beginning for me of a devotional life that had any meaning to it. And God said, Gabriel, we got to get this boy ready before he gets out of this building. Get him ready. He doesn't know what's ahead. So yeah, that was a seminal moment. And by the way, that's why I love this Seminary, and I love this university. And when the call officially came through on April 1, Dwight, we want you to be the pastor of this. I said, this cannot be.
I told my story once; the professor was sitting out here. He got sick. I went to his house to visit him. I'm through my little pastoral visit and getting ready to leave and he says, hey, Dwight, the professor in that story of yours, was that me? And I said, oh, doctor, God used you in such a way to recommend to read Steps to Christ in that book. You did it. Thank you for that council you gave. But it was funny how he picked up on that story and just remembered that moment. And so, I love this place. And when people talk down on Andrew University, number one, they don't know what they're talking about. Number two, they haven't met the faculty and staff here. I've worked with 'em for 40 years now, and I sat at their feet for another two years, and they're wonderful people. And I praise God for 'em.
Debbie: Amen. So, I want to talk about your personal relationship with God. All right. So, you're out of the Seminary, because you know, talk about that book Steps to Christ. And so other than the Bible, which are the books that have had the greatest impact? Because I mean, you read so widely, and for those of us who might be thinking about, okay, what are some of those books we can read as well?
Dwight: Are you talking about for devotional reading or knowledge reading?
Debbie: Devotional reading.
Dwight: Okay. Well, for me, it would be Desire of Ages. Steps to Christ is a wonderful book, it's not a storybook. Desire of Ages is a storybook. And for those of us that need a little bit of story now and then just to keep going, he got the stories embedded. Steps of Christ is just straight, straight, straight. It's good. And when your mind is desperate for something that really is just for me as I just testified, but Desire of Ages is just the classic of classics. And I love that book and I've read it umpteen times.
Debbie: So, for knowledge, any books that you would recommend?
Dwight: Well, it depends. I'm going to keep pushing you back here, what kind of knowledge do you mean Debbie? But one of my favorite writers outside of our faith community is a guy named Philip Yancy. He's just a brilliant writer and a journalist, kind of your field. And he's now retired, probably has written his last book, ended with his memoirs, the Light that Fell. It's the title of the book. It's a wonderful book. It's his own testimony. So Yancy, I've got every book Yancy's written. Dietrich Bon Hoffer. I've been blessed by Dietrich Bon Hoffer. I'm not going to name in-house authors because they're many of them and I don't want one of them saying, how come he didn't mention me? But what I tell the guys in the Seminary, and I think that's kind of where you're headed here, what I tell the young preachers is, read everything you get your hands on.
Just read, read, read, read, read. Isaiah 58:11 says, you'll be like a well-watered garden whose springs never fail. Now, that's God's promise. You stay with me. You'll be a well-watered garden. Jesus said, John 7:37, the Holy Spirit will come in you and, the old King James, flow out of your belly. You remember that water out of your belly. And he mercifully says, heart out of your heart, it flows out of your heart. So that's spiritually true, but that's also true intellectually. The more you read, the more you put on the hard disk, the more that's on the hard disk, the more that's there. When you need to find a word in that moment when you're talking to somebody and you need just the right word, or you're writing as I do every single week of my life, writing another sermon, those words will be there. The ideas are there. So read, read, read, and we could go all afternoon just talking about the books.
Debbie: So, you talk about writing, and I want to segue a little bit to journaling and prayer. How important is that?
Dwight: For me, I came across a line by John Henry Newman. He wrote the old hymn “Lead, Kindly Light,” it's an old King James kind of hymn, but it's a beautiful hymn. And he ended up, he was in the Church of England and became a Roman Catholic cardinal. So, he is John Cardinal Newman. This is, he's remembered in history by it, but he made the statement once, I pray best at the point of a pen, and that's me. I pray. I was just journaling this morning. I had no idea you would ask the question, but it didn't matter because that's what I do. And I got 148 journals now. I started in 1986, went out and took a Q Day, quiet days, John stock calls them quiet days where you just take the whole day off and just disappear to think. Took a jar of the orange juice. And I grabbed a journal just this hard, these little things at Walmart you get with blind blank pages and a pen and my Bible and headed out to the shores of Lake Michigan.
It was late August and there was no beach crowd that day. It was kind of cloudy and it looked like storm was going to be coming off the lake, and it did. But I sat in that car and just thought about the cross. That Sabbath a preacher had been on campus named Robert Wieland, and he had preached on the cross in the afternoon. I had to preach in the morning, but I went to his afternoon service, and it had just so moved me. And the cross was so evident in his preaching, and he just without notes, was preaching on Romans 5. And I said, boy, the Lord just created that little gnawing. There's something more that you don't have. And out of that experience by the lake all day, God brought me to 1 Corinthians 2:2, where Paul said, I've determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
So that's kind of the pivot, triumphant declaration of the New Testament. And I had been scribbling notes. I took that notebook home. The next morning, I got up and that's how it was born. And just the next morning I got up and said, I'm going. And then the next day, and it's kind of sporadic at first, but then I realized this works for me. And I wrote a little book called A New Way to Pray, and I've shared it all over the world. And I recognize not everybody prays it best at the point of a pen. Someone prays best at the edge of a song, at the reading of a song. We all have our ways, but there are many people who can write. And when I'm with this generation now and they say, oh, by the way, pastor, I don't know how to write. I said, hey, excuse me. Excuse me just a minute.
What did I see you doing a moment ago? What were you doing? You weren't even listening to me. What were you doing? You were writing, weren't you? Of course, you were. Don't tell me you don't know how to write. You write every single day, all day long. We know how to write. Well, nobody's checking grammar. Nobody's checking spelling in a journal. Now I do it longhand. I talk. Just sit down with your laptop. Come on, do whatever you want. But the writing concretizes your prayer. So that's not just this. You know how easy it is to start praying for Aunt Mary. And then pretty soon you're realizing I'm not married, and I got to get married because this name word association and your prayer, just jump, jump. jump, jump, jump. I said, forget it. Just write. Your mind will never wander. When you're writing, your mind is there going straight up into your brain. And you could see me, you can ask me today, Dwight, what did you write on this morning? And I give you the answer.
Debbie: Do you go back and read?
Dwight: I don't go back. Once in a while, I do. When a seminal event in my life has been chronicled in a journal. And I say 10 years. 10 years ago, today. And I read a devotional book and I've been reading the same book since 1987, 1988. So, I can tell where I've been, and if it's not my normal prayer closet, I write it in that book. It's Oswald Chamber's book, my Utmost Forest Highest. My mother-in-law gave the book to me, and I've just read it over and over and over. Anyway, yeah. It works for me. So, an answer to writing. Yeah, I do pray that way. I have a kneel down prayer. Let's just be clear on that. Oh, I have a sizable hunk of my time is when the lights off and I'm in the dark talking to God on my knees. The writing comes afterwards.
Debbie: So, you're very disciplined. And that's one of the things I want to find out.
Dwight: Unfortunately, I'm choleric. That’s the problem. And that's why I live the life of a disciplined person.
Debbie: I mean, there's time for devotion, daily devotion, exercise for reading, for writing. I mean the whole works. But you were saying that works for you.
Dwight: It works for me. It may not work for you, but it works for me. And we have to be truly the army…
Debbie: But how do you stay disciplined though? Because there's some people who they start doing things and then before you know it, they don't keep going.
Dwight: What keeps a man or a woman disciplined is when he or she realizes the value that is accrued by that discipline. Once you know the value. It's just like writing love letters. Once you realize what happens when she gets this letter that Southern college and I'm out in Oregon, you know what that does? And then she writes back you know that you're creating something. That's what keeps, it's the heart that keeps you after the one you're seeking. And prayer is seeking someone. It's not seeking yourself. It's not reviewing your laundry list of requests. Prayer is seeking the mind and heart of God. Oh, some days I tell guys, listen, I don't have a great breakfast every morning. Sometimes I eat Wheaties and I pour milk on it, and that Wheaties gets soggy. But I don't throw myself on the floor and say, I refuse to ever have breakfast again. This was rotten. No, I just have breakfast again tomorrow and it'll be better. I'll have toast with jam and peanut butter. Right. You know this is good. You do it. And for a choleric, that's what it is. And God says, come on, Dwight, that's how we talk. You and me. Talk to me boy.
Debbie: So, I want to talk about your pastoral style of leadership. What has influenced you? Because one of the things that I know that you're known for, it's that personal touch. I get those letters every holiday. It takes me a few days. But I do read it in terms of, and so i'm just curious in terms of, and even the funeral homily’s that you do, how do you prepare for that? What's that process like?
Dwight: That's a good question. And here's how I would answer it. The reality of pastoring, and I suppose the reality of dentistry and the reality of medicine, is that it's a person-to-person calling. You have to honor that. You just have to live in that paradigm. If it's high, low, you're high and the person is low, then what's that? There's nothing there. It's just you're doing what you have to do because it's required of you. But when it's person-to-person, I tell my young preachers, listen, you're only going to do a wedding once for that couple. Hopefully. You're only going to do a funeral once. Not hopefully. You’re only going to do a baby dedication, which you might do two or three more babies from the same family. But there's only going to be this one. Make it personal.
I go to weddings and the preacher goes, dearly beloved, we are here in the presence of God because of the holy state of matrimony. And you can get that straight out of minister's manual. Why? These are kids, you've come to know them and love them, talk to them. They're your kids. And so, leadership is person-to-person. It's not person to group, of course, it's person to group. But the group only responds if the group believes it's personal. If the leader is known to be personal, the group will respond to anything. The group say, hey, that's what you want. Okay, I don't agree with you. But okay. Why? Because a leader has taken time to get close to the person and say, this is who I am. We can do this. If it's just, hey, yo, I come down from Mount Sinai. These are the 10 commandments, the new ones, by the way, abridged, whatever. No, it's the personal. That's no gift of mine, that’s what we're all called to do. But I do keep that in mind when I do what I do. And leading is leading multiple persons in a large group.
Debbie: It's a large congregation. And so, it's quite notable that you're able to, keep track.
Dwight: Yeah. I wish I were better at it than I am but thank you for your kind words.
Debbie: No, it's remarkable. It's remarkable. Every time I get those letters, personally.
Dwight: Well, I got that idea from a friend of mine, Gordon Bietz. Gordon's been a friend for years, retired now. But Gordon was pastor of Southern, not when I was there. But we became friends while he was pastored there. And he said, Dwight, do you know what I do? I call up my church members on their birthday every time they have a birthday, which would be once a year, usually. Every time they have a birthday, I'll call 'em up and just say, hi. Hey, I'm thinking about you, want to have a prayer with you. I said, when he told me, I said, man, that's great. I said, man, a letter is going to be there. If they're not answering the phone, then you can't call 'em back to say, because then you'd have a hundred accrued calls, but a letter will stay there. So, I said, I'm going to try that, but do it by a letter. So, I got the idea from Gordon, but the letters, I get thanked for those letters more than anything else I do as a pastor. Oh yeah. Hey, I just want to send you a note thanking you for thanking me, for thanking you, for thanking me. That kind of a thing. Well, you don't have to, but they do. Yeah. Why? Because it's personal.
Debbie: Well, personal touch. We love it. We love it. So, I want to talk about evangelism, and I'm going to read what you wrote. And you were talking about how this idea now for media ministry began, and you say, I'll never forget that Sabbath morning, July 17th, 1987, we four Nelson's, Kristen was born three years into a marathon here. Kirk, your son, and Karen, your wife, were crammed into a camp meeting cabin. We called ours the Tilton Hilton.
Dwight: Yeah, flow through ventilation, all the knot holes…
Debbie: …up at Grand Ledge. And I was having my private worship, private being a euphemism in these quarters. Something I read in Acts coupled with a Walter Scragg comment in the lesson, quarterly triggered an avalanche of thoughts and broodings. And when the spirit was through, I walked out of the cabin, strangely affected, a vision of God's colleague, ignited deep within as never before, a world, a generation that must be reached. And just like that, astounding pieces began falling into place. And so, you go on to mention those pieces, but talk about those experiences and how this birthed this media ministry.
Dwight: The line that Scragg wrote, I don't have it verbatim, but something like this. When we see these common fishermen transformed by their walk with Jesus to become bold evangelists for the everlasting good news, who are we to resist God's call? Something like that. His point was, if Peter could do it with no education, don't give me this. You got all that education, and you can't do something for me that's bold. And when I read that line, it was just had TV written all over it. And I had a new conference president, his name was Glenn, very much into the media. And I went to him and said, I've got to do something. He said, well, try something. Let us know what we can do to help. And so that was ‘87. And so, in 1988, we said, okay, we'll bring all the cameras in here.
A guy named Roy Naden was here teaching, a brilliant guy who had produced Hollywood type films, the life of John Huss being one of them. And he said, I'll help you. So, we set up these lights and cameras and everything. He brought in WHME, they brought their truck up and we just did a pilot. He shot the pilot. He would say, did the pilot survive? He did. We shot the pilot and we said, we'll watch the pilot, and we'll ask God, what do we do? I brought Skip McCarty onto my team to just help us think through getting outside our walls here. And long story short, the board said, hey, this idea of intrusive lights and cameras, we're not into it. So, we said, okay, we'll do a studio. We'll go down there and shoot it every two weeks; Roy would go down and we would shoot these 30-minute programs.
And when the Nielsen ratings came out for this station at the time, we ended up number one in that time slot for anything they had. And we suddenly realized, God is saying something here. It was nothing great about us, but it filled a need. So, we did a 30-minute program, but we knew, no, it'd be a lot easier to just let the scripts be done here, not the separate scripts for down there and all that. We could just keep the cameras here. So that's how we kind of backed into that. And 1991, ‘92, ‘93 and so on and so on and so on. And 1994, the National Council of Churches comes, they went to one of our reps and they say, we want the Adventist Church to take the Christmas Eve service for the nation.
Betty Cooney called me up, communications New York, greater New York. She called me and said, Dwight, would you guys be willing to do it at Pioneer? Bob's just kind of reeling. I said, let me call you back. Prayed about it, just said this. Got to do it. Scared out of my wits thinking about it. But we did it. And then the NAD came in and said, okay, we're going to hire a producer, Bob Davenport from Hollywood. He's worked with the movie and tv, brought in a light crew, did the whole nine yards. From August working around the clock, December 8th, we shot the pilot. It wasn't a pilot. This was the real deal. It had to be taped early in order to be edited in time for the Christmas Eve service. So, the place was packed. So, we gave out tickets. The only way you get in was tickets.
I was terribly nervous, just like, oh man, God, what have I gotten myself into? Because when the director goes, I mean, you can't say, can we shoot this again? No. It's just like, oh wow. But the Lord used that, and it was good experience for us. And it went coast to coast. New Year's Eve, I mean there was Pioneer on the screen, across America. And then 2 years later, the brethren say, we're going to do a Net 98, we want Pioneer to be the site. Hey, would you mind preaching? And that was like, oh, but God was just answering that little Tilton Hilton dream. I mean the rest is history. I look back over, Debbie, and this was no clever planning. This was not like some skilled agency said, now you're going to do this and then we're going to do this and this and this. No, this was God just saying, excuse me folks, let's just do this. And he just opened that door and that door and that door. And here we are.
Debbie: And that was the lesson that I saw in that whereby when you step out in faith. Because like you're saying, I mean the pieces just started falling into place.
Dwight: And God honors that kind of faith because you can't see a thing. And he says, that's where I need it to be. I don't want you to see this. I want you to know where you're going, but you have to trust me. You step out. Abraham, Hebrews 11, hall of Fame, hall of faith chapter. Abraham went out not knowing whether he was going. He had no clue. God just says, go. Okay, but now where?
Debbie: And Net 98 was a big deal.
Dwight: It was a big deal for the church and for us, it just was big. It's never happened again. Never happened before. A hundred Nations, 40 languages, one language up front, a little boy up there preaching and 39 preachers downstairs, 39 preachers all at the same time. They said, it sounded like Pentecost down there, tongues! I could never go down and see it because I'm up here. But it was God's fingerprints all over it.
Debbie: So that started this momentum in terms of whereby what we know now for media?
Dwight: That is what put the media stamp on the Pioneer Memorial Church. Pioneer now is a media church. Whether it likes it or not, it's just kind of you and all who have come later. You don't know a world without it. And I hope it stays that way. There's a new pastor coming one of these days sooner than I think and is going to be here. But I hope, we're hoping that the media will still be somehow embedded in Pioneer's DNA. Because Pioneer can't walk that back. You can't. You're too invested now. And God says, you may do media another way, but don't quit reaching the world for me. I got to have you; you are a global congregation here like no other congregation on earth. I need you to be thinking reach the world for Christ.
Debbie: And that's the thing, you kept on thinking. Because that's one of the things that is really remarkable as well in terms of the innovation as well. Things changed. And so yes, after Net 98, then you even started having “Hope Trending” with watch parties, people at home.
Dwight: This is something new in 2016, is totally different than Net 98.
Debbie: So, you kept on doing more things. And then one of the things too that I thought was interesting was that you're thinking globally, you're also doing mission trips: Japan, Yugoslavia, getting ready to go to Cuba. But you're also thinking locally. There was stuff at LMC, South Bend…
Dwight: Think global, act local. You remember that phrase for the Fortune 500 companies, think global, act local. And so, the church must remain a local body of Christ. We can't be just swept up into this global thing. The global thing will always be there. And we, God says, go and preach the gospel to every creature in Mark 16, but we have to act local.
Debbie: Because you're on a campus…
Dwight: We're on a campus and this is the global for us. We got 90 some nations here at Andrews.
Debbie: So, you never felt the tug between local and global? You felt like you could do them both.
Dwight: We felt like we could do them both. Time may show that in fact, you know, one is going to get the tilt more than the other, but that's not for me to have to do. I only do it and then the others can analyze it.
Debbie: So, I want to know what your philosophy on leadership is and what we can learn from your experience in leading other leaders.
Dwight: My philosophy on leadership, leading other leaders, because that's what I'm hearing you asking because you have to lead a congregation, but I've been blessed to have a team of leaders that I spend my life with. There are two factors in leadership for me. Number one, you got to model it yourself. And number two, you have to be in it with the other(s).
And so, we try to do both here at Pioneer. On the modeling part, I ask all my leaders to model as well. It's not just me modeling to them. I say, hey, come on guys and girls, it's not just about Dwight. What's Dwight doing? No, this is about what you're doing because they're all watching you too. Okay? And once we're clear that to lead means to set an example, Paul says in Corinthians, imitate me as I imitate Christ. Don't follow me if I'm not following Christ. But that behooves then the leader to follow Christ. You just follow Christ. Listen boy, if you're following Jesus; girl, you're following Jesus, we'll be okay. If you're not following Jesus, we can't follow you. We're in trouble. So, you stay unto him, you stand him like a shadow. You just hang with him.
You stay with him, you follow him, we follow you. That's the way it works. So that's the way I do it. And I realize when I sit with my team of leaders, they're all looking at me. I can tell some of them are really watching me carefully. I know it. The younger they are, the more they watch me. Why? Because they're just trying to figure this thing out. And who's this guy and what does he know about it? So, all you have to earn the right to lead. But the first way you earn the right to lead is to practice what you preach. Once you're modeling what you are teaching or living, then I think I could follow this guy. I think this is authentic. I don't think this is fake. I don't think he comes on one way and then when he is in front of the congregation, it's something else. I think this is who he is.
And the ultimate critique here is a spouse, because she knows, in my case it's a she, because she knows, is that the real deal? Is that the guy that I sleep with at home? Is that the guy that I hang around in the house? She can immediately spot that counterfeit, whatever it is that I can't think of. So, number one, you got to model it. And number two, you've got to mentor it. So first I model it, then I mentor it. So with my team here, knowing that my time is going to come to an end someday. I started several years ago and maybe two years ago, a curriculum of 13 topics. One-on-ones with my team and they have a list, they all have the same list. And I'm here today and next time we get together, I'm here. And next time we're here. So that there's intentional mentoring and I'm trying to pass on to you when I preach, here's what I do when I pray. Here's what I do when I lead a board, here's what I do. And so, we have 12 different topics.
So, a leader not only models, a leader mentors. Then these mentors go out, number one, model to their direct reports and mentor to their direct reports. Hey, listen, Pathfinders. Let me help you out. What are we going to do on this? I'm really proud of our team because they're doing a great job. The Pathfinders put on just an incredible, just like nothing we've ever seen kind of Job story. It was just with big screens and everything. It was creative to the core. But that's Pastor Lindsay. She's just sitting there working with 'em behind the scenes and she's mentoring them, encouraging them. So, to me, I'm not a big leadership guru. People say, hey, come and lecture us on leadership. No, leadership for me is more cut than taught. So, I try to do the cut part. I want you to watch me catch it, then do it.
Others are good at the taught part, not always so good at the cut part. We watch 'em and they don't see a lot, but they got the theories down. So, it takes everything. It takes all that. But leadership is modeling and then it is mentoring. It's just two little M words, that's how you do it. And then they do it. And the primary Sabbath School teacher who has been mentored turns around, she's got college kids that we get the college kids to help us or academy kids. And she then mentors them. Why? Because she's being mentored. Theoretically that's how that's disseminated.
Debbie: And each time you pour into people you are being poured into as well. You share that's one of the things. So, I want to talk about challenging decisions that you've had to make. During your time here, Esther Knott became the first female pastor of Pioneer. And this is 20, 30 years ago. Today it might not seem like a big to-do, but it was a big to-do. And so, one of the things I wanted to find out from you is navigating the tightrope. And which is why I think of it as part of leadership in terms of how do you that, how do you get people to think how they may not necessarily have thought or are on track to.
Dwight: We had already been over that bridge long before Esther came because we had to go through the big decision that should we have woman elders? As you know there was a time when that was just like, no, we don't do that.
Skip McCarty was on the team and helped us carefully think through the process. This was back in 1987, we educated the congregation by presenting two papers. We had one against women in ministry group. We asked them to write a paper. We had a definite in favor of women in ministry group. We asked them to write a paper. I won't tell you who the authors were, but they each wrote papers behind one of their scholars. We took the two papers, folded them together, put them in an envelope. Back in the old day, no email. This is going in an envelope. Mail it to every member of this congregation, prayerfully read these two papers. I at one point had taken the position against women's ordination working on my dissertation project in 1985. And I did a series from Ephesians and preached a sermon called the Adam Bomb. And it's a word about Adam and he talks about Adam and wives being submissive and all. And I kind of took that angle.
Well, that ran into a stonewall. There were people that said, “Right on, boy.” And there were others that said, “Are you crazy?” And I won't go into all the details there, but in 1986, okay, so that's the fall of ‘85. I graduated in ‘86 and prior to graduating, Karen and I adopted a little girl. We had a little boy, but we adopted Kristen. And it was just a miracle. And I mean people that say, man, you didn't do it the hard way. You just got a bunch of lawyers. You don't know nothing about adopting with the court systems today. And that wasn't today, but that was back then. And so, we had four lawyers at one time, one in Michigan, one in Idaho, one in Oregon, and one guy somewhere in between. Anyway, but when that little girl came into our lives, we just loved her to death because we had our little boy Kirk and now, we have Kristen.
My whole perspective changed. It just changed. And then get this, some of the women who were very much a part of the pro women's ordination, pro-women elders, because that was the debate back then. But they got together, and they said, let's put a shower on for the pastor. They plan a beautiful shower in the Ruth Murdoch gym. And these were the people that I had taken a public position and they unbeknown to them, unknown to them. I'm just slowly going through this. And then the little baby gets born and comes into my heart and our lives, and then I'm rethinking everything. And by the time that's over, I'm saying, you would deny this little girl a place in ministry because of her gender. And then I listened again to some of the texts that I thought were so rock solid and cinched up in concrete. Not. And you already know the rest of the story. I had to get back in the pulpit and reverse myself in the pulpit.
Debbie: That's what I'm about to say in terms of it takes humility to do that.
Dwight: It does. You got to admit to you're wrong. And I did; went up into that pulpit and said, hey folks, I've realized that I took a wrong position. And of course, I had one group that was very happy then, and another group that was traitor or whatever, I don't know, everybody was gracious. But then we send the thing out. So now I've indicated my position and the percentage was like 67% in favor. And we wanted something like that. We needed to be just high enough so it wasn't like 51 - 54 like America today, 51 - 49 kind of a thing. No, it was clear. And the heavens did not fall. We expanded our board of elders. Now we have women and men serving women and men. Why can't we have genders serving genders? And we weathered it and in fact we were the stronger for it. And we became kind of a, hey folks, you could be like us. We were this way once and we went this way and people found permission then.
Debbie: Race relations. That's another one of the sensitive topics that you have smoothly navigated, at least from where I sit. And so, for instance, Don Livesay, our former Lake Union president, he says that you were very influential in moving his position or moving his understanding of race, which led to this well-known apology that was given to Lake Region. So, I wanted you to talk about your own personal travel to understanding race relation and how you related.
Dwight: I don't know that there was a seminal ignition moment, an aha moment, but I grew up in a culture where I'm born in Japan, 14 years in Japan. And so, I know a little bit about fitting into the majority and not fitting in kind of a thing. I hardly compare what I grew up with to what my colleagues and friends who are African American have grown up with. In fact, I ended up preaching a sermon here at a time when the university was going through this struggle. And you might remember the struggle that It Is Time Andrews and all of that and the Sabbath after our president spoke to a pact. I've never seen this church so packed for a chapel in my life. And it did a masterful job by the way, in the next Sabbath, I preached a sermon on white privilege and people left.
Somebody got up and walked out. And in my second service sermon kind of figured, I guess I know where this boy's going with this. Some transferred their membership soon after. But you know what, it's a free world number one. And number two, I believe that the position that I understand in my own mind, based on the character of God, the life of Jesus and the truth of holy scripture is the right position. And once you're sure, Debbie, on that, whether it's women, whether it's ethnic, divide, racial divide, once you're sure you can stand in faithfulness before God, because if you're a fake and you're just trying to make the meter match whatever is in the room, people will smell that out in an instant anyway. And I've preached several years in a row on regional conferences and just my personal conviction about those. Calvin Rock, a friend of mine came out with a book called Protest & Progress.
I read the book and I talked to him about it afterwards. But the book helped me to realize, since you brought up regional conferences, that there is a place for regional conferences. And I've come to understand that I would call, I would raise thunder from this little pulpit. Let's level the playing field. But then I came to realize, thanks to Calvin's really meticulous research that in fact regional conferences are serving a purpose now that is valuable to the community that they're serving. And that rather than say, well now let's just equal at the foot of the cross, say, no, no, come on, this is to help you. This is to help. The church was lift, not flattened, but just all a rising tide raises all ships. And I realized that regional conferences are not antithetical. In a world made new will there be regional conferences? No, but there won't be state conferences either. There won't be churches and denominations either in a world made new. We can't live in a world made new now. So anyway, that's been a journey, but I have never regretted the positions I've taken in that regard.
Debbie: And one of the legacies that you're leaving is Harbor of Hope Church.
Dwight: We have an inner-city church right up the road, 12 miles from us in the heart of the second most depressed inner city per capita. Wall Street Journal once defined it as the second most depressed inner city in America, next to Wayne County, which is in Detroit, both of them Michigan. But there we planted a beautiful church, and we have a sharp young African American preacher who's leading that place with passion and with skill.
Debbie: Why was that important to invest, for Pioneer to do that?
Dwight: For us it was because we needed a mission field. We needed to have a place on the vineyard where we could serve. We were told early on when I came, hey, you got the campus village church gets everything around you. You got this. But when Skip came on, we started saying, no, we got to get outside these walls. No, but you can't because that's all you got. So finally, we asked for it, can we go up to St. Joe? So, they planted a church in St. Joe and that was under our wing for a while, but then that took off on its own. And we then said, can we plant a church? And before we long asked for can we plant a church? In 1996, two of our students went door-to-door in Benton Harbor and asked people, can we pray with you?
One was Hispanic and the other was Anglo. And they're going door-to-door and people would just say, come on in, pray for us. Once we saw that work and then they say, we started, they started getting other students to come. Once that began to happen, we realized there is a field there for God. And I'm so glad that the Lord opened that door. It's a beautiful church plant. One of the known churches, if not Taurus is probably the most well-known pastor in that city, that little inner city. It's not a huge city, but it's hugely inner city. And Taurus has shown himself to be somebody that has incarnated himself and has loved in that community. And it's just a treat to have him on our team. And he's one of the members of our pastoral team, preaches here once or twice a year. But God did something. And so that gives us a little credibility too. Hey pioneer's, not just this little haven for intellectuals sitting on a campus untouched by the world. No, Pioneer has a campus in the heart of an inner city. Why? Because we believe that's where Jesus incarnates himself and we need to incarnate ourselves as well.
Debbie: So, 40 years, a lot that you've seen; the joys and the sorrows, births, weddings, retirements, debts. I'm curious, what is that experience for you like? Because I mean, sometimes when you're up there, and I'm thinking as you're looking out of the audience and you have seen more than a generation, the shift. What are you thinking? What are some of the thoughts that go through your mind as you think about so much that you have seen over the years?
Dwight: Well, I don't know. I don't want to disappoint you. I'm not sure I'm doing a lot of deep and great thinking when I'm standing up there looking out over the audience, I'm thinking of who are these people, where do they hurt? I was in a group just the other day and somebody said, the question we need to be asking is what's the ache? And when that was articulated, my mind went, that's it. What's the ache? Everybody comes with an ache, right? What's a hurt? What's a hurt in this group? What's the ache in that group of demographically isolated individuals in America that are defined by letters or colors or whatever? What's the ache? I mean, they're all children of God. I'm understanding that part. But what's the ache they bring to the table? And what is the church doing about that ache?
I mean, isn't that why Jesus gave, he didn't come to say, well, too bad for your ache. Let me see what else I can do. No, he said, where do you hurt? And when that woman is thrown at his feet, the board of elders says, well, he says, stone her, what are you going to do? Young teacher? And he doesn't say anything. He just starts carving in the dust of the ground. There's an ache in that girl's heart that he's reading and there's an ache in these hearts that he's reading. They're covering something, they're masking something. There's underneath all of that stereotypical religiosity, there's something falling apart. What can I do to touch that ache? Jesus never chose sides. He said, I'm here for everyone. He doesn't embarrass her. He doesn't embarrass them. This thing gets little puff of wind. Their secret sins are gone. But he's making a play for everybody. And when I heard someone say, the question we need to be asking is, what's the ache to myself? That's it. That's what we exist for. We exist for the ache.
Debbie: So, talk about this generation and the current generation. Generation Z.
Dwight: Well, and that's a good question. That's a good segue right there. Because Gen Z brings another kind of ache to the table. One of the biggest challenges for me in this congregation has been over 40 years, there have been four generations. I came as a boomer and boomers ruled. 10 years later, 1994, the whole world is now dealing with something called Gen X. Nobody's ever heard the moniker at all. But now suddenly they're writing books on it, psychosocial profiles. I take a summer off just to study Gen X. We make it for 10 years. And then they say, oh, by the way, that's over. Now we're into millennials. You're kidding me? No, I'm serious. Millennials. Who are they? The ones that followed Gen X, of course. Oh brother, you mean I got to do the study all over again?
You do. Because if you want to communicate to this group, how you communicate here doesn't work. And how you communicate it here won't work. They have their own mind. The toughest part of my job in this job on a campus with a young keep turning over is over a period of 40 years, every one of them being a generation and just when we thought we had millennials down, somebody says, guess what? They're called gen Zers now. And they're nothing like anything we've had. And I took Summer 2019 just to just study and say, my Lord, what are we dealing with here? And I share it with the faculty when I get their first Sabbath back and we have faculty dedication before the kids come. And I said, this is a generation like we've never seen before. They scored the highest on the entrance exam of any class in the history of the entering class in the history of America.
I have mental health issues, check yes or no. They check yes. The highest number of yeses of any class in history. So, there’re kids coming in now with something already happening, an ache inside of them and oh my have we found that to be true? I'm not dissing Gen Zers. I'm just saying, hey ladies and gentlemen, these are our kids. You sent them to us. We're doing our best to reach 'em. But this is a unique challenge. They've been nurtured and bred by something called this [holds up phone]. And this has created a unique isolation that is hard to break through now. Teachers are finding it; preachers are finding it; Sabbath School leaders are finding it. It's just they are in their little world. They have many friends and don't know one of 'em by name.
Debbie: And the pandemic didn't help.
Dwight: And the pandemic then comes on the heels. They got here in 2019 and their first year, take freshman who came in 2019, they didn't even get through their freshman year. We shut the whole place down March 12th . I was in this chapel when they announced folks, get on a plane tomorrow because this place is gone. Those of you that have to stay, if you're international in the dorm, we'll make provision for you. The rest of you, you're gone. None of us knew what that pandemic would end up doing. It left its mark all over all of us. We're not the same. I'm not the same; you aren't. We do business differently now, but we've changed. Fear now is kind of lurking in the shadows. Now what's next? What's next? Anyway, Jesus died for Gen Zers and Romans 10 is clear. If you can't speak their language and they can't hear, they will not have faith.
You can't just move your lips and say, I told them they have to be able to understand what you said. And if you can't speak their language, you haven't connected. And that's been the challenge. And they're the existing challenge now. And the next guy coming in here picks it up midstream is going to say, okay, let's roll up our sleeve’s guys. We've got our work cut out for us. We can never stop because after Gen Z comes Gen AA or whatever they're going to call it, it's unbelievable. But that's where psychosocial demographics are going. The media has to figure it out. Social media has to figure it out. Sports has to figure it out. Because every generation means a new business model. You have to keep changing your business model. Well, if businesses are smart enough to change their business model, churches better learn the lesson that we got a business model.
We're going to have to keep adapting if we want our doors to stay open. You just spent the weekend with a bunch of secular kids, Gen Zers from secular campuses. God bless you for doing it. But if the church doesn't reach out to this generation and find out, what do we redesign for them? We're lost. We'll lose the generation. And God says, I didn't give you that option. You cannot lose them. I died for them. You will find them if you ask me. Hasn’t God helped us all the way? He's not forsaken us now. In fact, you know what I tell people, the best is yet to come. The worst in terms of American society. I wrote a book called “American Apocalypse”. I'm pretty downbeat on the future of America, politically, racial division wise and economic division wise and the whole nine yards, I'm down. I'm not optimistic about that future. But the best is yet to come because Jesus is coming and Jesus wins. And that's my life.
Debbie: So, you're almost at the end of the race in your pastoral ministry, as you look back, is there anything that you wish that you had done differently or would've done differently? Are you starting to process any of that?
Dwight: If I live my life over again would I live it differently? No. Are you talking about little things? Yeah. But life, no. God put me on a path in this path. There's a line in scripture in Psalm 16 that goes like this. The boundary lines have fallen from me in pleasant places. And I have to recognize that God really has given me some pleasant places and boundary lines. I'm not speaking for the human race, but I don't have to, you asked about me. Am I speaking for every pastor in the denomination? No, but I don't have to. I'm saying that if I lived my ministry over, this would be the path I’d do my best to stay on. Because I believe the God who started me on this path has, through the ups and downs and the stumbles and the failures and the tears and the pleadings with him, there've been some very difficult things, times that I've had to go through that I don't even talk about in public anymore, just because the hurt is so real.
I'm not minimizing any of that. But this is sort of a celebratory ending to where I've been. And I went in on a high note and I want to come back to that note again. The best is yet to come. I believe that for this church. I believe that for this university, coincidentally, the university, at the same time, the church is looking for a new leader. And I've been bringing my heart earnestly to God, God, just bring in the two that will just work well together. This can be a win-win for the future. And I do believe the best is yet to come. And that's what keeps me going. And after I pull the plug and I leave my key beside the doors I walk out for the last time, I'm going to say, God, what it is, is what it is. I leave it all in your hands. But now Lord, what's next? Open the next door and there'll be a door and God will open it.
Debbie: Do you know what's next?
Dwight: I don't, but He does. And I got a little sign in my office. In fact, you haven't seen it, but it goes like this and a Seminary student gave this to me about five weeks ago. I don't know what the next chapter is, but I know the author and I thought, you know what, girl? Thank you for that gift. That is a beautiful gift. And that's the truth. I don't know what the next chapter is, but I know the author. Hallelujah.
Lake Union Herald staff