So much has changed over these decades, and through it all God has honored Pastor Dwight’s call to ministry and sustained him and his wife Karen along the way. [Photos courtesy of James White Library, Center for Adventist Research, Dave Sherwin]

April 27, 2023

Celebrating Fifty Years of Pastoral Ministry

This year, Pastor Dwight K. Nelson celebrates 50 years of ministry, 40 of them at Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University. To put that into perspective:
  • Fifty years ago, in 1973, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.
  • Forty years ago, in 1983, the world's first commercial mobile cellular telephone call was made, in Chicago.

So much has changed over these decades, and through it all God has honored Pastor Dwight’s call to ministry and sustained him and his wife Karen along the way. Below is an excerpt from an interview “Lake Union Herald” editor Debbie Michel conducted with Pastor Dwight back in February 2023.

Dwight K. Nelson. [Dave Sherwin]
Dwight K. Nelson. [Dave Sherwin]

DEBBIE: So, Pastor Dwight, thank you so much for sitting down and having this conversation with us. 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.” 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, we 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's going through your mind?

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.” But the other point is, 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. 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: I'm sure you could have had other opportunities to go as they say “higher up” in administration, but you stayed local. Why?

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 say, “Guys, you have been called to live in the bloodied-up trenches of human life.”

You're not safely ensconced in some office far away from the battlefield. And that's the life of a pastor. And as time went on, I realized that that's the life that I've been called to, that I was actually wired for this.

I don't fault my buddies and friends in higher places, I love them 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: This is a good time for us to go back to the beginning when you had that first call to ministry. So, you were 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.

DWIGHT: I can see it. The name of the church is 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, they’re going to be guys standing up all over this sanctuary.

So, I look around, there's nobody standing there. So, I keep turning. And I count, 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, “Why aren't you standing?” I didn't stand. But from that moment on, it was just like a paradigm shift, and I'm going into the ministry. I mean, it was just like that.

And I need to add to that, not all calls to the pastoral ministry are so evident and noticeable and maybe even dramatic. It's that there's a certainty that just grows into you. For me, it was that voice in my junior year in academy.

DEBBIE: So then fast forward to college, Southern Adventist University. So, you're studying theology, right? But you start to have some doubts, struggle 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 was just wrestling with, do I really want to do this ministry thing up front preaching and what I'd seen my dad do? 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 registration. Christmas break is over. And back then we had registered 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.

And I look up on my little bookshelf, humble 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 gave 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 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.

No, 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 you're 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.

DEBBIE: I want to segue to journaling and prayer. How important is that for you?

DWIGHT: 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 was in the Church of England and became a Roman Catholic cardinal. He made the statement, once I pray best at the point of a pen, and that's me. I pray. I got 148 journals now. I started in 1986. I took a quiet day where you just take the whole day off and just disappear to think. I took a jar of orange juice, grabbed a journal, 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 a 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. And it just so moved me. And the cross was so evident in his preaching. He was preaching on Romans 5. And 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 pivotal 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. It was kind of sporadic at first, but then I realized this works for me. 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 way.

DEBBIE: I want to talk about challenging decisions that you've had to make. So, during your time here, Esther Knott became the first female pastor of Pioneer. And this is, yeah, 20, 30 years ago. Today it might not seem like a big to-do, but it was a big to-do. How do you get people to think how they may not necessarily have thought?

DWIGHT: We're talking about women in ministry because you say, how do you deal with something that could be controversial? We have to educate the people that we serve. If there's no exposure to a thought in advance, if there's no study, reflection, prayer, whatever. Cold turkey, just sometimes it is just a shock in the face. And there's so much shock that people instinctively go to their default position, which is no. 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 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 is back in 1987, we educated the congregation by presenting two papers: one against women in ministry and one in favor of women in ministry. We asked each group to write a paper. We took the two papers, folded them together, put them in an envelope and mailed it to every member of this congregation, asking them to prayerfully read these two papers.

I, at one point, had taken the position against women's ordination after 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 wives being submissive. 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?”

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.

My whole perspective changed. It just changed. Some of the women who were very much a part of the pro women's elder, got together, and they said, let's put a shower on for the pastor. They plan a beautiful shower at Ruth Murdoch gym. 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. You already know the rest of the story. I had to reverse myself in the pulpit.

DEBBIE: Let’s talk about the current generation, Generation Z.

DWIGHT: One of the biggest challenges for me in this congregation over 40 years, there have been four generations. I came as a boomer. Ten years later, the whole world is dealing with something called Gen X. Suddenly they're writing books on it, psychosocial profiles. And then I take a summer off just to study Gen X. We make it for another 10 years. And then they say, oh, by the way, that's over. Now we're into 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 it here won't work. They have their own mind. That’s the toughest part of my job on this campus where the young keep turning over. 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. 

I took the summer of 2019 just to study and say, “My Lord, what are we dealing with here?” And I share it with the faculty when 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 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 are kids coming in now with an ache already 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 them. 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, preachers and Sabbath School leaders are finding it. They are in their little world. They have many friends and don't know one of them by name.

We're going to have to keep adapting if we want our doors to stay open. 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. 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: Do you know what's next?

DWIGHT: I don't, but He does. A seminary student gave me a sign I have in my office. It goes like this, “I don't know what the next chapter is, but I know the Author.” And I thought, that's the truth. I don't know what the next chapter is, but I know the Author. Hallelujah.

Watch or read the full interview here

Lake Union Herald staff