As Seventh-day Adventists worldwide gear up for a new decade, their church's president, Jan Paulsen, celebrates his 75th birthday, affording the veteran leader an opportunity to reflect on a different decade -- the more than ten years he's spent at the helm of the 16-million member global Protestant denomination.
During those years, Paulsen said he has seen Adventists unite to focus perhaps more deliberately than ever on their mission to spread the church's message of hope.
"It's against that backdrop that the significant growth we've seen in the past five, six years should be viewed," he told Adventist News Network the day before his January 5 birthday. "Our mission is reflected in our agenda and continues to drive our budget."
The success of that mission, Paulsen said he's observed, depends in part on a commitment to greater openness -- from administrative and financial transparency to a willingness to "acknowledge, validate and work with diversity within the church."
Paulsen's long-running Let's Talk television program, consisting of unedited, unscripted conversations with teenagers and young adults worldwide, helped the church embrace its younger generations and, more recently, Adventists About Life, a YouTube channel offering an Adventist perspective on current issues, is opening the church to yet another audience.
Openness also involves engagement beyond the church pews, said Paulsen, who has long stressed that churches should serve as community centers, where the church's message of hope finds its practical expression as members offer friendship, spiritual support and humanitarian aid to their neighbors.
As the Adventist Church enters the New Year, Paulsen said he's particularly troubled by the continued pervasiveness of poverty. "The church has such a huge responsibility to not only address poverty and alleviate suffering, but also to engage politically to affect change in the interest of those who are disadvantaged. We must carry the interests of those who cannot do it themselves," he said.
Paulsen, who was born in Narvik, Norway, completed an early ministerial internship and pastoral work in his native country. Later, a missionary stint in Ghana, posts as professor and principal of Babcock University in Nigeria and afterward at Newbold College laid the foundation for what is now more than 50 years of denominational service.
Paulsen served as general secretary and director of Education of the church's Trans-European region, and later its president, bringing to each post broad experience and an educational background in theology -- Paulsen earned his master's degree from Washington Theological Seminary, a bachelor of divinity degree from the Adventist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in theology from Tubingen University.
A post as a general vice president of the world church began in 1995, ending with his election in 1999 as world church president.
Empowering people, Paulsen said, is one of the greatest lessons he has learning during his years at world church headquarters.
"People may be your most complicated -- and, at times, troubling -- assets to handle, but they are your most important," he said, adding that it's members, not administrators, who are ultimately the church's "owners." Paulsen added that he hopes they continue to invest in their church and, as a unified force, shape its future.