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Adventist Church promotes next step for comprehensive health ministry

Delegates urged to ‘practice what they preach’; a walk during every meeting break?

Adventist Church promotes next step for comprehensive health ministry

Mark Finley, special assistant to the Adventist world church president for evangelism, urges Spring Meeting delegates to reprioritize the church’s early health message. [photo: Brandan Roberts]

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Adventist evangelist Mark Finley quoted a line yesterday from his mentor, television ministry legend George Vandeman, to encourage Seventh-day Adventists to take a more proactive approach to personal and corporate health.

The line comes from a story Vandeman was fond of telling: The only way to reach an ancient monastery perched atop a towering mountain was a single rope. A monk peering over a sheer cliff pulled tourists up in a wicker basket. “How often do you replace the rope?” one asked nervously.

“Every time it breaks,” the monk said.

The punch line hit home for many delegates to the first business session of Spring Meeting here in Battle Creek. They laughed, but they also paused to reflect on their own lifestyles, not unlike early church leaders who, 150 years ago, first heard church co-founder and prophet Ellen G. White’s account of her vision on seemingly radical health principles. Don’t smoke. Exercise. Leave that pork chop off the menu.  

That vision, given in a time period when bloodletting and doping were common medical practices, would become the backbone of what is today a holistic global health ministry. The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates a network of about 600 hospitals, clinics and dispensaries worldwide, and counts many innovative health leaders among its members.

But this week, top church officials called for a renewed emphasis on the comprehensive side of health ministry—the blending of physical and spiritual components. The discussion was a continuation of what world church health and ministerial leaders first addressed at a summit last month.

“We’ve been doing this for 150 years. It’s in our DNA,” Finley said. “But we’re taking a new look at it.”

Delegates reviewed and accepted 10 recommendations that came out of that summit. They include refocusing on Christ’s method of meeting physical needs before spiritual ones, and finding ways to integrate these methods into curriculums and practices at the church’s education institutions. The document also pledges to support the work of “centers of influence,” where such ministry is already taking place.

“If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen,” said Dr. Allan Handysides, co-director for the Adventist world church’s Health Ministries department, quoting a passage from White’s landmark book, “The Ministry of Healing.”

Adventist world church President Ted N. C. Wilson also referred to White’s writings. “The best thing you can do in New York is medical missionary work,” he said, quoting a line from a letter she wrote. “Health,” he continued, “is the right arm of evangelism. Health is what opens the door.”

Going forward, health ministry will be deeply rooted in church initiatives such as Mission to the Cities, church leaders said.

Some delegates, however, questioned whether the world church’s current budget for Health Ministries could fund a quality, appealing program that will impact the community. A delegate from the church’s South Pacific Division strongly urged the Executive Committee to review existing successful community programs and incorporate them into mainstream ministry. He cited depression- and addiction-recovery programs as possible examples.

Mike Ryan, an Adventist world church vice president, agreed. “We have so many programs, but bridging them to create something big, we’re weak on that”—hence the urgent call for “comprehensive” health ministry delegates heard today.

Jonathan Duffy, president of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, applauded the new approach to health ministry. He said there are steps to conversion, beginning with raising awareness and ending with lifelong discipleship.

“What excites me is that this is a genuine attempt at blending ministries,” Duffy said. “All of us have to consider this and ask, ‘How am I contributing to this ministry?’ How does ADRA fit into this? We are part of the preparatory work.”

Handysides said not only should the message be comprehensive—appealing to physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs—but the delivery should be, too.

“Every church, every hospital, every institution, every supporting ministry must be comprehensive in its message,” Handysides said. “Even these meetings are going to have to change,” he added, referring to the long hours spent sitting in conference rooms during church business sessions.

“We’re going to have to take a walk at every break,” he said.

Jóhann E. Jóhannsson, treasurer for the church’s Trans-European Division, thought accepted recommendations could be more pointed toward Adventists themselves.

“I feel these 10 points only focus on what we’re going to do for others, with no mention of what we need to do ourselves. Exercise doesn’t come easy for most of us. We can say we don’t smoke or drink,” Jóhannsson said, “but there are other groups out there right now who [demonstrate health] much better than we are. We need to encourage ourselves to practice what we’re going to preach. Then I think as a church we can do this.”

Finley agreed, adding that when a full document is voted at Annual Council in October, delegates will be asked to pledge to follow the church’s health principles in their personal lives.

Adventist world church vice president and frequent marathon runner Delbert Baker closed with a thought that may have been on more than a few delegates’ minds: “Mark, I think everyone wants you to take them for a jog right now.”