September/October 2022 Feature: Putting Mission in Focus
The Visitor team recently interviewed Columbia Union Conference President Dave Weigley to get his take on the union’s newly voted priorities and values for this quinquennium, the challenges our church is facing today, and our role when it comes to social issues.
VISITOR: You’ve been the president of the Columbia Union for 16 years. What stands out the most for you during this time?
WEIGLEY: My desire is to see people experience the mission. Experiencing the mission changes everything. That’s been the focus I’ve tried to bring to this office because I’ve experienced it in my own life. Another priority is soul-winning evangelism and growing the mission of the church. In addition, one of my greatest joys has been supporting, mentoring and growing leaders.
VISITOR: How do you challenge yourself so that your role doesn’t become stagnant?
WEIGLEY: I think what really pushes me is to keep asking the questions: “Why?” “Why are we here?” “How can we be relevant?” and “Are we making a difference?”
VISITOR: In your opinion, what has the church and union done exceptionally well over the past 10 years?
WEIGLEY: I believe the church has done well with the “I Will Go” theme, which inspires members to get involved with soul winning, diving into the Word and getting on with the work of the church in fulfilling the Great Commission, because Jesus is coming.
I believe our health care ministries have really taken off. In our union, we have a lot of good things happening in our two health systems—Adventist HealthCare and Kettering Health. I also believe the leadership at our university—Washington Adventist University—is trying to lead in a climate of great change. And across the ecclesiastical side of the church, I believe that the Columbia Union has always been a change agent, which is consistent with our historical values.
I also feel good about the emphasis and the initiatives we’ve given to women in ministry. In some parts of the world we have become a focus of criticism, and that’s fine. I think Jesus did a lot of things that received criticism, but He kept moving forward. He is our example.
Looking back, in the 1970s, we were the first union to ordain a woman local church elder. Now it’s an accepted practice. And then in 2012, our constituents voted to ordain women pastors. When that happened 10 years ago, we had 20 women clergy employed across the Columbia Union. Now, in 2022, we have more than 40. That’s exciting to me.
VISITOR: What could be improved in our church and union?
WEIGLEY: I think we need to continue expanding women in ministry—as pastors and in other leadership roles. For example, we now have a woman serving as executive secretary. We’ve seen other “firsts,” and I hope we’ll see more.
In the area of race and other social issues, we need more dialogue. We’ve had some good conversations, but we need to do more because all of us have our biases. We need to continue to look toward the biblical model. The word racism isn’t even in Scripture! So, we’ve created those divisions.
We need to work on the revitalization of our churches and continue planting churches in unreached areas.
We also need to find ways that our young people can get into our schools. I am often troubled that I visit schools that lack enrollment, and yet I visit the corresponding churches and they have kids bursting at the seams. What’s keeping those children from being in our schools? We’ve got to find ways to make Adventist education accessible to all church families.
Understanding how much the world has changed and continues to change, we would do well to offer the young people and other members a church that addresses mission in a context they can understand, relate to and get excited about. We are losing our young adults because we aren’t figuring out how to engage them in ways that matter to them, ways they consider relevant to their lives and purpose.
VISITOR: The Columbia Union Conference Executive Committee recently voted on five priorities for the remainder of the 2021–2026 quinquennium: Spiritual Renewal; Mission Engagement; Leadership Development; Education; and Community Engagement. What do these say about us?
WEIGLEY: We’ve identified what we're most passionate about. The priorities identify those things that we must be intentional about in moving the mission forward.
More important to me is how we got to those priorities. A group of people didn’t just sit in their offices and decide these should be the things that we want to focus on. Rather, we did this very, very intentionally. We listened a lot to all the different governing bodies in our eight conferences (that rep- resent the members). We also listened and engaged our health care entities and university leadership during the whole process.
Then there was a final step in what I call “shared vision.” The leader has to go to the mountain, as it were, to get a sense of what God is saying to you as a leader. Then, the leader casts the vision, which culminates the process.
One priority is not more important than another. But we kind of identified them in a hierarchy by saying spiritual renewal (and soul winning) is first because that’s what we are about; we’re trying to fulfill the great Gospel Commission. So how do you do that? Well, before you share the good news, you have to have your own experience with Jesus Christ and know Him as your personal Savior. You have to experience the mission yourself. It is then that you can engage in the mission and go out and go forth with sharing the good news. Sharing our faith is what it’s all about. I’m excited that this is where the constituents and our leadership team landed. I’m passionate about each one of these priorities.
VISITOR: Community engagement is one of the priorities. As we engage, how should the church handle polarizing subjects such as LGBTQIA+ rights, school shootings, or social justice without politicizing or taking sides?
WEIGLEY: There is a lot of tension in our world today. One of the most important things I’ve learned through the years is people feel valued if they’re heard and respected. I think those particular hot button issues begin with first seeking to understand, then to be understood. I believe the church needs much dialogue, much understanding and much compassion.
We tend to get really settled into our orthodoxy and say, “We’re really safe here” because we “understand” everything. Yet Jesus was unorthodox. He challenged the status quo. He addressed the issues. He sat with the tax collectors and loved the outcasts.
Our issues today, in 2022, aren’t going to be the same issues in five years, if the Lord tarries. We will always need to try to come together. Like I say to my kids, “The issue is not the issue. It’s how you deal with the issue.”
VISITOR: How can we motivate members or local churches to also engage in the union’s recently voted values: Excellence; Integrity; Respect; Equality; Unity; Diversity; and Service?
WEIGLEY: We’ve got to model our values in our relationships with people. The union is here to support the conferences and our institutions. The conferences are there to support the churches. With values, it comes down to how you exercise them.
We need to keep revisiting these—not just every five years—asking the questions: “Are we really living our values?” and “Are we expressing them in a way that people understand that we’re holding ourselves accountable?”
Really, when it comes down to it, you could sum it up in one word—Christlikeness. Jesus was extremely committed to His Father and the mission of God. We need to keep stepping back and saying, “OK, how would Christ do this?”
VISITOR: In the past year, the union added the role of special assistant to the president for evangelism. What does this signify about the union’s focus on evangelism?
WEIGLEY: Our union has always been about evangelism and extremely focused on soul winning. So, bringing Elder José Espósito on board is to bring a high degree of emphasis and a high level of focus to the role of evangelism. He is an excellent evangelist, and is a trainer, equipper and utilized by many of our conferences.
Our largest growth is happening among Hispanic members and people groups. So why not do all you can to try to grow that, get people at the ground level, find them there, grow the church there? Coming from another country himself, Espósito is uniquely quali- fied to equip immigrant churches and leaders.
VISITOR: A lot of our churches do a great job at assessing and meeting the physical needs of their communities. Why is that so important?
WEIGLEY: You’ve got to start where the people are. In The Ministry of Health and Healing, Ellen White writes, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with people as one who desired their good. He showed sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He invited them, ‘Follow Me’” (p. 73).
Some studies have found that churches that grow their young adult membership often spend time where people are and helping them get what they need most, like conducting financial workshops, dis- tributing food or teaching exercise and other healthy habits. These are what you call “felt needs.” First you meet them where they are, then you can natu- rally introduce the gospel to them.
VISITOR: What is the ultimate goal you’d like to achieve this quinquennium?
WEIGLEY: I would like to see more engagement of our members in the mission of the church and to intentionally share the good news of Christ’s soon coming. I'd like to see this being carried out by young and old, male and female. I’d like people to express their gifts in the way God has called them.
I think mission advancement is huge. I believe that’s very important.
I’d also like to see us make the church more relevant to young adults.
Wherever I go in the world, people know about the Columbia Union because, historically speaking, we are on the forefront. We need to keep being intentional in advancing and emphasizing the initia- tives that have defined us as a union.
VISITOR: Any closing thoughts or inspiration?
WEIGLEY: When I look back at my life in ministry, work and leadership, I would say that the older you get nothing surprises you. Sometimes it’s in the depths of suffering and issues of illness that you develop a closer intimacy with your loved ones— like with my wife, Becky, who has been dealing with ongoing health challenges.
There are two kinds of people sitting in the congregation every Sabbath: those who have been through a crisis and those who will go through a crisis. If life lasts long enough, we’re all going to go through a crisis or say goodbye to a loved one, a parent, a spouse. Sometimes it’s children. It’s how life is.
I think in the midst of all that, the longer I live, I realize that this world is temporary. God is on His throne. And I reflect on His great promise, found in Romans 8:18: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (KJV). Amen!
Read articles from the September/October 2022 Visitor Issue:
- Putting Mission in Focus
- Editorial: What Time Is It?
- Kids Preach at Camp Meeting
- Anjali the Brave: All About Vaccines
- Watch Recordings of the 'Relentless' Columbia Union Camporee
- Photograph Discovered of Pioneer Adventist Woman Minister
- Read News in Spanish
- Read News in French