In September, 1988 six Seventh-day Adventists set out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The party consisted of two laymen, two editors—Delbert Baker, then editor of Message, and myself-- and a father-son team. The father, Neal C. Wilson, was president of the world church; his son Ted would become the president.
The 70-mile round-trip trek to the 19,340-foot summit takes five days. When we came back, we were weary, dirty, unshaven and smelly, but our eyes shone like schoolboys returning from a grand adventure. We all wore t-shirts announcing that we had conquered Kilimanjaro. So closely had we bonded on the mountain that if one of us had turned back short of its summit, we all would have shared a sense of failure.
Neal Wilson, a person of rugged constitution, had long harbored an ambition to climb Kilimanjaro. With the Annual Council set to convene in Nairobi that year, Ted, working in Africa, organized an expedition.
During those five days on the mountain, the closeness between father and son was apparent: the mutual love, respect, and tender affection. Although the church president was in excellent health, he was 68 and facing criticism from some church members for what they viewed as a foolhardy undertaking. But he was determined to succeed, and Ted spared no effort in his behalf.
Now Ted has embarked on another mountain expedition, one even more challenging than Kilimanjaro.
Sadly, for the difficult task of leading the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church, his father's strong encouragement and support is no longer possible. Both Pastor and Mrs. N. C. Wilson are in poor health: they were unable to even attend the fifty-ninth G. C. session that elected their son.
As Pastor Ted N. C. Wilson's hand takes the wheel, we can expect many ways in which his leadership will resemble that of his father. But he is his own person and inevitably will chart a different course as he seeks the leading of the Lord and listens to counsel.
I have worked with father and son over many years and know them well. In dress and lifestyle they are simple people. They avoid ostentation; they are straightforward and direct. They operate out of strong convictions and bring a fierce loyalty to the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist church, which they love They are people leaders, putting high priority on individuals. They are world people, having lived and served abroad. And they tend to speak long in public, deliberate carefully, and refuse to be ruled by the clock.
But Adventists who are old enough to recall the first Wilson presidency will observe dissimilarities. More obviously than his father, Ted is driven by belief in the imminent return of Jesus. He rarely speaks in public without referencing it, and he consistently ends letters and email messages sounding the same hope. I will be surprised indeed if this is not a major emphasis—perhaps the major emphasis—of his administration.
We are Seventh-day Adventists, and the church needs this reminder. It has the potential to bring revival and renewal—and I expect these also to be an ongoing call of the new president.
Pastor Ted N. C. Wilson will be a strong president, but not a dominating one. As the church has grown into a large family with capable, confident leaders throughout its far-flung reach, the era of dominant General Conference presidents has passed. It will not, should not, return. The new president will steer the church with a firm hand—but one a little softer than his father's.
When Ted Wilson served as president of the Review and Herald Publishing Association, he encouraged his fellow administrators to put aside their dark suits and dress like the workers. He formed a musical group in which he also participated. This is a leader with the common touch.
It was all there on the mountain long ago. Father and son. Present and future.
As my mind races back over the years, I pray that this conqueror of Kilimanjaro, this tender helper of his father, will, along with Nancy, be given all-sufficient grace for the new ascent.