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Baptism 101

Date: October 6, 2009

Source: Adventist News Network

One of Stanley Patterson's first baptisms was in a mountain lake so cold that it put his diaphragm into such a spasm he could hardly talk.

Another time he had to contend with water snakes during a river baptism in Texas. "The thing is to just be cool and stand still and they'll go on," said Paterson, now a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. "Hopefully afterward you can chuckle about it."

Throughout a career, a pastor might baptize hundreds or thousands of new believers through the act of lowering a candidate under water and raising them back up. While most ceremonies are a joyful occasion for the candidate and their church, a rare few can have glitches, leading a congregation to snicker or sometimes collectively gasp.

Now, as co-instructor of the class Foundations in Pastoral Ministry, Patterson takes a few days each semester to teach soon-to-be pastors the basics of a baptismal ceremony, and warns against problems that can occur.

Last year, the Adventist Church baptized about 1 million people, according to the church's 2008 statistical report, set for release this month. Patterson is sure that not all have gone smoothly. He warns students about some people's fear of water, candidates who flail their arms under water, large candidates who float and won't submerge, and how to negotiate swift river currents.

Many pastors around the world can remember an outdoor ceremony for less than ideal reasons.

Derick Adu, left, prepares to baptize Ivan Sierra as professor Stanley Patterson looks on, Wednesday, September 30 at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. About 45 students practiced baptizing each other as part of the class Foundations in Pastoral Ministry.
[photo: Ansel Oliver/ANN]

"There are some bad stories from river baptisms," said Larry Evans, undersecretary for the Adventist world church. "Let's just say you've got to keep the robe facing downstream."

In 1995, Pastor Jean-Pierre Mulumba Tshimanga had to be rescued from the Congo River after misjudging the swift current. A tall candidate was swept away and hung on to him, holding both of them under water. Fortunately, strong swimmers were positioned downstream.

In Southern Mexico, church leader Raul Lozano was once brought to a rural area to baptize candidates in a pond originally dug for watering cattle. The water grew murkier with each candidate stirring up the pond floor. "The last ones came up with their heads basically stuffed with mud," Lozano recalled.

Indoor ceremonies can also have their mishaps. Adventist world church public relations director Garrett Caldwell recalled a story of a fellow pastor who wore a robe with no weights. During his speech in the baptistery the robe floated above his swim trunks, all of which was visible through the glass tank.

"Everyone in the congregation was laughing and he had no idea why," Caldwell said.

One recent morning at Andrews University, the seminary class of 34 men and 11 women sat in the first few rows of pews in Pioneer Memorial Church. Many brought towels and wore swim shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

The class's co-professor James North Jr. offered some tips on safety. On cold water outdoors: "There's not much you can do about the cold. Have some towels, hypothermia can happen pretty quickly."

On river current: "The water should be coming from behind them. Otherwise it's going to go up their nose or it can carry folk away."

Patterson said the pastor has primary leadership responsibility for safety during the ceremony. He recommended having a second person assist, either helping the candidate up slippery stairs or standing nearby for a river baptism.

He said knowing basic safety and using common sense can help prevent the worst disaster.

"People have drowned in river baptisms," Patterson said. "But they don't put that in the Review," he said, referring to the Adventist Church's magazine. And never touch a corded microphone, he told students. About 30 years ago, he said, an Adventist pastor in New Orleans touched an improperly grounded microphone, electrocuting him and the candidate in front of a horrified congregation.

Having an extra person assist can also help a smaller pastor baptize a larger candidate. In the previous day's class, a small woman had baptized a large man. The assistant stood behind the candidate and lifted him by the armpits.

"They did such a wonderful job, it was beautiful," Patterson said.

Standing in front of the platform, he called up student Ryan Whitehead to assist in demonstrating for the class proper baptism technique. Whitehead, the candidate, stood in front of the minister perpendicularly. Paterson had Whitehead grab his own wrist. "That allows you to hold their wrist and they can put their own hand to their face," Patterson told the class. The method is a slight variation of the technique in the Minister's Handbook, which has the minister covering the candidate's face.

After instruction, it was then time for practice. The male and female students each went to their own changing rooms behind the baptistery. Until five years ago, the exercise was practiced in the campus swimming pool.

In line behind the platform, several students remembered seeing some mishaps over the years. Andy Arends recalled his own baptism day -- the candidate after him got his head banged on the side of the tank. Today, however, no injuries would occur.

Both Professors Patterson and North stood next to the tank as students took turns rotating through, each raising their hand and offering a small speech to the candidate and the congregation of empty pews before the baptism. Most students did it twice.

Michelle Hill nearly slipped when she baptized fellow student Pierre Quinn.

"Michelle, put your foot out to keep that from happening," Paterson said. "I want you to do it again." She lowered Quinn down a second time and brought him back up. Patterson smiled. "There you go, that looked good," he said.

Later, Hill said baptizing someone was more difficult than she had anticipated. "Technically, I could improve a bit," she said. The experience was also an emotional one for her. "I thought of all the people I'll baptize in the future."

A minute later, an "Oops" echoed throughout the empty church. Student Mary Ratsara was having trouble on her first try of dunking a fellow student who was about a foot taller than she. "It's tough if you're short, but I think it comes with practice," she said.

After class, Paterson said he was pleased with his students' performances.

"You're not expecting first-time perfection," he said.

-Written by Ansel Oliver with additional reporting by Bernard Onditi

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