Dr. Dwight K. Nelson is a legend in the Seventh-day Adventist church. As lead pastor of the iconic Pioneer Memorial Church of Andrews University, Nelson has shepherded the diverse Andrews community for over 30 years through his preaching, leadership and life’s example. A pastor, author, adjunct professor of the Seminary and world-renown communicator, Nelson lives by one credo, Jesus’ words found in Hebrews 2:13: “I will put my trust in Him.”
The son of missionaries, Nelson was raised in Japan and received his high school education at Singapore’s Far Eastern Academy. His childhood dream was to study medicine and become a surgeon. In fact, his interest was so great that he would conduct his own scientific experiments and examine the minutiae of life though his personal microscope. However, in his junior year of high school, a visitor from the General Conference asked all the young men at Far Eastern Academy who were planning on entering pastoral ministry to stand. Nelson was shocked as he looked around and realized that very few were standing. Suddenly, he heard God’s voice speak within him, asking, “Why aren’t you standing?” He traces his realization of God’s call to that moment. “I believe that, at times, God’s call is very quiet, and it happens differently with everybody. But mine was rather dramatic,” he remembers. “Which is not to suggest that once you get called, you don’t second-guess the call.”
As a sophomore theology major at Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University), Nelson did second-guess his call to ministry. He nearly switched to a pre-law degree, only to receive confirmation from God during prayer that he was to remain in the theology program. He later learned that at the exact time he was struggling over which path to pursue, his mother, then a missionary in Guam, had been praying for him halfway around the world. "How many times when I was in college was she pouring her heart out in intercessory pleadings for me," he marveled, "at the very time the battle for my own heart was raging."
Since then, in his 33 years of ministry at Pioneer Memorial Church, Nelson has endured other seasons of discouragement, enabling him to authentically encourage other pastors. “There will come days in ministry that you say to yourself, ‘There must be something else I can do,’ or ‘I can still be a minister in another profession,’” Nelson said. “But that doesn’t represent God pulling his call away.” He regularly reminds young ministers of the words in Romans 11:29, which he has held close in his decades of ministry: “Both the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
“We need the best and the brightest in the denomination going out for the gospel ministry,” Nelson declared. “That’s what I stand for. If you heard the call of God, and you knew a day that call was clear, my counsel to you is to stay with it.”
After Nelson finished his undergraduate degree at Southern Missionary College, he and his new bride, Karen, received a call to pastor in the Oregon Conference. After one year of ministry, he came to the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary to earn his Masters of Divinity degree. “For me, the Seminary was a powerful, formative experience professionally and spiritually,” he said. “I met Jesus when I was here.”
As a fifth-generation Adventist and fourth-generation pastor, Nelson had grown up a believer. However, when a Seminary professor challenged the students to ask God to show them their true sinfulness, one evening, Nelson gave the prayer a try.
“I crawled into bed and forgot all about it. A few days later, as Karen and I were driving across the Kentucky-Indiana border on the way home for Christmas break, a dark, heavy cloud came over me, and I could not figure out what was going on. I began to dream at night about little sins I had laughed off as I was growing up; reading reports I turned in in college saying I’d read the whole book when I hadn’t. Scenes from my life started to come back, walking before me, and I would wake up in a sweat. I now know that God was answering my prayer.”
Distraught, Nelson sought out his Seminary professor, who encouraged him to read the book Steps to Christ by Ellen G. White, though he had read it as a child. “This time, the title became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I found the steps to Jesus! And I found Jesus in a personal way. I had loved Jesus as a child, but I didn’t get it. I needed that second go-round.”
Now, as the University pastor and adjunct Seminary homiletics professor, Nelson is passionate about the ministry of the Seminary. “It is the vehicle through which God gave me life, and brought me to saving knowledge of Him. I’ll never be the same again.”
When he later received a call to pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church after nearly a decade serving in the Oregon Conference, he and Karen accepted. “We knew that what happened to me here could happen to other young men and women, and maybe God could use me to coach them along.”
He also knows that the Seminary has a unique gift to offer the Adventist church: “The exposure to the global church can really only be offered right here at the Seminary at Andrews University. In the mix of the Theological Seminary, you are brought shoulder to shoulder, mind to mind, with some of the brightest in the Adventist church,” he said. “If you come with an open mind and an open heart and a spirit willing to be convicted by the Holy Spirit, you’re going to leave here with a treasure trove of gifts.”
As a pastor with an almost-unheard-of three decades in the same church, he has two secrets to longevity in ministry. “The first is the certainty of the call. The second is the certainty of the communion. You have to have the certainty of communion with God every day. The hunter of our souls isn’t looking to get you out of ministry; he’s looking to get you out of heaven,” he reminds pastors. “You’ll get aimed at, you’ll get hit, but the certainty of being in communion with God today, and having recognized your calling long ago, will keep you going. A long-term pastorate is based on a long-term relationship with God.”
Today, Nelson continues to serve with the certainty of the call and the certainty of the communion. His life and ministry at Pioneer Memorial Church and Andrews University remain testaments of his commitment to "a long obedience in the same direction."