Pastor Mark Adams’ 30 years at Hermiston’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church isn’t typical.
According to a 2016 poll, the average pastor’s tenure at any one church runs about six years, give or take.
Becoming a minister wasn’t Adams’ original aim. He loved science in high school and elected to major in chemistry at University of California Santa Barbara. It wasn’t a good fit, though, and he found himself drawn in another direction the fall of his freshman year.
“In my dorm, we had all these conversations about religion and spiritual things,” Adams said. “People were coming to me for advice.”
Theological questions absorbed the young man. At Christmas, he enrolled in Christ College (now Concordia University Irvine) for pre-seminary classes. After earning a bachelor’s degree there, he started at the Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and spent four years soaking in Hebrew, Greek, church history and reforms, counseling methods, worship and scripture. He interned at a church in California in his third year.
Adams arrived at the Hermiston church in 1989 with his wife, Tess, and children, ready to shepherd his first congregation. Five minutes with him reveals why his flock of 127 adores their pastor so much. He is a big, bearded bear of a man, easygoing and genuine. He regularly inserts humor into his Sunday messages. His wife, Tess, who has known Adams since eighth grade, sums up his personality this way:
“He’s the same person in the pulpit as he is at home,” Tess said. “Our dinner conversation with four children was pretty similar to what he says on Sunday.”
Those four children are now grown. Son Caleb is a minister. Twins Sarah and Rebekah teach school. Youngest daughter Mary is program director for Domestic Violence Services in Pendleton.
Tom Nichols, church board president and friend of Adams, described Adams as the perfect pastor.
“He has common sense. He has empathy. He’s so grounded with scripture,” Nichols said. “Seventy percent of what he does is behind the scenes.”
Adams doesn’t shy away from theological conundrums such as biblical paradoxes or whether it’s normal to experience doubt. He explores such queries with all comers, whether in his office or while fishing with one of his daughters at Hat Rock.
On a recent Sunday, about 40 parishioners sat in the pews waiting for service to begin. Messages scrolled on a flat-screen monitor near the ceiling. One said, “In case Pastor’s preaching is too red hot, there is a fire extinguisher in the front by the pulpit.”
Many of the congregation’s children sat up front. Their occasional noises didn’t faze Adams.
“If a toddler is screaming, he doesn’t care,” said congregation member Andrea Rivera. “He just keeps preaching.”
Adams said the congregation is like a large extended family. The children learn how to worship by watching and interacting with adults.
“They don’t look like they’re listening, but they are,” Adams said.
The pastor connects with children easily, say those who know him — helpful since the church runs a preschool in the same building. The program recently celebrated its 40th year in operation, which tops Adams’ own anniversary by a decade. All four of his children attended the school. Tess Adams started as an assistant there 26 years ago. After obtaining her early childhood degree, she became a teacher and now directs the school. The number of students has grown to 102. The people who started the preschool — Jan Schultz and Warren and Judy Hall — are still members of the congregation.
If Adams feels stressed or bored, he wanders into the preschool and makes Play-Doh creations with the 3- to 5-year-olds there. He also conducts chapel sessions for the kids.
On a recent afternoon, teacher Amy Gillson led a group of 4-year-olds who sat in a circle around her. They practiced saying hello in various languages, listened to a book, practiced writing the letter “T,” listened to a Bible verse and took turns placing blocks one on top of the other to make a tower. They laughed uproariously when it fell. During a snack break of graham crackers and peanut butter, they sang a blessing, chatted about the upcoming “Frozen 2” movie and discussed the rectangular shape of the cookies they nibbled.
Tess Adams called the preschool the church’s mission field. The children, she said, explore the social, spiritual and academic parts of themselves. The students meet for two hours, 15 minutes in either the morning or afternoon for three days a week.
Mark Adams, who is 57, said he occasionally has felt stale during his long tenure. When that happens, he said, he dives back into scripture.
“If we really believe God’s word is a living word, we will find something new and exciting in it every time we look,” he said. “The congregation has allowed me to be creative and that keeps the brain engaged.”
Adams knows that church membership is down sharply around the nation. A Gallup poll found that membership averages about half of us, down from at least 70% between 1937 and 1976 and 68% through the 1990s.
Adams said the decline has forced the Church as a whole to look in the mirror.
“The millennial generation — they want authenticity and transparency,” he said.
The pastor senses the Church turning a corner.
“I think the Church is rallying and maybe we’ve reached a leveling off,” Adams said. “Some of the dross has been burned off a bit.”
As for Adams, he plans to continue leading his flock as best he can as a man who acknowledges his imperfections.
“I don’t have any thoughts that I’m anywhere close to perfect, but I know I’m deeply loved and forgiven,” he said. “We have to be gracious and merciful with each other.”
Nichols said Adams leads the way.
“He’s dedicated to his calling,” Nichols said. “That’s how he rolls.”