Ralph Watts reflects on 16 years of service as president of the Hawaii Conference
Rather than running off to Hawaii upon retirement, Ralph S. Watts III left the islands he had called home since 2006 to settle down in California after serving 16 years as president of the Hawaii Conference. For Watts, who grew up in Korea and Singapore in a pastoral and missionary family, Hawaii truly was “home” for him, not just simply a place to work.
“Having grown up in Korea and Singapore developed in me firsthand a deep appreciation of the ethnic diversity and cultures and the vast scope and mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church around the world,” Watts said. “It gave me the opportunity to experience living life in another culture.”
Growing up in the 60s in Korea, Watts experienced what it’s like to be the minority, though he didn’t realize it at the time. To him, his experience, as it was happening, was the norm. His formative years prepared him not just for a life of ministry and service but for building meaningful connection and understanding with people from backgrounds and cultures other than his own, which in turn opened many doors for sharing the gospel both in his professional roles and simply as a follower of Christ. He first sensed his call to ministry when flying with the bush pilot in Borneo and assisting in evangelistic meetings the summer of his junior year at Far Eastern Academy.
Early on in his journey as a young pastor, Watts prayerfully created a framework upon which to build his ministry, He asked himself the question: “What would motivate me in ministry?” The answers were four core priorities: To be Christ centered, to be mission driven, to be service oriented, and to be empowered to do it all by the Holy Spirit. He embraced the example of Jesus in Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”
Watts, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Union College, a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University, and a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, began his pastoral ministry in 1983 in Wyoming in the Rocky Mountain Conference. He went on to pastor churches in Northern California, where he then served for many years prior to answering the call to serve in Hawaii. He has also traveled the world extensively, including Zimbabwe, Thailand, South Africa, and India, to conduct weeks of prayer and many other service and ministry involvements.
When the call came to serve in Hawaii, he took time to pray and seek God’s guidance. After a long while, the answer came. “I gave you the gift of being multicultural,” the Lord impressed strongly upon his heart. “Now it’s time to give it back to me.” That was all he needed to accept the call and move to Hawaii.
“It felt like going home,” Watts recalled, even though he had never lived in Hawaii. “What makes Hawaii so beautiful is the people. When I look back on my life, I see God had a plan.”
What makes Hawaii so beautiful is the people. When I look back on my life, I see God had a plan.
The natural beauty of Hawaii was certainly appealing, but it was the people that made Hawaii such an incredible and beautiful experience for Watts and his wife Sharon, who is a music teacher and holds a master’s degree in flute performance. “Ohana means family, and everything we do on the island is family and relationship driven,” he said.
In his role as conference president, Watts made it a point to visit the 13 Adventist schools in the territory, most on the island of Oahu, to visit with students and to thank the teachers for their work and dedication.
Though technically a pastor and not an educator, Watts is a strong proponent for a good education that will help young people build solid professional foundations that will in turn enable them to add value to people’s lives as well as provide for themselves and their future families. But most importantly, he is passionate about the value of a quality Adventist education beyond the academics. “I believe every child needs to be given the opportunity to come to the foot of the cross,” he said.
In his role as Hawaii Conference president, Watts also worked closely with the pastoral team, healthcare professionals, church members, and conference staff to “Reach Hawaii—Each One Reach One,” the Hawaii Conference’s mission statement.
Now back on the mainland, Watts looks forward to continuing his life of ministry in “reboot or refresh” mode, which he prefers to the term “retirement.”
“There is no such thing as ‘over the hill,’” he said. “Over the hill implies you’ve reached the summit. Heaven is the summit and we’re not there yet. I want to be actively engaged until Jesus comes.”
Watts’ passion for a lifetime of service is rooted in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (NKJV). His vision is to lead people to a renewed commitment to Christ, His church, and His rapidly approaching second coming.
At the time this article is published, Watts is planning to engage in humanitarian projects, not unlike many he was a part of earlier in his ministry. He believes that even in reboot (not retirement), the same core values and passion still apply, regardless of official employment status or job description. But he also recognizes that none of it is possible without the help of the Holy Spirit.
“’To whom much is given, much is required.’ I’ve been blessed in so many ways,” Watts said. “Whatever gifts He’s given me are His. I want to give them back to Him as faithfully as possible.”
By Cynthia Mendoza
Ralph Watts hugs new Hawaii Conference president Erik VanDenburgh at Watts' farewell.