Student Leaders Discuss the Direction of the Adventist Church in North America

Student Leaders Discuss the Direction of the Adventist Church in North America

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November 3, 2015

I met for lunch Monday with the student presidents of the Adventist colleges and universities in the North American Division (NAD) that make up the Adventist Intercollegiate Association (AIA). They have been at the NAD Year-end Meeting as members of the division's Executive Committee, representing their school's student bodies. Throughout the meetings, they have been very engaged in the work of the Executive Committee, speaking from the floor, serving on sub-committees, offering prayers for the governing body, and taking the occasional selfie with division leaders.

During my lunch meeting with the student leaders, conversation turned to the topic of women's ordination. The discussion was informed, nuanced, and lively. The stereotypical view of the younger generation of North American Adventists that they are apathetic about the church or disengaged from the church's business was certainly disproven with this select group. 


Nic Miller (PUC), Dan Jackson (NAD president), Tania Acuna (LSU), Henry Huynh (SWAU), Kyle Smith (Oakwood), Nisha Johnny (Burman), and Debbie Pinto (Union) pose for a selfie after a business session. Courtesy Debbie Pinto.

After our lunch in the General Conference cafeteria, we talked together about the NAD Year-end Meeting, the place of young adults in church leadership, and what these young leaders find worrisome...and encouraging about their Seventh-day Adventist denomination. The transcription of the conversation, with a few small edits for clarity, follows.

What has been your experience at the North American Division Year-end Meeting so far?

 My experience here at the Year-end Meeting has been an educational one. I feel like I’m walking away with a far better understanding of what the Adventist Church in North America looks like and how it functions. 

 [My experience has been] a lot better than the General Conference. After GC I was depressed for two weeks, and so it’s really nice to see all the hard work that is put in and what they actually do in terms of administration in the NAD Executive Committee. I’ve been in the nominating committee, and that’s been a positive experience too.

 I think it was encouraging because you get to see that the church is talking about issues that we don’t think they talk about because not everybody gets to come to these meetings. It is encouraging to see they are including young adults, they are talking about human sexuality, they are talking about ordination and all those things. [Editor’s note: there was no discussion of the ordination of women, but there were many discussions about advancing women in leadership in the North American Division and about providing resources to equip and train women pastors.]

What moment or moments were particularly memorable for you?

 Jackson singing. (Laughter)

 A few of the moments that have been the most impressive so far have been hearing the current state of our education system and our church structure—how necessary change is—and to hear the importance that the church is placing on women in ministry and reaching other multi-lingual congregations and how the church is being forward-thinking now for us in the future. 

 There have been three, to me, monumental moments during these meetings. The first would be the discussion on human sexuality. The second would be our discussion on education, and the third would be today’s conversation about the structuring of the church. We’ve noted that a lot of times we don’t get to hear about what’s going on in these meetings, and for a lot of people, they feel like the church is not moving in any forward direction. But when we’re in these meetings we hear what’s going on with these committees and how there’s a lot of thought going into what the church is going to look like in the future.

 Two things: the first is the overall acceptance that at least I have experienced from the administrators, particularly Elder Jackson in that regard. He’s always very intentional about coming to us and having a lively discussion, maybe making a few jokes. He’s very personable, very friendly. And I’ve felt the same way with other pastors and administrators—they want to talk to you and want to meet you, to get to know you. So that warmth has been very inviting for me. The second thing…I came here a little despairing as to the future and the relevance of our church as an organization. Being a part of these meetings has opened my eyes to the fact that we are working and trying to maintain relevance while not sacrificing biblical truth. It has restored my faith in the church, and I’m excited to continue being a part of this movement.

 A pivotal moment for me here happened when I received the documents about the human sexuality discussion. Reading through those, being encouraged that it seems like the church here in North America is grasping and is portraying a picture that is long overdue—what the law of God looks like in relation to the love of God. I feel like they have too often been separated, when I don’t think they can exist separated. It was really encouraging to me to see that put in paper through the documents that were handed out to us. 

 When we were talking about human sexuality I was quite impressed. I know the standpoint that the Seventh-day Adventist Church takes when it comes to homosexuality…I was actually really happy to reconfirm that their standpoint still continues, and it’s based on compassion and love and equality—that God, despite our sinful tendencies still sees us with love. The church recognizes that God doesn’t push anyone away. Instead we call people to come to God.

How much a part of what is going on here do you feel? How integrated do you feel into this governing body—the North American Division Executive Committee?

 I think we’ve been included to the extent that we can be included. Having a temporary, one-year position, it’s hard to transition fully into membership, of knowing these people on a consistent basis. That being said, I felt that having full voice and vote and being encouraged to contribute—and when we do contribute, being listened to—they’ve done as good a job as can be expected considering our specific positions.

 I think the NAD has come a long way in the sense that we have come to the place that we have a voice and vote now. At the same time, it would be great if we could be part of the committees that work on documents like the human sexuality document. Yes, we do have only a one year term, but it would be great to be in touch with the NAD representatives during that one year term. We don’t really hear from them until we come to the meetings for this one week. But we’re thankful for what we have so far!

 I mentioned that I was part of the nominating committee. When I entered the room for the first time, I sat in the back because there were only a few chairs left around the table. Elder Bryant went and found me (I don’t even know him), and he asked me to get up. Then he rolled my seat from the back to the front. He sat me right next to him and President Jackson. He allowed me to speak—and I know he would rush a couple of other people when they were speaking—but there was one time that we had passed the point of discussion, but I wanted to add something. So he let me come back and speak, and he gave me time. I was never rushed. And they had me count the ballots, so that was awesome. They’re so willing to hear our voice, and that was a really big encouragement to me.

What did you think of comments from the members of the Executive Committee about “our young people,” particularly referring to you on topics like the sexuality document?

 I think it was a mixed feeling, there were two feelings there. One, the recognition was exciting. We like being recognized knowing that our opinions are important, and we want to be heard. Two, the opposite feeling of—and we talked a little bit together as a group about how—we wish it was more common, that they wouldn’t have to say “Well what do the young adults need to say?” We’re just members, you know? We’re just another part of the delegates. So we don’t really need that extra recognition. 

 I really appreciate that they allow us to speak about the topics, and how they integrate us into the conversation. At the same time, like she said, they do recognize that we are hear as young adults to represent our universities and our student bodies, and to speak on their behalf. 

 My thoughts are along the same line as Debbie’s. In the meetings, we’re consistently referred to as the young people. Well the opposite of that would be old people. When we think of calling a certain segment “old people” it maybe sounds a little negative. So perhaps being called… “Oh, let’s hear the voice of the young people” is maybe a little bit demeaning, I don’t really know. I want us to get to the place where, like Debbie said, we don’t have to be referred to as “the young people” and “the opinion of the young people,” but instead “the delegates from AIA” or “the student delegates from PUC.” I think that gives us more credit for what we have to say. 

 I think there were also a couple of comments made implying that the young people should realize that older people know better, kind of—something along those lines. Even after the discussion was over, we were talking with other delegates who were trying to tell us, “You guys know that we have friends who are homosexual and we know where they’re coming from…” And I can’t wait for a time when we are all on the same page, that we call all look at each other—old and young—and realize that we are all here for the same reason. Because sometimes during that discussion it felt like the young people were against the old. Or at least they thought that some comments that we made seemed to be against them. Really, it wasn’t—we were just trying to shed some light on what was being said. 

 A concern of mine came, connected to what some of my peers have said, in the aspect of them asking, “What do the young people think?” As in, “Oh, let’s try to factor that in because they’re only a small portion of the church in North America.” I feel like that’s pretty narrow-minded and not thinking long-term. If we’re wanting to plan for the long term of the division, I think young people’s voices need to be seen not as the young people but as the leaders of the church in just a few years. I think it needs to be given that much say. Within a few years, all the not-young people are going to be retiring, and the young people are going to be the predominant voice that’s heard. Sure, we’ll have more wisdom and insight at that point, but I think it would be wise for “young people” to be factored in more consistently—not treated as a little addition, but as an integral part of the discussion.

At one point, Elder Jackson stopped proceedings to make a speech about the need to groom more young adults for the leadership in the North American Division Executive Committee. How well do you feel young adults are being integrated into leadership in the Adventist Church? How well are young adult voices being heard?

 In a conversation I had with a pastor yesterday, he observed the statement Nic Miller made that people in this auditorium aren’t really of child bearing age. He’s a younger pastor—mid 30’s—and he was making the observation that, “Wow, there really isn’t anybody in here who is of child-bearing age.” That just speaks to…we as young people, we’re not married yet or having kids yet. As we get older, we’re going to become a majority group. If our age group is not represented in these meetings, then when we do inherit these positions, we’re going to have to deal with a lot of issues. I observed this morning when they called all the conference and union officials, everyone up there was older people. I do think the youth need to be more integrated. I’m not talking about becoming division president tomorrow. Maybe creating internships or things of that nature where youth can be mentored under these extraordinary leaders for these positions tomorrow.

 In general, I don’t believe the youth are integrated as well as they could be or should be into leadership of the church. I don’t think there are set proportions of how many young adults need to be on the executive committees of various conferences and unions, or even the division. I think the church is improving in general, though, just with the invitation of us, as AIA leaders, and the inclusion of some younger pastors who are present here. In general I think our voices are being heard, and they’re being weighed and respected. But when the majority of voices in a conversation are 50, 60+, it’s naturally going to be a lot harder to weigh the voices of 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds…even 40-year-olds. We wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be young, but in comparison to the leadership of our church, if you just get someone who’s 40-years-old at the table, you’re going to have a much younger perspective than currently [exists].

 When we talk about the youth being part of this, I definitely agree with Kyle. Just the fact that AIA is invited to be here shows that they recognize that youth and young adults are a huge part of the church. God says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children. I think that NAD knows that youth and young adults are an important part of the church, but I don’t think they fully grasped it until now. Now there are representatives. We don’t expect to see 100 young adults in there because it won’t happen automatically. But I think change is coming, and just the fact that we are here and get to have a voice proves that they are fully grasping the idea that we are the leaders of tomorrow. We’ll be the leaders who will potentially one day work here. We will be the people who will be taking over this church.

 I think the church has done an adequate job of understanding the importance of youth. I’m just not sure they know how to integrate us into it at this point. I think the church needs to realize they can integrate us a lot earlier than they have been. By the time you hit senior pastor, you’re 30, 40…If you want to work your way into the conference, into the union, into the division, by the time you get into that position, just by the process of moving up the ladder, you’re naturally going to get to that position by the time you’re 50s, 60s. So I think, maybe finding a way to have people a little bit sooner out of college working into those positions…I’m not expecting someone right out of college, as someone else was saying, to be GC president. But you can’t start that process of grooming them for that 20 years down the line because that’s going to push the process of them getting into that position  20 years down the line. By that time you’re going to have people that are 60, 65, 70.

 If the church wants young people to stay in the church, then they need to integrate us into some of the conversation if not the committees that they have. We are here to represent our peers, the people our age, and we understand what they’re going through to be able to convey those experiences of our friends to the elders. That would help them be able to understand the younger generation better in order to keep the younger generation inside the church. If the church is going to invites us here but doesn’t let us speak, then there’s really no reason for us to be here at all. 

 Elder Jackson (or someone else) pointed out rather wisely that a lot of the people in that room have not been in the field pastoring for as much as 35 years. The field has changed dramatically—people’s lives, the ways people relate to the church have changed drastically. I think it would be a good experience for some of our big-time administrators who have been in these positions for years to go back down and pastor a church for a couple of months and see how different things are. I think that would help to influence their decisions in a more experiential way. They’re still making decisions based on their paradigm, and that paradigm, I believe, has completely shifted. I think if we’re going to get the continuity we’re looking for in young people across the board, everyone has to be experiencing the same thing in order for us to have a level of understanding.

 I actually think the church is doing a really good job of integrating the youth, through this process right here, and in terms of finding leadership roles, I think that is up to the student or up to the youth. I don’t think we should expect the church to find a spot for us to go into when we should work ourselves to go get it. There are many opportunities for us in the church to go be leaders. You just have to go find it, whether it be youth ministry, or children’s church, summer camps or colporteuring…all of these places offer opportunities for college students like ourselves to be leaders on a bigger scale. Eventually, you can work your way into it. Small experiences like that really come down to the student working for it. I don’t think we should expect the church to open up tons of leadership opportunities for us when there already are a lot of them available.

What things do you find concerning or feel could be going better in the Adventist Church?

 I was a little disappointed with the sexuality document that was presented. I know a couple of my peers spoke up that day and consider a relationship aspect. They forget—they’re handing us this document that we actually have to go and live with people. Some of our brothers and our cousins and our classmates—so many of our classmates—fall into those groups, and that’s not a friendly document to address and to talk about. So I was disappointed. I’m happy, I’m really happy that we’re having this conversation…. The other thing is that I don’t think there was enough diversity within the [Executive] Committee—theological diversity. I would have liked to have seen very specific people within our church who I know are highly educated and have done extensive research on that.

 I don’t think I’m disappointed in anything that has been presented so far in this meeting, but my strong concern today was about the restructuring. [Editor’s note: A committee tasked with proposals for restructuring the allocation of resources and personnel inside the North American Division, including the possibility of consolidating or even eliminating conferences, presented several ideas for consideration.] I think we all know that God gives us an abundance of blessings and provides us with resources, but how effectively are we using these resources? Somebody brought up that something like 98% of people said they’d be willing to give up their jobs for the expansion of the church. I said, “Wow, that’s amazing that so many people would be willing to do that. But are you really going to give up your job for the expansion of the church?” We have to think, are we using everything that God has given us thus far in the way we should be using it? Are we being good stewards of what he gives us?

What’s going well, or makes you feel excited or encouraged about the Adventist Church?

 I think it’s really awesome that we have a document you can reference now in terms of views on human sexuality. In the past, there hasn’t been that hard copy of a document that we can say, “This is our actual view.” I think that is a huge step. And something that would concern me is the rate at which people area leaving the church and the rate at which people are not supporting the church [financially]. I think we need to strategize and find things people can get behind and sponsor in terms of education and tithe dollars.

 It’s really exciting to see our church working so hard toward answering questions that our church, regardless of which generation is represented, is asking. It tells me that the church cares. The people who sit on these committees are people who do want to find answers. What I wish we could see would be more critical thought involved. I think Tania mentioned that she wished there were more diversity, whether that be theological or whatever perspectives we want to bring to the table. But I want to see us think more critically. We have beautiful biblical principles and values, but I don’t want us to just reaffirm what we already believe. I want us to think critically so we can better understand where everybody else is coming from.

 I’m very appreciative that there’s been a dialogue occurring here at the Year-end Meetings, and in the various committees that have been meeting over the year presenting various perspectives and thoughts, but I’m concerned that we’ll continue to go from crisis to crisis until ultimately we’re forced to change into a situation that might not have been preferred if we had acted earlier. I am hopeful that our church will decide to take action and not just dialogue in the upcoming years, especially in regard to education with our schools closing, in regard to stewardship with our tithes dropping, and with regard to church planting and church growth with that decreasing relative to national [population] growth. But I am excited to see God’s hand moving. I think God’s presence is still clearly seen in the Adventist Church. 

 As a church sometimes we forget that we’re dealing with real people behind the acronyms and behind the ordination issue. Sometimes we get so caught up in the specific Bible verse or word, and it would be great if we could go beyond that and actually show love. Even the human sexuality document doesn’t give us specific, practical ways to show love, even though it does talk about that. It would be great to focus on that and realize that we have to show love to people that are different.

 

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

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