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Family Ministries directors Elaine and Willie Oliver tell us about the plans for this weekend's conference, who will be there, and what they will talk about. They share important advice for Adventist families around the world, tell us why we sometimes need to be counter-cultural, and explain why they are bullish on families.
Question: An Adventist conference on family relations begins in a few days in Kenya. How many will attend? Who will be there?
Elaine Oliver: The Adventist Pan-African Conference on Dynamic Family Relations is being planned for March 1 to 3, 2018, on the campus of the Adventist University of Africa, located at Advent Hill, near the village of Ongata Rongai, just outside the city limits of Nairobi, Kenya.
While the event is primarily targeting union presidents and union directors of Family Ministries of the three divisions in Africa (East-Central Africa, Southern Africa-Indian Ocean, and West-Central Africa)—most of whom we expect will be in attendance—we are also anticipating all three of the division presidents, several Adventist university presidents in Africa or their representatives, a number of the faculty and staff of the Adventist University of Africa, and the entire leadership of the East-Central Africa Division, given that their campus is immediately adjacent to the university's.
Our working number is 150 participants, but the interest in this event is high and may reach as high as 200 participants.
The stated purpose of the conference is to "take a closer look at several family practices in Africa to make sure they are biblically sound or in need of seeking greater realignment with the Bible.” What practices are referred to here?
Willie Oliver: Regardless of where “the Church” exists on earth, it is embedded in an immediate context that invariably impacts the life practices of church members in that area of the world. So that the church in Southeast Asia, or in Western Europe, or in South America, or in North America—to name a few places—would encounter family challenges that are native to those regions and which may be slightly different than the primary concerns in other parts of the world. Since the Bible is our rule of faith, as Seventh-day Adventist Christians we aim to look at the prevailing practices in our family lives, as illuminated by the counsel of God’s Word, to determine what adjustments need to be made for maximum relational health. This is exactly what we are hoping to accomplish at this gathering.
Divorce, polygamy, and lobola are all referenced in the printed program. Is there a specific and topical worry that church leadership has when it comes to family relations in this part of the world?
Elaine Oliver: As we already mentioned, we tend to take very seriously the missiological notion of critical contextualization, so we attempt to scratch where people are itching. Worry is not the characterization we would employ. Intentionality would be much more appropriate to describe our principal modus operandi.
These types of conferences are very financially costly, labor-intensive, and require tremendous human capital to bring to fruition. Therefore, the content of the presentations must be germane to the problem evidenced by the challenges found in the geographical areas being served.
The three topics you referenced, to a great degree, are all relevant to the way family relations are negotiated in the great continent of Africa, hence, their prominence in the line-up of presentations at this conference.
Can you describe any more specific challenges families in Africa face when it comes to family relations that might not be so apparent in other parts of the world? Are there any local challenges, or are they really the same wherever you go?
Willie Oliver: Families, the world over, are more alike than they are unalike. Effective communication, conflict resolution, genuine love and acceptance, patience, kindness, and forgiveness are all dynamics and processes that impact families all over the globe.
Nevertheless, there are family relations that generally tend to be more prominent in Africa than in other places. Polygamy, for example, is an accepted practice among many cultural groups in Africa—unlike most Western cultures. This means, that for many who grew up in polygamous families, monogamy is simply not programmed in their DNA. This means that the message of Philippians 2:5, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” would need to take root in the life of a believer who wants to be a true disciple of Jesus.
This is not unlike many practices in the West—like cohabiting without marriage—which is normative in many Western societies. To be sure, the person who wants to live a life of obedience to God will need to be counter-cultural, despite the natural pull to what is validated by the culture in which they live.
Power relations between men and women is also a huge deal in Africa. Of course, this is also true in the West although not as pervasive as it is in Africa. It is ironic that while Americans, for example, tend to see Africa not as evolved in egalitarian relationships, there have been several female presidents of countries in Africa while we have yet to elect a woman president in the United States of America.
You are the directors of the General Conference's Department of Family Ministries. Your department is coordinating the conference, along with the East-Central Africa Division, Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division, and West-Central Africa Division, is that right? Who planned the program?
Elaine Oliver: This conference evolved from the Division Advisories that took place in 2016.
For those who may not be aware of the way ministry is structured in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, every five years we have a world business meeting where world leadership for the church is elected. We call that a General Conference Session. The year after each General Conference Session, every department or service of the world church—including Family Ministries—hosts an advisory with all of their division counterparts to cast a vision for that ministry for the ensuing quinquennium (five-year period). Subsequently, every world division replicates that gathering with all their union counterparts to further refine and contextualize the vision so that we are all singing from the same page.
During our advisories with each of the three African divisions, what began to emerge was a need to further discuss salient issues the division and union directors were concerned about, finally evolving into the Pan-African Conference. So, together, by Zoom (satellite video) and email communication with our three African division directors of Family Ministries, we agreed on the topics to be discussed, as well as the speakers and venue for the event.
The program boasts an array of speakers. The two of you will host evening vespers. What do you hope to get across to your listeners at your presentation?
Willie Oliver: Indeed, the program does have several excellent speakers, and because of our position, we also get to speak at the very end of the conference—during vespers on Sabbath evening. The topic we are presenting is “Leaving with Stronger, Healthier, and More Dynamic Family Relations.” This topic is universal and can be presented almost anywhere in the world, with almost identical language and with similar impact.
Our main lesson, to be sure, is mostly the same. Rather than a tutorial embedded in human culture and reality, the challenge we bring to our listeners everywhere we go is to live by the values of God’s kingdom as expressed in God’s Word. While simple, it isn’t simplistic.
To be more precise, the message is transcendental and transformational if lived out in our relationships every day. The core of the teaching is found in 1 Corinthians 13:4, “Love is patient, love is kind.” If every family relationship in Africa, after this conference, could be characterized by these simple concepts—patience and kindness—our African families would be healthier and stronger. The truth is, this would be true of families in any region of the world.
Will the ordination of women be referenced at the conference? One speaker will be talking about "the foundation for balanced leadership in marriage." Does the Adventist church challenge a more traditional view of "male headship" found in some parts of Africa?
Elaine Oliver: The ordination of women is not among the topics that will be presented at this conference since this is a family conference meant to impact relationships in marriage and the family rather than the governance/leadership models of the church.
Also, we simply do not have the time to speak to all the important issues we wish we could that are germane to stronger and healthier families. Of course, when we talk about optimum family relations, especially in marriage, the Bible and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy advance a very egalitarian although often misunderstood perspective. As such, there will be presentations that will speak to the biblical and Spirit of Prophecy notions of balanced leadership in marriage for optimum family relations. Which, by the way, are needed in every culture around the world.
What do you consider to be the best possible outcome of the conference? How will families in the three African divisions feel more supported by their church after the conference?
Willie Oliver: We hope this conference will be consciousness-raising, that a new awareness of the brokenness found in our families will become crystallized, and that the remedies God has left us in His Word to treat those maladies can be identified.
Because we all have blind spots, it is our hope this conference will shine a light in often ignored places where family life is lived in African cultures so that the blessings God has prepared for His people can be embraced in the days ahead.
The three African Divisions are very aware of our support, and we desire to be helpful to their needs. In fact, just last year, the Adventist University of Africa graduated 10 Doctor of Ministry candidates in the area of marriage and family. We are pretty proud to say that we were privileged to teach an intensive to that cohort of students/pastors who are already using their skills to enhance family relations in several countries of Africa.
You have both worked in family ministries for many years, publishing books, hosting workshops and seminars, speaking at conferences, and counselling in small groups. What are some of the most important things you have learned through this wealth of experience?
Elaine Oliver: We have learned that the essential problematic in family relations is that which is fundamental to every human frailty: selfishness. When people go into marriage thinking “what can I get?” rather than “what can I give?” expectations are never met and the excitement wanes quickly. On the other hand, when people go into marriage, parenting, or any other meaningful relationship with the approach of “what can I give?”, they are seldom disappointed and find fulfillment beyond their wildest dreams.
Also, when people in relationships learn to communicate better—which comes by learning to listen better and respond to the feelings of the other person rather than trying to defend themselves—their relationship flourishes.
In what ways have you seen family relations change during the time of your ministry so far?
Willie Oliver: During our time in Family Ministries, we’ve seen books written, conferences held, personnel trained, and enthusiasm grow. The truth is this: knowledge is power. What’s most gratifying is watching people experience an “aha” moment when they learn and practice relational skills that enhance their marriage and family relationships. Nothing succeeds like success.
So we are bullish on families and family relationships despite the bad news of families fracturing and marriages dissolving. What we know is that with God all things are possible. The knowledge of God’s presence makes us confident in the reality that every relationship that wants to grow can. We are eternal optimists.
What are the biggest challenges your Family Ministries Department faces? What plans do you have for the coming year or two?
Elaine Oliver: The biggest challenge to Family Ministries is growing discouraged and feeling defeated.
But every time we speak for conferences or leadership training anywhere in the world, we grow optimistic that God’s truth about family relationships is marching on. While as a team we are trained in theology, sociology, psychology and counseling, we know that most of the content that makes relationships work is found in the Word of God. To be sure, we are aware of the social scientific theories that try to connect the dots for healthy relationships, and that is terrific. However, the concepts, values, and skills for developing effective family relationships were given by God a long time ago, and if we tune into them by turning to His Word, anything is possible.
About plans for the future, at the General Conference we plan in five-year intervals. When we have our world advisory the year after a General Conference Session, it is to cast a vision for the remainder of the quinquennium. Pieces of that vision inform our work through 2020, which in large part is the same vision for the entire world church under the theme Reach the World. In Family Ministries, we express it as Reaching Families for Jesus. Everything we do in Family Ministries, whether leadership training events, family conferences, marriage conferences, parenting conferences, family evangelism series, the annual curriculum we publish each year to resource Christian Home and Marriage Week in February and Family Togetherness Week in September (available in multiple languages at family.adventist.org), or recording a new season of our Real Family Talk with Willie and Elaine Oliver television program on Hope Channel, or the columns we write in Adventist World Online or Message Magazine, it is all about Reaching Families for Jesus.
So our plans are much more strategic than simply helping couples to have a better marriage or parents to manage their families successfully. We want to encourage Total Family Involvement, a spin-off of the world church’s Total Member Involvement initiative, to enlist the assistance of Adventist families around the world to help prepare people for the coming of the Lord.
One big thing happening in 2019 is the celebration of 100 years of Family Ministries in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We plan to highlight this reality during the 2019 Annual Council—the last one before the 2020 General Conference Session taking place in Indianapolis, Indiana. Most of the Divisions around the world will also be marking this important centennial in some form, and we are scheduled to participate in several of them.
Is there one important piece of advice you find yourself repeating over and over to husbands, wives, children? Can you leave us with that?
Willie Oliver: Of course. Regardless of what the event is, or what the occasion, we find ourselves repeating the refrain of 1 Corinthians 13:4, “Love is patient, love is kind” over and over again. And the message of James 1:19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
If Adventist families all over the world internalized and practiced these two concepts in their families each day, our church would be a warmer, friendlier, and healthier place, and Jesus would come very soon.
Image courtesy of Elaine and Willie Oliver.
Willie and Elaine Oliver are directors of the Department of Family Ministries for the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church World Headquarters since June 2010. An ordained minister, Willie Oliver holds a Ph.D. in Family Sociology; an M.A. in Pastoral Counseling; an M.A. in Sociology; and a B.A. in Theology. He is an adjunct professor of Family Ministries at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University and of the Adventist University of Africa. Elaine Oliver holds an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling; an M.A. in Counseling Psychology; an M.A. in Higher and Adult Education; and a B.S. in business management and accounting. She is an adjunct professor of Family Ministries at the Adventist University of Africa.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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