Dan Weber, communications director of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, reflects back on his time as a student missionary at a boarding school in Iceland, and how it changed his life.
Question: While you were in college at Andrews University in the late 1980s, you applied to work as boy's dean at the Adventist boarding school in Iceland. What made you want to leave Andrews and go so far away to do something so different?
Answer: That’s a rather long story. The simplified version is I was burned out from school and had decided I wasn’t going back. I really felt that I needed to be doing something else. God provided the opportunity to go to Iceland. In some ways, I had my Jonah moment and God put me far away from home where I could discover who I was and what He wanted me to do with my life.
I wouldn’t be working for the church, or possibly even be an Adventist, if I hadn’t gone to Iceland as a student missionary. My mother deserves all the credit as she is the one who found out about the opening in Iceland and pushed me to contact the Missions Office at Andrews.
You were still a young person who didn't even have a college degree. Why do you think you got the job? Were you surprised?
The Student Missions program was desperate to find someone to go to Iceland, so they waived most of the requirements so I could go. I should have taken a class at Andrews to prepare me to go as a student missionary, but the position needed to be filled and I was available. And yes, I was surprised. It was probably a good thing that I didn’t have much time to think about it.
All I remember was accepting the call to go, and then being on a plane. The flight I took went from Chicago to Reykjavik and I woke up in the middle of the flight as we were flying over Greenland and I could see all the snow and ice on the glaciers and thinking to myself: “What have I done?”
Dan overlooking a waterfall, photo by Gummi Ibsen (2019).
What did your friends and family and professors at Andrews say about your decision?
Most of my professors didn’t know I was going. I found out about the position in July of 1988 and after being accepted I only had six weeks to prepare, including getting a passport, which showed up two days before I left. I also needed to fundraise for an airline ticket. It was a “God thing” that it all worked out, which made me feel like He wanted me there. My family was excited about my going. One of my uncles paid for my ticket and my grandparents were overjoyed. Our family had a long history of mission service, so for them there wasn’t even a question of why I should go. My father was apprehensive because he had left the church, but coming from Europe himself he was open to my going.
What was the boys' dean job like? How long did you stay there?
I was in Iceland for two years and my job consisted of assistant boy’s dean and teaching PE classes. Being a dean for students aged 13–16 wasn’t easy, but I had attended boarding school in academy, so I relied on what I had seen the deans there do when it came to supervising a dorm. One other aspect that really helped was that I came from a home impacted by divorce, which helped me relate to the majority of the boys under my care. They were mainly non-Adventists and had been sent to the school because they were having problems at home, or their parents were getting divorced. I could relate to them on many levels.
My job title was assistant dean, but the head dean was also the business manager and helped support his parent’s business in Reykjavik, which meant he was often away from the dorm. In some ways, I became a surrogate parent to several of the boys, and still am in contact with some via social media.
How did that time in Iceland impact your life?
Serving in Iceland helped me realize that God was in control of my life and if I was open to serving Him, He would use me as He saw fit. Maybe that’s a clichéd thing to say, but I feel a deep sense of comfort in knowing God will take care of me and my family. Over the years that point has been proven again and again.
Being away from my family and out of my “comfort zone” was a real blessing. It forced me to discover who I was and new talents and skills I never knew I had. Before going as a student missionary, I was very shy and didn’t like public speaking. Being put in a leadership position where others relied on you, made me look inside myself and find a strength I never knew was there.
I believe you met your wife in Iceland? Can you tell us about that?
My wife Heidi came my second year in Iceland. She was a student at Atlantic Union College, and in Iceland she worked in the girls’ dorm and helped in the kitchen. We started hanging out as friends but very quickly discovered we had common cultural backgrounds and a relationship soon developed.
It’s kind of strange that I had to travel all the way to a small island in the North Atlantic to find another American, but we probably would never have met otherwise. For both of us, it really was a God thing. We have been married almost 29 years now and the bond we both found in Iceland is still going strong. I can’t imagine my life without her.
Dan and Heidi in Iceland in 2019.
What did you do next? Did you go back to Andrews?
I ended up going back to Andrews, where Heidi joined me and took pre-physical therapy classes. I graduated in 1991 with a photography degree and we were married that summer and moved to Sacramento, where I started working as a freelance photographer.
And briefly, what were the stepping-stones that led from a job as a freelance photographer to North American Division communication director?
I ran my own photography business for seven years before going to work for a software/services company for five years. In 2002 the General Conference asked me to come and work on the church’s first weekly news program, Adventist Newsline, which was produced by the General Conference’s communication department and the Adventist Television Network (the precursor to the Hope Channel).
The show was cancelled at the end of 2003 and I was promoted to be senior producer at the Hope Channel, but felt my true calling was gathering stories in the field. In 2005 I accepted the position of producer of the Adventist Mission DVD for Adventist Mission, which at the time was run out of GC Presidential. The job afforded me the wonderful opportunity of traveling throughout the world to capture stories focusing on the mission work of the church. Between 2005 and 2012 I visited close to 100 countries and produced roughly 350 stories for Adventist Mission.
In 2012 I was asked by the North American Division to take the position of associate director of communication. I became the director in January of 2014, after the former director took a position at Oakwood University.
And you have had an ongoing relationship with Iceland?
We returned back to Iceland for the first time in 2000. It was kind of a 10-year reunion for those of us who had worked at the school and many of our students joined us for a dinner held on the campus. That resulted in us returning again in 2002 and 2003. The introduction of social media helped us to connect with many old friends from Iceland. We found ourselves introducing several friends from our local church to Iceland in 2015, and we have returned several times since then, as living on the East Coast makes it a relatively easy trip to make.
In September, you organized a photography workshop in Iceland for Adventist photographers from Europe and North America. What was the purpose of that workshop? How did it go? Why did you feel Iceland was the right location?
In 2018 I was in a discussion with my colleagues at the Trans-European and Inter-European Divisions of the church. We wanted to hold a tri-division training event for communicators and the idea of holding a photo/video workshop in Iceland developed. Iceland is an attractive place for photography and we knew that the former school could serve as a wonderful location to base ourselves.
We worked out a seven-day workshop that would allow us to visit many of the picturesque places along the southern coast of Iceland, while keeping the cost down. Many Iceland photo workshops cost around $5,000 and we were able to do it for $1,700 plus airfare. This included lodging, food, transportation, and instruction. We had 12 people attend from diverse places and it was an incredible experience.
The main goal of the workshop was to learn about photography/videography, but it also provided an opportunity to learn about people of different cultures through the diversity represented in those taking part. The result of the workshop went beyond my expectations and I hope that we can replicate it again soon. It was incredible to see how everyone got along and when we focused on the beautiful scenery, our differences disappeared. For an organization worried about unity, the workshop should be an example of what can happen when we don’t focus on our differences.
So the Adventist school where you worked in Iceland has been closed?
The school closed around 1996. There were several things that contributed to its closing, though I can’t speak to the official reasons. The conference had opened a day school in Reykjavik in the early 1990s and a decision was made to focus on that ministry instead of operating a boarding school. The school is still owned by the conference, but they rent it out to several church members who keep it maintained and make it available to groups that can rent it out for meetings or gatherings. It was perfect for our photo workshop in September.
Seljalandsfoss waterfall, photo by Dan Weber (2019).
What advice would you have to Adventist young people who are thinking about going somewhere very different and doing something very different, as you did? Does that course of action hold risks for a potential academic or career ladder? What might make it worthwhile?
I fully endorse student missions, or any program that can provide an opportunity for personal growth beyond our typical educational programs. To be honest, when I am looking over job applications, I always make a mental note when I see that someone has done a year or two of mission service. I have never found a person that didn’t have a life changing experience when serving others.
I just finished producing a documentary film on the family of Kirsten Wolcott, the student missionary murdered in Yap in 2009. Her parents fully endorse student missions, even though they lost their daughter while she was serving as a student missionary. Anything that can take us out of our “comfort zone” and force us to grow spiritually and culturally is a good experience.
What experience have you had that has been most influential in getting you to the job of North American Division communication director that you hold now? What do you most like about your job? What do you find to be the biggest challenge in your job?
When I came to work for the church in 2002, I reflected on all my life experiences and realized that it was a combination of several things that had prepared me for that exact moment in time. From my time as a student missionary, to running my own business and then working in the corporate world, to the small things like being a young adult leader at my local church.
All of it prepared me to make the transition from working in the secular world to the church, but it was my time working at the General Conference and capturing the mission stories from all over the world that best prepared me for the North American Division. I gained a fuller appreciation for the global church and the role the NAD plays in it.
I have been at the North American Division for more than seven years now and my greatest joy comes from working with my administration and co-workers. The NAD truly is a family and a wonderful place to work and grow professionally. Several years ago my father suddenly passed away and I was deeply touched by the response of my colleagues. Several of them flew halfway across the country to attend his funeral and to this day I still feel the support and love from them.
Working at the North American Division can be difficult because sometimes it feels like everything we do is under a microscope and will be evaluated, but the support I receive from my co-workers and colleagues at the division, union, and conference levels is greatly appreciated. To know that we all are focused on the mission of the church, even though we may each operate in different ways to meet the needs of our local constituents, is very affirming. Working in a place that celebrates diversity in thought and approach to mission gives me hope for my church.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Main Photo: Dan and Heidi in Iceland when they met 30 years ago. Photos courtesy of Dan Weber.
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