SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (Oct. 22, 2023)—Nearly 250 Seventh-day Adventist communication professionals and students converged in Western Massachusetts for the Society of Adventist Communicators (SAC) convention on October 19–21, 2023.
Since returning to an in-person gathering in 2022 after two years of virtual conventions, attendance has rebounded, with student delegations from Andrews University, Southern Adventist University, Southwestern Adventist University, Oakwood University, and Walla Walla University.
The 34th yearly conference provided attendees learning and networking opportunities with professionals in and outside Adventism. Session topics included crisis communication, social media, photography, and writing.
Artificial Intelligence a Source of Discussion Throughout Event
Convention organizers devoted a significant amount of time to tackling the subject of artificial intelligence and what it means for the future of Adventist church communication.
During a panel discussion on the first day, AI expert Ernesto Hernandez, a media specialist for the Washington Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, told attendees that AI-related skills are sought after by hiring organizations, similar to how Microsoft Office skills were sought during the 1990s. “AI won’t take your job,” Hernandez said. “Someone who knows how to use AI will take your job.”
Later, in a breakout seminar, he pointed out that AI is in its early stages, but the earlier a person learns how to use it, the more fluent they will become in using it. Hernandez also said that education on the topic is needed for church administrators, warning that Adventist churches risk falling further behind in media development if Adventist professionals don’t embrace AI.
Drawing from that idea, Southern Union communication director and former SAC president Bryant Taylor introduced the attendees to a series of AI-based tools and services during his annual “TechTalk” on October 20. These included “Midjourney,” an image generation algorithm, and “Firefly,” a new design generation tool recently unveiled by Adobe.
“No matter what, AI is something that is not just coming—it’s here,” said Nate Van Kirk, a junior film major at Walla Walla University. Van Kirk said there is no question about embracing the new technology. “We are embracing it because we have to, because the world is going to.”
“It’s a huge piece of everything we do now, and it’s hard, especially as a writer, not to approach it with an attitude of fear,” added Becky St. Clair, a freelance writer based in Angwin, California. “It was incredibly helpful to have someone specifically address that fear and dispel it with methods for approaching AI in a more positive, useful way!”
Speakers Give Career Advice, Embrace the Sabbath, Encourage Work-Life Balance, and Say “Keep Going!”
Erin Byrne, CEO at ThinkSisu, was the morning keynote speaker on Friday, October 20. Byrne’s talk drew extensively from her experiences in health and digital marketing. Byrne said that she thinks of communicators as “Swiss Army knives.” They need to be capable of doing everything from internal communication to event leadership. Byrne encouraged the group to embrace curiosity and push boundaries. “Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it will grow your career,” she said.
Later that day, documentary filmmaker Martin Doblmeier gave his thoughts on the Sabbath during his keynote address. His talk came on the heels of the release of his 2023 documentary, SABBATH, which was recently reviewed in The New Yorker and Spectrum. “While the practice of Sabbath can be different across traditions, what remains is the shared values,” Doblmeier said, emphasizing that practicing the Sabbath can nurture a community.
“Sabbath is countercultural. Sabbath is all about choices,” he said. “You can be in church on Sabbath but still be grinding away in your mind.”
Reading John 3:16, Doblmeier said that Christ wanted to bring a “countercultural message of love” to the world. Adventist communicators, he said, are charged to deliver that message through various forms of media to anyone who will listen. Referencing his work as a religious filmmaker, he admitted he sometimes wonders if society is listening to things of a spiritual nature. Still, he articulated his firm belief that society is listening—and interested.
Saturday, October 21, featured two speakers with memorable messages. Felecia Lee, co-founder of Compose Marketing, discussed the intersection of work-life balance and spirituality. Being too busy, Lee said, pushes you away from God. “God is not impressed by your busyness,” she said. “If the devil can’t make you sin, he’ll keep you busy.”
Amanda Hawley, pastor of the Breath of Life Fellowship Seventh-day Adventist Church in Stamford, Connecticut, centered her message around Jeremiah 20. She said Adventist communicators have more in common with the biblical prophet Jeremiah than they might think. In Jeremiah 20, “There is no song, no inspirational spirit that will lift the spirit of Jeremiah,” she said.
“Jeremiah was wrestling with whether or not he wanted to continue to be God’s messenger!” Hawley said. “Jeremiah was tired. And like Jeremiah, we are messengers. Everyone in this room is a communicator. You are the ones who give beauty to the gospel!”
“God called you, and the world needs you,” she continued. “They need only what you can give.” Hawley explained that from her perspective as a pastor, communicators are essential. While people may not return to church physically, they will listen to a podcast or watch a film, she said.
SAC Connects Communicators Across North America
The yearly gathering has emerged as a uniting force for Adventist communicators from North America.
For Nathaniel Reed, a sophomore communication student at Andrews University, SAC allowed him to make new connections. “I had never gone to any communication events before. I don’t know many people within other Adventist churches because I didn’t go to an Adventist high school. For me, it was all new connections and information.”
“I got to hear so many inspiring stories and meet so many people,” said McKenna Cameron, a junior communication film student at Oakwood University. Hearing about other professionals’ experiences reinforced her decision to major in a communication-related field. Southern Union associate communication director Christina Norris added that the convention allowed her to fellowship with her colleagues and be inspired by their work. “It motivates me to continue to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through my profession,” she said.
“I arrive feeling worn out and tired from the last year of disappointments and frustrations, and I leave feeling inspired and excited to go back and do more and better,” added St. Clair. “As a freelancer, this is where I find my work. I meet amazing people who end up being great clients, and they keep me going.”
For St. Clair, SAC provides a “home.” Being a freelancer means there isn’t one particular organization or team she can identify with. “SAC has made Adventist communicators around the globe my team, and despite meeting in a different location every year, it feels like coming home every time.”
Bridges Over Walls Podcast and Atlantic Union Communication Director Take Home Top Awards
At the award banquet on October 21, the Bridges Over Walls podcast produced by Kaleb Eisele, Mitchell Kessler, and Jonathan Russell at the Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists took home the top “Reger Smith Cutting Edge Award.” According to event organizers, the award is presented to a project demonstrating innovation in church communication.
In a post on Facebook, Eisele reacted to receiving the award, saying that it represented a turning point in the Adventist Church’s view of creative projects. “To stand in front of a large representative group of my church’s voices—the communicators—and hear powerful support for these ideas was overwhelming, but it was so, so beautiful,” he wrote. “I’m so grateful for every guest, teammate, and everyone else who has been part of this. It’s just the beginning of what we hope to grow in the PNW in the coming years.”
Atlantic Union communication director Ednor Davison was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for her 32 years of service as a communication professional within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “My time is up,” she said, grasping the moment’s gravity after being presented with the award. “And it’s not a bad thing. I have totally enjoyed the ride, even during the 18 years where I worked by myself.”
She reflected on the past, pointing out that CompuServe was the email of the day when she started, and paper interoffice memos were still being circulated. Yet, through it all, she said that she leaned on God. “No matter the challenges that come your way, he’s going to carry you through.”
A complete list of award winners will be available at www.adventistcommunicator.org at a later date.
Samuel Girven is the Special Projects Correspondent for Spectrum.
Title image by Samuel Girven.
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