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Embracing ministry outside Adventism


Former Adventist theology major Burton Villaverde talks to Don Barton about his work in a dynamic ministry outside Adventism.

With the advent of social media staying in touch with friends and acquaintances, both past and present, has become as easy as clicking a mouse. 

I attended PUC in the late 1970s and was a theology major (until I switched a semester before graduation). I recently went on Facebook and tried to track down some of my former classmates from my theology major days. What I found surprised me. There are those who have thriving ministries in the denomination, while others have moved on to careers unrelated to spiritual pursuits. But some, more than I would have expected, have active ministries with other denominations. I contacted a few of these classmates to find out what caused such a major life change. 

The first interview was with Burton Villaverde, who is now a pastor with the Grove Community Church in Riverside, California. 

Don Barton: Where did you grow up and how were you raised?

Pastor Burton Villaverde: I was brought up Seventh-day Adventist and we lived in Southern California.  The biggest influence was from my grandparents who were also Adventists. My grandfather studied theology in college at PUC, in Angwin, CA. I also exclusively attended Adventist schools after the 7th grade.

For college, I attended Pacific Union College and eventually graduated from La Sierra University with degree in theology.  While in college I worked at Adventist summer camps and found a passion for ministry and working with young people.

Upon graduating I had an offer to go to the Philippines for a few years.  My other option was to get my Masters of Divinity at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary in Berrien Springs, MI.  Neither one of those options was feasible at the time, so after graduating I had no viable job in my field of study.

I eventually found a job doing construction at a trailer home park that first summer.  My wife had just graduated as well.  I ended up working at the trailer park for five years. 

DB: Did you get involved in ministry at the local Seventh-day Adventist church?

BV: It was during this time that I stopped going to the local SDA church and eventually started working on Saturdays and Sundays. There was a certain level of disappointment after investing all that time and money and not having any security at the end.  I decided to challenge my beliefs, albeit in an immature way.  Was something bad going to happen to me if I “broke” the Sabbath, or stopped going to church altogether?  At the time I didn’t embrace the Bible either.  It was a spiritual drought that lasted about 10 years.  In 1987, I looked for a more stable job with benefits and ended up working in Law Enforcement with the State of California for the next 24 years. 

DB: When did you start going back to church?

BV: In 1990 some friends invited us to come to their church. This was not a Seventh-day Adventist church. Due to my work schedule, we attended off and on.  We eventually joined a small group ministry at another church in 1997.  One night while sitting in the car with my wife before attending a small group ministry, frustrated with unresolved issues, I realized that I was 40 years old and was very unhappy with the direction of my life.  I had no real purpose.  Just then Matthew 6:33 came to mind and sensing an overwhelming need for God, I recommitted my life to Him right there in the car.  I told God I wanted to know Him 100%, whatever that may look like, and whatever it would take.  And God heard my call. 

DB: What happened next?

BV: I continued to attend the small group ministry organized by the Grove Community Church in Riverside, CA (then Victoria Community Church).  At first I only went and observed, but didn’t really participate.  Over time I found myself more and more involved.  Soon I was asked to be a co-leader, then leader.  After several years as a volunteer leading out in various small groups, I was offered a part-time staff member position as assistant to the Director of Small Group Ministries.  In 2012, I was asked to be the full time Director of Small Group Ministries.  We currently have about 50 small groups with 750-800 members participating.  It’s a challenge, but it is also my passion and is what God has put in my heart to do.

DB: Growing up Adventist, was it difficult to embrace a Sunday-keeping church?

BV: Sure! The church we were attending at the time was meeting at the same place where I did my internship when I was a theology major at La Sierra University. I remember saying to myself, “This is interesting. . .”  I realized I still had challenges with the Sabbath and other Adventists issues, but I also knew this was where God wanted me to be.

DB: How were you able to justify in your mind not going to church on Saturday, when the Fourth Commandment is so clear on the issue?

BV:  I struggled with the teaching that if you break one commandment, it is as if you have broken them all. For a time I felt I was breaking the fourth commandment by going to church on Sunday. Then I took a class offered by our Church called “Jewish Roots” taught by a Jewish woman, and came to see the Sabbath day in a different context, especially when experienced in the light of old and new covenant.

DB: Is there anything you would like to say in summary?

BV: I have realized that you must keep your priorities in the correct ranking. First, you must have a dynamic, thriving relationship with Christ, second is your family and third, your work. We have many people of different faiths coming to the Grove. I asked them when they visit why they’ve come.  I tell them if it isn’t for a real living faith in Jesus Christ, then it is just “doing religion.”  A false sense of security in doing good and moral behavior alone will only hinder your spiritual aliveness in God.  It is my passion in the small group ministry to help people ask that question, and help them and guide them in their relentless pursuit of God, especially through the tough times. To help people pursue God and experience His transforming power in their lives changes me and those God places in my path. It’s a humbling thought to believe God has chosen me for this ministry.

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