Last fall, during the North American Division (NAD) 2017 Year-End Meeting, a group of history-making church leaders gathered in a conference room for a lunchtime meet and greet. A conference president, three college presidents, several ministry leaders, and a few church officers — all women — gathered to reflect, share, pray, and praise God. Of the 14 women assembled, all of whom have made significant contributions in each of their fields of service, nine are the first women in their positions.
The inaugural meeting of the Adventist Women in Leadership (AWL) featured a special luncheon and agenda established by hosts Debra Brill, vice president for NAD Ministries; Ann Roda, vice president, Mission Integration and Spiritual Care of Adventist HealthCare; and Celeste Ryan Blyden, Columbia Union Conference vice president for Strategic Communication and Public Relations.
As part of the program, Blyden, asked each leader to share what they’d tell their younger selves. Poignant and practical advice followed. Below are a few snippets of the conversation the women started and hope to continue during the next few years through coordinated prayer sessions, seminars and networking events, mentoring opportunities, and a social media group to facilitate wider engagement with other women in church leadership roles.
Sandra Roberts, conference president, Southeastern California Conference: My path to ministry was a zig-zag — administration was never one of those things I was going to do. In fact, I've often said, as that quintessential young professional, I was never going to be one of those people who worked at the conference office and wore a suit every day.
God has times of convergence in our lives, where he brings together the experiences that we've had. Whether we're men or women, I believe that God has heart-shaping work that He does for us throughout our lives. If I could go back, and could have trusted more fully that God knew what He was doing with the path He was leading me on, I probably would have been a lot more at peace with the twists and turns.
Whether you're male or female, leadership is tough work. Sometimes, I have a hard time separating what are simply difficult leadership challenges and what results because of gender. I deeply value conversations like today because I can get stuck in my own world trying to figure this out. Being able to talk, pray and gain other perspectives through conversations on retreats together or just in small groups — are really helpful to me. I long for us to do more connecting, more sharing, and more encouraging in the midst of the demands leadership brings in our lives.
Elaine Oliver, associate director, Family Ministries for the General Conference: Everything is in God's hands and so I would say to my younger self to just trust God and understand that He has a plan for our lives and we never know what journey He's going to take us on.
And we need to be still. And one text that has become sort of my mantra in the past few years is Psalm 46:10: "Be still and know that I am God." There are so many demands on us sometimes: marriage, children, work. But the most critical thing in our lives is our relationship with God. If we don't take the time to listen to Him, then we won't recognize His voice. We won't know where it is He's taking us. So breathe, smile, breathe some more, and it's going to be OK. It's not as stressful as we think it is.
Twyla Wall, director, Adventist Information Ministry: I would admonish myself to continually put before me the concept that salvation is a free gift. That it is by faith that it comes to us, not by works. We work hard. We work steadfastly and we sometimes get that backwards. I tell myself: Always, always, always cling to that fundamental, foundational gift, that is free salvation and wrap myself in God's robe all the time.
Diane Thurber, president, Christian Record Services for the Blind: I always wanted to be a missionary. I'm not a missionary overseas, but I certainly am a missionary with the blind. God fulfilled that dream. I would say to my younger self: Have those dreams and talk to God about them because He will fulfill those dreams. My advice is to trust that God will give us the desires of our hearts. I would also say to filter some of those voices that wanted to keep you from trying new things, from doing things that you thought you were capable of, those who wanted to put you in a box and limit what God wanted to do for you. You can take that first step, and God takes you the rest of the way. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he directs your path" (Prov. 3:5-6).
Andrea Luxton, president, Andrews University: As a child, I never had a sense that there was something that I couldn't do or wasn't open to me, and I think that's a great gift that my parents gave to me. But I remember a faculty member at Newbold once said to me, "You really like being able to box everything up and put a bow on the top, don't you?”
I’d tell my younger self to understand that you don't have to control your own life by putting parameters on it, boxing it in, and that little bit of willingness to be vulnerable to a possibility that God may have for you is really the only way to do it. That’s something that I've learned over the whole of my life. And maybe if I'd learned that as a kid God would have found it easier to open the doors for me.
Sabrina Cotton, vice president for Finance, Oakland University: I never understood this when I was younger, but once you travel the path you understand, you reach your destination, you can look back and see the “why”—how all of the twists and turns were to give you an expected end.
We should listen to both the positive and negative voices and use the negative voices to go forward. I remember there was once a vice president that said, "I would promote you, but I don't want a woman as my assistant vice president." But eventually, with God’s help, I proved him wrong and that same vice president promoted me to assistant vice president. And so it's listening to those voices and the ones that told me God knows the plan for my life — and having positive parents, God-fearing parents — I’d tell my younger self to have listened to them more.
Vinita Sauder, president, Union College: I would tell my younger self that God is my partner in my work. He takes our small part, the little piece that we can provide as human leaders, and He magnifies it. He magnifies our work every day. Partnership with God is what makes us able to lead. I was recently reminded of this by my husband . . . During a difficult time when a student was seriously injured at Union, my husband gave me a card that read, “Remember that God put you here." I've got that card in my desk to this day, right in the top drawer, so I can remind myself when the going gets tough, that I don’t have to lift the weight all by myself, that this is God’s educational ministry, and that He walks beside me.
In another job, before I became Union’s president, I experienced a distinct turning point when I realized that I needed to depend on God for true wisdom and discernment. It was back before Smartphones, when you had to look up a Bible verse in a physical Bible. One of our project teams needed to look up a verse to include in a publication, and for some reason, we couldn’t find a Bible in any of the offices that reported up to me. This lack surprised us and became a tipping point. I went and purchased Bibles for our offices and put one right in the middle of my desk as a permanent reminder that this was our leadership north. This same Bible sits on my desk at Union College 12 years later, a symbol of my commitment to Christian leadership through the grace and goodness of God.
Teresa Ferreira, executive secretary, education superintendent, camp, and women's ministries director, Maritime Conference: I’d say three things to my younger self. First: God loves surprises. He is a God of surprises. And I'm sure he must look at driven women who have their lives mapped out, and chuckle at us and say, I am God, I have a plan for you.
Number two, when my husband and I first found each other, we were in our mid-30s, OK with being single, and both of us had come to the point where we wanted to be in ministry to God. But then we met and within the first month, he talked about marriage. We just knew. And I remember the first time I was going to preach, he sent me this text message that said, "Go be great for God." That would be the second message I would send to my younger self: "Go be great for God."
The last message I would send to my younger self is built on Bible verses John 17:3 and Psalms 16:8. . . . Today we live in a world of compromise. I often tell people at work that we are often perceived as being all hard-hearted and soft-headed. We need to be soft-hearted and hard-headed. Grounded in our principle, but so soft and loving as Jesus was.
Lara Melashenko, principal, Chinook Winds Adventist Academy, Calgary: I’d say two things to my younger self: Surrender, and trust in our Maker. I continually feel these questions in my heart: "What's next? What do you want me to do? Why am I here?" That surrender piece has been the resounding theme in my life.
Carmela Monk Crawford, editor, Message magazine, attorney: My current Bible passage, Psalm 94, tells me that everything that I need, He will give me. Just wait for Him. That's what I would tell my younger self: "Wait. Wait for it." That’s been the theme of my life. Wait. Wait. I'm one of those people that has long prayers. Praying and waiting. I got married at 33, had my last kid at 40. All right? You see what I'm saying? Praise God, He's working on it. God answers prayer, God has a plan, just wait for it.
Avis Hendrickson, president, Atlantic Union College: My Bible verse to my younger self would be Romans 8:23. I can now see how many of the life experiences I've been able to use now. I grew up being “seen, not heard,” so I developed ability to observe and learn. I've also learned that B-I-B-L-E was an acronym for “basic instruction before leaving earth.” I use Scripture to help and guide me. God has prepared me, as He did Esther, for such a time as this. People ask how I’m doing and I say, "Well, I'm fine as long as I'm praying and I have to keep praying."
I've learned to do that, trust in God, and use Scripture to center myself. And whatever occurs I know God loves me and I'm going to be all right.
Debra Brill, vice president, North American Division: Rosa Banks and I were the only two women in the NAD officer group for many years. And our voices were small. But I recall a meeting where we were talking about nominating committee. I went to the microphone and said something like, "You know you have opportunity in your nominating committees. Who are the women you know who you can put forth as qualified people to serve? And will you please return to your territories and think of those women who you know are qualified to serve and champion their names to the nominating committee?"
What I said was the right thing to say, at the right place — it was not affirmed by anyone at the time, but it was the right thing to do. What I would say to my younger self is: be bolder. And I’d encourage women to speak with boldness and confidence.
Ann Roda, vice president, Mission Integration and Spiritual Care of Adventist Healthcare: In the past 20 years, I have never applied for a job. Never. Everything came to me. And so I would say a couple things to my younger self. When Moses was getting ready to cross the Red Sea with all those people, God said, "Stand still and watch me do what I do best." And so that's what I would say and it takes a lot of courage and boldness to stand still because as women, we are doers and, you know, I'm sure you can relate to this, but I do "doing" very well. And I think that's — most women leaders are like that and sometimes we just have to stand still, which one of the greatest skills and gifts of leadership.
Celeste Ryan Blyden, vice president for Strategic Communications and Public Relations, Columbia Union Conference: I didn't ask for this job; I've never asked for a job in this church. The only job I ever asked for was when I came out of college and asked, "Could I start a magazine for my generation, Generation X, young adults?" It was as a volunteer and Ted Wick, then NAD youth director, gave me the opportunity, and I started Adventist View, a magazine for young adults. Here I am, 25 years later, and God would have it that I ‘d become the first female vice president, an officer in my union.
I am thankful for the opportunity. My husband says something to me that my mother used to say in a different way. My mother used to say it as, "Baby, your turn will come." My husband says it as, "All things in time, my dear. All things in time." And that's what I would say to my younger self: "Relax. God's got you."
More About Adventist Women in Leadership
During the luncheon for Adventist women leaders attending the NAD Year-end Meeting, Celeste Ryan Blyden shared the AWL message: “Today, we see you, we celebrate your accomplishments, we rejoice in what God is doing in you and through you, we are here for you, and we're praying for you.”
The goals of AWL, as established by Blyden and planning partners Debra Brill and Ann Roda, are: 1) To connect and engage women in leadership positions in the Seventh-day Adventist Church; 2) To acknowledge and celebrate our God-given gifts, calling and contributions to ministry; 3) To nurture, support, train and prepare women for leadership; and 4) To mentor new leaders, younger women leaders and student leaders.
Leadership categories include administrators (elected officer or vice president); departmental directors and associate directors; ministry or educational leaders (elected or appointed); and student leader (elected student association presidents at Adventist academies, colleges and universities). “We must encourage and mentor young women to become leaders. They can do it, and we are in positions to be advocates so their voices are heard,” said Brill.