“It’s been my great joy to work with gifted leaders who love God and His church!” said Debra C. Brill, who retired on October 1, 2019, after serving the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (NAD) as a vice president for 21 years.
“Debra Brill was a leader in the North American Division for more than 20 years. Her impact on administrative colleagues, the NAD ministry directors, and the membership-at-large will only truly be seen in eternity,” said Daniel R. Jackson, NAD president.
Brill served as administrative liaison and chair of NAD committees and boards for the following ministries: Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Adventist Community Services, Adult, Children’s, Deaf, Disabilities, Family, and Health ministries, Hope for Humanity, Meeting Planning, Philanthropic Services for Institutions, Prayer and Reconnecting ministries, Resource Development, Special Projects, Stewardship, Women’s, and Youth/Young Adult ministries. She is also a trustee of Versacare. One of her recent endeavors was to help launch the Adventist Women Leaders (AWL) committee with several other women in leadership roles across the division.*
Brill, with 33 years of denominational employment, currently holds the record for longest-serving vice president of the NAD, and she is the second women to occupy a vice president position at the division. The first was Rose Otis.
In Ministry and Service
“I followed in the footsteps of Rose Otis, who was an amazing evangelist, and also a mentor to me,” said Brill. “At the time, there was not a track for women. There were so few women pastors, and there were so few women even in conference leadership, much less union leadership. So I did not feel adequate, I did not feel like I had the proper training, the theological training. But people believed in me, and Elder Alfred C. McClure, NAD president, said, ‘We want you to come and work with the leaders here at the division.’ And, in fact, he did poll them and they were supportive.”
Brill initially was asked to take on Otis’ portfolio, which was women's ministries and vice president. But Brill had other ideas. She told McClure that as a woman she could probably do women’s ministries. “But,” she said to McClure, “it is not my choice. It is not my passion."
After McClure asked three times, the division finally decided to change the portfolio, which would now include church ministries and resource development; and the division would add a distinct Women’s Ministries department with a director.
Before her work as an NAD vice president, Brill served as executive director for research and development, Church Resources Consortium, Pacific Union Conference, and in Potomac Conference as associate director for Adult, and Children’s ministries, and special projects. She was elected as a vice president at the 1998 NAD Year-end Meeting.
Brill’s time in Potomac started first as a volunteer, then part-time as Children’s Ministries leader. Said Brill, “And those were times God used to hone me in ministry and service, and to work with people.”
She moved to Pacific Union as associate director of Church Ministries and ended up traveling the U.S. as the Gracelink Sabbath School curriculum was in its earliest developmental stage. “We did focus groups around the country,” she explained. “I remember taking a big bag of curriculum — we had five different curriculums, one of which was our Seventh Day Adventist curriculum, and we took them around to users across the division. And we would say, ‘What of these are you using?’”
“They’d say, ‘Well, we're starting to use that. We've not using the Adventist curriculum anymore.’ We realized that we were relinquishing the religious training of our own children in Sabbath school to other curriculums, and that's where the development of GraceLink [started]. Patricia Habada, first women's ministries director at the General Conference, brought people from across the globe to write that curriculum. I think we wrote more than 400 lessons. GraceLink is not perfect. No curriculum is. But it was a benchmark in the lives of many children across this division.”
Paving the Way
Brill was honored at a retirement celebration at the division headquarters this fall, and interviewed during the 2019 NAD Year-End Meeting, which concluded on Nov. 5. During these events, many shared their thoughts on Brill, her leadership, and her impact.
“I’ve worked closely with Debra for 12 years. She has been one of my biggest inspirations, motivators, advocates, and mentors. Her calm and composed demeaner has been a great example of leadership with grace,” said Chariolett Johnson, event planning manager for the NAD. “She is well versed with church culture and very well respected among her peers. Known for her diplomacy and quiet strength, Debra has impacted so many. With her support and persistence, she has paved the way for many doors to open.”
“I appreciate Debra's focus on what will work at the local church,” Brad Forbes, president of AdventSource, shared. “In the 30 years I worked with her she was always looking for ways that the organization could support local ministry. That encompassed everything from children's Sabbath School lessons to youth programs and community interaction. As a leader Debra was an amazing listener, she could listen to a long, drawn-out explanation of the issue and then break it down into manageable, action steps.”
“After serving in her role for such a long time, Debra’s wisdom was palpable, her insights spot on, and her counsel invaluable,” shared Celeste Ryan Blyden, vice president for Strategic Communication and Public Relations for the Columbia Union Conference. “She understood instinctively how to lead by serving, how to hear the heart behind a person’s words, and how to navigate church structure in a way that produced results. She also knew when she heard an idea whose time had come.”
Blyden has collaborated with Brill several times, most notably with AWL. “In 2017, when I approached her about starting an initiative to connect, support, and advocate for women leaders, she didn’t hesitate: ‘I not only see merit in this idea,’ she said with her signature quiet confidence, ‘I want to be a full partner!’” recounted Blyden. “And she was, helping to guide our first key steps and messaging in a way that opened doors, raised interest, and drew support from both men and women.”
Charlotte LV Thoms, NAD Disabilities Ministries coordinator, concurred. “She impressed me with her knowledge of the inner workings of the church, her calm demeanor, and her ability to move through diverse cultures and ministries with ease,” she said. “The most impressive characteristics of Debra is she is powerful, but humble; she exhibited controlled strength when she could easily have flaunted her connections; and she never dismissed an idea that moved the ministry forward. This was not a job for her, ministry was (and is) her heart.”
Brill and her husband George are happiest when they are with their daughter and son, and their amazing families, including their three fabulous grandchildren. They look forward to retirement in Virginia, where Brill is from, and where the couple owns a home.
*The North American Division has endorsed and adopted the Adventist Women Leaders initiative and formed a committee that includes Debra Brill, former vice president for Ministries as chair; Celeste Ryan Blyden, vice president for Strategic Communication and Public Relations at the Columbia Union Conference and who spearheaded the initiative as secretary and director; Brenda Dickerson, communication director for Mid-America Union Conference; Carolyn R. Forrest, associate secretary at the NAD and Human Relations director; Tamyra Horst, who directs several departmental ministries at the Pennsylvania Conference; Natalia Lopez-Thismon, assistant professor of journalism and communication at Southern Adventist University; and Ann Roda, vice president for Mission and Spiritual Care at Maryland-based Adventist HealthCare. Click here to subscribe to the AWL e-newsletter; click here for the AWL Facebook page; and find out how to listen to the new podcast “Flourish by AWL” on Apple and Spotify.