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Where Do I Belong? Collegiates Discuss Finding Their Place in the Church

Screenshot of a Zoom meeting with men and women of different ages and ethnicities

On Wednesday, January 25, 2023, an engaged group of 27 undergraduate and graduate student leaders, union-level youth directors, and Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD) leaders met via Zoom to discuss what young people need to feel part of church life and leadership and how the NAD can better support them.

“I love being a Seventh-day Adventist. And I believe we need to create a culture where [more] young people love being Seventh-day Adventists,” said Daniel Fukuda, co-president for Andrews University’s Student Seminary Forum (SSF), during a recent Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD) student leaders’ advisory.

On Wednesday, January 25, 2023, an engaged group of 27 undergraduate and graduate student leaders, union-level youth directors, and NAD leaders met via Zoom to discuss what young people need to feel part of church life and leadership and how the NAD can better support them.

This meeting had an open agenda, which was intentional. “We want to empower and equip students, [so] it’s more important for us to hear from them what’s going on in their lives than to download on them what’s going on with us,” said Tracy Wood, NAD Youth and Young Adult Ministries director.

G. Alexander Bryant, NAD president, who tuned in from Los Angeles International Airport while in transit, concurred, “I really prize the opportunity to engage with them in conversation, but most of all to listen.”

Significant themes arising from the 90-minute dialogue included mentorship for young people who felt called to church administration and spiritual support for collegiate students.

Pre-pandemic, young adults served on the NAD executive committee and attended the NAD’s annual year-end meeting (NADYEM) to participate in discussions about the church’s mission. In 2021, the NAD executive committee was downsized, and the university student positions, along with those of NAD associate directors, were not retained. The NAD did not want to lose the university student leaders’ perspectives, however, so Wood, Bryant, and Wendy Eberhardt, NAD vice president for ministries, developed the university student leaders’ advisory. This advisory offers the students more than a one-time annual gathering; it has now expanded to three online meetings a year. Moreover, it includes more student leaders and offers participants direct interaction with the NAD president, vice president for ministries, and Youth and Young Adult Ministries directors.

At the October 1, 2022, meeting, the first advisory that served as a precursor to NADYEM, students previewed questions the NADYEM executive committee would discuss on education, online churches, and better use of eAdvenist data.

For all the meetings thus far, Wood has invited leaders from five networks: Adventist Christian Fellowship (ACF) student association officers; student workers in campus ministries departments; student association presidents from Adventist universities; seminary student forum (SSF) officers; and student officers from universities with separate graduate student associations. Union directors in youth and young adult ministries and campus ministries were also invited.

NAD representatives in January included Wood, Bryant, and Gordon Bietz, who, though retired, serves part-time as associate director for higher education. Following is a summary of the major topics student leaders presented in the most recent meeting.

Mentorship of Future Leaders

Screenshot of a young black woman taking during a Zoom meeting

During a Zoom meeting of 27 undergraduate and graduate student leaders, union-level youth directors, and NAD leaders, Kearabetswa (KB) Mokoene, an ACF leader, is one of the student leaders offering insights on how the church can be more welcoming to young people.

Several student leaders, most from the Gen Z and Millennial generations, indicated their generations’ interest in helping shape the church’s future and desire for mentorship that would equip them to step into administration and other leadership roles. They offered several ideas for division-wide mentorship, including:

  • A program where administrators at every conference and union, and at the division have interns from different generations – high school, college, 20s, 30s, or 40s;
  • Regular dialogue between elected officers and students via Zoom if in-person shadowing and mentoring isn’t possible;
  • A system of shadowing and mentoring like that at AdventHealth University (AHU) for nursing students, where students initially shadow the nurse, then progress to the nurse shadowing the student, building competence and confidence; and
  • Mentorship for students who want to work for the church in diverse fields.

David Springer, president, Andrews University Graduate Student Association, offered another angle. “We need to feel connected to the current and future crop of administrators. If not, many will continue to feel as though the church does not have a space for them.”

NAD leaders affirmed these recommendations, noting that while an intensive, formal mentorship program with administrators would be logistically challenging, mentorship in some form is essential for the longevity of the church; this is particularly true as more than 50 percent of Adventist pastors and 65 percent of administrators at all levels are eligible or will soon be eligible for retirement. Bryant also spoke to mentorship as a strategic focus of the NAD, with plans to create more structure around it.

Greg Taylor, Southern Union Youth and Young Adult director, recounted struggling to answer an undergraduate student asking how to become a conference youth director. “I appreciate this conversation because it’s been on my mind as well. I think we can do better in paving the way for those who recognize [their administrative gifts].”

Spiritual Support for Students

Support of students’ spiritual development was another central issue. Attendees spoke on a lack of spiritual nourishment in the classroom and local church. For instance, while students appreciate when prayer is offered to start class, they are seeking a stronger integration of faith and learning in the classroom.

Student leaders also expressed that, at the local church level, they and their peers craved deeper spiritual connections and cohesion in the biblical teachings presented. One said, “[Many] are feeding the youth and young adults baby food . . . but we need solids now.”

Participants also noted that local churches must be more unified in their support of students. “Young people, especially international students or people away from home, need community, a place where they can worship God and not [feel] alone,” a leader expressed.

These comments sparked lively discussion on how churches can better cater to young people’s spiritual and social needs. Chris Langston, SSF’s co-academic coordinator, also a local pastor, encouraged the student leaders expressing these concerns to help build the church they longed for. “When it comes to theological consistency, unity in the work we do as a church, in and around our communities, . . . I don’t think there’s a pastor in the NAD who wouldn’t shout, ‘Praise God,’ that young people like you want to see that happen. But they can’t do it alone. I want to encourage you to step up. The local church needs people exactly like you.”

Screenshot of a Hispanic man during a Zoom meeting

On Wednesday, January 25, 2023, during a meeting of 27 undergraduate and graduate student leaders, union-level youth directors, Israel Ramos, representative of public campus ministry for the Lake Union, advises attendees to help build the church they wanted to see.

Israel Ramos, representative of public campus ministry for the Lake Union, advised, “Every member makes up the church. So become a member of your local church, become part of the board, show that you're trustworthy. And little by little, you'll be able to make an impact, using your voice — as you have today — and your influence.”

As the discussion unfolded, student leaders from across the NAD commiserated with the complexity of the issues others had raised. Henry McNeily III, a former SSF officer, countered that not all churches are welcoming and open to input from young people. He stated, “Why would I want to be part of a church that has no interest in listening to what I have to say, where I can’t relate to them, or they’re not even welcoming? [Let’s find] other ways to bridge that gap.” Kearabetswa (KB) Mokoene, an ACF leader, added that not all young people are bold enough to walk into a church and offer their services; thus, churches need training and preparation in welcoming and integrating them.

Kayla Goodman, SSF co-secretary, concluded from her experience as a pastor and young person in the church, “[These issues] are not going to change overnight. But it’s that process of continuing to be heard as young adults and showing up even if the conference or local church doesn’t see us there.”

A Step Forward

Other issues arising were the need for more resourcing for public campus ministries, under the Adventist Christian Fellowship (ACF) umbrella; financial education for future or present pastors and other church workers; and how the NAD will tackle the K-12 teacher shortage.

It was an honest meeting, with students, youth directors, and NAD leaders acknowledging, as Bryant said, “Our church is not perfect.”

Yet, McNeily expressed common sentiments when he said that, despite the shortcomings, “I love the church, and I am not going anywhere.”

The many “thank yous” from student leaders in the chat indicated that the discussion was well-received. And NAD leaders felt they gained valuable insight into the challenges young adults –particularly those who want to lead the church – face; a necessary step toward positive change.

“I’m always honored and delighted to be part of this group, to pick up on their thinking, [as well as] their passion for God and the church,” said Bryant after the meeting.

What’s Next?

As the meeting ended, Wood said, “What you shared with us tonight is massive for us as leaders and administrators. Your ideas and thoughts [will go] far and wide in our circles of influence. Thank you so much for your time today.”

To date, Wood and Bryant have shared information from January 25 at meetings with new union presidents, all conference presidents, and youth and young adult leaders across the division. It will also be distributed via NAD publications.

The April 5, 2023, meeting will cover how student leaders are transitioning out at the end of the school year and how NAD leaders can stay connected with them.

On the 25th, Wood concluded, “Today, [we’ve talked] about the longing to find a place where you fit as a young person, a church family that is deeply spiritual and empowering. We all carry that longing inside of us, … at every age. We hear you, and we understand that. We also know we’re a broken people and a broken church. Yet God calls us to rise above, strengthen each other, and be powerful influences by the overflow of the Spirit. We're brothers and sisters endeavoring to strengthen the administrators across North America and across the street. We're in this together.”