Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, opened the Annual Council session on Leadership, Education and Development (LEAD) this year with an encouraging message to Church leaders to “lean on the Master of the universe in times of trouble . . .[and] not take your eyes off Christ, or His goal for the Church.”
This sentiment was echoed throughout the conference, which was centered on the theme “Through the Storms: Mission During Crises.” This theme was divided into two sections: “Storms from the Past”, presented on Thursday night, October 7, and “Current and Future Crises”, presented on Friday morning (October 8).
Held both in-person and online this year, program host Tiffany Brown welcomed attendees and emphasized that instead of lectures, this year’s conference would focus on case studies, stories and testimonies of pastors and church leaders, to teach and inspire others to embrace resilience and courage in difficult times.
Thursday: “Storms from the Past”
During Thursday night’s program, pastors from across the world shared both personal and historical stories of Adventists and Christians who endured persecution, violence and disease, yet retained a strong faith.
Opening the segment with a touching personal testimony of grief, loss and restoration was Pastor Bryan and Penny Gallant, who take care of three churches in Rolla, Missouri. “The car lost control and rolled 3-5 times down an embankment. In an instant, our family went from four, to two,” they said, sharing how the death of their two infant children allowed them to connect more deeply with the local Cambodian people who had lost loved ones during the Khmer Rouge killings (1975-79) when working for the Guam Micronesia Mission.
Following this, secretary for the Chinese Union Mission, Daniel Jaio, told the story of his 88-year-old father who was sentenced to 11 years in a hard labor camp. With Bibles categorized as “unauthorized items”, he did his best to share the gospel, and left in 1985 with 40 people worshipping at his home every Sabbath. “With great patience and care for instruction, you must find out the best way to do God’s work,” encouraged Pastor Jaio. “You have to go through difficulties, you have to rely on God and continue to find ways to do His work.”
Relating these experiences to the current political and health crises sweeping our globe, there was an overwhelming sense of hope and encouragement throughout the program, that despite difficulties and trials, God will bless his people.
Taking a broader, historical scope of world events to inform current crises, vice-president of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, Artur Stelle, shared how despite 20 million Christians being martyred in prison camps, the Adventist church in the former Soviet Union not only survived the communist regime but grew. This was followed by a reflection by Pastor Jenifer Daley from Pioneer Memorial Church (Michigan, USA), on how the church navigated the difficulties of WW1 and the Influenza pandemic of 1919 by strategically sharing a unified message.
“The world’s focus was the ‘end of the world’, but the church invited people to think alongside them and focus on the second coming,” she said. “Because the church identified with people’s needs, membership and mission activities increased around the world.”
Finally, Adam Ramdin, youth director for the North England Conference, took viewers on a historical deep-dive into the Middle Ages, exploring the faith and courage of the Waldenses, who were hunted and persecuted by the Church of Rome, but survived by fleeing to the mountains. “Rather than hiding in the wilderness as hermits, they studied their Bibles and trained to go into the main cities to share the gospel,” he emphasized. “They planted the seeds of the reformation.”
“They sacrificed comforts,” he continued. “Their principles were more important than comfort. Yet today, we want to work for God from a place of financial stability and comfort.” This statement was reflected in a panel discussion, which questioned the role of materialism, prosperity theology and Adventist identity in today’s global political and social environment.
Thursday night’s meeting was capped off with a clip prepared by the Venezuela Union, which emphasized how the Adventist Church in that region has embraced the motto “Each a Home Church”, finding courage and inspiration in the story of the Waldenses by continuing to meet together in small groups, as well as sharing the gospel on the radio and online, despite radical quarantine measures throughout the country. This story was a great launching pad into Friday morning’s presentations.
Friday: “Current and Future Crises”
Changing gears with a new theme “Current and Future Crises”, Friday morning showcased the important work of dozens of Adventist pastors and members across the globe during the COVID-19 crisis, the Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020, and the subsequent fallout of these events including widespread unemployment, hunger and isolation.
Rick McEdward, president for the Middle East and North Africa Union shared his experience living through the Beirut explosion and some of the incredible work done by Adventists in the aftermath. “A time of emergency is not a time to shrink back, but a time to get involved!” he encouraged viewers, sharing how the Church “went down with brooms and garbage cans, took food parcels, cooked food . . . did everything we could to serve.” He also thanked the General Conference for their generosity during the crisis, saying “We couldn’t have done it without your support.”
The power of teamwork and community within the global Adventist Church was evident during the program, with The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) developing a “global taskforce” and leaning on church partnerships to navigate unprecedented humanitarian challenges. This allowed them to empower 20 million people, in 96 countries during the first year of the pandemic alone. In Africa, ADRA partnered with the Women’s Ministries and Youth departments in 16 countries to plant sustainable household community gardens and provide thousands with food security. In South Africa, the Church partnered with Meals on Wheels to help farmers through the worst drought the country has seen in 1,000 years, cooking up to 181,000 meals per day.
In another partnership between ADRA New Zealand, Adventist Health Ministries, and a local Adventist church, a video produced by Hope Channel New Zealand showcased how the Depression Anxiety Recovery Program helped Rebecca through her long battle with depression and allowed her to accept God into her life for the first time. This program was heavily subsidized thanks to this partnership, to make it accessible to everyone.
As the Adventist Health Ministries team shared in their presentation, “We should concentrate our efforts to make every health resource to empower the proclamation of the three angels’ messages. May we be united as a church in understanding that spiritual and physical health should go hand in hand.”
The importance of mental health was also emphasized throughout the presentations. As Larissa Preuss, an independent journalist and Adventist Church member reflected, “[COVID] took us back to being something we forgot to be: simple humans. We felt vulnerable again, we felt afraid again, we faced death . . . The main thing was to realize how lonely we are, how much we need each other.”
The importance of community was not only made evident through humanitarian and healthcare initiatives presented—like an Adventist Learning Centre established in Beirut for children in need, or the work of church members distributing PPE (personal protective equipment), masks and meals in China and Madagascar— but also through the influx of online and media initiatives across the globe over the past 18 months.
In Brazil, Novo Tempo ran a program allowing people to meet with certified professionals online to talk about their mental health struggles in a safe, Christian environment. In a partnership between the Austrian and German Unions, 75 counselors and pastors answered the calls of more than 6000 people in need of mental help. The Franco-Belgian Union Conference and Romanian Union Conferences also organized similar initiatives.
In addition to these free counseling services, various Divisions’ presentations pointed out that online Bible studies, small groups and programs also provided a sense of connection and community to people in isolation. As Sumitra Murmu, one of 350 Global Mission Pioneers in the Southern Asia Division explained, “We couldn’t do visitations because of lockdown. Through this, all our contacts were distancing from us, so we started giving online Bible studies amidst the crisis, started praying and calling through WhatsApp.”
In the Inter-European Division, Adventist Media created spiritual content throughout the pandemic—including Sabbath School discussions, sermons and interviews—that within two months, were being simultaneously broadcast across 350 social media channels, totaling over 275,000 views. Big cities like France also broadcast special programs including youth seminars and debates on existential programs, as well as small group ministries.
Adventists in Spain put together a book and 24 interviews with pastors and scholars, which received 100,000 subscribers around the world during its debut in January 2021, thanks to organic sharing through WhatsApp. They also distributed 5,000 copies of Steps to Christ, 20,000 copies of Desire of Ages and 4,000 copies of Hope for the World in Crisis.
Clearly, local churches, Conferences, Unions and Divisions have been very active, resilient and flexible during the pandemic. As pointed out by Linda Mei Lin Koh, Children’s Ministries director for the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, even young children have been powerfully preaching the gospel throughout Africa, Malaysia and the Philippines. She highlighted Ellen White’s words in Counsels to Teachers (p166-167), “In the closing scenes of earth’s history, many of these children in view will astonish people by their witness to the church.”
Although this year’s LEAD Conference revealed many of the challenges individuals and churches have undergone during the COVID-19 pandemic, it left viewers with a tangible sense of hope and encouragement.
“Pick a fruit each day—the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience,” encouraged Willie Oliver, co-director of Family Ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist World Church. “If we operationalize that, then even through the storm of COVID-19 and pressures or tension in the home, the Spirit of Christ will come shining through if we surrender every day to Him. The indwelling of His spirit, so we can shine for Jesus so that mission can continue through this time of crisis.”
“When you see these things come to pass, lift your eyes because your redemption draws nigh,” echoed John Bradshaw from It Is Written. “You can focus on the coming crisis or the coming Christ. There is nothing to fear.”
A solemn moment towards the end of the LEAD Conference was a video in dedication to those Adventist employees and missionaries who lost their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visibly moved, Wilson asked those in the auditorium and online to stand, while he and Erton Kohler and Paul Douglas, Secretary and Treasurer, respectively, of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, lead out in prayer for those who have died and are suffering from the coronavirus.