North American Division

The North American Division Listens to Student Opinions at its Student Leader Advisory

Church officials and students collaborate to address young adults' concerns and aspirations for the church.

United States
Becky St. Clair, North American Division, and ANN Staff
Participants of the NAD's most recent university student leader advisory share a light moment during the meeting.

Participants of the NAD's most recent university student leader advisory share a light moment during the meeting.

(Photo: North American Division)

On Wednesday, May 15, 2024, North American Division (NAD) leaders met with student leaders from universities across the division. The goal was to determine what young people are concerned with and discuss what they might want church leadership to know.

“We really want to know what you have to say,” stated Tracy Wood, director for Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the NAD, at the start of the online meeting. “The voices of students from your campuses can and do have a significant impact across North America,” said Wood.

In addition to five church leaders from both union and division levels, eight students were also present, representing Adventist and non-Adventist campuses across the country. After introductions, Wood shared a list of upcoming NAD events and invited students to share the information with their fellow students and consider attending. These included the Sonscreen Film Festival, tHRive Conference for those involved in human resources, ITS Tech Standards Conference, and the Society of Adventist Communicators convention.

Wendy Eberhart, NAD vice president for ministries, shared information about division committees holding spots for students and other young adults with attendees

“These are opportunities for you to have a voice in the church,” Eberhart explained. “NAD leadership continues to seek ways to reshape groups to represent the church more fully, and that includes you,” she added.

Realities and Concerns of Young People in the Church

The main portion of the meeting was comprised of questions posed to the students, specifically focused on their experience as young adults in the church. Wood started the discussion by asking, “What are some of the relevant cultural topics you and your young adult friends are navigating?”

The immediate answer, offered by Tiara Best, senior theology major and student chaplain at Washington Adventist University (WAU), was creating space for differences.

“WAU is a very diverse campus,” Best pointed out. “We want to reflect God in everything we say and do, but living our faith completely can make us look like oddballs. How do we create an environment that’s acceptable and enjoyable to those who don’t come from an Adventist background?,” she said.

Brooklyn Gerber, sophomore piano major and spiritual VP for the student association at Walla Walla University, agreed that diversity of faith is an ever-present conversation, offering as an example her experience sharing lunch on campus with a Messianic Jew and meeting people from other Christian denominations.

Though Gerber said her friend groups want to be open and have conversations about the Adventist church, it can get complicated.

“The divisions, unions, and conferences — the hierarchy — is scary and confusing to a lot of people,” she said, adding, “How can we make explaining the church less formidable? How can we make the system less intimidating to people unfamiliar with our church?”

At Pacific Union College (PUC), student administration has worked to embrace differences and create spaces and opportunities for all people to feel safe, included, and welcome, explained Ashley Castro Rodriguez. A junior theology major, Castro Rodriguez serves as religious VP for PUC’s student association and was recently elected religious VP for the Adventist Intercollegiate Association.

She continued, “We have found it really hard to connect post-COVID-19 ... We struggle to find a sense of belonging within our church, even for those of us who come from Adventist or Christian backgrounds.”

Castro Rodriguez said opportunities to gather and connect don’t always need to be church or worship spaces; sometimes, they can simply be putting out a table full of food and inviting anyone to come hang out. And after people get comfortable, she said, sometimes they start asking serious questions about faith, God, and the church.

Best agreed and shared about a WAU program the students started called Table Talk, which morphed into a more popular and regularly attended event than vespers.

“We come together and have conversations about life struggles — identity, purpose, love, relationships — topics we find ourselves wrestling with on a regular basis,” Best explained. She added, “It appealed to a lot of non-Adventists because it created common ground. Our church conditions us to adopt an ‘us vs. them,’ ‘not of the world’ perspective, but what distinguishes us from the world is our love for each other. We can be so culturally Adventist we forget love, and we must be careful of that. We need to create more spaces that include everyone.”

On the flip side are Adventist students attending non-Adventist universities and colleges. This poses a different challenge because the built-in community-focused structure may not be present. Neither, perhaps, are welcoming churches. And how the local churches engage with college students matters a lot.

“Finding a church community and feeling culturally connected is important,” commented Rory Ashmeade, a junior neuroscience major and Adventist Christian Fellowship (ACF) officer at Yale University. He said, “The welcoming community of my local church has made a huge difference in my church attendance because I know they want me there.”

Need for Transparency and Mental Health Support

Another hot topic among young adults is a constant feeling that church administration isn’t being completely honest.

“We have a lot of questions, and we’re only told curated pieces when we ask,” commented Natasha Richards, a graduate student in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and ACF liaison at Andrews University. She said, “Everything we hear from church leadership sounds like ‘lawyer-speak’ and doesn’t explain anything.”

Larissa Jeffery, graduate student at the seminary and president of the Women’s Clergy Network, concurred that transparency is crucial, particularly for today’s youth and young adults.

“Our generation is marked with skepticism. We need to know the ‘why’ behind things, and there can be no hidden agenda—or appearance of one,” Best added.

Other topics discussed included the overwhelming multi-church posts new pastors are given straight out of the gate. “It’s baptism by fire,” commented Richards. “It’s hard for pastors to take care of themselves when they’re desperately trying to care for multiple congregations at a time.”

Regarding mental health, Best stated, “To be whole is to be completely cared for. Mental health should definitely be emphasized, and more resources should be given to our colleges and universities.”

Gerber pointed out that constant phone use is impacting younger generations in significant ways, making it increasingly difficult to get students out of their dorm rooms and socializing in person. “It’s hard to even have a conversation without a phone buzzing — mine included. I don’t know how we can change that, but we need to,” she commented.

Leaving the Church but Not Leaving God

As can be expected, the discussion eventually turned to the subject of young adults leaving the church. Jeffery said there are three primary reasons she’s heard over and over in her conversations with other young adults: 1) the church’s treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community, 2) the church’s treatment of women as spiritual leaders, and 3) the lack of accountability for church leadership when it comes to abuse, be it spiritual, sexual, or other.

“The decisions being made at an administrative level within the church continue to hurt and harm people within these groups, and they push them and those who love and support them away. It’s a great divide. The church doesn’t feel like a safe place, so people leave,” Jeffery commented.

However, the students were quick to assure NAD leaders that walking away from the church doesn’t equate to walking away from God. Young adults of today are very aware of the difference between religion and spirituality and do not want them conflated.

“We are tired of hearing how young people need ‘revival.' To say we need revival is to say we’re spiritually dead, and that’s just not true. To continue to push that agenda is instead pushing people away. It feels like a numbers game to consider us ‘saved,’ and what we actually want is genuine connections with each other and with leadership," commented Castro Rodriguez.

Lip service isn’t enough, either, said Best. Using young people to check a box instead of getting to know them doesn’t keep them interested. “We want to be genuinely wanted. We want to walk in purpose, and relationships are key. We live in a transactional world, but that’s not how Jesus was. He got to know the individual and made sure they were okay before asking them to do something for Him," Best said.

Advice for Older Generation Church Leaders

Wood then asked the group — if they could share a piece of advice with older generation church leaders, what it would be? Richards immediately suggested legacies in church positions.

“A lot of leaders are about to retire, and very few have identified younger people they are mentoring or apprenticing for potential filling of their role upon retirement. These positions should all have options for potential next-gen leaders when the time comes,” she said.

Matthew Dormus, junior theology major and Mr. Oakwood University (similar to a student association president), picked up Richards’ thread and pointed out that the church in North America seems to think leaders need to be 50 or 60 before they can fill official leadership roles.

“The second in command at the GC became president of the South American Union before turning 40,” Dormus pointed out. “Filling these roles isn’t about power or prestige or age; it’s just about leadership. There were young people leading the church in the Bible all the time, but that doesn’t happen in our church. There needs to be a change.”

Other advice offered included Jeffery’s comment that church doesn’t always look like four walls that say “Adventist;” it can be a variety of different spaces and times and places. “By continuing to push for a traditional view of what church is, we’re going to end up losing our people church, which will eventually lose us our place church, too.”

Castro Rodriguez asked that churches and schools do a better job highlighting women in spiritual leadership where they exist.

“My mom is the first Hispanic female pastor in the Oregon Conference. When I came to California and learned there were more of them, I cried. Why didn’t I know this before? Why didn’t my mom know? We need to show our young women who they can be,” she shared.

Overall, however, the students were eager to let church leaders know their frustrations are not from a place of malice but a place of intense care and hope.

Gerber said, “When we ask questions, even if it comes across as criticism, it’s because we love our church. I want to raise my kids the same way I was raised because I’m grateful to have grown up a part of the church. Yes, some things need to change, but every decision we question, every reality we push against is because we love the possibility of an even better future for ourselves and our church.”

Next Steps

NAD Youth and Young Adult Ministries is planning another listening session with student leaders in the fall. Wood asked this year’s leaders to create a hand-off plan to have their successors remain involved in the advisory and continue making their voices heard.

“We didn’t just sit here and listen,” Eberhart assured the group. Holding up a stack of paper, she continued, “I have three pages of notes, and I’m taking them straight to the president.”

Eberhart also shared that after the previous advisory meeting, the president took action based on comments from the students.

“Elder Bryant was so moved by what he learned from all of you that he immediately went to work,” she said. This included organizing an open-door event, during which young people are invited to come to the NAD headquarters and shadow church leaders for a day. The date for this event is September 25, 2024.

Eberhart also commented on how proud she is that young people are pushing the church to talk more about mental health.

“Self-care and not being afraid to say ‘I’m not doing great,’ and ‘I could use some help’ is a game-changer. These efforts are making healthier leaders, and I’m very pleased to see this happening,” she said.

To close the meeting, Wood urged student leaders to stay connected to their church leaders.

“Please reach out anytime you want to share anything,” he said. “You have our ears, you have our hearts, and we want to hear what you have to say. It matters, and you matter, and we’re so glad you’re here," he concluded.

The original article was published on the North American Division website.

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