One of the smallest ministry departments of the world Seventh-day Adventist Church is arguably one of its most important. Adventist Review editor Bill Knott recently sat down with Willie and Elaine Oliver, directors of the Department of Family Ministries at the church’s world headquarters, to talk about the directions they have taken in their first 18 months on the job.
Your predecessors were some of the longest-serving departmental leaders in the recent history of the General Conference. What’s it like to follow legacy leaders and yet establish your own leadership identity.
WILLIE: Elaine and I are following Ron and Karen Flowers, who served in the Family Ministries Department for 30 years, as directors for 22 years. So for decades, whenever Adventists thought about family ministries in the church, Karen and Ron Flowers were the people who came to mind. I personally worked with them most of the 22 years they directed the department. The foundation that Ron and Karen Flowers laid is unmistakably impressive. Yet it’s a great opportunity now for our church to now sharpen our proverbial pencil and see how we can continue to connect more intentionally with what’s most important to Adventist families in the twenty-first century.
What do you think has changed between 2012 and the time 30 years ago when Ron and Karen Flowers first came to the department?
ELAINE: When we look at the state of marriage and family in the nation and in the world, we quickly realize that so many things have changed. We’re now living in a global village: information, habits, and customs from cultures we previously didn’t understand are part of our everyday experience. So many families worldwide are struggling with issues of divorce, with more stress in marriages and with changing roles and rights for women. Far more women are working outside the home than 30 years ago, and families—including Adventist families—are having to adjust to that reality. Many more parenting issues have emerged as contemporary culture has pushed ever closer into the lives of believer families.
Would it be fair to say that persons leading out in family ministries 30 years ago could assume a sort of homogeneity of families, a kind of basic Adventist “nuclear family”?
WILLIE: Like the general population, Adventists have seen an increase in the number of single-parent homes—single mothers, and, in the past decade, single fathers. The entire organism of the church is left reeling as it tries to adjust to the new realities by developing resources and even language to address this phenomenon—not primarily as a problem but as an opportunity.
Your definition of family ministries now incorporates multiple models beyond the traditional nuclear family?
WILLIE: The nuclear family of the past—once the predominant model in the West—may never again be the norm anywhere. Our focus, however, is to meet families where they are and provide them with learning and growing opportunities that will assist them in becoming stronger and healthier.
Family ministries and family life are dynamic, and they ebb and flow depending on present realities: our workloads change; our children pass through different developmental stages; we often are relocated because of our work; and more.
Speaking to the range of family types and experiences that we now find in the church must be our priority, or we risk becoming anachronistic. We aim to develop and share relevant family-strengthening materials and modalities with our membership and our communities so that we may help them cope and thrive in the midst of pressing challenges. It may sound simplistic, but it’s true: if we have stronger families, we have a stronger church.
In North American culture the divorce rate is now estimated to be as high as 50 percent.
WILLIE: When I served as the North American Division director of family ministries, I commissioned a study that was completed in 2010. Despite reports by church members and even some leaders who say the divorce rate is the same inside and outside the church, our study for North America underlines that about one in four Adventist marriages is ending in divorce—not one in two. Our divorce rate is actually half that of the general population. And many individuals in the Adventist Church who are divorced came into the church divorced. While we still think that number is unacceptably high, it’s probably less than half that of the general population.
ELAINE: And that’s where family ministries comes in. Family ministries provides resources because families, in general, are struggling. Our commitments as Seventh-day Adventists don’t make us immune to the pressures and trends going on in our society. Many families in the church find themselves overwhelmed by the pain of some kind of dysfunction. Rather than getting help for their challenges, they try to hide these realities, only to find themselves in greater pain and distress. Local congregations must become havens of confidentiality, safety, and healing, providing referrals when confronted with issues above their respective skill levels. This is possible only when our approach to family difficulty is grace-oriented, empathetic, and sensitive to the needs of our parishioners.
A generation ago the classic reasons for ending a marriage typically included issues of infidelity or some other severe family trauma. Is there a broader range of issues today that cause marital distress and make divorce seem a legitimate option—even among members?
WILLIE: For sure. While infidelity is still among the leading reasons for divorce today, a lack of effective communication and conflict-management skills are the most prominent reasons that marriages are terminating. In the past, men were more likely to initiate divorce proceedings; today, more women are becoming disenchanted with their marriages—even if there hasn’t been infidelity—and taking the lead in dissolving their marital unions.
Economic challenges also loom large in the termination of marriages, especially in the middle of the current global recession. When men lose their jobs, they tend to lose their self-worth, and many assert themselves in physical ways to convince themselves that they have not lost control of their lives and that they are still the “men” in their homes. In this context the rate of abuse invariably climbs, as women and children experience varying levels of physical aggression from husbands and fathers, further contributing to family dysfunction, distress, and dissolution.
ELAINE: Traditionally, men have been the providers, so there’s still a sense of self-esteem that comes from providing for their families. That holds true even in today’s culture, in which men may say, “I want my wife to have a job or career.”
You mean the years of Mr. Mom films and television shows haven’t really moved the needle on this point?
ELAINE: It’s still an anomaly: there are men who are genuinely comfortable staying home with the kids and feel empowered to do so. Others have real difficulty adjusting to being the caretaker or stay-at-home parent.
WILLIE: More men today are staying home with their children than 30 years ago. For the past five years I’ve served on a panel of fathers at American University here in Washington, D.C.—different kinds of fathers, including stay-at-home dads whose wives make more money than they could. It simply made more sense for her to go to work since she had better insurance coverage and health benefits. Even with those seemingly powerful economic incentives men are invariably uncomfortable with not being the primary breadwinners in their homes.
ELAINE: In spite of the fact that all these elements contribute to marital distress, research bears out that the way couples communicate with each other—the way they resolve conflict, their interactive processes—determines whether they’ll be distressed and, eventually, perhaps, get a divorce. If families can learn how to communicate about their issues, their chances are far better that they can resolve them and enjoy a more peaceful and satisfying family life.
WILLIE: We often say to couples when we’re speaking at marriage events that because sin separates, couples are going to grow apart: it’s inevitable—unless they are intentional about connecting with each other every day through the power of God. We also say, “There are no perfect marriages, because there are no perfect people. So don’t become fixated on having a perfect marriage or a perfect family—there’s no such thing.” Rather, they must be intentional about inviting the power of God into their respective marriages and families every day in order to have a spirit of grace, forgiveness, and understanding: As James 1:19 says: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
You have become well known for your marriage-strengthening seminars in North America and around the world. What do you say to that typical young couple with communication challenges who don’t yet know how to draw support or nurture from their church community?
ELAINE: Our marriage conferences, retreats, and seminars are focused primarily on helping couples prioritize their relationship with each other. We emphasize effective communication skills, teaching couples how to integrate their faith, their beliefs, into how they “do marriage.” Many couples are eager to say they will remain committed to their marriages for a lifetime, but they don’t know what it really takes to have a stable and satisfying marriage. The Bible provides us with a plethora of counsel on how to live fulfilling lives, but we don’t always know how to implement those principles into our marriages and other significant relationships.
We also encourage couples to find a support network, people who love the Lord and have relatively healthy and strong marriages themselves to act as mentors and accountability partners. Local churches that are intentional about providing resources and seminars and have strong marriage clubs are more likely to have couples who thrive, because they have a network of people to coach and support them through their ups and downs.
WILLIE: What may be even more crucial to young or struggling marriages is getting accurate information about the problems they’re addressing. Couples want to know, How are people around us relating to that? Are we the only ones in trouble? Once you are aware that other people struggle with the same issues, it’s a lot easier to take a candid look at them in one’s own context as a family.
Every five years the Department of Family Ministries conducts what we call “advisories” in the 13 divisions of the world church, during which we cast a vision for family ministries for the quinquennium and also offer training. In these gatherings we train our division directors. At our March 2011 Family Ministries World Advisory we certified our 13 division directors in Prepare/Enrich, one of the most advanced modalities for premarital education and marital intervention, based on both biblical principles and the best social research. We have also been training union directors during the division advisories, and are now beginning to plan for training conference-level directors and pastors. The first place we did this was in Mossel Bay, South Africa, at the ministerial workers’ retreat for the Southern Africa Union, where we certified more than 500 persons [pastors and their spouses]. In North America quite a number of pastors are certified to do Prepare/Enrich. We’re intentionally replicating this kind of training around the world to build capacity, so couples have people on the ground who can support and help them.
Your family also represents a family in ministry. What have you learned in the process of raising a family that informs the way you do your work?
ELAINE: We’re like any other family; we are not exempt from any of the challenges of marriage and of raising children. We’ve now raised children through adolescence. Both our children are now young adults.
One of the practices we’ve been committed to doing is preserving family time—taking time to spend with our children and to have family worship. Family worship was very important to us when our kids were at home. And one of our family ministry initiatives right now is to encourage families to revisit how they do family worship—making it a time that children, even young adult children, can enjoy being a part of this spiritual experience.
WILLIE: My commitment has always been to balance, and to not being gone too much from home. We hope to sensitize our leadership to greater responsibility for their own families. We can’t lose our own children in the process of trying to reach everyone else. We have to underscore that goal for Adventist employees around the world. Our first mission field is our family.
If I could do it over again, I would listen more to our children. We accomplish a lot more in passing on our values to our children when we listen more.
Probably the most poignant moment I can recall in this building was when a senior leader offered the benediction in a meeting. He prayed, “Lord, we want You to come soon. But Lord, please don’t come until You find my son.” You could hear the gulps all around the room as so many people, in that moment of recognition, felt that this was their story too. I’m sure you’ve often heard from leaders who have given themselves prodigiously to work, but somehow wished they could “replay the tape” with their families.
WILLIE: A ministry to families includes ministry to the families of those in leadership. We’re pleased that division administrations around the world are embracing the notion of stronger and healthier families, and realizing how much it impacts the mission of the church. A successful Christian family is one of the most powerful testimonies imaginable in a world of brokenness and alienation, and we’re committed to spreading the good news of Jesus by showing what a difference He makes in the most basic social unit the world knows—the family.
Ellen White wrote, “One well-ordered, well-disciplined family tells more in behalf of Christianity than all the sermons that can be preached.”*
* Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 32.
This article was published March 15, 2012.