June 4, 2017

Securing the Future

“Urging young adult Adventists to ‘make more sacrifices’ at just the moment when they are facing that huge debt burden and starting families is disingenuous at best.”

Bill Knott

It’s entirely predictable that one generation will end up fretting about the merits of the next. Call it a lament of aging—or an expression of latent self-congratulation—but no age cohort ever seems enamored of the one that follows it. Those younger than the group now holding power are often deemed less focused, less thrifty, or less committed.

Some of this is simply nostalgia, by which we attribute the life skills we learned by 60 to the selves we were at 30. We conveniently forget the many missteps, foolish errands, and embarrassments that marked our story, too.

So when I began hearing complaints from same-age colleagues in church leadership about the difficulty of finding talented, younger leaders for this movement, I chalked it up to evidence that my generation is aging—and not slowly. At first it seemed another illustration of a familiar if unspoken thought: “No one could ever be quite so good as we are.”

But dozens of conversations and increasing empirical data have now persuaded me that the concern is real enough—even if not for all the reasons my generation cites.

“Urging young adult Adventists to ‘make more sacrifices’ at just the moment when they are facing that huge debt burden and starting families is disingenuous at best.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in many world regions, and especially in North America, is struggling to attract and train the men and women it will need to lead its churches, administrate its schools, direct its ministries—and thus equip new generations of believers. This isn’t, then, a complaint about young adult Adventists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are deficient in commitment, but instead a public warning that we’re failing to mentor these gifted younger believers and give them invitations and opportunities to use their skills for the cause they deeply love.

Later, Older. The message, intended or not, received by those we may rightly call the best and brightest of our movement is that their opportunities to lead, innovate, and create change will be delayed a minimum of 20 years. Although no leader in my generation is probably tactless enough to say to a gifted young adult, “You’ve got to serve your time and earn your way,” that’s what they are hearing—and the reason they are taking their gifts and passions to other nonprofits, advocacy groups, and even the corporate world. Those organizations, driven by both dreams and dollars, have learned how to reward passion and incentivize leadership by promoting talent with less regard for age.

Starting in the mailroom and working your way to the boardroom was a favorite myth of twentieth-century corporate culture. It’s not a myth that today’s young adult Adventists believe—and they won’t stay around to see if it might become true for them.

Sacrifice Until It Hurts. Today’s graduates, most of whom now need at least a master’s degree to meet the basic competencies required in teaching, pastoring, church finance, or technology, are emerging from universities with staggering debt loads on a scale unknown to previous generations of church employees. It’s not unusual for even the frugal graduate of an Adventist education to have accumulated up to $60,000 worth of student loan debt in a five- or six-year span—and to enter the workforce at the low end of the church’s below-market pay scale.

Urging young adult Adventists to “make more sacrifices” at just the moment when they are facing that huge debt burden andstarting families is disingenuous at best. The church must—quickly—explore creative ways for its prospective employees to retire their educational debt in their first years of service at an advanced rate (say $10,000 per year of service) that offers hope for sustainable families and careers.

Every organization that believes in the future must prepare leaders for that future. Holding our collective breath and crossing our twitching fingers is not a plan.