Debra Clements Brill, former vice president for ministries for the North American Division (NAD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, passed to her rest on August 27 at her home in Jamaica, Virginia, United States, after an extended illness. She was 71.
Brill retired on October 1, 2019, after serving the division as a vice president for 21 years. “It’s been my great joy to work with gifted leaders who love God and His church!” Brill said upon her retirement.
“My heart sank as I received the news of Debra’s passing. She was a colleague, a friend, and a tremendous example of Christian grace,” NAD president G. Alexander Bryant, NAD president. “Debra was an unusual and unique blend of dignified strength, humility, compassion, vision, and calm perseverance. She could always find an encouraging word to say during the most difficult circumstances. She knew how to navigate the complexities of church structure to get things done. I consider it a high honor to have worked beside her for more than ten years.”
“I would go to Debra’s office when I was faced with a challenging situation and learn from her. I always felt empowered by our conversations,” NAD associate secretary Bonita Joyner Shields said. “When asked to follow her as vice president, I never felt as if I had to ‘fill her shoes’ because I knew she was right there rooting me on. Her impact on my life — personally and professionally — was immeasurable.”
In the vice president role, Brill served as administrative liaison and chair of NAD committees and boards for the following ministries: Adventist Development and Relief Agency; Adventist Community Services; Adult, Children’s, Deaf, Disabilities, Family, and Health ministries; Hope for Humanity; Meeting Planning; Philanthropic Services for Institutions; Prayer and Reconnecting ministries; Resource Development; Special Projects; Stewardship; Women’s and Youth/Young Adult ministries. She was also a trustee of Versacare. One of her recent endeavors was to help launch the NAD Adventist Women Leaders (AWL) committee with several other women in leadership roles across the division.
Brill, with 33 years of denominational employment, currently holds the record for longest-serving vice president of the NAD; and she was the second woman to occupy a vice president position at the division. The first woman to hold the position had been Rose Otis. Shields replaced Brill in 2019; and was replaced in 2021 by Wendy Eberhardt.
“I followed in the footsteps of Rose Otis, who was an amazing evangelist, and also a mentor to me,” Brill said during an interview around the time of her retirement. “At the time, there was not a track for women. There were so few women pastors, and there were so few women even in conference leadership, much less union leadership. So, I did not feel adequate, I did not feel like I had the proper training, the theological training. But people believed in me, and then NAD president Alfred C. McClure said, ‘We want you to come and work with the leaders here at the division.’ And, in fact, he did poll them and they were supportive.”
Brill initially was asked to take on Otis’s portfolio, which was women’s ministries and vice president. But Brill had other ideas. She told McClure that as a woman she could probably do women’s ministries. “But,” she said to McClure, “it is not my choice. It is not my passion."
After McClure asked three times, the division finally decided to change the portfolio, which would now include church ministries and resource development; and the division would add a distinct Women’s Ministries department with a director.
Before her work as an NAD vice president, Brill served as executive director for research and development, Church Resources Consortium, at the Pacific Union Conference, and in the Potomac Conference as associate director for Adult and Children’s ministries and special projects. She was elected as an NAD vice president at the 1998 Year-end Meeting.
Brill’s time in Potomac started first as a volunteer, then part-time as Children’s Ministries leader. “Those were times God used to hone me in ministry and service, and to work with people,” Brill said.
She moved to the Pacific Union as associate director of Church Ministries and ended up traveling the U.S. as the Gracelink Sabbath School curriculum was in its earliest developmental stage. “We did focus groups around the country,” she explained. “I remember taking a big bag of curriculum — we had five different curriculums, one of which was our Seventh-day Adventist curriculum, and we took them around to users across the division. And we would say, ‘What of these are you using?’ ”
Brill recalled, “GraceLink was not perfect. No curriculum is. But it was a benchmark in the lives of many children across this division.” (GraceLink was introduced in 2000, and after two decades, Alive in Jesus is the new curriculum set to replace it.)
During Brill’s retirement celebration and the NAD year-end meeting in the fall of 2019, many shared their thoughts on Brill, her leadership, and her impact.
“Debra has been one of my biggest inspirations, motivators, advocates, and mentors. Her calm and composed demeanor has been a great example of leadership with grace,” said Chariolett Johnson, former event planning director for the NAD, who worked closely with Brill for some years. “She [was] well versed with church culture and very well respected among her peers. Known for her diplomacy and quiet strength, Debra has impacted so many. With her support and persistence, she has paved the way for many doors to open.”
“I appreciate[d] Debra's focus on what would work at the local church,” Brad Forbes, president of AdventSource, shared. “In the 30 years I worked with her, she was always looking for ways that the organization could support local ministry. That encompassed everything from children's Sabbath School lessons to youth programs and community interaction. As a leader Debra was an amazing listener, she could listen to a long, drawn-out explanation of the issue and then break it down into manageable action steps.”
Charlotte LV Thoms, NAD Disabilities Ministries coordinator, concurred. “She impressed me with her knowledge of the inner workings of the church, her calm demeanor, and her ability to move through diverse cultures and ministries with ease,” she said. “She never dismissed an idea that moved the ministry forward. This was not a job for her; ministry was her heart.”
Brill is survived by her husband, George, former associate director for NAD Information Technology Services; their two children and their spouses; and three grandchildren. Visitation will be held on Saturday (Sabbath), September 2. A memorial service will follow on September 10 at Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church in Collegedale, Tennessee.