Willie Oliver (WO): The year 2019 is a very special year for the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church in general and family ministries in particular. It marks a hundred years since the General Conference Committee created the Home Commission on October 8, 1919, the beginnings of a structured ministry to families in our church, pioneered by pastors and educators.
Elaine Oliver (EO): One of the extraordinary highlights of our centennial celebration of Family Ministries is the exceptional opportunity to have a conversation with Karen and Ron Flowers, the former directors of Family Ministries for the world church. Karen and Ron have experienced quite a bit of the history of this ministry.
WO: Welcome, Karen and Ron. Please share with us why, after thirty-four years of Parent and Home secretaries serving families in the church via the department of education, the decision was made to design a different arrangement for this ministry.
Karen Flowers (KF): Robert Pierson, then president of the General Conference, had a real heart for families. It happens that his executive secretary was Betty Holbrook. In a discussion that occurred in a committee meeting where she was taking minutes, Elder Pierson expressed his growing concern for the well-being of Adventist families. Betty was definitely a kindred spirit. That night at home, she sat down and drafted for her boss the broad strokes of what was eventually to become Home and Family Service, a ministry with a comprehensive focus on marriage, parenting, and building relational skills necessary for living in close relationships.
Ron Flowers (RF): Betty’s husband, Del, an educator, loved to recount the events to follow. Not many nights later, he and Betty were at home when there was a knock at the door. On the other side were Elder Pierson and Elder Neal Wilson, then president of the North American Division. Del would later chuckle at his immediate response: he thought somebody had died! Del and Betty listened with keen interest as they came right to the point. “We like Betty’s proposal, and we would like you both to lead this new ministry to families.”
EO: That outstanding story demonstrates the long-standing commitment to families in the SDA Church. So, you joined Home and Family Service a few years after it was put in place. I remember the first seminar I attended where you were speaking. It really changed my life. You were authentic and transparent, without sharing more information than is necessary to remain relevant and real. We’ve tried to model that in Family Ministries for many years. What was it that moved you to present yourselves as less than perfect?
KF: It happened at Michigan Camp Meeting. We presented what we understood to be the best of ideals. We told our best stories. We gave it our all. A young woman came up to me at the close of our seminar series and told me how blessed she had been. We chatted a bit, and as her children pulled her toward lunch, she wistfully tossed over her shoulder, “I wish I had a husband like Ron.”
RF: How well I remember! I was off to the side and heard this. I held my breath, waiting to see what Karen might say and thinking all the while, Ahh, if the woman really knew! God knows we certainly were not in this place giving lectures on family because we had our act all together! Like many, we at first resisted the call to this ministry, feeling sorely inadequate.
Backing up a bit, I had been pastoring the Capital Memorial Church in downtown Washington, DC. Out of our own felt need for our marriage and parenting our boys effectively, as well as our work with the families of the church, we had joined the Metro Washington Family Life Council. It was a local think tank made up of interested local couples that Del and Betty used as a kind of laboratory for some of their ideas during the first five years of Home and Family Service back in 1975.
WO: Yes, 1975 to 1980. Those must have been exciting and challenging times all at once.
RF: One thing they said rang in our ears: “If you want to help families, you will need to open up your lives so others can see family life in action.” People want “real.” But “real” required genuineness and an appropriate level of vulnerability that, at first, made us feel exposed and uncomfortable. We didn’t immediately grasp how fundamental authenticity would be until we had some hard experiences. How we wish now we could have sent that young woman in Michigan home with courage and hope and skills to grow her marriage rather than the melancholy wish that she had married better.
EO: That had to be pretty scary because I remember the first time Willie said that to me. He had returned from another training event you were conducting and said: “You know, we need to be more transparent during our presentations.” And I was thinking, What does that mean?
KF: The stories of living intimately together in family are fresh every day, for sure. They probably need some seasoning before they are shared, making sure there’s a resolution in sight and everyone involved feels comfortable with the sharing.
WO: Indeed! You mentioned Del and Betty Holbrook, the couple who were elected leaders in Vienna, Austria, during the 1975 General Conference Session. Can you tell us a little more about your experience with them?
KF: Del was a visionary. As an educator, he was way ahead of us on the importance of curricular development for Family Ministries. I remember the day he took Ron and me to the General Conference warehouse. The area assigned to Home and Family Service was filled with huge boxes, which he proudly opened one by one. Inside were thick, red, three-ring binders with topics important to family living already emblazoned in gold on the covers—topics like conflict, communication, handling anger, family finance, et cetera. Five hundred notebooks for each topic! After putting his full set on display, he announced emphatically, “Your job is to fill these.”
EO: How insightful, but ominous and just a little daunting.
RF: The red notebooks were an interesting aspect of those first few years. Our work on the red notebooks started before we knew there were red notebooks, really! Del had proposed a resource for pastors on premarital guidance in the Metro Washington Family Life Council. There was a need since so many newly married couples were having a difficult time adjusting to married life due to not knowing what to expect in marriage before taking such a huge step. I called him up one day and said I’d be interested in working on that as a local pastor. He called me back later and said, “Great! Oh, and you will chair the group!” So, a small subgroup of the council put together that first resource, Marriage Education (later revised and updated as Preparing for Marriage). It was one of the first premarital resources for pastors on the market anywhere.
EO: You’ll be happy to know that we still have two of those big, red notebooks in our office. It was the first thing that I took out of the archives when we first came to the Family Ministries office at world headquarters.
WO: The early resources you developed through the Metro Washington Family Life Council were among the most important materials I used when I first became a director of Family Ministries, thirty years ago, for the Greater New York Conference.
Can you tell us about Doctors John and Millie Youngberg and the early days of Family Life International, a conference discussing relevant family issues held on the campus of Andrews University?
RF: While still pastoring, we had felt a need to help married couples with the incredible challenges they were facing in marriage and organized a number of family life seminars in our local churches. It never occurred to us that we could lead such ourselves, so we invited guest speakers. Then, in 1976 (its second year), we heard about this Family Life Workshop that was being offered at Andrews University.
KF: I read about it first, and I said to Ron, “Let’s sign up for this.” Ron looked at the brochure a bit skeptically and said, “I don’t think so! What are they going to do there anyway?”
RF: Eventually, she persuaded me to attend the event, but we signed up for a parenting workshop that seemed safe enough. We had a good experience. The following year, Karen signed us up for marriage enrichment before she asked.
John and Millie Youngberg and Ed and Letah Banks were real pioneers in this area. For us, and many like us who are well-known leaders in this ministry today, these marriage weekends were life-changing events.
WO: What I clearly remember about attending Family Life International is that it was a source of distinct inspiration for me. I attended during the last ten years the Youngbergs coordinated this event. I began attending during my early years as a conference Family Ministries director. It truly is outstanding that for twenty-four uninterrupted years—since the summer of 1975—John and Millie Youngberg ran this event on the campus of Andrews University, which continues today as the Adventist Conference on Family Research and Practice.
RF: State of the art. If you wanted to learn what state of the art was in Family Ministries, you went there.
KF: Their motto was “We happily share,” and for those of us who were looking for resources, we found them there. This is the spirit that has permeated Family Ministries from the beginning and that will carry it into the future as long as time lasts.
WO: What I distinctly remember was the outstanding passion and commitment John and Millie modeled about the importance of developing stronger and healthier marriages and families for the church around the world, to help us be ready for the coming of the Lord. Thank you, Karen and Ron, for memorializing these moments with us. It’s been wonderful walking down memory lane and reminiscing on how God led you and other leaders to make this into something that has made a difference in the lives of people the world over.
EO: God has really smiled on Family Ministries,and we continue to experience growth. Today we are blessed to have Family Ministries leaders who serve at every level of the SDA Church, from the local church to each of our thirteen world divisions around the globe. All our division directors of Family Ministries are veteran ministry leaders and professionals who have been intimately involved in pastoral ministry and leadership. They each bring up-close experience as family life educators and advocates for stronger and healthier marriages and families, as well as relationships of every kind in the local church. Again, thank you, Karen and Ron, for your many years of serving the global church in this important area of ministry that is so very crucial to the well-being and viability of our church. When we have strong families in the church, we are more likely to have a church strong in the mission of helping people get ready for the coming of the Lord.