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Chelsey Allder, Deseret News
Ella Smith Simmons of the Seventh-day Adventist Church speaks with the Deseret News about denominational education, in Salt Lake City on Feb. 11.

Even though her current job title is general vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ella Smith Simmons, the first woman elected to the post, is a teacher at heart.

Indeed, her direct responsibilities for the 18 million-member church are in its educational and humanitarian areas. Adventists operate the second largest faith-based educational system in the world, the Roman Catholic Church being the largest.

Simmons says that while the church's schools began in the United States, where Adventism itself was born, the movement and its educational operations quickly spread around the world. An estimated 8 million young people attend Seventh-day Adventist schools around the world, from primary grades up to its 113 tertiary, or higher educational, institutions.

She said the church's commitment to transmitting its faith to the next generation is so strong, the church's accrediting agency operates to make sure schools are "specifically Seventh-day Adventist in the approach to every bit of our subject matter (and) professional development."

But while Adventist schools in Africa and Latin America are virtually overrun with prospective students, North American schools are sometimes struggling to attract enrollees, something with which she's concerned.

Simmons grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, entering third grade in a newly desegregated public school. The loving acceptance and encouragement from a white teacher "made me feel as if I could learn anything," she said during an interview.

That inspiration moved her away from a career as a physicist to becoming an educator, and then focused on administration. Simmons has served as chairwoman for departments of education at Kentucky State University, and associate dean of the University of Louisville, and professor and administrator at Adventist-owned Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, and La Sierra University in Riverside, California.

By invitation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Simmons was in Salt Lake City last week to meet with LDS Church leaders and spend time on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo. She took time to speak with the Deseret News about Adventism's educational and humanitarian missions. (Some questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.)

Deseret News: Give us a sense of what the Seventh-day Adventist represents around the world.

Ella Smith Simmons: Perhaps I should start with our name, because some find that to be just a little interesting. Perhaps the Latter-day Saints understand it, but those who are accustomed to a one-word denominational title find it different.

We are Seventh-day Adventists, indicating by "Adventist," that we are expecting the return of Jesus Christ to this Earth, and "Seventh-day" indicates we celebrate the seventh-day Sabbath, which in the contemporary calendar is Saturday.

DN: How is the Adventist Church approaching the question of educating and keeping its young people?

ESS: It's part of our educational philosophy that we should not just teach 'content matter,' approaching this through rote memorization, filling the empty heads of those who come to us, but rather should teach individuals to be critical thinkers to analyze, to challenge everything.

One area in which we have been challenged (is) the retention of our young people in our institutions.

That's not the case everywhere in the world. In many places, people are lined up for miles to get into our schools, (both) our young people and those of the community. In other places, things are slowing down a bit. We need to find some balance, we need to create or establish more schools where they are needed, because people are coming into our church, literally by the millions in some parts of the world, such as Latin American and in the African nations.

(In) the Western societies, we need to find perhaps ways to become more relevant, or more apparently relevant, because sometimes what we need is there, but we don't always package it or present it in ways that people understand.

There's something else: I think our whole nation — perhaps the whole world, in incremental steps — is becoming more accustomed to being invited in, to being sought after, to being provided commercials or promotions, and we've always just felt we will build the schools and they will come. Now we need to promote Adventist education, perhaps to a greater degree.

DN: Along with the schools, do the church's hospitals have an educational role?

ESS: We have more than 500 health care hospitals, clinics and other health care institutions, and although they're not all (teaching hospitals), because education is so important to us and part of our broad educational mission, we see … those health care institutions as part of the broader array of educational opportunities that we provide.

DN: Along with education, you also focus on humanitarian needs in your work as a vice president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. What does the Adventist Church do to help people in need?

ESS: Every Seventh-day Adventist is expected to help anyone (and) everyone who needs help that they can give. We're all expected to engage in community service, we're all taught that we have gifts and talents and they're given to us by God to share with others, through the church, or just through our front door.

But we also have a formalized approach to our humanitarian work. We have the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, or ADRA. It is a legitimate, bona fide non-governmental organization, and we engage worldwide, with all sorts of entities for the relief of suffering. We engage in literacy education and whatever we can do for occupational and vocational training worldwide.

Right now, we have some great programs, going in partnership with government agencies, in North Africa, where it's very difficult to work. But we have some great vocational-technical work going on there, so we're hoping to hear some good things about that soon. When there is disaster, ADRA is there. We are poised to move, on a moment's notice.

We have long-range plans for extending our development work, which beyond education would include digging wells or providing other vocational training opportunities, providing family life training and education, and so forth.

DN: This year, thousands of Seventh-day Adventists are converging on San Antonio, Texas. What's going to happen there in the life of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

ESS: We're going to gather there for our quinquennial (business) session. Every five years, the members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and then specifically church leadership and delegates from each of our service areas in the world, come together and make decisions of a wide variety. Probably most important is we decide who will lead our church for the next five years. So at this gathering, we will elect a president and the entire leadership body and various other officers and leaders for the church.

And we will develop policy. This is where we come together in discussions about specific policies. Our doctrines are sure, they are stable, they are our foundation. But how do we live out our beliefs? How do we engage in day-to-day business and other operations? We have to have policies that govern those interactions, on a daily basis, and so we'll make some decisions about those things.

It is also a time of heightened focus on our spirituality. We come together to pray, to commune with the Lord and with each other. That really is probably the highlight of it all. And it is our intent that as we engage in that way, allowing God to lead and direct us, the Holy Spirit to guide us, that then we enter into these decision-making opportunities. We'll set some strategic direction, because we vote the strategic plan for the next five years.

Editor's note: Mark A. Kellner is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and for 11 years worked at the movement’s world headquarters as news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines and as director of the Adventist News Network news service.

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner