Up-and-Coming Women of Adventism: Kendra Arsenault, Pioneering Podcaster

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Up-and-Coming Women of Adventism: Kendra Arsenault, Pioneering Podcaster

Editorial Note: The following is the second installment in our series Up-and-Coming Women of Adventism. In this article Compass decided to interview Kendra Arsenault, the host of AdventNext an innovative and influential Adventist podcast. The interview was conducted in February 2020. Subscribe to AdventNext.

 

Question 1: Thank you, Kendra for taking some of your time to talk about Advent Next – a podcast that is becoming popular on several platforms and social media outlets. When did you launch the first episode, and what was your experience going into this new project? What were your feelings before and after recording the first session?

 

Kendra: Okay, this is a good question! It’s funny because I am in the interviewee’s seat, so I am being interviewed, and this is very interesting. So, we launched back in February of 2019. I can’t remember the exact day, but if you go on YouTube, the first video that is on there probably has the date. I came on board here at ALC (Adventist Learning Community) working as a video editor. So, we’re working on coursework, and this is in the summertime of 2018, at a time when ALC was transitioning and wanted to do other projects. I had some experience in the past including about eight years of doing video work for non-profits and contract work and mini-documentaries here and there. So, I had this video experience and I was talking to my boss hereat Andrews, and asked, “Hey, why don’t we do something like an Adventist TedTalk? Something that is very informative, something that can help people discover something new in Scripture, or conversations that are happening in the theological world that people aren’t aware of and that they would find interesting and tune in and find something new.”

Apparently, this is a project that he had been wanting to do for a while, but he didn’t have the people around to help launch that project. So, he gave me the “okay”, and we spent a couple of months doing the proposal, and I think in August of 2018 we got the “go ahead”. And then he started asking, what kind of set design are you thinking of? I thought we could do some wood panels, but I was thinking we were going to do just a panel of wood on some wheels, and transport it back and forth, and we’ll have maybe a black background. And I come in one day and there is a construction guy in here and they are building an entire set. That was way more than I expected. We brainstormed for a rustic look and the table was actually built by one of our coworkers, James. We have a tech guy who is into cameras, so he and I worked together on researching what is the best equipment. So, it was a lot of fun, but there was also a lot of anxiety because you see the set and you’re just like, people are investing in this vision, I need to pull it off well. And I think it put a lot of good pressure on me to want to do something excellent. So, that was my pre-launch feeling.

 

Question 2: How did you choose the first topic?

 

Kendra: So, I was taking a class at that time called Contemporary Adventist Issues, with Darius Jankiewicz, and one of the topics that we talked about was women in ordination, a big controversial topic right now. We had a really good class, and one of the books he recommended was called “Women and Ordination,” and Dr. John Reeve was an editor for that book. To add a bit of background, I came to the Seminary very tentatively, knowing that not everyone might want me to be here. So, how do I downplay my presence, like if people say, do you want to be a pastor, I could say “no”, I just want to help out, I just want to do ministry and serve the Lord. I don’t want to put any titles on there, because I don’t want anyone to take offense. And I found out that I was not the only person who felt that way. In fact, I was taking that class with another woman, and I think both our lights went off at the same time when we were listening to this professor talk about these topics in a way that I hadn’t heard them expressed before, from a biblical foundation and looking at how God sees women in the New Testament. That was very positive and very favorable. Even the whole idea of priesthood – we don’t have a Levitical priesthood in the New testament. I learned a lot in those conversations, and I thought people need to be aware of these types of conversations that are happening in academia because I think what’s happening at the lay level, is that we are still at the fundamental understanding of the Bible. We haven’t begun to divide the Word properly. So, how do we bring expert opinion into the broader conversation of the church, opinions from people who have studied the Scripture, who study the context, who are in the religious battlefields, and know how to navigate them well? I think that was important, and the launching topic was bringing in Dr. John Reeve because for me it was such a mind-blowing moment when I read through the book that I thought I wanted to bring him in as my first guest. And it was a lot of credit to ALC to say if you want to launch with that topic, go right ahead. Instead of saying, you might want to ease into that topic, maybe ten episodes down the road. But they gave me a lot of creative freedom, thankfully.

 

Question 3: Just to clarify, when you came to the seminary you were not sure about your thoughts on ordination or you were not sure how to navigate this issue with others­­?

 

Kendra: It’s interesting, and I’ll give a little background to this statement that I am about to make. I did not grow up Adventist, and I had a very nominal understanding of Adventism, I had more of an understanding of who Jesus was from the time I was baptized when I was twelve until the time I was eighteen. Then, when I went to college, I kind of walked away from religion, had much more of a liberal-leaning in a lot of my understandings. During that time, because I wasn’t close to the Lord, because I wasn’t wrestling with him in understanding how my faith fits into the narrative of a larger cultural and political context, I went into a place where I felt far from the Lord. I think I attribute that to some of my actions or some of the beliefs I was adopting. I was really into Gnosticism and a lot of different religions at that time. But when I came back to the Lord, I kind of had the pendulum swing, I was really kind of liberal and out there partying and whatever, and when I came back to the church I had a very conservative introduction back into the church. Some of the people that I surrounded myself with had very conservative mindsets, and sometimes you think that those kinds of tenets of conservatism are what is keeping you from falling into sin. And even though that’s not true – we see that in the New Testament, where Jesus is making corrections because they are putting too many boundaries to help people keep the law, but they were man-made human ordinances. So, I knew God’s calling on women’s lives, and I understood that for myself, and I even could affirm that in other people’s lives, but I did not have the articulation to be able to share that with other people who thought contrary to me. I felt that their arguments from a biblical perspective were superior and I thought my perspective was just from a human rights’ point of view. So, I didn’t really have the biblical basis strengthened to say that this is a valid point of view. When it comes to equality and ministry and leadership, there isn’t a vis-à-vis between what’s biblical and what’s secular. There is a strong biblical argument on both sides.

 

I think a lot of people will resonate with that. That was my experience as well going through the Seminary and to some extent, it still is because the topic comes up in some of the classes I am teaching and students still grapple even with the biblical evidence. 

Question 4: On what platforms is the podcast availble? Can you share some statistics like Facebook followers, subscribers, monthly views?

 

Kendra: Right now, we are on pretty much on any platform on which you can listen to a podcast – iTunes, Spotify, Apple Podcast, even different Android apps, like Stitcher. So, you can find us pretty much wherever podcasts live. As far as statistics, we have about 7,500 followers on Facebook, about 13,000 on Instagram, and 800 subscribers on Youtube.

 

Question 5: How would you describe the purpose of the podcast and how do the title and the logo relate to the purpose?

 

Kendra: We originally wanted to make this an Adventist Ted Talk. So we’re like, oh, “Adventex”, but then some people said it makes it sound like this is “ex Adventists”. So, we thought we’d try another title, and then I thought of Advent Next. The logo kind of came out of that – pressing the Next button on the playlist. It’s just about reaching the new generation with information.

 

Question 6: Tell us a little about yourself: where are you from, what is your education background, and what are some of your ministry goals? How did you get here, and where are you going?

 

Kendra: I was born in Panama, and my mom is Afro-Panamanian and my dad is American, he is from Maine. I grew up mostly in California in Seaside/Monterey – a very multicultural area. I went to UCLA for my undergraduate. I wanted to be an English major, I love to write – a secret about myself – but I felt like this is a great opportunity to be exposed to other types of things that are happening in the larger context. So, I studied International Development and African-American studies, just to be aware of what are some issues that are happening globally, developing nations, America’s interactions with those nations, ways that we help and harm, and then looking at the interior life of America, the history of African-Americans and the residual effects of slavery and their impact today. So those were the areas of study. But my hobby was always film. I did screenwriting when I was an undergrad, and I was in the film club, and when I left I still continued to do little projects here and there. But it’s about eight years into that journey of just having a deep interest in theological things, but never sharing Christ as a job. I always tried to squeeze theology into conversations with my co-workers, hoping I wouldn’t get fired, because it wasn’t the context for it. So, I really wanted to further my spiritual education, so I can also begin to create media content that has some substance to it. So that’s how I got here, I thought I should come to Andrews and learn a little more. And Advent Next became a very pleasant surprise in that process. As far as where I am going, hopefully not too far from the underlying vision of finding creative ways to communicate the Gospel or just to help people think spiritually. I think people are at different stages in their walk, so I think this is for people who are more intellectually curious about how their faith interacts with the higher philosophies of society. And then there are other people who want more practical understandings of their faith, and I hope to be able to be part of creating content that enhances people’s walk in their spiritual journey.

 

Question 7: So, if I understand correctly, you do not have formal education in film production?

 

Kendra: That’s correct. All hobby.

 

Question 8: But it developed over a long period of time because you were involved in it consistently. At what age did you start doing anything related to film or screenwriting?

 

Kendra: I started screenwriting when I was fourteen, but I started making videos – just home videos and stories and little movies when I was probably ten or eleven. We had the big tapes that you put in a huge video recorder and we just had fun.

 

Question 9: So, it’s definitely a significant part of you and your journey growing up, and I think it’s great that you allowed that to direct your life. I don’t think everyone has the courage to follow the path meant for them, a path that fits with their gifts and talents, so they end up doing things they may not be very good at or not enjoy as much or both.

 

Kendra: To be honest with you though, I actually put down screenwriting for about eight years after my reconversion for the exact reasons that you are talking about. When I came back to Christ I had this [negative] association – and I’m not saying anybody put it there, I just had this association – and this is before “Fireproof” came out, it’s before you start to really see a burst in Christian media. When I was graduating these things were just on the cusp, so I didn’t think I’d have a future in media because I thought I would not be able to communicate things that are deeply meaningful to me because the medium is so limited. So, I put that barrier in my mind. It wasn’t necessarily there; it was self-imposed. And it took me a while to start understanding that God is saying, No, use your creative gifts for Me and that there is a way to do that. And I’m getting back into that.

 

Question 10: Okay, so there were some roadblocks, and more so internally it seems than external pressures.

 

Kendra: Yeah, I hadn’t seen it modeled, but once you see it modeled you say, oh, it can be done, let’s figure out how to do this.

 

Question 11: Any influential people you can speak about, either in your educational sphere or in general? Influential in the sense of contributing to making you who you are?

 

Kendra: I think my dad has been one of the most influential people in a very quiet sense because he’s just been always there to support me in whatever I did. And to know that you have that kind of support, to know that if you fall flat on your face you’re not going to be left in the wind, I think that that’s not something that everybody has. I think some people feel like they have to think very practically. Because whenever you enter something like an MDiv program or an artistic program, an MFA program, it doesn’t seem as practical as being an RN or becoming a lawyer or a doctor. And so, to be able to say, I have the room to make mistakes on this journey, or to follow something that might not be immediately financially viable, knowing in the back of my head that I have a net, that someone will catch me if I fall, I think that’s been a part of helping me be liberated to do what I wanted to do.

 

Question 12: Are there any particular events or experiences in your life that have shaped you in such a way as to prepare you for media ministry?

 

Kendra: I grew up very introverted, so there are a lot of things that I didn’t feel open enough to say out loud or to ask, or questions about life and relationships, and things that I ended up reading in books or watching in a program or seeing in a documentary. I think I saw the educational value of media because you may not always feel comfortable in the private spaces of your family, or maybe there are interior barriers that you face to be able to ask these questions. So, for me, the media has been a teacher in a lot of ways. I see the value of that.

 

Question 13: What is your support system and in what way have the different elements that are part of it contributed to the growth and success of the podcast?

 

Kendra: 100% the Adventist Learning Community. When I talk about emotional support, I think my dad. When I think about making this happen, absolutely Adam Fenner – he is the director here at the Adventist Learning Community. He has been trying to push the envelope for Adventist education since 2013 when he started this space. And right now he does online courses and is trying to help lay members have access to different courses. He put the money where his mouth is. So that’s been a major support system. And everybody here in this office. We have Steve Husset, he is the tech guy; he spent hours with me grueling over what cameras we need, what microphones we need, what setup we need. James Gigante was a part of helping build some of the construction of this space and has also been a part of the support team. Everybody here in the Adventist Learning Community has been the big support behind it.

 

Question 14: Another specific aspect that I am really interested in, especially for those who might be in the position of being inspired by your model to create their own ways of engaging with the Christian community, is resistance, both internal and/or external. And how did you overcome it?

 

Kendra: For me, my biggest resistance is internal. There are some people who’ve made outlandish comments, but they are so far down the pipeline for me that it doesn’t affect me.

 

Question 15: Can you talk about that a little bit? What kind of comments?

 

Kendra: I can’t remember off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’ve deleted them off the page at some point. Some I’ve let stay because they’re mild. But some of them are just abrasive comments about hot topics like women in ordination – people feeling like these professors are not credible, or they are not really studying their Bibles, because we are coming with these ludicrous conclusions. Those are comments that I expected, so it’s not something that came as a surprise or was extremely offensive in that sense. My biggest resistance is myself and my time. Going to school full-time and feeling very stretched, wanting to put in quality study but feeling like I don’t really have time to decompress. Also, having high expectations for what you want to see accomplished, but you’re not there yet. So, you’re having to be patient and not be discouraged along the journey. And taking courage and celebrating the little victories – that’s also been part of helping overcome some of the internal resistance that I face.

 

Question 16: In your relationship with God, how did He contribute to that overcoming your internal resistance?

 

Kendra: I think he has helped me keep perspective. As I tell my friends all the time, I have first-world problems. I have clean drinking water, I have access to food, I have a roof over my head. And so, the ways that I get discouraged are, I have too much homework, or I feel stretched for time. Even though those are realities, and last semester my health was taking a little bit of a decline, God helps me keep perspective and realize that I have it really good, in the global and local context, even just to be able to have this opportunity. And I think some of my expectations might exceed where we are right now. I do feel that the Lord is on my side, but my argument with him is, we should be moving faster, we should be doing more, free me up, Lord, so I have more time to push us into the stratosphere. So, I think those are some of the arguments me and God get into. And I think He is just telling me to be patient. Also, there is a little bit of sacrifice when it comes to finding those little pockets of time where you can do a little bit extra. But also, perspective, and a place of gratitude, because I know what life can be like outside of being directly in His hands.

 

Question 17: What are some of the topics that have been addressed, and how do you select them?

 

Kendra: A lot of people that I bring on are either guest speakers coming through the Seminary or are people at the Seminary. We had Dr. John Oswalt, he is an expert in Isaiah and one of the people who worked in the committee for the New Living Translations – one of my favorite translations to give out because it’s so readable for someone who doesn’t know how to read the Bible. Hearing the process and what they went through was fun. Talking to Drs. David and Beverly Sedlacek about the church and trauma, and how we can make the church more of a healing space, so that we begin to find true healing in Christ for real issues instead of being like, “We’re all okay,” but not creating spaces for dealing with traumatic events. I just did one with Dr. Rahel Wells –she is a professor of bioethics and has a degree in Old Testament religion and also a masters in biology. We were looking at how the Scripture depicts the relationship between humans and animals, between man and creation, and looking at how we are meant to be cohabiters on planet Earth, looking at ways of better interacting and how our ethical duties and interactions in society with the planet, with each other, with the living creatures, has a biblical basis. I talked with Dr. Nicholas Miller recently on how to navigate politics and law. I think sometimes people are tentative to bring their faith into the political sphere, and so we talked about to what extent should we do that, and to what extent there should be a separation between church and state. We had Carlton Byrd who talked about his ministry journey and just being content in the little victories that God has for you. He shared some very interesting stories that show that little is much when God is in it. Another was with Dr. Trevor O’Reggio, looking at the African history of Christianity and its roots. That was a really important episode, and I think on the podcast side, that has been one of the most popular ones as it really brings out blow-your-mind facts about stuff you didn’t know about. And I think he really brought that to light about the huge influence of Africa in the formation of Christianity, the huge libraries in North Africa. So, he did a great job. And David Asscherick was great, I loved having him on. He had a lot of great energy and I think just getting insight into the behind-the-scenes of his ministry was fun. Sometimes we get caught up and see the exterior of what a person is doing, but we don’t know their challenges and how they are dealing with their own spiritual walk.

 

Question 18: What are some of the most surprising or enlightening things you have personally learned so far in relation to the topics discussed?

 

Kendra: Definitely the talk with Trevor O’Reggio. What was very interesting about that was understanding the great contributions that Africa made to the origins of Christianity and how we think today. You have a lot of early church fathers who were really forming the doctrines of the church that were coming out of Africa, and the way that the rise of Islam and the rise of the bishop of Rome pushed Christianity and caused a shift from Eastern Christianity to Western Christianity. We often think now that Christianity is a Western phenomenon, but that is not necessarily true. Even though America has Americanized it in different regions of the world, it was interesting to see that Christianity is not a Western religion, though I think in the majority of history we do have mostly just that type of perspective.

 

That is interesting. I’m guessing you talked about Alexandria, and Antioch, and Augustine, as key centers and figures of Christianity. And yes, the movement shifted heavily towards Rome, but the beginnings have definitely been Eastern and North African, and we just don’t have that terminology in our vocabulary. We don’t think of it that wa­­y. 

Question 19: What are some of the things you are most thankful for and are there any regrets that you might also be open to sharing, or are there any things that you would do differently moving forward?

Kendra: I am definitely thankful, again, that I am working with ALC, that they are providing financially for this thing to take place. I think without that it would be a lot harder to work, go to school full-time, and start this on the side, and do all the work behind it; because I am editing it, and doing the graphic design, I am marketing it, and that just takes a tremendous amount of time. And so, to be able to have the creative freedom to do that, that’s been huge, and I don’t ever want to lose that. I know that there are churches and conferences that want to start doing something like this, and so people who are interested in it should start reaching out for a network of support. I think my tendency is independence, being overly independent, and sometimes it is difficult to work with communities because they have expectations, and they might want to tailor things, and you are having to have to negotiate. And those conversations could end up not being fun. But if there are people who want to hire somebody, or are able to provide a stipend to do a project like that, but you are having to work with a conference or work with a church, sometimes those are little trade-offs that you need to make, but they don’t always have to be bad. So, that’s been something that I’ve been grateful for, and not everybody will be able to work with an Adam Fenner who just says, Do whatever you want to.

Anything you might do differently?

Kendra: I think moving forward we are trying to get a couple of episodes in our bank, because last year I was doing week-to-week, so everything was kind of rushed. I think it’s nice to have a little bit of cushion and have something in the queue. But sometimes life doesn’t afford that. Depending on the personality, sometimes to overly prepare for something is going to be a hindrance to ever getting it done. Because you think you have to do so much before you are ready to launch. But sometimes just going with the flow, if that’s what gets it done, do it.

Question 20: Any word of advice for other creative individuals who might contemplate innovative ministry ideas but have not taken any concrete steps towards translating them into reality?

Kendra: That’s a good question. I think it starts with people who can support other creatives. We have to start thinking this way if we are thinking of reaching the world. We have to start thinking about innovative creative ministries, whether that’s musically, YouTube channels, whatever it is. I think there has to be a level of trust. Sometimes, depending on the personality, someone who is giving money or who is willing to support a project might want to micromanage. But if you can trust the person that you are putting in charge, I think that is a sign of good leadership. That you are able to leave something in somebody’s hands and say, I will be here to support you to figure it out, but I trust you. And if they go off the rails, then you can talk about this. But if you can find somebody that you can build that trust with and you don’t ever have to go and micromanage them, that’s a really good working relationship.

As for creatives, we did an episode with Dr. Jo Ann Davidson, looking at God as the artist. He expresses Himself in poetry, in creation. There’s so much literary beauty in the way the Bible was written, and so even that sense of beauty was not lost on the prophets and the scribes who composed the sixty-six books. “God is always expressing Himself more as a constant artist than as a systematic theologian” – her quote. And I think to trust those kinds of artistic expressions and say that these are from the Lord, and to find ways, whether you’re going to journal your poetry once a day, and then you’re going to go to a Christian poets conference to see if you can get it published, taking steps, but doing it together – finding somebody else who can either collaborate with you, support you, give you a sense of accountability, even if it’s not financially, but just someone who is a co-creative with you. I think that also helps to just give the momentum to move forward and get something beautiful done.

And I hope moving forward, too, as I was talking to Dr. Byrd, paying our musicians does two things: it frees their time to be fully devoted to their art, and it gives them accountability to bring their best to the church. And so, if there is a way to begin to raise money for Christian artists, I think that conferences, pastors, local churches, if they can begin to find ways to really place value on that, I think that is the next level of evangelism. Information and sermonizing is one way, but there are many ways to speak to the soul and to validate all of them is very important.

I am an artist at heart and I experience some level of the disappointment for not seeing more vision in our church because everything seems to be geared towards mass-producing one or two main types of ministry. But I think the church overall is losing so much because they are not using the diversity of resources available.

Kendra: We’re kind of utilitarian in that way…

I even wonder about that though, because we assume that this is not going to produce. But you are producing viewers, who are consuming this content, and I am sure that it is influencing their spiritual lives and their decisions. So, we work in systems and it’s hard to get out of them and produce new systems.

Kendra: Another thing I learned from Jo Ann Davidson is that Bezaleel was the first person in the Old Testament who was filled with the Holy Spirit. And he was an artist. He was the one who crafted the Temple. So, the first person who has the Holy Spirit is an artist. And we get to see how God values those types of gifts – even the fact that He remunerates the singers at the Temple. It wasn’t just the priest that was paid, the singers were also paid. So, how do we begin to create a system of support for those who want to glorify God with their gifts, and not all gifts fall into the teacher, minister, pastor, evangelist.

I guess basically what we are seeing here is a need for a broader definition of paid ministry.

Kendra: Yeah… Thank you so much! I am so blown away that you guys are doing this article! And if you take anything, take away the fact that Adam Fenner is the unsung hero.

Yes, he himself is an inspiration for our leaders as someone who is supportive of new projects. It was nice learning more about the project, and your life, and how things came together and are moving forward. I am sure that our readers and listeners will be inspired. Thank you again for taking the time for this and for being open to sharing!

Editorial Note: The following is an interview of Kendra Arsenault, the host of AdventNext an innovative and influential Adventist podcast. The interview was conducted in February 2020. Subscribe to AdventNext.

Click here to read the rest of our series on Up-and-Coming Women of Adventism!

 

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.