Jessyka and Kiefer Dooley are Seventh-day Adventist Millennial youth leaders who grew up with no interest in becoming leaders. But through a winding river of circumstances—including being introduced to a lifelong relationship with Jesus—they have both developed a passion for summer camp and youth ministries.

Jessyka recalls not having a positive experience in school or church until she met Jesus as a Friend. “I had an incredible chaplain and mentor my senior year in academy,” says Jessyca. “She connected me with a relationship with Jesus that was so much deeper than what the church had offered me in the past.”

After graduating from Auburn Adventist Academy in 2012, Jessyka decided to study theology at Union College. Her passion for youth ministry became evident during her internship with the Boulder Adventist Church in Colorado during her last year of college.

“At Boulder Church I got to work with Japhet de Oliveira, who taught me everything I could ever learn about ministry in the years that I was able to work with him. I fell in love with doing kids and youth ministry and actually connecting with the kids at a young age and making a difference for them long term,” Jessyka explains. She adds that this is the reason she is still involved in the Adventist Church.

Jessyka, who now serves as assistant youth director for the Rocky Mountain Conference, reflects on the culture of change she created during her internship at Boulder by making the kid’s programming fun and exciting so the kids wanted to attend. “I recall a parent saying to me, ‘I was going to sleep in today—just spend the day at home—but my kids woke me up because they wanted to go to church!’” 

Kiefer was raised in the Midwest and attended Ozark Academy. His passion for summer camp ministry began while he was a teenager.

“At summer camp I fell in love with what ministry is. I remember talking to a youth director one summer and asking How do you know the plans God has for your life? I was thinking about switching my major in college and didn’t really know. And he was the one who told me, God’s gonna’ use you where you are. Say yes to opportunities and do a really good job,” Kiefer recalls.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 2015, Kiefer got a good job at JB Hunt Transport Services, Inc. However, he felt empty and wanted to spend one more summer at camp, where his passion was engaged.

“I wanted one last hurrah at Glacier View Ranch with my brother and sister, who were also working there that summer,” recalls Kiefer. “And then my plan was to go to grad school. God had different ideas that summer. Steve Hamilton, Ed Barnet, and Brennan and Brandy Kirstein were just a few of the people who prompted me to consider running summer camps and doing youth ministry as a career.” Kiefer has been facilitating youth ministry in the Rocky Mountain Conference ever since and is now the director of the conference’s Youth Ministry Department.

Other leaders in youth ministry see the Dooley’s passion and natural abilities as leaders for summer camp and beyond. “Working as a husband and wife ministry team allows them to make the group feel like they’re part of the family,” observes Pastor Roger Wade, Mid-America Union Conference Church Ministries director. “The young adults who work for them at camp are not just commodities; they’re coming to their family.”

Wade, who is valued by both Jessyka and Kiefer for his mentorship, adds that they both have a heart for the young people they serve. “They know them. They are constantly in tune with where they are, and that, I think, is their secret sauce. Because they know where the young people are, they’re able to minister directly to what the issues are. And their leadership styles work well together.”

Active culture, authentic community

As Christians, we understand that the relationship with Jesus is at the center of everything—our work, play, friends and even our existence. So when new leadership assumes a role in the church dedicated to introducing, encouraging, nurturing and developing people’s relationship with Jesus, it’s understandable that some questions might arise. “As humans, we like to be comfortable and the familiar is always more comfortable than the unknown,” says Kiefer. “I think that open and honest dialogue is very important in situations with young leaders in the church–the goal of the conversation being to discover that the core component of the fresh, young, emerging leaders’ platform is still to promote Jesus and everything that a life with Him entails. So, through dialogue, we can come to trust and believe in young leaders who are in their positions because they want to bring the beauty of lives transformed by Jesus to the world.”

Kiefer points out that Jesus, at the age of many of our millennial leaders today, often shook up religious traditions because they were clouding the beauty of God’s love for His people. “As young leaders we want to bring the excitement of a life with Jesus to everyone we work with.  It’s important for people of all ages to have fun with Jesus, of course, but especially working with kids, teens and young adults, it’s important to remember that God has a creative and fun personality.” 

Some church members and leaders may wonder what draws young adults to ministry at summer camp more than at their local church. Kiefer thinks it’s all about the relationship building that is exemplified at camp because relationships are the key to success. Camp provides young adults a chance to develop relationships with others in areas they are passionate about.

“At camp there’s the opportunity for basically anyone to do something they’re gifted and talented in,” states Kiefer. “You might want to run sound, you might want to cook, you might love rock climbing—there’s always a way for young adults to use their talents and passions to better the program and to connect with people and then, ultimately, to help those people connect to God.”

Summer camp leadership gives the Dooleys a chance to excel. In Jessyka’s words, “Summer camp really is where we get to lead, we get to create. We are hiring staff, or sometimes firing staff, because we’re actually responsible for not only 70 young adults, we’re also directly responsible for roughly 140 campers every single week.”

Closing the gaps

Reflecting on why young adults are attracted to the summer camp model they have created, Jesskya points out that the new staff who come in are able to bring their own flavor, their own ideas, their own way of doing things. “The secret to successful young adult leadership is to give the youth the ability to lead in their own way,” says Jessyka. “We want to help guide the ship [of the Adventist Church] and our goal is to work together with all generations to land it safely on a beautiful beach, not let it crash and flounder on the rocks of a disengaged community.”

Jessyka adds that when there’s a healthy, positive culture the rest just kind of takes off. “I’ve seen that with summer camp, where we’ve created a really professional, but also a fun and energetic culture. When our state inspectors come in, they’re wowed by how organized and how on top of it we all are.”

She goes on to explain that she sees the creating of culture as fundamental to building up our church. “When we actually connect with younger kids and show them a Jesus who is fun and creative, caring, exciting, they take that with them into their teen years and into their college years then on into adulthood. And that’s the gap I think we’ve missed—connecting with our children in a way that permanently engages them. In the end, the success of any ministry is building relationships and showing people a God who is creative and active in their life.”