To a casual bystander, the annual summer gathering known as the Alliance Defense Fund Academy looks for all the world like an especially congenial class reunion – lots of lively greetings and laughing around tables and plenty of stirring speeches and presentations.
But across 15 years, the event has grown beyond its original conception as a time for legal training, making new friends and growing a fledgling legal ministry. Today, the Academy has become a vibrant microcosm for the Alliance Defense Fund of exactly what that first word, Alliance, really means – and how it's bringing together an increasingly varied array of gifted Christians to advance and defend religious freedom all over the world.
In the beginning, the event was designed solely for attorneys, and they still come in large numbers to brush up on new cases, new regulations, and new strategies for preserving life, marriage, and religious liberty. Through the Academy, ADF has trained more than 1,500 lawyers from all 50 states and from 31 other nations, who have gone on to offer more than $133.8 million worth of combined pro bono/dedicated legal service to the Body of Christ.
“ Just being here elevates
WHAT MY EXPECTATIONS ARE
- Rich Neuland, ADF Ambassador
"I learned more about constitutional law during the one-week legal academy than I did in three years of law school," says Mark Warnick, an ADF allied attorney who describes the Academy as "the finest legal training program I have attended in nearly 22 years of practice."
A few years ago, the Academy added an Ambassadors track for special Ministry Friends of ADF. These men and women, charged with informing and recruiting thousands of other potential Ministry Friends in living rooms, restaurants, and church dining halls coast to coast, received special training at the Academy designed to help them better communicate the mission of ADF and understand the basic constitutional underpinnings from which the ministry operates.
For most, the Academy proves to be both a thrilling and sobering look at what's happening on the scrimmage lines of the law, and their first real exposure to the people whose hard work drives the ADF objective.
"It's kind of stunning to see how well spoken everybody is," says Rich Neuland, an ADF Ambassador from Rancho Santa Margarita, California. "This is a group of people who are clearly gifted in every way – intellectually, in the way they express themselves, and especially spiritually. God is a big part of their lives … evident in the way they talk and the subject matter of their talk. Just being here elevates what my expectations are of myself."
Two years ago, recognizing the increasing legal challenges facing America's churches, ADF began offering a new track at the Academy specifically designed to acquaint church leaders with ADF issues and with the legal resources available to them at no charge.
"Many pastors either aren't aware of the laws protecting their right to engage all aspects of our culture, or don't fully appreciate how vital church participation in civic discourse is to our form of government," says Kevin Theriot, ADF Senior Counsel, who helps lead the pastor track sessions. "Once the awareness is generated," he says, "we've seen tremendous results in pastors boldly speaking to their own congregations and sharing what they've learned with other pastors. The ripple effect of the Academy training has exceeded our expectations each year."
The 2011 Academy, meanwhile, saw the summer event expanded to include yet another track – one especially designed to expose media professionals already friendly to ADF ideals and objectives to more of the ministry's activities and objectives in the year ahead.
"They were bowled over by the amount of work and the kinds of work ADF is doing," says Tim Goeglein, who interacts extensively with media for Focus on the Family (See Story). Goeglein, who took part in last year's media track, says, "The most common refrain I've heard is, 'I had no idea ADF did all those things, or that the problems were so extensive.'"
Whatever the track, "the Academy offers everyone who participates a satellite image of a legal battlefield that has no boundaries. It crosses oceans and continents," says Bruce Smith, ADF Senior Vice President for Media Relations, who notes that 19 nations were represented at last year's event. "This is why the work that ADF does matters … because ADF is making a global difference."
"I can't think of any one single event that better epitomizes who we are as an alliance," says ADF President Alan Sears, "and what we as an alliance are trying to accomplish in the legal system, in the culture, and in the courtroom of public opinion, than the ADF Academy."