Darnisha Thomas — who is studying for the final year of her master's program at the Theological Seminary at Andrews — recalls the road to pastoral ministry, from meeting role models to recognizing God's call to rebuffing naysayers. "Some of us have been fighting God’s call, but God continues to place that burden of ministry in our hearts, and at some point we have no other choice but to go and to follow," she says.
Question: You are a seminary student at Andrews University, pursuing your master of divinity degree. What do you enjoy most about your studies at Andrews?
Answer: One of the things I treasure most is the practical theory I am getting here at Andrews. I like how in-depth the classes are in theory but then how we get to go out and put things into practice.
Do you mean you get to practice preaching?
Not only that, but also go out and do first-hand ministry, like service-learning projects. One of my favorite things we did was going to Cuba. That was a highlight of my seminary experience. We just went out and listened to people, learning from other cultures. I really admire that cross-cultural experience.
That sounds amazing. How long were you in Cuba?
We were there for about two weeks during spring break last year. About 25 seminary students were on the trip. I think Andrews has been organizing this study tour for about four years.
When I came to Andrews, I was kind of sketchy about Cuba since it is Communist and everything, but a couple of my friends went to Cuba my first year. Then I thought I should really give it a shot. Plus, I would get some academic credits.
When they had the interest meeting about the Cuba trip, 50 people showed up. It was really popular, but there were only 25 spots available. I sent in my passport, paid my deposit, and about a week or two later got a notice saying they had a spot for me on the tour.
Did you meet a lot of Adventists there?
The Adventist church in Cuba is growing surprisingly fast. I spoke to a pastor there, and I don’t know how many churches he pastored, but it was a lot. He doesn’t even have a car, so has to cycle.
Before Andrews, you studied theology at Oakwood University. What made you decide to study theology for your undergrad and then attend the seminary? Was it a hard decision?
I sensed the call when I was about 13 or 14, but I didn’t want to do it.
I loved ministry growing up. I was always the little kid who always wanted to help in church: with Sabbath School, in the kitchen at potluck, with the children’s choir. I always loved the church environment. No, my parents were not in pastoral ministry; there was just something about the church atmosphere that I really enjoyed. But I didn’t think I would actually become a pastor.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Laurel, Maryland. My family attended the Emmanuel Brinklow Church.
So tell us more about how you made the decision.
Before officially deciding on theology, I was working with my aunt in her dental clinic. I had moments where I thought about being a dentist.
When I mentioned being a pastor to my family, they said: “You won’t make any money.”
I said: “Does it matter?”
I kept thinking about it. I always just wanted to help people; I wanted them to feel valued and loved. My dad wanted me to do law. My mother said, “You would make a great nurse.” She is a nurse. But I didn’t like the medical stuff. I was torn. It was a really hard decision.
Did your family try to dissuade you because of your gender?
My parents didn’t have a problem with women pastors. My dad introduced me to Brenda Billingy when I was about ten years old. She preached at our church. I had only seen men as pastors growing up. So that was a huge moment for me. I was like “Wow. Okay, this is a woman pastor. This is so cool.”
Years later I saw Andrea Trusty King preach when she was pregnant with her first daughter and realized it is possible to have a family and be a pastor, too.
But yes, my dad is protective, and he didn’t want me to be hurt. And my grandfather on my mom’s side was a conservative West Indian Adventist. But he actually gave me the blessing from the family. When I was about 15 years old, I did an impromptu Bible study with a friend over the phone. My grandfather happened to be in the room. So then we talked about my wish to become a pastor. I told my grandfather, “They are telling me I shouldn’t and that I won’t make a living.” He said, “Is that what God is telling you?”
My mom was my sign of confirmation in the ministry. When I was 16, after reading my prayer journal, she told me I was called. That was when I cried and said, “Okay, God, you got me. I will study theology.” My parents are my top supporters. They feel that they are doing the important work of raising a pastor!
Really I always just wanted to be used by God. I was really obsessed by that.
I went to Adventist schools. In my eigth-grade year, I ran for class chaplain, but didn’t get it. My first year at Takoma Academy, I was nominated as class pastor but didn’t get that either. My sophomore year, it was the same script, just a different year.
Then I was asked to preach for the youth choir anniversary concert at Emmanuel Brinklow. That was my big break. I was 14.
Did anyone else try to talk you out of your plans to study for the ministry?
Yes, there was one very traumatic experience. I was just finishing my freshman year at Oakwood. I was moving out of the dorm for the summer, and I met the mother of a high school friend. She asked me, “What are you studying?” When I answered theology, she asked, “What are you going to do with that? You can’t be a pastor. Ellen White says women can’t be pastors.” She said, “You need to pray about this. You could be a Bible teacher or chaplain, but a pastor is off limits.”
I had never had anyone say something so direct and blunt to me about pastoring before. I was so upset.
I didn’t even go to church that Sabbath because I kept hearing her words in my mind. I just cried. How dare she tell me I needed to pray about it? I had been praying about it for years. I had even tried to run away, but God called me!
Still, her words gave me doubts. I called my parents and asked if they ever had a problem with me studying theology or being a pastor. They were upset that this had happened to me. My dad told me, “Women were the first to see Jesus at the tomb. The woman at the well was the first to evangelize about Jesus.” My dad put me in touch with a female cousin who was a pastor, and I talked to her which helped a lot.
Of all those who have spoken out against women pastors, the majority are women. And it’s not just West Indians or people from the south. We talk about women empowerment, and sisters, and looking out for each other, but some of them make me feel like I am committing the deadliest sin!
If Brenda Billingy, who is West Indian, can defy gravity, I can do the same.
Have you told Brenda Billingy about the impact she has had on you?
Oh yes, I always tell her that she changed my life. She was the first woman pastor I met. She let me know that this career is a possibility — God does call women.
At Andrews I have been able to work under an amazing senior pastor. Dr. Hyveth Williams is a wonderful mentor who has taken me in as one of her spiritual daughters.
Maybe you can do the same someday for someone else.
Yes, I have already met a couple of ladies who are sensing the call to ministry.
I think that is why God called me to this ministry. He wants me to reach out to these young ladies who may find it difficult to be called at a young age.
What is the most difficult thing about studying theology?
Besides the Greek and Hebrew, there are a lot of things that are really challenging.
When I arrived at Oakwood, that was the beginning of changing that old traditional Adventist mindset. For instance, I had to learn to become open-minded to various worldviews and religions while establishing my faith as an Adventist.
But then going from an all-black institution to a highly-diverse campus — going to Andrews was a culture shock for me. I’ve gotten used to it now. I really love diversity, and that’s something I really admire about the seminary at Andrews. I have formed so many friendships with people from different cultures, and I can see myself being friends with these people all my life.
What are your fellow students like?
They are literally from everywhere. I have met people from Australia, Africa, the Philippines, Canada, the islands —It’s a melting pot.
What would you say is the average age of the seminary students?
I think most people that are a little bit older than I am. There are a lot of us fresh out of undergrad, but there are a lot of people old enough to be my parents. I think there are a lot of people who have been running like Jonah, but God has finally convinced them they need to be here.
One of my classmates is the father of one of my high school classmates!
How many other women students would you say there are?
This is something really powerful. After the GC vote last year [that went against women’s ordination], we greeted the new cohort that arrives in August, and that was greatest amount of women starting seminary so far. At least 30 women started last year. I think there are at least a hundred of us, not including doctorates and PhDs.
How long until you finish your master's degree?
I arrived at Andrews in August of 2013. I will finish at the end of this calendar year, December 2016.
What will you be doing this time next year?
Well, I think that God has a sense of humor. I was looking at the west coast for my postgrad plans. But as of January 2017, I will be pastoring at the New Hope Church in Maryland. It’s about 15 minutes from where my parents live.
The church has four pastors, including one other woman. I will be the pastor for teens, college students, and serving (volunteering).
Congratulations on the job! When considering your job options, did you find the conferences were open to hiring a woman?
The conferences I talked to are really open to hiring women. Some of the conferences with conservative backgrounds are taking baby steps and hiring just one woman and placing her in a progressive church. But all of the conference presidents I have spoken to are really, really supportive and want to hire women.
You have said that you were very disappointed by the vote against ordination at the General Conference session last July. Why? Were you surprised? Did you feel discouraged? Did you consider abandoning your plans to become a minister?
I was disappointed because of all the things we can argue about, we are focusing on invalidating a woman’s place in the church. It’s heartbreaking to hear people so passionate about something so little as gender being the reason why someone can’t be a pastor.
My father raised three kids, and he raised me to be a strong person. He taught me to speak out about wrongs like this — to get out of the comfort zone and to make an impact. So if people think that I am going against my family, they are incorrect.
I met a woman in Cuba, pastoring the largest church district. I think about the sisters in China who are breathing church plants.
That gets me really upset because the church can acknowledge these woman for pastoring large church districts but won’t ordain them. It’s a weird double standard.
The vote was heartbreaking but didn’t discourage me in my plans. If anything, it added more fuel to the fire. I am going to do what God called me to do.
Also, the North American Division is really great and affirms me. But I don’t answer to anyone but God.
What do you think the future holds for woman pastors in the Seventh-day Adventist church? Can you see things changing?
In the next 10 or 20 years, I do believe there will be more women pastors. We are already seeing it now. I know there will be a lot more in seminary even this year.
I don’t know if you have seen the film Pearl Harbor, but it quotes the Japanese Admiral in a line that will always stick out to me: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant. . . .”
I personally believe that women in ministry are that sleeping giant. We aren’t there for the ordination; we are there for the service. We don’t think we are men; our purpose is not to make them lose their jobs. But we have been leaving our comfortable jobs and our positions. Some of us have been fighting God’s call, but God continues to place that burden of ministry in our hearts, and at some point, we have no other choice but to go and to follow. That is so powerful about most of my girls in ministry. We are not doing this to get self-accolades. We are just answering to God.
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.