Threadbare, worn, and obviously too small, I still have the t-shirt I was given as a toddler. Though the words are faded now, childhood pictures testify that it said “Anything boys can do, girls can do better!” It's a cute shirt that was gifted to me with intentionality. I am the youngest and only sister to three brothers. It was a jovial but pointed way to ensure that I grew up understanding my value. I never felt intimidated by boys. I spoke up in classes. My brothers always included me in play. They made sure that I knew I was smart, capable, and worthy of respect.
I didn't grow up in an Adventist home, but my parents were Christian. After attending an Adventist school, through the witness of classmates and teachers, I was baptized into the Adventist Church in 7th grade. I continued on to academy, and it was there, for the first time, that I was exposed to the inequality toward women harbored by our church. I was running for class chaplain. The boy running against me told me girls couldn't be pastors, so I shouldn't try for the office. I’d never heard any such thing before this! I chalked it up to him spouting nonsense; but some years later, I found out that this belief permeated my denomination. I had already decided I would be a pastor. So regardless of the naysayers, I would follow the call God placed on my heart. I would just preach and teach and love so profoundly that there would be no question of anyone who would want to try to deny my call!
Fast forward several years—after undergrad and seminary and various pastorates—I had a conflict with one of the conferences I was employed in. I wanted to maintain good relationships between the administration and my congregation, so I was not the one to disclose what was happening. My church elders found out and were absolutely horrified at what was transpiring. Soon there after, I got a call from a conference administrator who had previously been intractable but who had had a sudden “change of heart” regarding the situation. I learned that one of my elders had placed a call to the office. My elder relayed the conversation. He mused that in his 60+ years of lifelong Adventism, he had always been loyal to the church. However, when the elder learned of the situation, he initiated a call to the conference to threaten the church’s withholding of its tithes. Now let me quickly reiterate—I had no prior knowledge of this discussion. I did not advocate or encourage this action in any way, nor am I endorsing the use of such strategies for anyone else. However, my elders felt under such conviction that they resorted to a radical step. Why? Simply put, they loved me as their pastor because I loved them. I shared the Gospel with them. I baptized their children. I visited when they were sick and comforted them when they dealt with grief. I was faithful to the call God gave me to feed the sheep. So in their minds, when it came to making a stand for me despite the administration, they had no hesitation. The administration had underestimated the human connection.
Some people have asked in the past about my family being converted to Adventism. And in all honesty, it's almost impossible to overstate how difficult that feat may be. Obviously, I believe if God wants them to accept the Adventist message, nothing would hinder that—but it would be in spite of, not because of our Church administration. My family sees and hears and feels the hurt that this Church doles out at times. They don't understand why I would be a part of a system that perpetuates inequality—much less work for it. And as the denomination becomes more conservatively unyielding, it becomes more and more difficult to defend. Ultimately, I work for God, not humans. And I don't have qualms with our doctrinal beliefs. At the same time, I want my family to be a part of a denomination that upholds the entire Gospel—which promotes the dissolution of all sin’s resultant effects which includes factions and inequities. For my brothers, who spent their lives making sure I recognize my value, these things become harder and harder to reconcile as our Church promotes more patriarchal views. And for thousands of other would-be converts, the struggle is real.
Courtney Ray is a native New Yorker who ministers in the Greater Los Angeles Region. She is a PhD clinical psychologist and ordained pastor serving in Southern California Conference.
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