The Seventh-day Adventist Church has women pastors or theologians in every division. How many you ask? No one knows. It is not because we cannot count; we know how many baptisms happened in each division; we obsess over offering versus tithe in each division. But when it comes to counting women, things get wobbly.
As the president of the Association of Adventist Women, an organization that supports women in the church, particularly women pastors, I thought it would be important to know how many women are ministering in the church. It turns out there are about four thousand if you count different forms of ministry. Let us break it down.
First, why is it so hard to find the number of ministers? A new division president who was asked how many women pastors were in his division estimated there were 15 when the actual number was 10 times that. Another adamantly stated the culture of his division would not accept women as pastors while three women were employed as solo church pastors in his division. It is well past time for all divisions to keep track. It is not easy, but it is important.
When it comes to actual numbers, divisions punt to unions and unions punt to conferences who do the actual employing. When I asked my local conference (at that time our president was a woman), responses ranged from “we do not keep track” to “we keep track, but you cannot have the information” before they stopped responding.
My efforts outside of divisions where women pastors are generally respected did not get any further. Everywhere I sensed uncertainty or fear—fear of angering more conservative leaders, fear of angering the far right who can make a pastor’s life miserable, and fear that counting a woman pastor can reduce her to a statistic instead of a fleshed-out whole person pursuing her mission. Hence, women remain uncounted.
Second, what is a minister? When I read about 500 Bolivian lay women evangelizing during the pandemic, I could not help but wonder if anyone was mentoring or sponsoring some of the best to enroll in ministerial training. The church standardizes the word pastor as someone who has had tertiary religious training, and this is appropriate. In many countries, women predominate as “regional evangelists” or literature evangelists. This becomes unfair if it is the only avenue for women to evangelize, without the ability to advance to further study. The Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division (SID) has more than 800 literature evangelists and historically in Zambia, these have been 80–90% women. Pastor May Chilumbi worked as a successful and beloved literature evangelist for years, often requesting to be sponsored to study further. Finally, she self-financed her degree in religion but still was not called pastor at her funeral.
Women with bachelor’s degrees in religion, master’s of divinity degrees, and even doctorates are employed in women’s or family ministries departments. Are these pastors? Youth ministries directors are considered pastors. Why not children’s ministries? Men who run administrative departments or media ministries are usually called pastors, and many have been employed as a pastor previously. But the “once a pastor, always a pastor” rule is unfair in a setting where women are not given equal opportunity to pastor in a church.
Semantics plays an obfuscating role for women in ministry. Recently, a woman co-pastoring a church was told to use the title “theologian,” not “pastor.” Another in the same division who teaches Old Testament and Greek was forbidden from doing “biblical exegesis,” in favor of “biblical history.” And these rules shift over time; women receiving full scholarships to study theology may find a change of leadership makes them unemployable by their sponsor.
Pastors’ wives work hard, but if both spouses have religion degrees, the couple may be often given more churches for the same pay. This is a story repeated throughout the world. Girl meets boy in hermeneutics class, they fall in love, their conference gets two for the price of one.
Are conference secretary-treasurers pastors? The North American Division (NAD) counts administrators as pastors. The Inter-American Division (IAD), where many struggle to accept women pastors today, had almost 30 women secretary-treasurers in the past. And they were not just missionaries’ wives but over time, nationals as well. With so many holding the post of second in command, there were those that became interim presidents of conferences without a single woman pastor or ordained elder today.
It is an important transparency issue that the women in ministry be named, counted, and appreciated.
4,000 Adventist Women Pastors and Counting—Numbers Under a Microscope
“In many ways it is the golden age for women; they are becoming tribal chiefs and parliamentarians. But I don’t know if my own church accepts me (as a pastor).” My heart broke as I listened to this Adventist pastoring in the Pacific. I have heard this sentiment from women pastors in Africa and religion teachers in the Spanish-speaking world. All over the world, Adventist women pastors feel on edge about their place in the church.
There are 26 women pastors in Papua New Guinea, 15 in Cuba, 12 in Korea, and 22 in the West Kenya Union Conference alone. In fact, there are Adventist women in pastoral ministry or theology in every division in the world.
In 2013 and 2014, the General Conference commissioned a panel (the Theology of Ordination Study Committee) to examine the issue of ordaining women. Their majority summary after reviewing and debating was that neither the Bible nor Ellen White’s guidance forbids women from serving as church pastors, including preaching and baptizing. The use of women pastors is based on cultural norms.
This presentation strives to highlight how many cultures throughout the world have welcomed women pastors.
Methods of Data Collection
Outside of the two divisions that now count their ministers by gender—the South Pacific Division (SPD), and the NAD—any count of women pastors is an estimate gleaned from church papers, collected by young male pastors who are keenly aware of injustice toward their colleagues, wrestled from administrators who may deny cooperating, and collected through weeks of internet detective work. Ironically, one name came from a Fulcrum7.com posting. Almost no information has come from women pastors and none from the women pastor support groups. Two divisions are undercounted due to my inability to find a source on the ground—the Southern Asia Division (SUD) and the Southern Asia-Pacific Division (SSD). My favorite type of information came from a man who emailed the Association of Adventist Women to ask if I knew that three women pastored in his (African country redacted) and that Pastor XX was the best preacher he had ever heard.
I have divided the field of pastoral ministry into five categories (see table). I define pastors as women who have college training in ministry or religion and lead churches. A very few women with limited training in ministry, such as certificate ministers or rural evangelists, are counted if they lead a church. Chaplains include both school and hospital chaplains with formal religious or church lead chaplaincy training. Religion teachers include theologians and secondary school religion teachers. Because women’s ministries directors requested not to be counted as ministers, only administrators with a college or university degree in religion are counted here, this includes all levels of administration and those who are publishing directors, media leaders, run church history libraries, etc. As a pediatrician, I feel strongly that children’s ministries directors should be counted equally with youth ministries. Because this is a massive shift in thinking, these numbers are reported in a separate category.
In order to roughly estimate the percentage of all pastors that are women, I used the number of pastors per division from 2019. These percentages are artificially elevated because the number of total pastors does not include religion teachers and chaplains, etc. However, the rough percentage allows for comparison between divisions.
Table 1: The number of women pastoring in five categories in each division
The General Conference affiliated field of the China Union Mission unquestionably has both the highest number and highest percentage of women pastors. Interacting with the church in China is complex. Pastors in China function independently of the world church as requested by government regulation. The latest and best number for women pastors in China is from 2015, showing 3,176 women pastors—approximately 60–70%. These numbers are not included in the total because they have undoubtedly changed. It is also unclear what percentage are certificate ministers, administrators, etc.
The European divisions have the next highest percentage of women pastors. The Trans-European Division (TED) has long led in acceptance of women in ministry through Scandinavia. Approximately 20% of their pastors are women. Like so many divisions, TED does not maintain an active list of women pastors but gave the numbers invited to the last women pastors’ retreat.
The Inter-European Division (EUD) has been vocal that they cannot continue to grow in the community without women pastors. Ordination of women takes place in German conferences and the Czech-Slovak Conference. Only about half of unions returned data for this list, so there is significant undercounting. Romania has at least two trained women pastors doing independent mission work. Presumably, there are independent women evangelists all over the globe.
The South Pacific Division (SPD) has the next highest percentage of women pastors. Currently, women make up 10% of pastors in Australia, 5% in New Zealand, and 3% in Papua New Guinea. The SPD has the highest percentage of women theology teachers, which varies from 20–36%. In 1894, Margaret Caro of New Zealand was the first Adventist woman licensed to preach outside of the US.
The North American Division has approximately 8% women pastors. In January of this year, it became the second division to release a formal count of women pastors. We are grateful to Heather Crews for not just formalizing a list but tending a database of the women pastors. There are 63 women secondary religion teachers in NAD and 31 college and university theologians—the highest number, but not percentage, of any division.
The Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD) numbers are essentially unchanged from 2015, remaining at about 7% of pastors. Women were listed as pastor without further classification. Of note, Korea has one woman theologian, Sunmee Yun-Welch at Sahmyook University, and Nam Daegeuk, who has a PhD in theology from Andrews University, was president of that institution.
In the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division (SID), half of the women trained in theology and working for the church are doing so as church pastors. Most of these women are solo or multi-church pastors. Fifty to 60 women have undergraduate religion degrees from Helderberg College and about 70% of those not working as church pastors are still employed by the church. Mauritius has had a woman pastor since the mid-1990s. In South Africa, the percentage of women trained for ministry compared to men employed as ministers is about 5%, a number comparable to the NAD and SPD.
Since the 1990s, most conferences in the East-Central Africa Division(ECD) have had a female-led women’s ministry program, ahead of many conferences in NAD. This is partly because women previously led Dorcas Societies, which played a large role in the African church. The African women’s ministry leadership has the highest percentage of leaders with degrees in religion, many with MDiv degrees or doctorates, reflecting these ministries’ emphasis on religious instruction. These women also may have had difficulty finding church-based positions. The Western Kenya Union Conference is to be commended for their SDA Encyclopedia entries that name, specify degrees, and uses the title “Pastor” for these women administrators. Women leaders were common outside of the United States in the 1920–30s. The East Africa Union Mission and Nigerian Union Mission had women secretary-treasurers.
Since the 2000s, about 16% of students in West-Central Africa Division’s Babcock University’s Christian Religious Studies program are women. Requests for the number of women in church pastoral roles were unanswered.
Southern Asian-Pacific Division (SSD) numbers are underreported due to a lack of response to requests for information. The Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines has trained many women for ministry. Some, like Pastor Jadaza Hintay, DMin, Women’s, Music, and Health Ministry director in the Philippines, have administrative roles. I have been told that some fill pastoral roles but have been unable to document them. Two women in Indonesia have planted several churches from a network of cafes, a great example of unique evangelism. This may be the most successful campaign in the country in recent years but is not included in this count.
In recent history, Siriporn Tanitpoonwinai was president of the Mission College in Thailand and Van Lang pastored Cambodian refugees in Thailand, then France, then lead a church plant for Cambodian refugees under the umbrella of the Loma Linda University Church in the US.
Data from the Inter-American Division (IAD) is lacking information on secondary religion teachers and chaplains, positions open to women with degrees in religion. I have counted nine “rural evangelists,” who are the only pastors for some rural Caribbean churches. Esther Diaz Guerrero was dean of the Cuban Adventist Theological Seminary for eight years. An Adventist woman pastored in Mexico in the 1970s.
In the South American Division (SAD), 135 Adventist women obtained bachelor’s degrees in religion in Brazil but few work in pastoring churches. Twenty-five of 36 who received religion training in Spanish-speaking South America are working in the church. Because of the ubiquitous use of the word chaplain, some secondary religion teachers may be counted as chaplains. There were three women multi-church pastors in the 1990s in South America.
The Southern Asia Division (SUD) and Euro-Asia Division (ESD) have not been forthcoming with information on women in ministry, but numbers are probably very low. Zoaksky Adventist University in the ESD employs one female theology teacher and had another in recent history. Several women in both divisions have graduated with degrees in religion, but the employment of most could not be confirmed.
Olga Murga, the wife of an evangelist, who preached and brought 3000 to Christ predominately in Ukraine, is rightfully celebrated. But many inconsistently maintain that their culture does not allow a woman to pastor.
Because counts of women pastors have not previously been public, it is hard to determine how many gains have been made since the last General Conference Session. The SID has commissioned women pastors beginning in November of 2015. Panama has its first woman pastor. The SAD has begun educating about and promoting the ordaining of women elders. Women ministers now work in Brazilian churches. And women Adventists in the ECD and SSD feel comfortable using the title pastor. As evangelism moves to digital spaces, I predict that not only will the definition of evangelist change but also gender representation.
Challenges still exist, particularly in societies with a more authoritarian tone. It will be interesting in the next decade to see if conflicts such as the invasion of Ukraine lead to a swing away from autocracy in the church as well as general society.
Suggestions for Better Supporting Women in Ministry
When women pastors are asked what kinds of support they need, three responses are common. Those in the NAD say, “Just let us do our job.” They did not get into pastoral work for conflict and are tired of the friction. They just want to do their jobs with as little drama as possible, and this may require walling off the women’s ordination argument from their daily lives. This is self-preservational and I have no argument against it. It is up to allies to argue the point, not to the pastors themselves.
Outside the NAD, the number one request of women pastors is for recognition. To this end, the work of Pastor Nandi Fleming of South Africa cannot be underestimated. She coordinates a digital space for women pastors and women who have studied theology to support each other and ask basic questions in a safe place. Ruth Peeters, an Association of Adventist Women board member, is in the midst of setting up an interdivisional Spanish-speaking network throughout the Americas.
The second request is for religious articles supporting women as pastors in their local languages. In some cultures, they specifically want pro-women's ordination arguments. In others, they simply want biblical support for women talking in church or having leadership over a man. The Association of Adventist Women has translated the Theology of Ordination Study Committee position 2 summary into six languages: Russian, Croatian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Tagalog. The entire works of Dr. Nancy Vyhmeister are available in Spanish on our site.
I think the church leadership and the church body need to address the fact that there is too much fear. Befriend your local woman pastor. Be vocal when she blesses your life. And ask your leadership what they can do to calm fears. It is well past time for each division to periodically count or maintain an ongoing database of its pastors by gender so that there is no fear in the truth. I hope knowing that they have 4,000 sisters throughout the Adventist world reduces the isolation women pastors often feel. The gospel commission compels us all to share the bountiful love of God. Let us look for, recognize, and celebrate all those God is working through.
Women Pastors Are Accepted Worldwide
Women are working and accepted in pastoral roles throughout the world. There is no division in which women do not speak in church or hold positions of leadership over men. Five divisions welcome people into the church baptized by women pastors (and more historically). Gone are the days when any division leader can claim that women in ministry are unacceptable in his, or her, society. This is not to deny societal gender roles but to say that social pressure goes both ways, for and against accepting women as pastors. Societies all over the world have made exceptions for very successful women, such as Olga Murga. And many cultures are steadily becoming more accepting of women in ministry. Each division receives a bountiful, Spirit-filled harvest through its women in ministry! Women should not be hidden, renamed, used for free evangelism, or refused a census. Because women pastors count.
I would like to thank the men who have spent hours tracking down women of the past and present. I look forward to the day when I can thank you publicly without fear. Thank you to Carole Ferch-Johnson, Danijela Schubert, Agnes Kola, and Edyta Jankiewicz for curating the SPD list and Heather Crews for creating the NAD database. To all the women throughout the world who have shared their stories, I have so enjoyed getting to know you. If you have information to share about a woman pastor in your area, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes & References:
 Mora, Daniel A Pioneer Women Formers of the Seventh-day Adventist Organization in the Inter-America division (1903-1940) In preparation.
 Ellen G. White, Daughters of God (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1998) 249.
 Pastora Juana Dina Salas Montoya being one of the two in Peru and another in Bolivia
Nerida Taylor Bates finds counting women pastors far away from her training as a pediatrician and basic scientist MD/PhD. She has three semi-launched young adult daughters and enjoys travel and family history. She has led the Association of Adventist Women since 2019, where she strives to have a global focus.
Image credit: Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash / Spectrum
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