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Adventist Woman of the Year Drene Somasundram on 35 Years of Service

Woman of the Year Drene Somasundram

Dr. Drene Somasundram was recently honored by the Association of Adventist Women as one of four Woman of the Year awardees for her trailblazing in religious leadership. Dr. Somasundram is a lecturer and chaplain in the School of Nursing and Health at Avondale University in Sydney, Australia. She is the first woman employed as a field minister by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the UK. She holds a BA in Theology and an MA in Education from Newbold College in England. Subsequently, she pursued advanced studies at King’s College in London and then completed her Doctorate in Professional Studies at London’s Middlesex University.

Dr. Somasundram spoke with Spectrum about her journey as a woman pastor, her support and training of future women pastors, and her reignited determination to get the church to pay attention to her groundbreaking research on gender inclusive theological education.

Question: Congratulations on being selected as a Woman of the Year by the Adventist Association of Adventist Women. How did you feel when you heard the news?

Answer: In Australia I received an early Sunday morning phone call from the United States. The Association of Adventist Women gave me the news that I was a recipient for the Woman of the Year Award in Scholarship and Church Leadership for 2023. I was utterly surprised—flabbergasted to say the least. I felt most humbled.

You traveled to La Sierra University in Riverside, California for the Award Banquet on November 4. What was the best thing about the event, for you?

Traveling all the way to California gave me time to reflect on 35 years of dedicated professional service to the Adventist Church. If I were able to go back and choose my professional journey again, in a heartbeat I would do it all again—despite challenges and set-backs. I consider myself incredibly blessed to have embraced the purposes that God placed on my heart and to have seized opportunities for learning, growth, and contribution.

The best thing about this Association of Adventist Women event was having the opportunity to thank the many giants on whose shoulders I stand, and whose legacy I carry with me: God, family, and friends. There are many of these giants. Newbold College with its academic wisdom and nurture that has been instrumental in my professional growth is one.

The South England Conference leaders who supported me and who genuinely wanted me to succeed during my early ministry days are another.

Another is the Women in Ministry Australian Trust who strategically brought me to Australia and gave me the opportunity to mentor and guide aspiring future female pastors within the South Pacific Division.

Avondale University, for allowing me the privilege of lecturing full-time in Theology and Pastoral Ministry where I had the honor of teaching the first generation of female pastors throughout the South Pacific Division, is another.

And finally The Association of Adventist Women, who organized the event, and who have fearlessly and tirelessly championed women’s leadership within our church.

The event also gave me the privilege to meet the other recipients — to hear their stories and learn of their contributions. I also enjoyed catching up with old friends and making new ones over the weekend.

You have always championed women pastors, and much of your work has focused on them. You served as the first woman pastor in the Adventist church in England. Why are women in ministry so important to you?

I began my ministry back in 1988 and many of those early years were difficult and lonely. I performed my duties without a title, policies were yet to be put in place that related to equal opportunities, and my presence within many church settings challenged gender bias from a cultural, theological, and political perspective. I was unprepared for the challenges of pastoral ministry as a woman. I had never seen a female pastor and women at that time were not represented at management levels, and women had not yet been ordained.

In 2002 I accepted the invitation to mentor and teach the first generation of female pastors at Avondale University in Australia, because I understood the challenges they would face, and I wanted their journey to be easier than mine. Thankfully many of those early issues I faced have been resolved and women can better function and live out their calling.

But it is still not easy ministering to a rejecting church who, as an organization, has yet to ordain women. I care deeply about female pastors. Women who enter pastoral ministry and pursue God’s call often make this choice at great personal cost. I believe female pastors bring unique contributions to the life and growth of our church. Already, against great odds, our Adventist pioneering women significantly contributed to their faith communities and academic scholarship within theology and pastoral ministry.

Much of your academic research, including your doctoral thesis, has focused on gender inclusive theological education. Can you tell us about some of the findings of your research and why it is important for the Adventist church today? Obviously, our church’s theological education is not gender-inclusive. Why is this a problem? Do you see our theological education evolving over time?

Quite a few years ago now, I concluded a research project that investigated the lived experience of theological education by the first generation of female pastors in the South Pacific Division. The focus of my inquiry centered on their “lifeworlds”—how they conceptualize, perceive and navigate their reality. Employing a phenomenological research design, I captured and analyzed the collective experiences of female pastors in theological education. The exploration led to the identification of three overarching themes.

First, the research uncovered ambivalence in identity formation. Female pastors articulated the challenges of shaping a ministerial identity in the absence of female ordination. Given the organization’s stance not to ordain female pastors, these females grappled with a sense of displacement, a lack of grounding in selfhood, and ongoing dissonance.

Second, there was a struggle against dominant hegemony. Female pastors felt misunderstood and disadvantaged within the theological education system. Despite finding value and support in their studies and positive interactions with lecturers, they also sensed a void in the theological experience, experiencing dissonance and a sense they were left wanting. Research findings uncovered female pastors were not exposed to feminist/womanist theologies, theories, or perspectives during their theological training, nor did they understand feminist issues of epistemology.

And third, research findings exposed the challenges that female pastors encounter upon entering ministry in a placement context. The research highlighted that female pastors face adversity in their educational journey, they encounter hostility from lecturers, male peers, unsafe placements, and unsupportive mentoring pastors and administrators. As they step into ministry, they confront hostile environments marked by limited opportunities, job prospects, ordination affirmation, and uncertainty in professional development. The findings underscore a pervasive sense of being unsupported, misplaced, unheard, and anticipating a challenging and solitary future within the organization.

The TRI-Space Model in Theological Education developed through this investigation embodies both gender inclusive pedagogy and Thirdspace thinking — vital for the training and flourishing of our female pastors. This model offers new directional formation that opens new and exciting possibilities in the field of theological education. This study is pivotal for Christian educators and administrators who seek to develop and employ a holistic approach to ministerial formation.

My research is an important piece of work because for the first time we have detailed narratives and descriptions of what life is like for our female pastors – they have been given a voice and given primacy. As we grasp a better understanding of complex identity issues, their call, education, and ministry challenges, it would be useful for the denomination to consider: what can we learn from this; what do we do with this information; how significant is the issue of ordination; and how can we as a church move forward?

When I concluded my research, I realized this model was rather radical and I knew the Church might not be ready . . . so I had my first child, moved into Chaplaincy in the School of Nursing and Health at Avondale University, developed new initiatives for the student body and furthered my professional development by studying Clinical Pastoral Education to better understand my nurses’ context and to deepen my understanding of spirituality from a health context. The years passed and my Church seemed to become even more conservative. Now that I have won this award from the Association of Adventist Women, my passion has been ignited to see this model be considered/used within our denomination. And I am hopeful that our theological education will embrace gender inclusivity and evolve over time.

Sometimes it feels as though equality in Adventist ministry has hardly moved forward since the General Conference vote in Utrecht in 1995. Is this how it feels to you? Do you believe progress is being made?

The landscape of equality within Adventist ministry has witnessed gradual transformation, particularly in recent times, and especially in the Western world. While we may all yearn for swift and widespread change, we have to recognize that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a global community with diverse cultural and theological contexts. Yes, progress has been made, and though the pace might not be as rapid as I would desire, the seeds of change are undeniably taking root.

Today, female pastors entering ministry find themselves in a markedly different environment than their counterparts of 25 years ago. The evolving attitudes and perspectives within the church have contributed to a more inclusive space, creating room for diverse voices and talents to contribute to faith communities around the world. It is so important that leaders and administrators continue to push, challenge and advance the equality issue.

As you mentioned, currently you are a chaplain and lecturer at Avondale University in Australia, where you support and inspire students. What do you most enjoy about your job? What do you find to be the biggest challenges?

I count it a privilege to combine chaplaincy and teaching together at Avondale University in the School of Nursing and Health. I teach the spirituality units at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels and count it a privilege to nurture an Avondale brand of “holistic nurses.”

I love working with nursing students because they have compassionate hearts, and a desire to make a difference in patients’ lives.

A challenge has been establishing and modeling a culture of kindness, support, and inclusivity on the Sydney campus. Our commitment to respecting multi-faith traditions and acknowledging the spiritual diversity within our community is essential. Recognizing that many students are not Christians, the goal is to make Christianity not only accessible but attractive and inviting. This involves creating spaces and events that foster open dialogue, understanding, and a sense of community regardless of one’s faith tradition.

As the spiritual diversity on campus grows, the challenge of caring for students’ well-being becomes increasingly complex. Ensuring that our support systems are adaptable and responsive to the unique needs of each individual is an ongoing priority. It demands continuous innovation, adaptability, and a genuine commitment to creating an environment where every student feels valued, supported, and encouraged to explore their spirituality and personal growth.

What goals do you hope to achieve professionally and personally in the next five years?

Personally, I will continue advocating for women in ministry, mentoring female pastors and student leaders at Avondale and continue to support and contribute to my local faith community at the Kellyville church.

Professionally, I would like to complete a third unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Engaging in CPE not only enhances my pastoral skills but also deepens my understanding of the intricate intersections between spirituality and healthcare. This commitment reflects my aspiration to provide more nuanced and compassionate care to my students and colleagues.

Read Spectrum’s interviews with Adventist Woman of the Year awardees Norma Nashed HERE and Olive Hemmings HERE.

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