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Reflections on the NAD Women Clergy Conference


The conversation has changed.  No longer must women working as pastors in local Seventh-day Adventist churches defend the validity of their role, exegete the challenging biblical passages, argue the appropriateness of their vocation in light of Adventist history, or humbly articulate their commitment to their congregations and their ability to be effective in pastoral ministry.  At the recent North American Division Women Clergy Conference, April 23-26, 2012, the leaders of the North American Division (NAD) Ministerial Department assumed all of the above without question. Acceptance of women in ministry was the new normal. In his final presentation to the group of approximately 120 ministers, President Dan Jackson repeated what had been said many times throughout the conference:  “I want to thank each of you for responding to the call of God.”  The only issue now, it seemed, was just how to resolve the ordination issue in terms of church policy and governance. 

Planned by the ministerial department of the North American Division, but shaped by the personal touch of Elder Esther Knott, associate ministerial director, the four-day conference met on the compound of Adventist Frontier Missions in Berrien Springs, Michigan.  A most impressive aspect was the dedication of the ministerial department staff, whose consistent ministry of presence during full days of presentations, break-out sessions, and evening events exhibited a commitment to servant-leadership.

My take is that most of the women considered the sermon by Hyveth Williams on Wednesday morning the highlight of the conference.  Her presentation, “Don’t Sell Your Birthright to Satisfy Your Bellyache,” kept rhetorically returning to Esau’s poor choice (Genesis 25:29-34), but more carefully followed the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad found in Numbers 27:1-11, who courageously confronted Moses, Eleazar the priest, Israel’s leaders and the entire congregation (vs. 2) by asking to be treated fairly.  Their father had died without sons, but his daughters believed their family should still receive a portion of Israel’s new land.  Their request was approved by none other than the Lord (vs. 6-11).  Policies regarding gender inheritance changed that day in Israel.  Williams then invited her sisters in ministry to be patient; to not spend valuable time together debating an issue that has “already been decided in our favor by our God.”  Alluding to passages about Jesus in John 1, she shared her conviction that the same Spirit is touching men today:  “never before have so many in positions of power been convinced…. Thank God for such men. … So be patient, my sisters, as daughters of God in Christ.”  As Williams moved towards her conclusion, she imagined the celebration of the five sisters upon learning of the Lord’s verdict in their favor.  Then she reminded the women that the crown of righteousness is their birthright, and “don’t sell your birthright!”  The meeting hall was full of women saying, “Amen!” and many rose to their feet in a standing ovation.

Later, during a Q & A session with Dr. Dwight Nelson, senior pastor of the Pioneer Memorial Church, and Dr. Ron du Preez, director of adult Sabbath school and communication for the Michigan Conference, Dr. Williams spoke of Vashti whose story is found in the book of Esther.  “Vashti made it possible for Esther,” she said, then referenced the many women who modeled effective ministry within Adventism.  She said, “I owe so much to Elizabeth Sterndale,” and then continued listing Adventist women who, in recent decades, have paved the way for women in ministry:  Josephine Benton, Jan Daffern, Kit Watts.  Williams ended her response, “when you are ordained, do not forget the Vashtis.”

The conference included a good deal of listening to the testimonies of the attendees, both in small groups and within the entire gathering.  A booklet with short bios of the attendees, presenters and NAD staff provided a rich resource for networking and expanding one’s circle of friends.  A presentation by Dr. Darius Jankiewicz, of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, shared new insights into the origin of the word “ordination,”  while Pastor Stan Hickerson, senior pastor of the Stevensville Church in Michigan, shared what for many were new insights into the stories of women ministers who served in the early Advent movement.

President Jackson’s first of two presentations focused on governance in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  He began by stating that governance flows in two directions, from the top down, and from the bottom up.  After referring to his January 31, 2012 letter to North American church leaders, he listed the various unions and conferences that have now moved forward on the ordination issue.  He understood that many might be wondering why the NAD was not commenting on these actions.  His explanation was to begin singing the song first released by The Four Seasons in 1964, “Silence is Golden.”  He described the conferences and unions as doing what they feel God is calling them to do, and the NAD did not see its role as one of trying to stop them.  “We are not going to chastise them…we are not going to affirm them.”  Instead, President Jackson sees the role of the NAD as one of educating the North American constituencies.  He noted that it was clear at the 2011 year-end meeting that this question is not going away for NAD, and that its role, in addition to education, is to find more pathways for women in leadership.  

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