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Reflections on the Trans-European Division Vote for Women in Leadership

In the 2010 winter meeting of the Trans-European Division, delegates made a request of the General Conference to remove policy barriers to engaging women as Conference or Union leaders within our territory. This was not motivated by a vociferous lobby or because implementation is imminent, but because such belief defines who we believe ourselves to be. Encouraging all to embrace the possibility of leadership is for us an empowering vision.

That our request was frustrated through the rejection of a parallel motion submitted by the North American Division left many in the TED with a sense of disappointment.

During the week long meetings the TED leadership made it quietly clear that they would not be able to accept a motion to violate the approved model constitutions for Conferences and Unions. Whilst this seems a defeatist position the reality is that it is unlikely that the application of variation would be implemented before the theological study of ordination is concluded.

Bertil Wiklander and GC Vice President Artur Stele seemed to indicate that a three-year substantive study of ordination is likely to clear the way for inclusive ministry.

The TED is a constituency with a varied history. Half of our Unions were formed in the communist era with anomalous constitutions. Bringing all of these countries into harmony has been a hard won process, which we are loathe to undo. We understand the consequence of constitutional indiscipline. While there are several who wish that we would take this course, most are resigned to holding out to raise the bar for the rest of the world.

A further curiosity of the European reality is that some languages do not have words to differentiate between ordained and commissioned ministers making the application of policy appear even more discriminatory.

While the power of money was not articulated in the debate, it is acknowledged that the TED is the smallest of Divisions with significant support from the General Conference for which loyalty could be expected. By contrast, most Unions are net contributors to the system and are not particularly intimidated by diktat.

The administrators of the Division composed several documents:

The first recommendation was to: pro-actively to support the development of women in leadership within the TED and present a roadmap to the TED Spring Meeting of 2012 as to how this could be done.

This was complemented with five resolutions for immediate consideration to indicate that real change is to be implemented.

1) Whereas the current leadership dispensation with position based appointments results in male dominated forums:

We resolve to develop inclusive protocols aimed at incorporating the influence, and developing the exposure to issues, of women in leadership.  (For example, require the chair of a nominating committee to justify why the composition of any committee has less than one third female representation.)

2) Whereas the traditions and precedents of the ordination pathway are well rehearsed, we recognise that expectations of the commissioned minister are less well defined.

We resolve to review our policies and precedents to ensure that career development mechanisms are comprehensive, clear, fair and well communicated.

3) Whereas the appointment of leaders comes through spiritual and political intuition and whereas the current requirements of leadership may be well defined.

We resolve to clarify objective criteria and experience profiles for senior leadership such that appointments are well founded.   (For example, expectations with regard to church leadership, soul winning experience and people management.)

4) Whereas current leadership recognises the value and fairness of the appointment of women to leadership positions, we acknowledge that cultural prejudices persist in many church settings.

We resolve to better educate our members with regard to the moral and ethical imperatives associated with inclusion, and seek to overcome sinful bigotry in the process of discipleship.

5) Whereas we recognise that leadership skills are acquired in the practice of ministry.

We resolve to make learning opportunities available to men and specifically women to better prepare them for such roles that may become available.

A substantive response was prepared by the Administration of the Trans-European Division and after calm discussion was approved by the Executive Committee by a margin of 39 to 3 and as a matter of interest, invitees who are mostly Executive Secretaries and Treasurers affirmed the document by a margin of 22 to 1.

In the end most were appreciative of the tone of debate and the intent, however over lunch there were many who were frustrated that we were not willing to be more culturally assertive, some expressed incredulity that there are still people in the world who defend the discriminatory mindset.


Preamble to the Motion on Women in Leadership

In November 2010, the Trans-European Division Executive Committee made four requests to the General Conference regarding Women in Leadership within the TED

(a)  that the study of the theology of ordination is prioritised;

(b) that the General Conference would review and amend its policies so that the wording is gender neutral and all leadership pathways are open to male and female;

(c) that a variance to the model constitutions and bylaws be granted with the insertion of “conference and union presidents should be ordained/commissioned ministers” in its policy language;

(d) that the General Conference grants permission to ordain women to the gospel ministry within the TED.

We recognise that meeting these requests may take some time. Therefore we see each of them as standing requests from the TED while we wait for their implementation.

Concerning our request for a variance in the model constitutions and bylaws by inserting the addition that commissioned ministers may also be elected as conference and union presidents, the General Conference Annual Council voted in October 2011 to decline a similar request from the North American Division, and by common consent this was taken as a negative answer to our request.

Motion on Women in Leadership

  • We maintain our Bible-based conviction that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a fellowship of the “priesthood of all believers” and that the Holy Spirit calls and equips men and women with various gifts, including that of leadership. Ministry in the New Testament is based on spiritual gifts. It is the fellowship of believers that recognises and endorses these gifts and sends out women and men for service.
  • We express our sadness and disappointment at the decision of the Annual Council. We prayerfully and sincerely believe it will damage the work of God’s people in many parts of the TED.
  • We find it difficult to understand why the election of a commissioned minister by a local constituency could harm other world divisions, since a commissioned minister serving as president only impacts the local organisation.
  • We believe that ordination or the “setting aside” of members,  regardless of gender, for leadership in the church is made by prayer and the laying on of hands in order to confirm the presence of the spiritual gift of leadership, as the Bible teaches, and not to convey a particular quality of “priestly holiness” or spiritual status.
  • We recognise that changes to the bold print in the model constitutions in the TED Working Policy must be approved by the General Conference. We have maintained this position within the TED when unions or conferences have been tempted to walk an independent path. However we request the General Conference to understand that for many this is an ethical and legal matter that strongly affects their consciences. 
  • We recognise that the World Church has approved a timetable for studying the theology of ordination with a view to bring a proposal to the General Conference Annual Council in 2014. We regret the extended timeline as it places some unions/conferences/missions/fields in an ethical and legal dilemma.
  • We recognise that while waiting for the World Church to establish the Biblical theology of ordination, there are unions/conferences/missions/fields within the TED where the issues of women’s ordination and their election to leadership positions are matters of ethical integrity and individual conscience which may challenge the church and undermine our sharing of the Adventist message with the vast majority of the population. After consultation with the TED administration and approval by the appropriate church governance body, such unions/conferences/missions/fields may apply parity between male and female pastors on the grounds of the TED’s existing policies and guidelines for ordained/commissioned minister credentials.

—Victor Pilmoor is Treasurer of the British Union Conference.

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