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Why Ordination for Women Pastors May Be a Disappointment



With a couple of union conferences gathering for special constituency meetings (which are expensive, and not convened lightly) to discuss and vote on women’s ordination, there is an electric anticipation in the Adventist air right now. We may be on the verge of realizing a long-anticipated goal.

I hope, like many of you, that these constituents vote to ordain women pastors. But there’s something that could happen that might be almost as bad as losing the vote. It would be to win the vote, but not achieve what we won it for.

A conference committee I served on a few years ago proposed voting a statement in support of ordination for female clergy. I liked the statement, but I raised my hand and suggested that while a vote would be merely symbolic, what would help the most would be to have more women in pastoral positions around our conference. One of the officers pointed out that they’d tried, and they couldn’t do it. Churches, especially small churches (which is most of them) resisted accepting female pastors.

He was telling the truth. Ordaining women is the right thing to do, but actually placing female pastors in congregations may be difficult. In most conferences 80% of congregations are small enough to be in a multi-church district, so most pastors have to start in these small church districts. If these small churches balk at having female pastors, that leaves few entry-level positions that they can step right in to.

For several decades progressive Adventists pounded on the highest levels of the church to allow the ordination of women clergy in North America. We talked the topic to a standoff, until camps were set up, reinforced bunkers built on both sides. We are now bilaterally outraged. So much so that we’ve almost forgotten that for 25 years there’s been nothing to prevent women from being parish pastors and doing in that setting everything of importance that an ordained male pastor does. Yet even in my somewhat-progressive conference, there is only one female senior pastor. Many conferences have none. In the whole NAD, there are only about 100.

Whenever I’ve voiced this someone has said that women won’t matriculate in pastoral training in practical numbers until they’re fully recognized. Yet precisely what we need right now is Divinely-called women who won’t let the lack of full recognition by us stubborn, threatened men in our regressive hierarchy stand in their way, who’d do ministry even if there weren’t an organization to hire them. That’s the nature of God’s call, isn’t it? The situation in China is instructive. Why are Seventh-day Adventist women there claiming ordination? Not because they’ve won a doctrinal or church policy battle. They’re claiming ordination because there are so many of them doing ministry and evangelism, and doing it extremely well.

Perhaps we’ve not fully thought this through. Permission isn’t implementation. Getting female pastors into the leadership of congregations may be tougher than winning ordination for them. One might even argue that our General Conference president has tried to do us a favor by holding back women’s ordination. He wants to save us the disappointment of having to admit that most churches aren’t clamoring for female pastors. He’s saving conference presidents the trouble of following through on their verbal support by placing women in congregations that don’t want them. As long as the prohibition is in place, we can all sound progressive without having to do anything uncomfortable.

As Emerson said, “Beware what you set your heart upon. For it shall surely be yours.”  

So whether or not ordination for women begins in some union conferences within the next year, what should we do now?

•   We could shift our effort from politics to placement. Yes, there was one political victory. Yet after commissioning slipped through, those against women’s ordination beefed up their defenses. No matter what happens in the NAD, I doubt full ordination for women will be voted by the GC any time soon. We needn’t stop trying to get ordination voted, but we shouldn’t put all our hopes there.

•   Instead, we could establish strong scholarships specifically for women who want training as parish pastors and evangelists, until there are hundreds of capable women seeking pastoral positions. (Chaplaincy and Bible teaching are also noble callings, but I fear those aren’t enough to win full recognition in a church that still values service in congregations.)

•   Most important, we could do a full-court press on conference presidents who claim they support women’s ordination to put more women on their pastoral teams. I’d like to see persuasive, persistent advocates, armed with folders of female pastors’ résumés, visit every conference president and every ministerial director in the division who claims to support women’s ordination, to look him in the eye and politely ask him to put his money where his mouth is.

Through this whole fight, we who wanted to see women ordained could have been working to make women doing ministry ordinary rather than unusual. Promoting superstars like Hyveth Williams and Chris Oberg is fine, but how much more natural the transition now had we already hundreds of women pastors in small church districts across the NAD, plugging away like the rest of us at everyday ministry, such that every Seventh-day Adventist by now took for granted their presence as a productive, invaluable part of the local church landscape. Familiarity would have created opportunity, and we may even, before now, have moved beyond the church policy fight.

Yet in light of how ministry is changing (see “The End of Ministry as We Know It,” Adventist Today, Summer 2009) and the mediocre performance of those of us now running the organization, women might not want to become part of the church organization. They may not want to end up like us men. But that’s a different problem.

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