Skip to content

Celebrating Strides for Adventist Women on International Women’s Day

From Left: Nerida Taylor Bates, Frances Priest, Merikay McLeod, Ruth Peters, Priscilla Walters and Noelene Johnsson.

Especially for those isolated from people who share a common cause, community matters deeply! In February 2023, the Association of Adventist Women (AAW) created a support group to connect Inter-American and South American Division ministerially trained women with Spanish-speaking women pastors in the North American Division. AAW board member Ruth Peeters brought the idea to the board in late 2022, and several women pastors and theologians offered their support. 

Along with the international collaboration, the association made a major push to document the work of Adventist women pioneers outside the United States. They drew inspiration from Eric Richter’s review of Silvia Scholtus’s Women in Leadership: In the Beginnings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America, and Daniel Mora’s “Pioneer Women Administrators in the Inter-American Division of the Adventist Church”—works that describe the roles women played in the Inter-American and South American church.

In October I presented a study on 89 women evangelists between 1970–2000 at the North American Division’s Women in Seventh-day Adventist History Conference. Some of these women prepared thousands—even tens of thousands—for baptism. Adventist women provided valuable evangelism in Indonesia, East and Central Africa, and the Caribbean. I discovered that women have been trained and working as pastors or theologians in every division for decades, including in Myanmar, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Mexico, and Peru.

Issues That Have Been Brought to AAW

I have uncovered two primary concerns during my conversations with women in ministry around the world. First, men and women studying ministry outside the NAD are not getting appropriate education that supports women preaching, as the apostle Paul clearly affirmed, Priscilla exhibited, and Ellen G. White modeled. Some pastoral students hear that women must stand beside podiums, not behind them, cannot serve in church when they have their periods, and are forbidden from being elders, even when they lead a church company. Sometimes, a counterpoint is not available in their language, which is why AAW has spent several years emphasizing translational work. The main parts of that project are winding down, but we will continue to address translation as needs arise in specific languages. 

The second issue is more nuanced. At AAW, we believe that women should have the right to study religion in any world division. But in some locations, graduates cannot find employment and ask us for help with living expenses so they can volunteer locally or help with imemigration to another location. Education alone is not enough, and women everywhere deserve employment opportunities after finishing their education.

Celebrating Merikay McLeod. 

On February 17, Merikay McLeod stood on the platform at the Loma Linda University Church to receive the Charles Elliott Weniger Award for Excellence. McLeod, along with fellow Award for Excellence recipient Lorna Tobler, successfully sued the Pacific Press Publishing Association for unequal pay in the 1970s and 1980s. AAW also held a luncheon to honor McLeod. Two AAW board members who received compensation following the legal victories thanked McLeod for her work. Bernie Beck, who received back pay from the class action lawsuit, recalled how one woman never cashed her check because she believed women shouldn’t question what the church paid them. McLeod encouraged all at the luncheon to keep fighting for justice for women, reiterating that we are the church’s hands and feet to make fairness a reality in this world. 

Rosanne Stacey Nudged the South Pacific Division Toward Equal Pay

A week later I ran into Rosanne Stacey, a long-time family friend. Stacey was a church elementary school principal in Melbourne, Australia, in the late 1980s who objected that she did not receive the same housing allowance as male employees. She kept the letter the church sent in reply, dismissing her concerns. She sent a letter of complaint to the Australian government, which invited her to appear before a judge for arbitration. 

In arbitration, the church’s lawyer stated that if she had followed the correct procedures, he was sure the church would have remedied the situation. The church’s lawyers knew they were legally exempt from providing equal pay due to exemptions for religious institutions, and despite the judge’s obvious distaste for the arrangement, the outcome favored the church.

Within six months, the division rearranged its pay scale, removing the housing benefit that excluded married women, and provided truly equal salaries. For the church to change without a legal ruling demonstrated substantial progress from McLeod’s case. 

Interestingly, last year the General Conference notified Stacey that her retirement fund, which just missed being vested when she moved to the United States, was eligible for a previously unoffered credit that allowed the fund to be vested. This is a program started by Athal Tolhurst, a former GC undersecretary, to review church workers’ retirement if they serve in more than one division. (Full disclosure, not only is Tolhurst my uncle, my mother and another uncle who worked in several divisions were two of the employees who brought the issue to his attention—perhaps why he designed a system that reviews every case, preventing favoritism). 

Did the Pacific Press Lawsuit Make a Difference for All Adventist Women?

Listening to these two women’s stories made me wonder whether the Adventist Church might have given other women unequal pay even after the Pacific Press lawsuit. After all, the McLeod-Tobler lawsuit was not the first time Pacific Press was sued regarding equal pay for its predominantly female workforce, as Laura Wibberding documents in her chapter in Resonate! A Celebration of Scholarly Writing. I asked a lawyer with the Adventist Office of General Counsel whether any other suits had been brought against the church. He was unaware of Stacey’s case or any others worldwide, stating that in many countries women do not have legal recourse to equal pay. 

In my experience at AAW, the most common form of unequal pay worldwide comes from mislabeling women trained as pastors as religious educators or Bible workers. Women pastors also face the church’s refusal to hire qualified women. This year, we found the story of a current women’s ministries director forced to volunteer in her position while her codirectors fought over car ownership reimbursement and travel expenses. General Conference and division leaders are exerting pressure to change this, but the union dictates salaries. 

I have seen two types of dynamics play out in the Adventist Church. Those who have power and tradition on their side often continue to pay unequal benefits instead of meting out justice. On the other hand, many church workers seek to rectify inequities, seeing equal treatment not only as the church’s duty but also a Christian requirement.

So this International Women’s Day, if you are displeased with the church’s attitudes toward women and their employment, know that you are not alone. The church has those who justify greed with bad theology and others who are incorruptible seekers of justice. Progress moves forward and backward unevenly. There are many who need Merikay McLeod’s steely resolve to make their lives better, to be given a chance to be paid for following the burden Christ has put on their hearts. At AAW, our message is simple: be one of the good guys.

Image: From Left: Nerida Taylor Bates, Frances Priest, Merikay McLeod, Ruth Peters, Priscilla Walters and Noelene Johnsson, by Pete McLeod.

About the author

Nerida Taylor Bates is grateful that, while working for the Adventist Church during high school, college, and as a Loma Linda University pediatrician from 2006-2012, she received the same pay as her male peers. She has been leading the Association of Adventist Women since 2019. More from Nerida Taylor Bates.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.