Professor, theologian, writer, and speaker Dr. Olive J. Hemmings is a powerful advocate in the battle for equality in the Adventist Church. She was one of the women honored as a Woman of the Year by the Association for Adventist Women in La Sierra, California, in November 2023.
Congratulations on being named a Woman of the Year by the Association of Adventist Women. What does this award mean to you?
It puts in perspective the call that God made upon my life several decades ago and the blessed work of the Association of Adventist Women and TEAM (Time for Equality in Adventist Ministry).
Years ago, when I was a new professor in Jamaica, and defying the women hat-wearing culture (signifier of the attempt to limit women’s agency), these women sought me out and brought me into the open. Kitt Watts was at the forefront of that army of women determined that the voice and gift of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be heard the world over.
Receiving an award was not part of the vision. Rather, I envisioned myself just for a brief moment preaching all over the world. I am only now realizing that this has materialized largely because the Associate of Adventist Women “outed” me. I have not gone everywhere yet, but I am on the journey.
You are the chair of the Religion Department at Washington Adventist University. What do you consider to be your primary job in this role?
I would not exactly call it a “job.” To me, it is a vocation—a responsibility that began several decades ago when I answered the call to ministry. I see my major responsibility as modeling a call to gospel ministry not about power or triumphalism, but about humbling one’s self on a journey of increasing understanding and spiritual awareness so that one becomes part of the solution and not part of the problem in the world.
Washington Adventist University, for many years called Washington Missionary College, has a long history of training young people for service in the church. How do you see the Religion Department now as part of this tradition?
The (now) Henry and Sharon Fordham Department of Religion has always been the foundation of that tradition. As the number of those entering ministry dips, our department seeks to motivate current and prospective students to answer the call to an increasingly challenging ministry. While the world is moving rapidly in scientific, technological and artistic knowledge and skills, our understanding of how to create life-affirming community has been left behind.
We help students develop discernment toward innovative ministry through responsible, informed reading of the Bible, immersion in culturally-fomenting urban settings within the foundation of an intellectually, spiritually and socially nurturing departmental community.
Here, students learn first to be good people and second how to be good Seventh-day Adventist ministers. We believe that this creates a more sustainable ministerial field.
With your many years of teaching experience, have you seen a difference in those studying religion and theology now compared with past students? How has the experience of women studying for ministry changed?
Yes. Students now are less resistant to new knowledge and they are able to understand things that differ from their assumptions. In my earlier years of teaching, raising certain issues—whether biblical, theological or social—would create a riot in the classroom. Now much of that is just real keenness to understand, gratefulness for the exposure or simply “duh!”
Mind you, many former students are now grateful for those “riots” because they came out of them with greater awareness.
You have long been an advocate of women in ministry, and are an ordained minister in the Columbia Union Conference. How have you seen the fight for equality in ministry advance? Where has it gotten stuck? What does the Adventist Church need to do next?
When I went to the seminary there were about eight of us women. Now how many women do we have? I believe we have been stuck in the culture wars of America. The rest of the Adventist Church has been dragged into this war without realizing it.
Many believe the women’s ordination issue is about Western culture versus other cultures. No, the “others” are mere proxies in an American culture war that plays out in the delegation count at Annual Council and General Conference Session. When leaders lead, the people follow. That is a long story for another time.
Why do you think it is important to have women pastors in the Adventist denomination?
It is necessary for balance and to demonstrate that God made them in God’s image and gave them responsibility over creation. A male-dominated ministry is a clear demonstration that the church remains in the fallen state… ”he shall rule over you” (Genesis. 3:15b) and is unwilling to take the journey of restoration “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12).
Women pastors provide valuable role models for young women to build their confidence in themselves as free moral agents.
The rampant sexual abuse by clergy in so-called “conservative” denominations would barely exist if there were a gender-balanced ministry.
As long as the church remains a bastion of male domination, we continue to reap the fruits in a world where men and women (mal)function with a distorted sense of self.
You are the author of Sacred Texts and Social Conflict about the debate over the ordination of women. What did you learn writing that book?
I learned that the Evangelical claim to biblical authority is often about male authority. I learned that the Bible too often functions as a weapon of control rather than an instrument of human transformation. I learned that the so called “two-thirds” world where there is more resistance to women’s ordination is unwittingly following orders from the powerful culture warriors in the American Evangelical movement. I learned that the church has squandered too much of its resources to keep women in their places. Those same resources justly used would have resulted in a buoyant balanced ministry of men and women all over the world church.
What do you most enjoy about preaching and teaching? What do you find to be the most challenging aspect?
I enjoy the journey of discovery as I prepare my lectures and sermons. I enjoy leading students and congregants on that journey of discovery.
Finding exclusive time for writing is most challenging. I do not get sabbaticals, never have, so all of my writing has to be squeezed in here and there. That can be mentally taxing.
You are always busy! What are your next projects?
I have been writing many articles and book chapters. I am about to work on a project that brings together my most treasured discoveries and understandings throughout my years of studying and teaching.
What advice do you give to young women today studying theology or religion, or who want to go into ministry?
Many young women shy away from ministry due to the women’s ordination prohibition from top church leaders. That prohibition is unfortunate considering the resources the Adventist Church has poured into responsibly interpreting the Bible, which has led to the conclusion that we are not dealing with a biblical theological issue, but with a culture war to maintain the status quo of male supremacy. As far as I am aware, God does not call a person to ordination (with the social status is brings). God calls a person to the ministry of the gospel of God’s liberation. That includes liberating oneself, through the power of the Spirit, to be able to heed God’s call on one’s life, and the selflessness to affirm it in others.
The more women step forward in their calling to the ministry, the more unwilling people become to participate in the effort to silence them. Ignorance breeds fear. Let them see us and hear us and experience the transforming love of God through our ministry.
What did you most enjoy about attending the awards ceremony at La Sierra to accept your Woman of the Year Award? Did anything surprise you?
I enjoyed hearing the stories of other awardees. I found it so encouraging as a witness to the power of God’s will, even when people attempt to thwart it. It made me realize that the church’s journey toward balanced ministry is long. However, God has time. I surrender the tiny bit I have received to listening and heeding the call of God upon my life. I appeal to everyone to do that.