by Larry Downing, October 24, 2016: In decades past, church administrators and departmental leaders often stood before us pastors to assure us that their first and most important task was to be there to help us and our churches be more effective in spreading the gospel. What happened to change this once lofty purpose? How do we explain that today’s church administrators hinder the pastor’s work and, by their actions, harm the effectiveness of those who spread the gospel? Verification of this statement was evident among those who attended the two women’s conferences held this year on the campus of La Sierra University. What follows is not a report of the meetings. I have written my responses to what I heard and witnessed and have attempted to describe what occurred within the conference rooms. It is my understanding that each of the presentations will be soon available on the Association of Adventist Women’s website.
The first conference, sponsored by the La Sierra University Women’s Resource Center, met on Thursday, October 20 with the theme WOMEN & THE WORD: Equality, Unity and Hope in the Body of Christ. In addition to the presentations and panel discussions, Dr. Sandra Roberts, president of the Southeastern California Conference, Dr. Penny Gustafson Miller, and Dr. Kendra Haloviak-Valentine were presented awards for their contribution to the furtherance of women’s ministries.
Pastor Roberts’ experience is a current case study of General Conference (GC) administrative attitude and behavior toward a duly elected local conference officer whose election, they believe, transgressed their interpretation of church policy. The GC officers refuse to allow her name to be listed as president of the Southeastern California Conference. There is a blank where her name should appear. She is not allowed to participate in council discussions or cast her vote on actions that affect the church and its mission. And this is how administrators and church leaders are here “to assist pastors and the churches to be more effective”? Be serious!
In her keynote address to the attendees, Dr. Kendra Haloviak-Valentine called people to consider the church that once again is trying to silence the broken ones. “The past few weeks,” she said, “have been unprecedented in Adventism.” The “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation” document submitted to the GC Executive Committee meeting at its Annual Council was approved by a significant margin. The document, observed Haloviak-Valentine, is put forward to punish our union for ordaining women. The voted document, she observed, let women pastors know where they stand in the eyes of the church they are dedicated to serve. Professor Haloviak-Valentine pointed out the dichotomy of a church co-founded by a woman rejecting those who follow in her pastoral footprints. Some, she continued, hear Ellen White weeping.
As I listened to Kendra and the conversations among attendees I could feel and hear the emotions come pouring out. The hurts. The disappointments. The heavy hearts that abounded in that room brought distress to my soul. It is not a pleasant or satisfying experience to witness what occurs to well-meaning, talented and competent people as they are pushed aside when they follow their consciences and the Spirit’s call. Now, rather than celebrate the phenomenal resources women bring to the church, church leaders label these pastors rebellious—and worse. It is little wonder that rumors related to what awaits women pastors are swept along and multiplied in the social media. These women are not sure where to turn. Some feel like the storm at sea and wonder if they will be swept overboard as the ship sinks. The Bible story Kendra turned to for guidance in the crisis that faces the church and its women pastors was taken from Mark 6:54-52, the Storm at Sea.
Jesus, Mark informs, compelled his disciples to get into the boat—and go to the “other” side—to those not like us. Jesus dismissed the crowd and went up to pray. Jesus, alone on land, sees the boat in the middle of the “sea.” He noted, from the safety of land, the disciples’ struggle against wind and wave. He began his walk on the sea toward them. Mark tells us he intended to pass them by. When they saw him they cried out in fear. Immediately he spoke and said to them, “Have courage—I am, do not fear. The wind stopped and the disciples were terrified. Their “heart” was hardened. When we are afraid, observed Haloviak-Valentine, we do terrible things to one another, even those in our community. Imagine, Kendra invited us, to place the GC leaders in the boat—fearful. Fearful they are in a boat that cannot stand the storm. They may be afraid that the people who are to support them will abandon ship. Fear, we were reminded, is the opposite of faith, and fear keeps us from fulfilling God’s mission.
Our GC leaders are in the boat and so are we in the same boat. How can we live in this struggling boat together? How can we respond and not embarrass the mission God has called us to do? How are we to respond to God’s call and not have a hardened heart? The questions are left unanswered.
The disciples identify Jesus, the Divine One, as part of the evil powers—he is a ghost. It is a dangerous thing to identify the spirit of God as part of the evil powers. When we make such a blunder we fail to fulfill the mission given us. Here is Jesus again, not as spirit hovering over waters. God is with them—and they do not understand who he is nor appreciate his presence for what it is: the Divine. The disciples will return to their lands to argue over incidentals, food offered to idols, the rites and traditions of Judaism—their hearts are hardened. The disciples have become like Pharaoh. They move from mission to share the Good News to the safety of their own land and people.
Kendra’s two closing points I found especially compelling: Biblical interpretation should end not with interpretation, but with action. How does one’s following Jesus mix with current events in the SDA church? She left this an open-ended question. We are each left to answer for ourselves.
The Association of Adventist Women’s 34th Annual International Conference, hosted by La Sierra University, began on the evening of October 20. The theme, “Here We Stand: Women and God’s Call,” provided opportunity for presenters from chaplaincy, pastoral positions and the academic world to parse and expand the selected theme. Once again the compelling presentations centered on the potential and missed opportunities that are associated with women in ministry. As I listened to the presentations I was struck by the energy, creative powers and dedication shown by the women who have been called to serve the Lord in Christian ministry, whether it be in a parish, a hospital, a university, or a prison. The power of women is immense. In my pastoral experience I have worked with five women staff members. Women have access to people that a man does not, nor ever will have. Women confide in women in ways that are not open to us men. A women’s insights and people skills often transcend ours. I would never wish to pastor a church that does not have a woman on the ministry team! Hearing the women’s presentations it crossed my mind that the men in leadership knew what they are doing to deny women entry to their club. They do not want to be shown up! Keep them at a safe distance and we will continue to look good. I let the thought pass.
The keynote speaker for the AAW conference was Rebekah Liu, PhD, a pastor from mainland China. She gave two presentations. The first was the phenomenal account of her conversion from a Maoist Communist to a Christian, then to Adventism and last, her invitation to pastoral ministry.
In her second presentation, Pastor Dr. Rebekah Liu, now senior pastor of Chaoyang Seventh-day Adventist Church, Beijing, shared her own response to the recent GC actions. Before she left China to come to the women’s conference, someone gave her a summary of the GC Unity in Mission document. When she heard the report, she strongly denied it could be true. It is an evil rumor, she stated. Her church would not be so foolish as to vote such actions. When she came to America she read the voted actions for herself. The “rumor,” she found, was true. Her arms pinwheeled about; her voice raised in pitch and volume. She shared her wonder that such action should be taken by her church toward those whom God has chosen. How dare a church, she asked, question God’s call? She began to delve into the book cherished and employed by Adventists from the earliest days, the book that Adventists have come to own as their prophetic guidepost. The message of the beast, proclaimed Pastor Liu, is conformity. “You must be like me.” The image of the beast is the opposite of God’s image. The Tower of Babel people were of one mind and language. Babylon and its powers demand conformity, strict unity. The beast seeks to control people. The image to the beast is an alternative creation story—a fake creation. God’s image is diversity. Diversity, she stated, is God’s way. The multiplicity of gifts is God’s method to proclaim the gospel. The beast and those who follow are of a single mind. Conformity is not God’s method!
The more intense, the more dramatic, the more explicit the thoughts came from Pastor Liu, the more responsive the audience was to her statements. The women were caught up in her wonder and confusion over how the church they looked to could be taking such an ill-advised course that mimicked the beastly power the church had so often denounced, Pastor Liu expressed her frustration, disappointment and surprise that her church leaders could be so blind as to follow the course upon which they had set themselves. The actions the church leaders have taken, she was strong to say, are not God’s way.
In the question-and-answer period that followed her presentation, Pastor Liu was quick to say that the General Conference has no control or jurisdiction over any part of the Adventist church in China. No control from any outside religious organization is allowed in China. A prison term awaits those who violate this law. The pastors in China are employed either by the government or by a local congregation. Tithe is maintained and distributed by the local church. Pastor Liu explained that a local congregation hired her and with the assistance of four ordained elders as officiants, ordained her, and pays her salary. The GC can do nothing that affects her work.
Reflecting back on both conferences it became soon apparent that women in each of the areas in which they minister are under duress. The recent General Conference actions calling for unity and threatening church entities that do not subscribe to and follow the voted mandates have had a resounding and hurtful effect upon the women who work within the denomination, and others. One participant who holds a national denominational administrative position expressed it this way: “When I heard the vote, it felt like someone hit me in the stomach.”
Not only did those who presented to the group express the hurt they feel as they experience the church they love and have dedicated themselves to serve turn against them; the conversations among participants at break, meals or before and after the meetings, were even more specific in expressing emotional pain. Our women in the various ministries are deeply affected by the church actions. What can we do? is a question that awaits answer. It may take an authoritative figure to look GC president Ted Wilson in the eye and say, “Enough is enough. Stop it! Just be quiet for a time!” The loss of tithe may provide some hint that there is trouble in River City. Another option is this: The women in the churches announce that they buy hook, line, and sinker the headship doctrine and the documents prepared by the GC. In response to this new-found Truth, the women resign, in mass, all offices, cease participation in all church offices and departments, and shut off the money supply. One could expect dramatic change in behavior within thirty days or less. Alas, the prospect of such action is as improbable as the sun’s turning back eight degrees. In the meantime we wait the outcome of misdirected and ethically and morally questionable actions that exhibit a severe lack of moral leadership.
Lawrence (Larry) Downing, D.Min., is retired after more than 40 years as a parish minister serving Seventh-day Adventist churches on both Coasts. He was also an adjunct faculty in the School of Business and the School of Theology at La Sierra University. He is married to Arleen. Together, they have three grown children and six grandchildren. Larry and Arleen reside part time in Rancho Cordova, CA and in San Luis Obispo, CA.