by Hannele Ottschofski  |  14 August 2020  |

Many are looking back into history, wondering if they should apologize for the sins of their forefathers about the discrimination of people groups. Yes, racial discrimination is an abomination. But another example of this comes to mind: allow me to remind you (without addressing the topic of ordination to the gospel ministry) of the discrimination against women in our church. If we as a church really believe that God created all men and women as equals, we should be honest enough to admit our failures.

The fact that women’s work is paid less than men’s was long taken for granted throughout the world, and still is in many places. This was probably due to the traditional role allocation, and also to the fact that women often did not have the same opportunities as men to receive equivalent training. For a long time there were very few possibilities for women to work at all. Also, women often worked in the lower-paid occupations, in the office and service sectors. In addition, women’s work performance was still considered “inferior” because they were considered mentally and physically less resilient, incapable of assertiveness, and not, like men, needing to feed a family.

Although women today often have the same qualifications and work like their male colleagues, they are still paid less in almost all occupations. According to the Federal Statistical Office, women in Germany even today earn an average of 21 percent less than men.  I believe that only Iceland has passed legislation that really regulates equality of pay.

Pastor’s wives

It is not so long ago that the wives of pastors were not permitted to work. They were expected to help their husbands where he needed support. So the church often got two employees for the price of one. That has been my own experience, and I have worked without expecting pay. God has taken care of me too. But in today’s society, every woman has to make sure that she has means to support her in retirement so she does not end up in old-age poverty.

My mother would have liked to open a children’s clothing store in the 1930s. That was before the mass production of clothing in factories in Finland. One of her sisters was a seamstress, the other a knitter. Thus she would have had the ideal prerequisites for building an independent existence together with them. She was denied this because her husband worked for the church. Over time, that has changed, and most pastors’ wives are working today.

Some pastors’ wives would like to work with their husbands in a team, but because they need a paid job, they need to find another occupation. The problem of pay pastors’ wives already existed in the time of Ellen White. In Gospel Workers 452 she wrote that the work of pastors’ wives should not be underestimated.

Injustice has sometimes been done to women who labor just as devotedly as their husbands, and who are recognized by God as being necessary to the work of the ministry. The method of paying men-laborers, and not paying their wives who share their labors with them, is a plan not according to the Lord’s order, and if carried out in our conferences, is liable to discourage our sisters from qualifying themselves for the work they should engage in. God is a God of justice, and if the ministers receive a salary for their work, their wives, who devote themselves just as disinterestedly to the work, should be paid in addition to the wages their husbands receive, even though they may not ask for this.”

Ellen White would not have written about the remuneration of women without a cause.

When we consider the many women who devoted their lives to serve the Lord and the Seventh-day Adventist church in the early days, we are awed by their commitment. We really don’t have much information about how they were supported. Some worked on a volunteer basis, others held positions within the church organization. Looking at the minutes of the General Conference of Seventh-day Seventh-day Adventists, it is clear that the church used to pay men differently from women. The pay scale adopted in 1923 by the General Conference shows, among other things, the difference in pay for male and female Bible workers, even though they had the same training and did the same work. That was considered normal at the time. In addition, it was assumed that women were protected by the income of their husbands.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US, prohibiting all forms of discrimination based on race or gender. Article VII requires equal pay for equal work. At the time, there was a big difference in the pay of men and women in the church. Men received numerous bonuses as “head of the household,” even if their wives were working and well off. These supplements were not granted to women, even if they were the main earners in the family, widowed or divorced. The document written by Miriam Wood for the committee on the role of women, at Camp Mohaven in September 1973, on the Discrimination of Female Employees is interesting reading. It shows with concrete examples how women were long expected to do more work for less pay than men. If anything changed, it was not due to the insight of the leaders of the church, but because of the demands of the country’s legislation.

Merikay Silver vs. Pacific Press

I had heard about Merikay Silver suing the Pacific Press Publishing Association but hardly knew anything about the case, except that in the end the Press had to change its practice of discriminating remuneration. Then I read her book about her ordeal.

Merikay Silver joined the Pacific Press Publishing Association in 1971 as a book editor. She was immensely pleased to contribute something to God’s work. When her husband lost his job and she had to provide for their living while he continued his studies, she asked the leadership of the Press to grant her the allowances paid to heads of households. Her salary was so low that she was forced to take out loans in order to live. When, after several weeks and months, the Press still had not responded to her request, she consulted a lawyer. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission encouraged her to sue her employer.

The young editor was optimistic, hoping that the publisher would settle things as soon as the brethren realized what the law demanded. She was looking forward to a speedy fair payment. As nothing happened she was disappointed, and she realized that they were not interested. After much hesitation, she filed a lawsuit.

She had attracted the wrath of the leadership, which insisted that church members should not sue the church. She would, it was said, have to be patient with the brethren and wait for their goodwill.

Merikay was not only concerned with her own problem; she saw the unequal pay as discrimination against all female employees of the publishing house. That is why she sought a class action. The publishing house wanted to prevent this, because it meant a lot of money, if all employees and workers had to be fairly paid.

What happened then can only be described as pressure and retaliation by the publishing house and the General Conference. Merikay describes this emotionally burdensome time in her book Betrayal, which she published in 1985, when she was finally emotionally able to write about it. (Merikay McLeod, Betrayal: The Shattering Sex Discrimination Case of Silver vs. Pacific Press Publishing Association, Mars Hill Publications, 1985). The court records can be viewed, and her presentation is credible.

The Press tried to sack her so that her class action would expire. But an interim injunction was issued to ensure that she continued to work until the trial. One pastor experienced pressure from leadership to disfellowship Merikay from the local church. The publishing house only employed church members and she would thus lose her job. When the pastor of the local church supported her, he in his turn, was again pressured. Eventually, following an appeal, the injunction was dropped and Merikay Silver was sacked. That’s how her group clause fell, and she had to agree to a settlement at the end.

However, with the material collected in this case, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission filed charges that led to the publishing house’s being required to pay women fairly. After ten years, the case of Merikay Silver against Pacific Press was finally settled.

The General Conference had already in July 1972 adopted guidelines prohibiting discrimination in pay. The publishing house apparently did not want to know about that. For me, it is incomprehensible why the General Conference did not demand compliance with these guidelines, but went to court on the side of the publishing house. The General Conference even went so far as to present the publishing house as part of the Church, where all employees were pastors or missionaries. The publishing house would thus be a church and therefore the government should not interfere in the regulations, for reasons of religious freedom. They said that the structure of the church is hierarchical, like that of the Catholic Church, where all male employees are like priests and all female employees should be regarded as nuns. A nun would have no right to demand payment. It is hard to believe that the church or the publishing house invested so much money in an expensive lawsuit, instead of following the laws of the country. All judgments were challenged by the publishing house until the case was finally settled in 1982.

Since then, as far as I know, women are fairly paid in the church. They owe it to Merikay Silver and Lorna Tobler (who was also involved) that this is so. Many women thanked Merikay in the aftermath for what she put up with. And yet her report is shattering reading that is hard to digest.

The Unions in Germany are proud of the fact that they give equal pay to all pastors, male and female, even though they cannot at the moment act as they wish in the question of ordination as a result of consideration towards higher levels of administration.

Women’s Ministries

And yet there is something else to add. The work of women’s ministries leaders in Europe is still not being properly remunerated. As early as 1990, a group of 35 women met in Pennsylvania and requested that the world Church at all levels appoint full-time women’s ministries directors. Many leaders in our conferences and unions are still employed on the basis of only marginal remuneration, although they invest much more time and effort. Some leaders only have a part-time job. Which male department leader would be willing to volunteer to work for a department of the church if he were paid only a pittance or part-time? The church relies on the missionary spirit of its church members. Many women are expected to work for the Lord without pay. But there is also something like justice. Anyone who engages fully in the service of the church should also be paid justly and be able to live on it.

Ellen White often wrote that women’s work must be remunerated. “Women, as well as men, are needed in the work that must be done. Those women who give themselves to the service of the Lord, who labor for the salvation of others by doing house-to-house work, which is as taxing as and more taxing, than standing before a congregation, should receive payment for their labor. If a man is worthy of his hire, so also is a woman” (Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 18 [Nos. 1301-1359], p. 66).

Women’s Ministries is a department like any other in church administration. I understand that some departments are managed in a way that one departmental head is responsible for multiple departments, and therefore a full-time job seems justified. The argument that this is not feasible with the Women’s Ministries department is not correct. A woman could, should it be necessary, also lead another department, such as Mission or Sabbath School or whatever. It does not necessarily have to be the Children’s Ministries department that is offered to a woman!

If there are financial difficulties, you have to save. I can see that. Unfortunately, it is usually the Women’s Ministries department and the pay of that department’s leaders that is the first to suffer. In other departments, additional jobs are being created. It is a fact that our administration is bloated at the top and is top-heavy. I am convinced that you could find other areas where unnecessary expenditures could be eliminated, instead of curtailing work that is a blessing for many women. If church leaders perceive the missionary motivation and enthusiasm that women bring to their local churches from their seminars and meetings, they would certainly appreciate this work more. That reminds me of Czaba Török, a pastor who attended the women’s continuing education seminars with his wife. He, too, had hardly any idea what the Women’s Ministries department was about. It was only during these seminars that he realized what high-quality training was offered and how important this work is for the church and community. He said, “Every pastor should attend such a seminar.” Church leadership continues to encourage Total Member Involvement. It is the mission of the Women’s Ministries department to nurture and empower women so that they can reach out to others.

The fact that the Women’s Ministries department, which represents the majority of church members, is still not really perceived as something of value reminds me of the time 100 years ago, when the men in the German Reichstag thought that the women members of the Reichstag were only there for “women’s stuff.” Our church should finally grow out of such stereotypes and see men and women as truly equal in terms of their work and their pay.

In this time of racial upheavals in the United States that is echoed in many parts of the western world, at least, it may seem petty to address something that is no longer a threat to life, such as the risk of black people who experience violence just because of their skin color. But should we forget other forms of discrimination because there is something worse? As a church we are losing our young people who cannot tolerate discrimination in any form, and many more who have themselves experienced unfair treatment.

As I was discussing this topic, somebody asked me, “Have the brethren ever apologized for their treatment of women employees?” I really don’t know. Various organizations within the church have issued apologies—better late than never—for their treatment or the lack of support for discriminated people groups. I have not heard a word from the General Conference about the treatment of women. Maybe I have missed something.


Hannele Ottschofski writes from Hechingen, Germany.

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