By Lindsey Painter | 28 February, 2018 |
Eight years ago Chris Oberg made Adventist history by becoming the first woman to hold the position of lead pastor of a university church. She has been faithfully serving her church and her community since that time as lead pastor of the La Sierra University Church. “The church is holy and sinful and in a constant state of renewal.” Pastor Oberg says. A beautiful and accurate portrayal.
La Sierra University Church is “the church on the corner in the 92505 between two campuses.” Pastor Oberg stated that this identity helps their church and community understand their role. They are in a prominent place, in a specific zip code which reminds them they are responsible to their local community, not just the church building itself. And they are located between La Sierra University and La Sierra Academy, which reminds them that they are responsible for being church and showing the next generation what church is like.
One thing the church is really focusing on right now is attending to “friends without homes.” Pastor Oberg and her church are partnering with the city and local governments to work to better understand and assist in this complex area. The church is being very intentional about getting educated as they work. “Riverside is a huge city. But we are doing our part to attend to our friends without homes. We have a lot of wandering friends without homes here on our street. They also belong to us. No one else has to come to my zip code and take care of our friends without homes. We are taking part in the mayor’s initiative. We want to do it well, rather than doing damage to the system and to our friends without homes. We are looking at housing options. We would take responsibility for that and nurture it. Riverside has made this an initiative and we are regularly in meetings trying to work on that.”
Pastor Oberg has a really great story about how she came to this historic role. She worked in healthcare and nutrition for many years as a young adult. When her daughters were born she decided to take some time off work. But when she decided to go back to work, the Adventist hospitals were having a hiring freeze. She did some volunteer work at the church in Redlands, CA and realized how much she loved ministry. A minister she looked up to told her, “If you think you’re going to do this, and get yourself educated, walk in through the front door, you deserve to know to have the classes, the coursework, you will be respected.”
She enrolled again as an undergraduate for a pre-ministry degree. This was in the 1990’s. There were a few women doing the ministry degree at the time but not many had actually been hired as pastors. “There wasn’t anybody to look up to. To see how they got from here to there. We were studying with a lot of faith and hope” Pastor Oberg chuckles. She shared how she was in college at the same time her children were in elementary school. “We used to study together in the evenings.” She recalled. “I was studying the Greek alphabet as my daughter learned cursive.”
She served the La Sierra University Church as associate while she completed her MDiv at La Sierra. “La Sierra has been a home to me.” She stated. “Spiritually, theologically, relationally. It was not difficult to want to return to the community. To imagine myself here. Doing life with these people.”
Pastor Oberg has some strong things to say about the debate happening in the Adventist church regarding women’s ordination.
“The longer this conversation goes on in our denomination, about how we shall recognize, authorize, and affirm women, the more damage is done. It’s damaging to me as a female leader. But it’s also damaging to everyone. The paradox of asking for total member involvement while the denomination is deciding how much involvement it will accept from the women in the church is boggling to me. Especially in light of scripture’s overwhelming teachings that it is the spirit who gives the gifts… I do my best not to be absorbed by the larger conversation but obviously I have a church community that deeply cares not only is their leader a woman, but our conference president is a woman. The issue will never go away from us because it matters deeply in our particular community. My church is right across from the conference office. We have deep respect and affection for our conference president. So to see her not be fully noted and listed along with all of our other leaders in North America in the Adventist yearbook, for example, that troubles us, to see her not be given access in the same way with voice and a vote at certain gatherings. Yes that’s doing damage.”
“I get a little weary of people saying I wish we could stop talking about this and get on with the real mission of the church. We are talking about the real mission of the church. A church who behaves this way is not attractive in this neighborhood, or to the world.” She says. “when there’s poison in the water, there’s poison in all the water. And it’s not safe to drink. And we send the message on a regular basis that it might not be safe to drink. This is how we’re treating our daughters and our mothers and our aunties and our sisters, it might not be a safe place for you to be.” Her daughters work in a corporate setting. It is illegal for the women in a corporate environment such as theirs to be treated the way the women in this denomination are treated. With different titles and different access, for example. Because there are roles that women can’t have without being ordained. Pastor Orberg says she does not aspire to any of those roles personally but that is beside the point. Discrimination is happening every day in our denomination.
She says being a woman pastor must not necessarily be a different experience than a man pastor. “I can only see the world through the lenses that I have. I am female. I am anglo. I’m a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. I bring that to everything I see in the world… But I realize I move around my congregation pastoring first, and of course I pastor as a female because that’s who I am and that’s all I know. I don’t know that it’s all that different. I mean, if I describe to you my day, it’s what all the men have to do as well. So carrying on the life of leadership for our congregation looks the same whether we’re male or female. I don’t wake up every morning and think Oh my goodness I’m a woman in ministry what shall I do today? I don’t really have colleagues like that. We just wake up and think, where is the spirit today? What is the spirit saying? Where is the spirit pulling me? What am I supposed to be up to today because I lead a congregation and I want to be faithful to that task.”
And yet, there are differences too. She says, “I understand that there are people who will not come to my church because they don’t want to be led by a woman, they don’t want to hear a woman’s voice in the pulpit. They are uncomfortable for reasons they cannot name… But for women in ministry, we’re not going to get beyond that during my lifetime. It’s always going to be a novelty. No matter where I travel, no matter where I go, There’s always going to be someone in my congregation who has not heard a woman speak. And to this day, every Sabbath I will be a brand-new experience or novel for someone. And that comes with the territory.”
Working at La Sierra comes with a reputation, earned or not. Pastor Oberg says she has been surprised at the things she has heard people say about La Sierra, people who have never lived there, or experienced the community there.
“What I experience is people who take very seriously what it is to experience present truth and the progressive nature of revelation. This is one of the highest values of our community. That truth is always on the move, that Adventists have always believed this, this is the rocky road that got us to 1844 and beyond, that got us to founding a church in 1860’s it got us into healthcare and sanitarium, it got us into the great debate of 1888 and beyond, that truth is progressive and revelation is progressive. I know what I know today but tomorrow the spirit will reveal something more. I want to be open to that.”
Adventist Today readers can pray for clarity and discernment about what it means to be church in 2018. “Discernment about how I ought to be involved in my local church, how I ought to think about my own role in the kingdom of God in our own neighborhood.” says Pastor Oberg. And that she “Be open to the progressive revelation of the character of God and what God hopes for in the Advent movement. And it’s frightening and it’s unknown because it’s not yet been revealed. That’s the nature of the thing.”
Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two.