By Carmen Seibold | 2 November 2018 |
Like a lot of my generation, it didn’t occur to me when I was a child that women could be pastors. But when it was suggested to me, perhaps some time when I was in college, there didn’t seem to me to be any reason why they shouldn’t be. After all, our church’s preeminent leader and the author of our unique inspired and authoritative writings is a woman. At the time women were flooding all other professions and jobs. Why not ministry?
Back then, though, church leaders told us that we had to be patient. Just wait, they said. There isn’t enough support for women’s ordination yet. The entire world isn’t ready, they said.
Through what has been my entire adult life, I have heard, “Just wait.” Wait for us to figure out what Ellen White thinks. Wait for us to move on this together so we don’t create conflict in the church. Wait for our best Bible scholars to render an opinion. Wait for stronger support from parts of the church membership. Wait for the mission fields to agree with us. Wait for the General Conference to decide.
Wait. Wait. Just wait. Be patient.
In spite of my denomination’s slowness, I felt called to study for ministry. After a career as a registered nurse, I completed my M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary, took Clinical Pastoral Education classes, and for the last third of my working life I have been a hospice chaplain, ministering to the dying and their loved ones. Because my employer expected some kind of affirmation of my calling from my denomination, my conference first offered me something called commissioning, a sort of “ordination lite.” My employer accepted it, though puzzled about what in the world a “commission” was.
The question of whether the Adventist Church can recognize and bless pastors who are women with the same signs and words that it blesses men has been kicked around since at least 1881. In this century some union conferences, motivated by a growing biblical understanding of the gospel, began to study the constitution, by-laws and policies of the denomination. They realized that they are in charge of whom they choose to ordain, and they moved beyond misusing ordination as a gender marker. Some union conference constituencies voted to ordain all their pastors. A few others decided to forgo ordination for everyone. Nearly all the union conferences across a vast portion of the North American Division, the South Pacific Division, and Europe (and a few elsewhere) have hired female pastors and voiced their support for women in ministry, most even saying they are supportive of ordaining women when they are permitted to.
I’m blessed to be in the Columbia Union, where I’ve been fully affirmed in my ministry. Yet many of my sister pastors, even here in the North American Division (NAD), are still waiting.
A couple of weeks ago, the General Conference (GC) executive committee’s Annual Council meeting in Battle Creek voted to implement a disciplinary system of “compliance committees,” understood by most as a means to punish unions that have ordained women or otherwise consecrated their pastors equally. While we don’t yet know the actual power of these committees, this is a moment of clarity for other leaders of the denomination. There is no longer any question of winning approval from the leaders of the General Conference or its executive committee for ordaining women. There is an increasing majority in the church that doesn’t want to make room for the biblically based conscience and missional needs of others—and this on a practice fully supported by our Fundamental Beliefs! (Perhaps part of the problem is the GC president’s sermons highlighting the errors and dangers of a “progressive” church, until many feel that women in church leadership is one of those evils.)
So here’s my question to all the remaining conferences, union conferences, their leaders and executive committee members who have spoken in favor of women in ministry, but have not yet acted:
What are we waiting for now?
Across the Adventist church there are women in ministry showing us that the Holy Spirit has gifted and called them. The Holy Spirit is leading congregations and leaders to recognize them.
So I ask again: conference and union administrators, executive committee members in territories where you say you are waiting—now what are you waiting for?
Waiting is clearly not convincing the rest of the church; with the Battle Creek decision to impose negative consequences on those who want to ordain women, we’re now farther from a resolution than ever. That decision means that compliance requires going backwards. Many women want to do ministry, and are doing it well. Young people in our churches are seeing their church as so out of touch as to be irrelevant, because we haven’t moved forward despite a track record of successful women pastors, the rules on our side, and support from constituencies.
I dare ask my question because it is glaringly necessary.
What are we waiting for now?
Why should we expect a change from the General Conference that it shows no sign of making, a change that we may not see in our lifetimes, if ever?
Why wait more decades to do what you are already empowered to do? How much waiting does it take to be seen as “cooperative”? What does it say about the importance of the value we place on women’s standing in the gospel plan to continue to wait, and wait and wait—waiting for a church that doesn’t respect these values? Is it time to say “We’ve waited long enough”?
I wish each person reading this would put this question to your conference leaders, union leaders and their executive committee members right now.
This week at the NAD, our conference and union leaders are meeting for their Year-End Meeting. This will be something they’ll talk about. If so, I’d like them to know that we out here are wondering how much longer they’re willing to wait.
For our part, we think we’ve waited long enough.
Carmen Seibold is a chaplain in Columbus, Ohio.