By Adventist Today News Team, September 26, 2013
It is in many ways a routine development. At the same time it is historic. Pastor Sandra E. Roberts, executive secretary of the Southeastern California Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, has been nominated to become president. It is quite common when a conference president has moved on or does not want to continue in office, for the number two officer (usually with the title of secretary or executive secretary, sometimes vice president) to be selected as the next president.
Although women have served temporarily as the top officer on a number of occasions, even in the 19th century, and on many occasions as treasurer or secretary of a conference, this is a first. Denominational policy specifies that a conference president is to be an ordained minister, and Roberts is an ordained minister because a year ago the Pacific Union Conference in a constituency meeting established a policy ending gender discrimination in the ordination of clergy. She is the first of this new generation of ordained women to be nominated as a conference president.
The report of the nominating committee will be presented to delegates from all of the churches in the conference at a regular constituency session on October 27. Pastor Gerald D. Penick told the committee at its first meeting on September 8 that he did not want to be considered for re-election. "Nine years is enough," he told the committee. Later he told one of the pastors in the conference that he did not want to retire yet, but had not made up his mind as to what he would do next. It is well known among veteran denominational employees that the work of a conference president is exhausting.
Under the conference bylaws, the nominating committee selects its own chair. Dr. Fritz Guy, a noted Adventist theologian who played a key role in drafting the denomination's Fundamental Beliefs statement and faculty member at La Sierra University, was elected chairman, as he was at the previous constituency session. Pastor Ricardo Graham, president of the Pacific Union Conference, met with the committee as an advisor.
Roberts has served as the second-ranking administrative officer for the conference since 2004. For five years prior to that she was director of young adult ministries for the conference and from 1995 to 2000 she was a pastor at the Corona (California) Church. She served as chaplain for the church school in Loma Linda from 1992 to 1995 and prior to that as director of the conference's youth camp. She was called to the conference from Central California in 1987 where she was Bible teacher at Modesto Adventist Academy. She started denominational employment in 1982 as a teacher at Cedar Lake Academy in the Michigan Conference. Roberts has a master's degree from Andrews University and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Claremont School of Theology. She is the daughter of Adventist missionaries and has spent considerable time traveling around the world.
"Roberts' qualifications and experience make her the most qualified person for this important position," Dr. Penny Miller, a faculty member at Loma Linda University and co-chair of the advisory board for the Women's Resource Center at La Sierra University, told Adventist Today when asked for her reaction to the news. "Those of us who know her and have worked with her understand her ability to get things done and the excellence she brings to the challenges at hand. I look forward to her leadership."
“She is a very smart lady … very principled,” a church member and business executive who has served with her on the conference committee told Adventist Today. Victor Tolan, who owns B&K Precision, an international electronics company, has known Roberts since the 1980s when he attended the Corona Church where she was a pastor.
“I don't care if there's a man or a woman running the conference, as long as they're qualified,” Tolan said. “Definitely, she is a spiritual leader. She never says anything that's not thoughtful. I don't think anyone could find fault with her. … How the rest of the world will accept her, that's a different story. … I trust God. I put it in His hands. It's His Church ultimately.”
Pastor Lawrence Downing, a retired minister who has served in Southeastern California as well as in Southern California and Pennsylvania, told Adventist Today that, "I found her to be an accessible leader. She reads her Email and gives quick responses. I found her to have a good grasp of what was taking place in the [local] church. I found her easy to talk to, responsive to expressed concerns and a listening ear. I do not expect serious opposition to her nomination," although "it is to be expected that the traditional/conservative segment … will generate flack to the election of a woman as president, but their voices will not dominate."
This nomination comes at a time when the denomination is considering how to relate to an unofficial tradition that excludes women from ordination to the gospel ministry. One of the founders was a woman, Ellen G. White, who served as a key leader for decades and held the credentials of an ordained minister. As early as 1881 the delegates to a GC Session supported a proposal to ordain women who were serving as pastors. Although it was never implemented, a number of women pastors were issued licenses in the following years, which is traditionally the first step toward ordination. There is nothing in the denomination's archives that indicates anyone opposed the step. In fact, Adventist leaders are on record from the 1870s refuting many of the standard Bible texts brought up by those who oppose women serving as clergy.
In the 1950s and 1970s the subject was raised again and study committees reported that there was no Bible reason to refuse to do so. In 1990 the GC Session adopted a two-part resolution stating that although there was no consensus among the denomination's Bible scholars against the ordination of women "in order to maintain unity" it was not approved. Five years later a request from the denomination's North American Division (NAD) to allow different parts of the world church to decide the matter locally was refused.
Despite the 1995 vote, the Adventist Church in China has been ordaining women clergy for a number of years and last year several of the union conferences in Europe and North America decided to do the same. Pastor Ted Wilson, president of the GC, earnestly requested these jurisdictions to defer their decisions until the current study process could be completed, but majorities of 80 percent and higher felt they had waited long enough. It has also been pointed out that because of government rulings in China, the denomination has less influence there.
Pastor Stephen Bohr told Adventist Today that he thinks the election of Roberts as a conference president "would be in violation of the Working Policy and bylaws of the Pacific Union and the General Conference. Further, it would be a kick in the shins and the teeth to the decision making authority of the world church. In this sense it is one step closer to a congregational style of church governance which will eventually lead the church to lose its global identity and relevance. Biblically, it would be in open contradiction to the command of the apostle Paul that the elder/overseer must (as the Greek clearly indicates) be the husband of one wife and rule his house well. But in a post-modern age of rebellion against every and all authority, the decision is not surprising, especially in Southeastern California where every distinctive doctrine and practice of the church has been questioned." Bohr is senior pastor of the Central Seventh-day Adventist Church in Fresno, California, and director of the independent media ministry, Secrets Unsealed. He is a member of the GC study committee on ordination. (Fresno is not in the Southeastern Calfornia Conference.)
"I've seen comments about Sandra Roberts possible election … and some of them are vicious," said Dr. Darius Jankiewicz, chair of the theology department in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminar at Andrews University and one of the Bible scholars that the General Conference has asked to study the topic of ordination. "This discussion degenerates to labeling and name-calling. There are people on both sides who can't be gracious. It's heart-breaking. This the foundational problem in this entire discussion. We can't be gracious and civil and exhibit God's grace in our lives but just attack people. … The acrimonious nature of the debate is something that will destroy us unless we are very careful."
The Southeastern California Conference is the largest local conference in the NAD and one of the largest in the world, despite the fact that its territory only covers five counties east and south of Los Angeles, including the major cities of San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino. It has more than 70,000 members and it is estimated that there are probably 300,000 Adventist adherents in the area. Its growth rate in the last decade has been about the same as for the entire NAD.
California has the largest number of Adventists of any state in the U.S., a total of nearly 200,000 or 17 percent of the total national membership. It includes four local conferences of which the Southeastern conference is the most southern. It includes 143 local churches and at least ten women pastors who are ordained ministers. Some have served in the ministry for decades.