Spirited debate on women’s leadership


A request to allow commissioned ministers in the North American and Trans-European divisions—those who have not been formally ordained as Seventh-day Adventist pastors—to serve as conference presidents sparked more than six hours of debate, during the world church’s Annual Council.

In the end, the controversial measure was defeated by a written ballot vote of 167 to 117. The 50-vote margin defeating the NAD proposal also effectively ended the TED request, which would have permitted commissioned ministers to head church unions as well as conferences.

We talk about unity. What is this unity? I've heard something described that is not unity, it is uniformity...

Noting a need for experienced leadership within the North American division’s conferences, Dan Jackson, NAD president, said, “We believe the position of a president of a conference should be open to treasurers, to finance officers, to secretaries who are not ordained, to those who carry a commissioned minister’s credential, but are not on an ordination track, including women.”

Jackson added, “This is not a request for women’s ordination… We are talking about governance and leadership.”

Bertil Wiklander, Trans-European division president, voiced his division’s request for a similar variance: “We need your help to allow all our members in outreach. Opening doors for women in leadership would strengthen growth of the church in Europe,” he said, noting the Adventist Church “in the Trans-European Division faces an extraordinary mission challenge where people are extremely resistant to the gospel and joining a church is an exception rather than the norm in these countries.”

Adventist Church President Ted N.C. Wilson took the rare step of relinquishing the chair during the morning session to speak in opposition to the NAD proposal.

“My thoughts and convictions are just those,” Wilson said in introducing his comments. “They are not the collective decision” of the General Conference’s administrative committee, known as ADCOM.

Wilson said he objected to the proposal on several grounds: First, he said, “the church is an ecclesiastical body, which is organised for the church. Leadership has been based, in the past, on trained leadership, on spiritual leadership.” He said he wasn’t suggesting commissioned ministers were not trained or not spiritual, but he did note a difference in those who are ordained: “According to scriptural injunction and our own history, we have a particular mode which we have followed in terms of top spiritual leadership.”

Second, Wilson noted, since only ordained ministers can unite congregations and ordain local church elders and deacons, there was a question of a commissioned minister fulfilling all the tasks of a conference leader.

Third, he said, “whatever we vote, will have some impact on the world church. We have taken the position in the past that ordination is recognized around the world. We are not here in the U.S. as the American Seventh-day Adventist Church; we are, rather, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in America, in Germany, in Congo, in Brazil, in the Philippines.”

Wim Altink, Netherlands Union president, noted the objections that many Adventist leaders from other parts of the world might have to the proposal. However, he pleaded for understanding: “It is not that we from our division want to impose this to other divisions,” he said. “Have room and respect for certain fields in the world where this would be a great blessing. It will be a great impetus for mission in our fields.”

Uganda Union Mission director John B.D. Kakembo was among those voicing concern on that very point: He said he was troubled that “when we say that if we don’t do this, we will be seen as people who are discriminating.”

Baltic Union president Valdis Zilgalvis spoke in support of the variance: “Women in the early Christian church were recognized” as ministers, he said. “In fourth century, women were pushed away from ministry at the altar, and you know which church did that… I agree the leader should be trained, but I don’t see a difference between the genders.”

Paul Ratsara, president of the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean division, urged caution in the process: “Definitely this topic is a very sensitive one,” he said. “It is very hard for me to stand here when I think of the request of my dear colleagues from this [North American] Division… We need to agree on that first: is this negotiable, is this something we can say, ‘You can do it, no problem?'”

Retired Adventist Church president Jan Paulsen underlined the complexities in cultural approaches to leadership: “If we say to the NAD ‘You may not go this way,’ please keep in mind, not only for this issue, but for other issues, what do we do with a situation that may develop that is in breech of what we decide. Some of you know very well in the name of democracy and in some Western settings, leaders may not have full control over a delegation that comes to a session,” he said. “I would be profoundly troubled,” he added, “if the church in one particular country found itself in a situation at variance with the church.”

Nepthali J. Manez, president of the North Philippines Union, opposed the measure, saying, “If this is approved, I would encounter a lot of difficulties. If we grant this motion, at least from the way I assess my constituency, it would give me a lot of problems.” He urged that delegates “wait at least a year” before moving forward.

West African Union president James M. Golay also expressed his concerns, saying, “The church is God’s church. I don’t want for the issue to divide us.”

Golay said he had “read scripture,” but did not “see it. It’s not in the church manual or in the policy book. If this is going to be a new policy, we need to consult heavily.”

Perhaps the most impassioned advocate of the afternoon was Dr. Ella Smith Simmons, the first woman elected a general vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church.

Reflecting on one speaker’s comment that the push for a variance was a form of salesmanship to lead towards women’s ordination, Simmons said, “I was not born into the Adventist Church, but the Adventist Church presented itself to me in a certain way. I hope I am not a victim of ‘bait and switch.'”

And in responding to the comments of some African delegates who opposed the motion, she said she was “deeply disturbed and concerned. Are your memories so short that you do not remember when you were oppressed in your own land? And that those who oppressed used the Bible to uphold this oppression?”

Simmons added, “We talk about unity. What is this unity? I’ve heard something described that is not unity, it is uniformity… What we are describing is uniformity that is more akin to the bondage that grows out of mind control.”

Another world church vice president, Armando Miranda, opposed the measure, saying that while he had “profound respect” for the requests from TED and NAD, “I have [a] concern this issue will create more problems than solutions.”

After the vote and the failure of the NAD motion, Jackson reminded the council that he still considered himself as a brother to all the delegates, regardless of how they voted. He appreciated the frank discussions that were held, he said.

“As Christians unity does not mean that I cannot disagree. I can disagree with you, but still love you as my brother,” Jackson said.

Wiklander said “we understand that the decision is ‘no’ to our request as well. We shall go home and pray.”

He added, “My deepest concern is with the many, many young people in Europe who grow up in an egalitarian society—of which many of you here have no idea what it is like—where they are taught from their first hours that men and women are equal; it is very hard for them. We are losing many young people who feel that this is a matter of justice.”