Woman of the Year: Pioneering pastor cited for research and practice

Avondale University chaplain and lecturer Dr Drene Somasundram with her Woman of the Year award. [Credit: Martin Vukmanic]

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An Avondale academic has been recognised with a Woman of the Year award for her scholarship and her leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Dr Drene Somasundram received the award from the Association of Adventist Women during its annual Celebration of Excellence banquet, held at La Sierra University Church (Riverside, CA) on November 4. She is “a shining example of perseverance, dedication and a pioneering spirit,” read a biography prepared by the independent, supporting ministry.

The award encouraged Dr Somasundram to reflect on her 35 years in ministry. A “sense of peace” about her contribution to the cause is tempered by mixed feelings about the state of Adventist women in pastoral ministry around the world. “I’m happy for the women who are thriving because of policies developed and equal opportunities given, but I’m sad for the women who are just trying to survive.”

She holds the church in the South Pacific in high regard. With leaders who empower women and with a large number of women in ministry, the church is “helping lead the way.” And she is grateful for Women in Ministry, which supports initiatives that build the skills, opportunities and networks for Adventist women in pastoral ministry. “I owe a lot to this group of people.”

During the banquet, friend and fellow Newbold College alum Pr Kirsten Øster-Lundqvist introduced Dr Somasundram as the first Adventist female minister in the United Kingdom, one who turned struggling churches into vibrant Christian communities. As a lecturer in the Avondale seminary, Dr Somasundram served as a mentor to women in ministry in the South Pacific. She also completed her doctorate on a gender-inclusive model in theological education, for which she received Middlesex University’s Ken Goulding Award for excellence of thesis. Dr Somasundram is now chaplain on Avondale’s Sydney campus and a lecturer in the School of Nursing and Health, where, according to the association, she combines her theological expertise with her passion for holistic care.

Women in Ministry funded Dr Somasundram’s call to the Avondale seminary. Coming as she did with local church ministry experience in a university city—Cambridge in England—“we loved her sympathy with and understanding of an academic community, mixed with a hands-on pastorate,” said Dr Lyell Heise, one of the trustees. “We also loved the possibility of reaching a diverse group of aspiring women pastors in the South Pacific, with someone of Drene’s lived experience in multicultural ministry.”

Joining Dr Somasundram as Woman of the Year were theologian Dr Olive Hemmings of Washington Adventist University, Maria Silvia Neri Castrejón, a long-time minister in Mexico City, and Norma Nashed of the Restore a Child charity. Two men were also honoured as champions of justice: the late Dr William Johnsson, an Australian, Avondale alumnus, author and long-time editor of Adventist Review who wrote and spoke strongly for full equality of women ministers, and; Pastor Loren Seibold, who has published more than 50 stories on women’s ordination and fairness to women as editor of Adventist Today.

Meeting recipients such as pastor Castrejón—referred to as a Bible worker despite completing full pastoral training and managing multiple churches—challenged Dr Somasundram to change her attitude about the ordination of women. “I used to think, We just do the job we’ve been called to do. But I now realise it’s important for women to have confirmation of that calling and to have functions equal to men. Identity formation for women in ministry is too ambiguous.”

So, she thanks the association for its advocacy. “Meeting those who have tirelessly championed women in leadership in our church has been one of the joys of accepting the award.”

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