Women of Mission

Recently the Association of Adventist Women sponsored a conference on the campus of Andrews University. Drawing people from all over the world, it balanced concern with some aspects of women s position in the Adventist Church today with celebration of what women have done and are doing in the church. Roger Dudley concludes the following report on that conference by listing what he understands Adventist women would appreciate from their church.

Roger Dudley is the associate director of Andrews University's Institute of Church Ministry.


On the very day that the Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America was making history by announcing that his choice for Vice President was a woman, Adventist women were meeting to consider their mission and role in the work of their church. From Washington, D. C., to California, from Canada to Florida, and even from over the waters they came to Andrews University to attend the Women of Mission conference, July 11-15. The timing was only a coincidence. Yet these events may signal a new attention to the needs of women and a realization that they must be taken seriously—both in the nation and in the church.

MINISTRY invited me to cover the conference for them. As "eyes and ears" for the Adventist ministerial force, I find myself in a Quandary. How does one absorb the events of five early-morning-to-late-evening days packed with seventy-some presentations and describe them adequately? A running account would be far too lengthy and would seem unfocused. Rather, I have chosen to share some impressions and tell what I think they mean for the Adventist Church.

First, some overall impressions: I was overwhelmed by the hard work and incredible planning that preceded this conference. Twenty-five committees worked for months in advance to ensure that all arrangements, down to the smallest detail, would be just right. Many contributed generously to provide the necessary finances.

I was also impressed by the sound balance that was evident. Attendees ranged from college age to octogenarian, and represented many races and cultures. Men too were well represented, both as presenters and attendees. And we were made to feel welcome and comfortable. No radical feminist attacks on our male chauvinism!

The program also showed good balance. Presentations of Biblical studies were mingled with inspirational and human-interest features. Workshops, a vast amount of music, an art exhibit, and a play rounded out the presentations. While we did hear some prophetic calls to the church to open up areas of service for women, we also heard words of appreciation. Among other things, women noted with approbation Neal Wilson's appeal at the 1980 General Conference session that the church employ more women in leadership positions. And they spoke with appreciation of the recent developments that have seen women serving as elders in local congregations.

Furthermore, the conference did not attempt to push women into the professions but affirmed the validity of God's call to service in the home as well as in the church and the workplace. Jane Thayer's presentation on "Adventist Women in Homemaking" was received as one of the highlights of the conference. Balance was also seen in the selection of three women to be honored as Women of the Year. Lenora McDowell, a homemaker who has given dynamic leadership to the Home and School Association in Avon Park, Florida, represented home and community life. Anita Mackey, retired clinical social worker from Santa Barbara, who has collected a string of civic awards as long as your arm and who was one of the women selected to welcome Queen Elizabeth II to her community, represented women in work life. And Mary Walsh, longtime Bible instructor and author, represented women in denominational service.

Women's contributions

Perhaps many of us are not aware of the contribution that women have made and are making to the mission of the church. Nancy Vyhmeister surveyed the world units of the church. She discovered scores of women filling important posts in each of the world divisions—treasurers, departmental directors, editors, managers, school administrators, and pastor-evangelists. She shared letters from Germany, Madagascar, Sweden, the Philippines, and Finland describing the work of six women who serve as pastors in those fields.

Pat Habada described women in Adventist education. Over the years five have served in the General Conference, and at the present time in the United States one serves as a union conference director (Frances Clark) and five as local conference directors. Helen Evans Thompson has recently been elected vice president for academic affairs at Loma Linda University.

Now I invite you to follow me as I visit some of the exhibits and meetings. My impressions deepen as I examine the display at the back of the meeting room. First compiled for the Dallas General Conference session, it pictures the work of about ninety women in our history, beginning with Ellen White, Annie Smith, and Rachel Oakes Preston, running through Kate Lindsay and Lora Clement, and coming down to Elsa Luukkanen (Finnish pastor-evangelist who has won hundreds of converts), Betty Stirling, and Ruth Murdoch.

I have opportunity to listen to some "women of mission," and I am taken with their dedication to God's work. Betty Ahnberg tells how God used her childhood experiences to prepare her for her role as Aunt Sue in Your Story Hour. Ethel Bradford describes her team ministry with her pastor-administrator husband. Judy Ronk shares her feelings about being an elementary teacher: "I love to encourage children when they make a mistake. I love to trust them. When they feel smart, I feel wonderful." Jeanne Simmons, social ministries leader at the All Nations Adventist church, explains her mission: "People in trouble can pick up the phone at any hour and call me." Police stations, fire departments, and hospitals refer needy folk to her.

Joan Banks, a chemist who has suffered an unwanted divorce, relates how God healed her pain and gave her a healing ministry for others going through such losses. June Bowen tells how she has worked by the side of her chaplain husband in a ministry to graduate students in need. Natelkka Burrell, pioneer black woman educator, describes how God guided her mission. "I had a wonderful mother who taught me how to love people rather than be concerned about the color of their skin."

I wish you could have heard the full stories of these and other women. Many were so moving that at times I had to brush away a tear. Take Collette Crowell, for instance. She is just completing her Seminary studies and will soon return as a pastor to the Upper Columbia Conference. She sensed God's call to the ministry so intensely that she changed her career plans, braved the opposition of her parents and many others, and broke up with her boyfriend to answer it.

Not only celebration

The conference was marked, how ever, not only by celebration but also by concern. While the majority of church membership is female, and while the church employs thousands of women, most of them fill traditional posts as secretaries, teachers, and nurses. Even in American society, with its strong stress on equal rights, men still occupy most leadership positions. In fact, in some ways women have lost ground. Bertha Dasher presented charts showing that the number of women serving as treasurers and departmental directors peaked in the first thirty years of this century. A slow decline ensued, and has continued until recently. The reasons are not clear. It may be that the personal ministry of Ellen White made female leadership more acceptable to the church during her lifetime and for a period thereafter. History also indicates that women often served because men just were not avail able. In times of worker surpluses women are likely to be shunted aside to provide jobs for men.

Whatever the reasons, many believe that the gospel calls for more equal treatment. Gerhard Hasel told the conference that Genesis 1 and 2 present a Creation with full equality between the sexes. Both constitute the image of God. Genesis 3 introduces a situation that inaugurated a first among equals. But the restoration of human beings means, among other things, a return to the state of the original creation. Madelyn Haldeman offered that "the restrictions posed after the Fall are no longer in force in the new life offered in Christ."

And what about the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? This issue did not dominate the conference. Few of the participants have heard a call to the pastorate. Given home responsibilities and personal preferences, women are not likely to flood into the ministry in large numbers. Other issues are of more concern. Yet the question was considered because, as Gordon Hyde pointed out, to many it symbolizes the openness of every area of the church to all faithful members without regard to physical characteristics such as race and gender.

After careful study Raoul Dederen stated that no theological barrier to the ordination of women exists. Yet he noted that in the New Testament ordination is a recognition by the church of God's call, and he asked if the church is in harmony on this matter. Most present would accept this view but would ask the church to consider carefully the Biblical, theological, "historical, and social roots of this issue to determine if we are in line with God's message to the contemporary world. In her address as president of the Association of Adventist Women (sponsor of the conference), Betty Howard challenged: "If our church ever signals that it approves the repression of the human spirit—the denial of full opportunity to exercise individual gifts and calling to any person—it will be a terrible tragedy."

What the church can do

So what do women want? While I do not claim to speak for them, I offer some impressions gained from the speeches made and the resolutions voted:

1. They would like study material dealing with their concerns to be sup plied to the church by means of articles in our church papers, monographs, and books. Richard Lesher explained how theology is developed in the Adventist Church. The process begins with scriptural analysis, proceeds through vigorous discussion, and finally arrives at consensus. Gordon Hyde stated, "The church should have the opportunity to read the discussions of Biblical, theological, and historical studies and then react. It's a shame to react out of ignorance." Women would like the church to pursue these study and discussion stages.

2. They would like to have greater consideration for positions of leadership in the church that do not require ordination (e.g., treasurers, departmental directors, members on controlling boards, editors, school administrators). They would like the denomination to keep a "skills bank" listing the qualifications of male and female potential workers so that openings can be filled by the most qualified candidates.

3. They would like the church to provide more education in family management skills.

4. They would like a support system—a channel by which women throughout the church could encourage each other and affirm one another in the gifts and ministries to which God has called each one.

At the Sabbath worship service Madelyn Haldeman proclaimed that according to the New Testament, spiritual gifts were distributed as the Spirit willed, without distinction based on physical characteristics. All must account for the gifts they have received. To fulfill their responsibility, women must employ their gifts or be in danger of becoming unprofitable servants.

Ruth Murdock succinctly summed up the conference theme. "The mission of Adventist women," she offered, "is to glorify God by living the character of Christ." How do they do this? By showing love, understanding, and concern for all they meet. By affirming the possibilities and potentialities of every human. A worthy mission for all of us—women and men!

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Roger Dudley is the associate director of Andrews University's Institute of Church Ministry.

October 1984

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