Encounters with Adventist women planting churches

The historic and contemporary evangelistic contribution of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Douglas Tilstra is associate professor of religion at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has opened more than 1,000 new churches in North America since 1995.1 Few of these churches were planted by women. However, during the church's first 100 years or so there were numerous notable church-planting women, among them Lulu Russell Wightman (mid 1800s-early 1900s), Marinda (Minnie) Day Sype (1869-1956),2 and Jessie Weiss Curtis (1881-1972). Collectively these women, and about half a dozen others, plant ed scores of churches.

From 1896 to 1905 Lulu Wightman planted 12 churches in the state of New York. Later, with her husband, she planted another five. Bert Haloviak says of Wightman that "the results from her evangelism would rank her not only as the most outstanding evangelist in New York state during her time, but among the most successful within the denomination for any time period."3

Wightman did face some opposition to her dynamic ministry from within and without the church. She was never ordained, though the idea was seriously discussed and almost accomplished. But "her husband noted in a 1904 letter regarding her pay, they had 'fixed her compensation as near the ordained rate as possible.'"4

Minnie Sype and her family left Iowa to homestead in Oklahoma following the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. During the summer of 1901 a heat wave destroyed thou sands of acres of farmland, including the Sypes' homestead.

Agriculturally the venture failed, but Minnie discovered she could grow something else. That fall she gathered other discouraged farm families to encourage them with friend ship and spiritual hope. The gatherings became regular religious meetings. Minnie was the leader and speaker. Her husband assisted her with song services in the meetings and by doing the housework at home.

That winter the group organized officially as the Gyp, Oklahoma, Seventh-day Adventist Church. Minnie had just started her church planting ministry. The Oklahoma Conference sent her an appreciation check of $25. That spring the conference leadership hired her as an evangelist and her husband to assist her. For the next 50 years Minnie served as a licensed minister in Oklahoma, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Florida, and the Bahamas.5

Jessie Weiss, a 45-year-old successful businesswoman, sensed the call of God to evangelistic ministry and arranged to preach a series of Bible lectures in a large tent near Drums, Pennsylvania. Eighty converts and a new church planted in Drums marked Weiss's success and the beginning of 25 more years of active ministry and church planting.

During most of that time she was single. Her marriage to John Curtis at age 50 lasted only five years before Curtis died. Weiss was noted in the newspapers of her day as a skilled and successful preacher. Her many accomplishments included supervising the construction of new church buildings, fundraising, sponsoring students' education, interim pastoral assignments, innovative graphic designing for sermon illustrations, and the training of others for ministry.6

These brief accounts of Wightman, Sype, and Weiss serve as samples of the larger history. Several themes rise from a survey of the women who planted churches in the early history of the Adventist Church. One is that female church planters had a significant role in the early development of the church. Most of them had long, sustained ministries that spanned two decades or more. For the most part they were well accepted even though they did face opposition based on their gender.

Their roles embraced both nurturing qualities and aggressive leadership qualities. Finally,they seemed to disappear, along with other visible female church leaders, in the early 1900s.

Female church planters today

A recent search for contemporary Adventist female church planters in North America revealed only five women who fit that description. As of today only three of those women are involved in church planting. There may be others. My search process indicated the need for better networking and central record keeping for all Adventist church planters, especially female planters.

I interviewed these women by phone between June 24 and July 2, 2002. Each interview lasted approximately one hour. Several themes emerged from the interviews with the five women.

One of the dominant themes that pervaded each interview was the fact that gender is only one issue among many that distinguishes one church planter from another. While none denied that gender was an issue, each had a difficult time identifying just which traits in her own leadership style were gender-specific.

In trying to think aloud about the unique gender traits each woman brought to the job, some made comments like, "Maybe that's actually a matter of temperament rather than gender," or  "When I compare myself with my [male] church planting partner, I see reversals of the stereotypical gender roles." These comments and others high lighted the fact that individuals are complex beings and cannot be neatly divided into two or three groups regardless of the method of classification—ethnicity, race, age, gender, or any other grouping. Individuals are unique blends of personal talents, unique backgrounds, varied experiences, diverse cultural heritages, preferences, tastes, interests, and spiritual understandings.

Any classification system that considers only one dimension of an individual, even the dimension of gender, is a faulty classification system. Administrators responsible for filling positions, such as church planting positions, need to consider the complex blend of traits any candidate brings to the job, not just one trait, such as gender.

When asked about gender-related advantages of female church planters, most women spoke of the female ability to nurture and build relationships more effectively than their male counterparts. Some also mentioned the ability of women to multitask, develop systems, and confront emotional dysfunction in a group.

The message was clear. Female church planters identified specific stereotypical feminine traits and saw them as advantages in their work. They were quick to add that some men also possessed these traits and that personality might account for the traits as much as gender.

Upsides and downsides

Research findings support what these women observed. Daly and Ibarra7 found that female managers tended to form webs of inclusion. By contrast, the male managers tended to form pyramids with themselves at the top. Women were more likely to encourage participation; men, more likely to command.

Women were more likely to use communication to establish relation ship; men, more likely to use it to establish position. Daly and Ibarra conclude, "Traditional 'feminine' qualities such as nurturing and collaboration represent the kinds of leadership and management skills needed today."8

Sharpe reports a variety of studies of current organizations that show this same trend: women out-perform ing men in management and leader ship. Some of the noted strengths are teamwork, partnering, stability, lack of turf protection, coaching, keeping others informed, and inspiring quality work in others. Sharpe suggests that perhaps men ought to take a lesson or two from women.

While the leadership qualities mentioned above may be significant for today's businesses, they are essential for today's church. The church is essentially about relationships—with God and with others. Leaders who excel in relational skills are likely to also excel in leading a church. It appears that female church planters may have an advantage over their male counterparts when it comes to focusing a new church on the essentials of building a community of faith rather than merely creating centers for religious activity.

There is a downside, however, to women in leadership. Most of the women interviewed regarding their roles as church planters also commented that they were not taken seriously as leaders because of their gender. This is a well-documented fact in the general literature on the issue.9

Groups do not concede leadership to women as readily as they give it to men. Even after a woman is in a leadership position, she is more likely to be penalized for the same actions that would have been rewarded if she had been a man. One study highlighted this inequity by citing the example of performance review. 10

"Male CEOs and senior vice presidents got high marks from their bosses when they were forceful and assertive and lower scores if they were cooperative and empathic. The opposite was true for women: Female CEOs got downgraded for being assertive and got better scores when they were cooperative."11

This issue is particularly relevant to female church planters because leader ship is such a vital component of starting a church from scratch. It is impossible to harness the necessary resources—financial, human, and otherwise—to start a new church without high quantities of aggressive leader ship. A male church planter may be admired for the very activities that bring scorn on his female counterpart.

During the interviews, the women clearly identified the dramatic differences between church planting and traditional pastoral work. In every case they found closer identity with male church planters than with female pastors. Part of the reason is that church planters, male or female, must assume a posture that is primarily leadership focused and only secondarily nurture focused. On the other hand, many pastors, and almost all female pastors, assume a nurture posture.

This dichotomy poses concerns particularly for women currently in training for ministry. If they intend to enter more traditional pastoral ministry, then a nurturing model will work well. If, however, they enter a church-planting ministry, they need to prepare for an entirely different style of leadership. Their background may not have prepared them for that style or the anguish of being misunderstood as they use it.

Male church planters are likely to navigate this dichotomy more easily. Aggressive leadership is more socially acceptable for them, and they have many more church-planting role mod els to observe in their own gender.

Female church planters, especially those still in training, may need specific training that will allow them to take the appropriate control necessary for planting a church.

Tied closely to the issue just discussed is the need for female church planters as role models. Most of the women interviewed had little or no networking and certainly no visible role models. They need to become the role models for the generation now in college.

Women training for ministry need to realize that there are other options besides the nurture role of associate pastor for visitation and pastoral care, which many female pastors fill. If they are inspired by the stories of women who are planting churches, it may encourage them to do the same. If they are mentored by women with that vision, they are more likely to succeed as church planters.

The research of O'Neill and Blake- Beard indicates that barriers still exist for cross-gender mentoring.12 In time, those barriers will probably be addressed. But in the meantime, perhaps one of the transitional solutions needed is the increase of female church planters who will mentor future female church planters.

One of the church planters inter viewed told of the positive impression made on community people when they learned that the new church had a female pastor. It began to break down their stereotypes about the closed-mindedness and irrelevancy of the church. For some it was the first step toward fellowship in the church community.

But another story by another woman stands in stark contrast. During her church-planting experience, she was not supported by some leaders in her church and was actually opposed by others.

The conclusion is inescapable. The corporate witness of the church in North America, at least, will be greatly hurt or helped by what leaders decide and do regarding women as church planters (and pastors).

Issues to address: ignorance and silence

The women I interviewed expressed optimism about the increased numbers of women working in ministry and church planting but also showed concern regarding issues such as sexual harassment, appropriate working relationships with men, support of conference administration, and spousal and family needs.

The church has remained almost silent on some of these issues and virtually ignorant on others. The issues must be intelligently and sensitively addressed if women are to find an atmosphere of welcome and mutuality in the church.

Other issues raised by the women church planters included support from conference administration, ordination, and support structures for spouses and families of church planters. These are all indications that church leaders must move beyond merely permitting diversity to encouraging it and managing it wisely.

Summary and conclusion

Despite a rich heritage of female leaders and church planters in the Adventist Church, today only a handful of women serve in full-time church-planting ministry. The long, heated debate over women in ministry, and women's ordination specifically, has detracted needed emphasis from a fact of Adventist history.

God has used women as some of the most effective church planters in the denomination. Female church planters, especially prior to Ellen White's death in 1915, were largely accepted and encouraged.

Some Adventists today believe that encouraging women in ministry or church planting is a drift away from Scripture and Adventist heritage and an accommodation to sinful societal trends. Actually the opposite is true. What is needed in the Adventist Church today are women of the caliber of Lulu Wightman, Minnie Sype, or Jessie Weiss Curtis; church members who will embrace them; and administrators who will hire them and urge them to excellence.

1 North American Division database of church plants, March 2004.

2 James R. Nix, "Minnie Sype, Pioneering Evangelist," in Adventist Review, Aug. 25, 1988, 908

3 Bert Haloviak, "The Adventist Heritage Calls for Ordination of Women," m Spectrum, 16 (3:1985), 52-59

4 M. Bernoi, "Nineteenth-Century Women in Adventist Ministry Against the Backdrop of Their Times," in Women in Ministry. Nancy Vyhmeister, ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich,: Andrews University Press, 1998), 211-234.

5 Josephine Benton, "God Called a Woman," in Spectrum (16) 5:1986, 44-50; Josephine Benton, Called by God: Stories of Seventh-day Adventist Women Ministers (Smithburg, Md.: Blackberry Hili Publishers, 1990); Nix, 1988; Kit Watts, "Ellen White's Contemporaries: Significant Women in the Early Church," in A Woman's Place: Seventh-day Adventist Women In Church and Society. Rosa Banks, ed (Hagerstown, Md' Review ana Herald Pub Assn., 1992), 41-74.

6 Benton, 1986, 1990.

7 K. Daly and H. Ibarra, "Gender Differences in Managerial Behavior. The Ongoing Debate," in Managerial Excellence Through Diversity, M. Gentile, ed. (Prospect Heights, III.: Waveland Press, 1998), 30-34.

8 Ibid., 31.

9 Janet K. Winter, Joan C. Neal, and Karen K, Waner, "How Male, Female, and Mixed-Gender Groups Regard Interaction and Leadership Differences m the Business Communication Course," in Business Communication Quarterly, Sept. 2001; Rochelle Sharpe, "As Leaders, Women Rule," in Business Week, November 20, 2000.

10 Sharpe, 2000.

11 Ibid., 84.

12 Regina M. O'Neill and Stacy D Blake-Beard, "Gender Barriers to the Female Mentor-Male Protege Relationship," in Journal of Business Ethics, April 2002.

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Douglas Tilstra is associate professor of religion at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

April 2004

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