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History of Female Leaders in the Adventist Faith
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By V. Michelle Bernard

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Although they haven’t always been recognized, women pastors and leaders have long been an integral part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

These women worked with their male counterparts as evangelists, church planters, health reformers, worked in Adventist publishing houses and as administrators.

From its roots in the Millerite movement, Adventists have been served by female preachers. Joshua V. Himes, William Miller’s administrative assistant, was a strong advocate for women’s rights and his congregation featured women preachers regularly. This familiarity with women in high profile positions may have opened the door for the co-founder of the Adventist Church, Ellen White to provide leadership to the early Adventists.[1]

White called women’s work “essential” and said that without it the cause would “suffer great loss.” [2]  She also said that some women ministers should make the job their lifelong vocation and that their role was even so important that it sometimes took priority over taking care of children. White herself left her oldest sons with other families so she could work in ministry fulltime for a period when they were young.

White was not the only woman in leadership. When the rapidly expanding denomination faced a critical shortage of pastors during the 1870s they began licensing women for ministry. Minnesota conference licensed four women in one year alone.[3]

“I don’t know that their accomplishments were any different than men pastors, they were all working to get churches started,” said Stan Hickerson, vice president and historical consultant for Adventist Heritage Ministry.

Sarah Hollack Lindsey is often remembered as the first woman to be a licensed minister (in 1869), and was among the first surge of preachers—male and female—to be licensed at all in the Adventist church.

Lindsey and her husband, John, worked as evangelists in Pennsylvania and New York. Lindsey was a talented speaker and a great communicator. Although Lindsey and her husband had a successful ministry she still struggled with doubts, worrying if she was “good enough” for ministry said Hickerson, but she continually returned to God for strength, and was affirmed by early church leaders such as Uriah Smith.

Like Lindsey, Lulu Wightman’s ministry was focused on evangelism and setting up churches.   Wightman worked as an evangelist for almost 11 years starting in 1897. After a few years she was seen as the most effective minister in New York states in terms of conversions, said Bert Haloviak, former director of the General Conferences’ Office of Archives and church historian.

"Indeed, the results from her evangelism would rank her not only as the most outstanding evangelist in New York State during the time, but among the most successful within the denomination for any time period,” said Haloviak in the "Route to the Ordination of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Two Paths.”[4]

During this time her husband, John, assisted her in the work—helping her publicize events, and eventually joining her as a licensed and ordained pastor.

The couple, with the help of mostly female Bible workers, established 12 churches in New York. Wightman later moved to Kansas and Missouri to work on religious liberty issues.

Although the Wightmans later over religious liberty issues, they left a lasting impact on the church.

Another one of the church’s early women leaders was Lorena Florence Plummer, a former teacher, who excelled in church administration.  She was elected secretary of the Iowa Conference in 1897, was an acting conference president in California, and headed the Sabbath School Department of the General Conference from 1913 to 1936.[5]

Plummer saw Sabbath School as a soul winning agency said church historian Dr. Josephine Benton.  During her time as leader she implemented new methods of encouraging people to attend and increased missions offerings from $22,000 a year to $2,000,000 a year, an almost100-fold increase.

A drop in female leadership?

Although women leaders were always active in the church the amount of recognized leaders dramatically lowered after Ellen White’s died in 1915.
From 1915 to 1975 only 25 women were listed as having ministerial credentials, as opposed to 28 women who had licenses between 1884 and 1915.[6]

The drop was impacted by White’s death, but also by the great depression, men returning from the World Wars, and a shift towards more congregational pastoring. Another subtle factor was a partial alignment with the fundamentalist movement in defense of the Bible against the assault of higher criticism. Part of the unintended consequences of this relationship was the subtle influence of fundamentalism introducing Adventism to verbal inspiration and male headship, both of which were foreign to Adventist theology.[7]

Modern-day women pioneers

The long decline of women pastors slowed in the 1970’s with pioneers such as Dr. Josephine Benton. Benton, a professor at Columbia Union College, began to notice the increase in women pastors in other denominations and began thinking about becoming a pastor herself.

When choosing a career Benton had thought that she would become a minister if she was a man, she said. But instead chose to study teach speech and oral reading, so that she could still help theology majors become better communicators.

With the new hope of serving in ministry, Benton studying Greek, and getting ready, “just in case,” she said.

Taking another step closer to the ministry, and helping reopen the conversation about women leaders, Benton was ordained as an elder at the Brotherhood Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington D.C in May of 1973.

In that same year Benton was hired as an associate pastor of Sligo Church in Takoma Park joining fellow female pastor Kitt Watts who was already on staff. Benton worked there from 1973 to 1979, then as pastor at the Rockville church from 1980 – 1982.

Besides charting a path for modern women ministers, Benton researched and wrote about the history of women leaders in the Adventist Church, retelling the stories of many “forgotten” women leaders and providing inspiration to future ones.

During their time at Sligo Benton and Watts felt the impact of people’s questions about the appropriateness of our ministry, said Watts.  “Realizing that some people strongly disapprove of your gender, something you can do nothing to change, is painful.” 

But Watts was also was grateful for the many people who encouraged and supported them, she said.
Watts had turned down a call to be on the Sligo pastoral team before she accepted in 1973, but reconsidered when Elder Hannah and the Holy Spirit called on her again, she said.

“I did not know that scores of women had been pastors, evangelists, revivalists, and conference and General Conference department leaders and officers,” said Watts.

Watts, eventually called the minister of publications, was part of a diverse team that rethought how large churches ministered, and gave each pastor a different area of ministry to focus on.

This new team approach resulted in more major events dramatized skits, processions, and beautiful decorations—which were virtually unknown in other Adventist congregations at the time.

“Today, so many churches do this routinely it’s hard to imagine that how highly unconventional—and exciting—it was to foster joy and celebration and creativity in worship and outreach,” she said.

Benton, Watts, Wightman, and Lindsey and White were soon joined by other modern day pioneers in America including Hyveth Williams, who served as a senior pastor for 20 years, and numerous other female leaders.
 
Today in the Adventist Church there are more than 140 women clergy serving as church pastors, chaplains, and in church leadership positions.  Their impact is only limited by their ability to let them be led by God. 

What does the future hold?  Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division urges that “The North American Division, its Unions, and Conferences must become more intentional in the development of pathways to ministry for female pastors.” His dream is to double the number of women clergy over the next few years.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Watch an interview with  Stan Hickerson D. Min. Senior Pastor as he shares his research about the First Adventist Licensed Female Minister



 

 
 


[1] Stan Hickerson, interview, September 25, 2012
[3] Stan Hickerson, interview September 25,
 2012
[4] Bert Haloviak, "Route to the Ordination of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Two Paths," March 18, 1985, unpublished paper.
[5] Women in Ministry, pg 228 Mivhael Bernoi, Nineteenth-Centry Women in Adventist Ministry Against the Backdrop of their times
[6] The Welcome Table, page 52 moving Away from the Table: A Survey of Historical Factors Affecting  Women leaders, Kitt Watts.
[7] Stan Hickerson, Interview on September 25, 2012