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Where there is one there should be twenty--Ellen White on Female Leadership
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by Edwin Garcia

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Seventh-day Adventist Church Co-founder Ellen White took an active role in encouraging women in leadership positions, though she never directly weighed in on whether they should or shouldn’t be ordained ministers.

Still, during her 70-year public ministry, she advocated for more women to become pastors, criticized male chauvinists within the church who sneered at female leaders, and insisted that women working in ministry receive equal pay to their male counterparts.

She also suggested that in many situations women were ideal laborers for the gospel ministry because they were better suited than some men for certain aspects of pastoral roles, such as home visits, particularly when working as a team alongside their pastor husbands. Women as ministers, she noted, could better connect with other women to further the gospel, stated Roger W. Coon of the Ellen G. White Estate, in his 1986 writing, “Ellen G. White’s View of the Role of Women in the SDA Church.”

And it was in that context that White declared one of her most profound statements about the importance of women in leadership:

“The Lord has a work for women as well as for men. They may take their places in His work at this crisis, and He will work through them. If they are imbued with a sense of their duty, and labor under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they will have just the self-possession required for this time. The Saviour will reflect upon these self-sacrificing women the light of His countenance, and will give them a power that exceeds that of men. They can do in families a work that men cannot do, a work that reaches the inner life. They can come close to the hearts of those whom men cannot reach. Their labor is needed.”—The Review and Herald, August 26, 1902.

In the chapter entitled “A Power That Exceeds That of Men,” from the book “Women in Ministry,” author Jerry Moon quotes from White to mention various leadership roles in ministry that are ideal for men women, including: alleviating the sick and suffering, helping the needy, and speaking words of comfort to the discouraged. White also singled out specific vocations, such as medical missionaries and literature evangelists. “Ministry,” notes Moon, “does not consist alone in preaching.”

White also suggested women may be more capable than some men in managing a church. “If faithful women have more deep piety and true devotion than men,” she wrote in Letter 33, 1879, p. 2, “they could indeed by their prayers and their labors do more than men who are unconsecrated in heart and in life.”

In a July 9, 1895, Review and Herald article widely known as an “ordination” statement, White wrote, in part, “Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of the hands…” The article undoubtedly refers to leadership roles for women (and although at first glance it may seem she is advocating for women to be ordained ministers, scholars have concluded that White was referring to the position of church deaconess).

One of the most significant messages White stated about the role of women is that they should be prepared to accept any post that might be offered, whether a pastor, teacher, superintendent or other position, stated Cindy Tutsch, an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate. “That tells me that she didn’t put any limitations, or any barriers, or any boundaries, on women,” Tutsch said. “She just felt that they were not often given the education that would prepare them for such positions of responsibility and leadership.”

During White’s lifetime, some 31 women were licensed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church to preach from its pulpits, according to Coon’s 1986 paper. In addition, Coon noted, three of the first 11 treasurers of the General Conference were women, and women held other prominent roles, too.

Despite White’s encouragement of women in leadership, and the fact that she, herself, held the credentials of an ordained minister, she was never ordained to the gospel ministry by laying of the hands, Coon wrote. She also never spoke in favor or against ordination, which Coon says “proves nothing conclusively beyond the fact that this subject was not one of her high-priority burdens during her ministry.” White was more interested in pleading for more workers, whether male or female, to spread the gospel.

Tutsch and Laura Wibberding, in a workshop handout entitled “Ellen White on the Roles of Women,” state unequivocally that God calls women to ministry in a variety a situations and places: as paid workers or volunteers, in the home or in a school, at a corporation or even the political arena.

“Ellen White placed absolutely no limitations on women in leadership,” Tutsch and Wibberding wrote. “She urged only that we perform our work with excellence and with efficiency, and see in every worthy calling an opportunity to extend our influence for Jesus.”