Two days have passed since the 2015 General Conference delegation denied GC divisions the option of ordination without regard to gender. I tuned into the pre-vote discussion through the Hope Channel live stream and Twitter, and was stunned by how disconnected many questions and comments were from the nearly two-year Theology of Ordination Study Committee process.
It was as if the last two years didn’t happen, as if the last 20 years didn’t happen—40 years, even—and we time-warped back to the 1973 and 1995 debates all over again.
In 1995, the last time General Conference delegates considered a question on ministerial ordination, the affirmative position garnered 31% of the total vote. This year, 2015, the affirmative vote was 41%. The question did not pass.
In the last 20 years, a lot has changed for me. I’ve grown at least a foot and a half in height. I’ve graduated high school and earned three university degrees. I’ve moved to two new countries and now live 3,600 miles away from where I was born. In that same time, not so much has changed for my denomination. Those ordained 40 years ago and others ordained 20 years ago were told that the church’s policy would evolve and their patience and forbearance would soon be unnecessary. That turned out to be false.
This year, only 41% of those selected to vote at the church’s quinquennial business meeting could agree that determinations about ministerial ordination are best made locally and that ordination to gospel ministry should not hinge on one’s sex or gender.
I’ve been reading posts from people around the world since Wednesday: people concerned about their adult children resigning their church membership; people who were conducting Bible studies with folks who, until they learned about the debate over women, were inspired by what they’d been learning and have been repulsed by the vote. While many long-time ministers and participating church members are rallying, others are deeply discouraged.
For about two years, advocates have been trying to keep the conversation focused on what pastoral ministry entails and the work that called people do regardless of the label on their denominational certificates. The NAD, for example, developed a video series of interviews with women pastors around the US and Canada who are thriving in congregational or denominational service—all despite the criticism they face from members, colleagues, global administrators, and para-church ministries.
Ever since the TOSC process was proposed, some of those opposed to the ordination and leadership of women have conflated approval with even minimal steps to acknowledge and include the LGBTIQ people who live faithful lives in the Adventist community. Fear of others’ presumed impurity, fear of contamination, and fear of contagion has an incredibly powerful hold over denominational leaders and I strongly believe Wednesday’s vote reflects that fear.
In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, US scholar-pastor-activist Howard Thurman describes how fear, deception, and hatred all work to undermine disadvantaged people’s potential to live abundant, psychologically whole lives. Toward the end of the book, Thurman explains not only what individual people might do to mitigate the harmful effects of their social position, but also the higher value that healthy Christian communities can play in their development.
Speaking of the corrosive impact of systems of privilege and disadvantage, Thurman writes:
“Whatever [segregation] may do for those who dwell on either side of the wall, one thing is certain: it poisons all normal contacts of those persons involved… In the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established—in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like—this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers… The enormity of this sin cannot be easily grasped. The situation is so tragic that men of good will in all the specious classifications within our society find more cause for hope in the secular relations of life than in religion.“—Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, pp. 98, 100
And so it is that a number of church members are evaluating not the call of women who minister, but their own calls to continue striving with the Adventist denomination:
“Many people, and most Millennials, expect their church to be a powerful voice on issues of social justice. They want to be part of a faith that strives to improve people’s lives: a church that combats economic inequality, confronts racial injustice, nurtures sexual minorities, encourages environmental awareness, and embodies gender equality. In short, this generation is looking for a church that empowers people to live the Kingdom of God right now in this imperfect world.”—Theron Calkins
We expect to participate. We expect to contribute. We expect to work. When we read the scriptures carefully, we start to realize we should expect some resistance too.
But we’re human. And so it catches us off-guard when that resistance comes from those we love and call family.
I’ve been delaying this post since I saw the vote count, and I still don’t have any grand words for anyone. I don’t even have grand words for myself. I can only encourage you to reach out to the called and busy ministers you know, those doing the work of their soul regardless of others’ angst and those working in solidarity with colleagues who are deeply committed yet under-supported.
Even if the denomination’s policy environment does not affirm these ministers, it is entirely up to you whether you affirm and cooperate with them. Simply: We’ve been reaching for the church, and we’re finding that it’s us. The quality of the Adventist community, and the quality of the wider world Adventism is part of—this is something we build together.
Healing the world does not depend on our group memberships. It requires no majority vote. It does depend on our consistent action, our local presence, and the vision and focus we sustain wherever we are. My friend Hugh Hollowell once said that those empowered by the current order of things rise up early and go to bed late to maintain the status quo. And their effort maintained over decades carves grooves into the world. So it makes sense that challenging that order does take sweat and time and courage.
Healing the world is hard work, but I’m still willing to do it. I hope I can count on you as we all move forward.
I’d love to hear from those of you who are reshaping your relationship with your denomination: What’s next for you? What’s the specific work that most calls to you now? And how can I help?