enee Sims heard the voice as clear as if a person stood next to her. “You’re going to be a pastor,” she remembered God saying one morning in 1999. “What? Who would hire me?” she shot back. For more than three weeks, Sims had been praying for God to show her His plan for her life. This was not the answer she’d expected or wanted to accept.
Sims served as associate music minister and collegiate choir director at the Mount Carmel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Syracuse, New York. Her lay work in the local church led to a music ministry workshop at a conference-wide workers’ meeting. She was invited to write an article, which was published in the Sabbath School Leadership magazine.
But a friend, at the urging of God, warned her she wasn’t using her gifts the way He intended.
Upset that someone would have the audacity to tell her that, Sims began to pray. It seemed the fruit of three weeks of praying, however, was the loss of her job as an endoscopy nurse in a Syracuse hospital.
Her vigil before God continued, and the answer she received shocked her.
Would God really call her, a divorced, single mother of three—not to mention a woman—to this type of service?
A Woman’s Calling?
Sims’s trepidation at God’s words weren’t without earthly merit.
In 2006 about 105 women served as Seventh-day Adventist pastors in the United States and Canada, according to North American Division statistics. At that time, 11 were senior pastors or sole pastors of their churches.
For decades, women have pursued careers in religion, said Walt Williams, director of the InMinistry Center at Andrews University. Few, however, receive the opportunity to serve as pastors.
“While there is a significant increase in opportunities in chaplaincy placement for women, pastoral employment is not as plentiful,” Williams said.
Even with that knowledge, currently 15 percent of students enrolled at Andrews Theological Seminary are women, he said.
Despite her fears, or the daunting statistics, Sims decided to follow God’s leading anyway, believing He’d open up an opportunity for full-time ministry somewhere. At 40, Sims is one of these women. She’s currently working on a master of divinity degree through the school’s InMinistry Center. The center combines distance learning and on-campus classes.
Sims first enrolled at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, in 2000. She knew she needed more than an associate’s degree in nursing to pursue a career in full-time ministry.
Sims said God told her to ask Northeastern Conference officials to sponsor her as a theology student there. She wouldn’t, and later said, “I missed an opportunity.”
Still, God provided admission to Andrews.
He even reaffirmed her call two weeks before she left for Michigan.
Bernard Penn, then pastor of the Mount Carmel church, asked her on a Thursday night if she would preach the following Sabbath morning. Penn needed to leave town suddenly.
Sims said Penn knew she’d been working on a sermon for months. When she’d showed it to him earlier, he’d chuckled. Now, he told her to go ahead and preach it.
But as she sat down to prepare, she clearly heard God tell her to preach something else—an idea she had planned to turn into a devotional thought.
The devotional thought dealt with her struggles during the past two years. God turned a low point in her personal life into a time of spiritual growth and used her to minister to others. She realized it had been the “best time” of her life.
The problem was that the devotional wasn’t organized into a sermon. It was just a few roughly-sketched points.
The struggle against God continued for 48 hours. On Sabbath morning, Sims walked onto the rostrum with both the devotional thought and the prepared sermon.
Tears fell during intercessory prayer, as she pleaded with God and decided to obey His will.
The wooden podium dwarfed her five-foot frame as she began to reveal how God moved in her life. As she spoke, the Holy Spirit touched the heart of a visitor in the audience.
The young man approached her after the service and sobbed into her shoulder. He told her God knew he needed to hear that message.
As Sims hugged him, the Lord spoke again: “You see? You could have messed this up. . . . You are just the messenger.”
Sims continued to grow as a messenger for God as an undergraduate in the Theology Department at Andrews. She put her classroom knowledge to work at the Berrien Springs All Nations Seventh-day Adventist Church, where she found a willing mentor in (then) pastor, Walter Douglas.
He allowed Sims to preach and create programs, including youth ministries events. There she became an ordained elder and learned more about church administration.
The move to Berrien Springs also proved positive for her two older sons.
Kevin Bailey, Jr., now 21, and Robert Bailey, 19, hated the idea of moving to Michigan in 2000 from their home in Syracuse. But looking back now, Kevin acknowledged that moving to a place where (it seemed) everyone believed as his family did—where stores closed on Friday evenings and where the whole town could be found in church on Sabbath morning—was a positive change for him.
“I was going down the wrong path totally, before we went to Michigan,” he said.
Friends he had in Syracuse became involved with gangs, and some have been arrested, Kevin said. In Michigan he found lifelong friends, and he would like to return someday.
Sims’s youngest son, Richard, then 8, was most accepting of her initial move to Michigan.
The now 15-year-old still remembers telling his mother to follow God’s call. He remained in Syracuse with his father while his mother studied at Andrews, and visited often.
But he was not as understanding when his mom declared that God had called her to be a missionary in South Korea in 2002.
“I was upset,” he said. “It seemed sort of weird that God would tell a mom to go away from her kids to Korea and stuff. It still doesn’t make sense to me.”
Learning to Trust
Strongly feeling God’s leading, Sims prayed and worked for nine months trying to find a way to take her children with her. Instead, God told her to trust Him—and His plans for her family.
She first learned about mission opportunities in South Korea at the 2001 Lake Region Conference camp meeting. There she met Kenneth Yoo, then director of the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institutes. She filled out an information form and told him she’d be interested in going as a teacher in six years or so.
Yoo contacted her immediately after the camp meeting. “He called and e-mailed, and I would ignore him,” Sims said.
Again, God used her friends and prayer partners to nudge her toward His plan. They encouraged her to submit to God’s plan and seek His guidance on where He wanted her to be. And in 2002, it seemed she ran into posters calling for volunteers to work in South Korea all over Andrews’ campus.
The posters began to impress her, Sims remembers. “Jesus wants you in Korea,” they seemed to shout pointedly at her. The text became three-dimensional, zooming off the page in 45-sized font, she said.
Sims cried as she spoke to Pastor Douglas. Her children were her main concern. Douglas told her God would provide for her family if He was calling her to Korea.
In October 2003, months after earning her bachelor’s degree in religion, Sims left for South Korea alone. Her sons stayed with family members. It angered her that God would ask her to leave her sons, especially when she saw missionaries with their families there. But God had lessons to teach her about ministry in South Korea.
Sims honed her abilities as a teacher, instructing students of various skill levels in conversational English. Through those classes, she built friendships that enabled her to teach others about Christ. “You’ve got to be friends with people first,” she said. The relationships led people to listen to words about God from Sims, simply a teacher, and to attend church services. This lesson in relating to others was invaluable, and a perfect complement to Sims’s next task in Korea.
Sims assisted the pastoral team at an English-speaking church for seven weeks in South Korea. She participated in a variety of Bible studies and outreach activities. She even traveled to India to work with a tent evangelism series. The experience taught her to work among a variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds, a lesson she’d started to learn on the Andrews University campus. The depth of her involvement during her time in Korea further honed these abilities.
Sims decided against spending another year in Korea and returned to her hometown of Buffalo, New York, in October 2004, to reunite with her sons. She began working as a hospice nurse there. In 2006 she moved back to Syracuse to be closer to her youngest son. Sims now ministers to the physical and spiritual needs of hospice patients in the Syracuse area. She serves as an elder at the Mount Carmel church when not traveling to preach, and preaches at upstate New York churches in the Northeastern and New York conferences.
“She is bubbling over with the love of God, and she really connects well with people,” said Bill Hrovat, pastor of the Westvale Seventh-day Adventist Church in Syracuse. “She has a passion for sharing her faith.”
Hrovat invited Sims to be the main speaker for the earliteens during the 2005 New York Conference camp meeting. That invitation led to speaking engagements at other New York Conference singles and youth ministries events, and an invitation to a singles ministry program in Massachusetts. Hrovat now serves as her mentor in the InMinistry program.
When God Comes Callin’
Though she’s been accepted by some, others have openly shown their disapproval for women in ministry. A few have left the sanctuary upon seeing that she was the main speaker, and some pastors have refused to acknowledge her as an ordained elder, Sims said. And she has met people who’ve challenged her call since she revealed her plan to become a minister.
Then and today, Sims refers to the prophet Amos’s words for encouragement: “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of the sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’” (Amos 7:14, 15).
“Amos said, ‘Look, I didn’t ask for this,’” Sims said. She didn’t either. “I was minding my own business in Syracuse, directing my choir, and He came a-callin’,” Sims explained.
The responsibility of teaching people about God en masse and the administrative duties of a pastor are enough to turn people away from the position, she believes. “If you’re looking for this job of your own free will, you are crazy!” Sims said.
Even so, Sims is secure in her calling. She believes her work as a hospice nurse will one day be replaced by full-time ministry. “Now, when I speak the Word of God, I can’t see me doing anything else,” Sims said.
Michele Reaves writes from Syracuse, New York, where she is a reporter for the Post-Standard.